Bike Boxes Only Work When Signal is Red

Wauwatosa recently became the third community in Wisconsin to install a bike box at the intersection of North Avenue and 68th Street. Madison installed the first bike boxes in 2010, then in 2013 Menomonie added a bike box on 13th Avenue East at Broadway near the UW Stout campus. The East Tosa project is the latest, but I expect you will see bike boxes in Milwaukee and other communities soon now that they are approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

It may take a bit of education for people to learn how to use the bike boxes at 68th and North Avenue.

With so few of these new traffic safety facilities in the state, it is no wonder that over the weekend I heard from some people who are still confused about how they are supposed to work. I thought it might help to go over the rules for using a bike box and end with a cute video about bike boxes from the City of Edmonton in Canada.

What exactly are bike boxes and why are traffic engineers installing them now? A bike box is an area (typically green) ahead of the motor vehicle traffic lane at signalized intersections that provides people on bicycles with a safe and visible way to get ahead of queuing traffic during the red signal phase. They are installed at busier intersections either where people have a difficult time making left turns on bicycles or where there are high numbers of motor vehicles turning right across the bike lane.

What are the benefits of bike boxes?

  • Make people on bicycles more visible.
  • Reduces signal delay for bicycles.
  • Make it easier to turn left on a bicycle by allowing people on bicycles to transition from a right-side bike lane to a left-side bike lane during red signal phase.
  • Helps prevent ‘right-hook’ conflicts with turning vehicles at the start of the green signal phase.
  • Groups bicycles together to clear an intersection quickly, minimizing impediment to transit or other traffic.

Rule #1 for Bicycles: Bike boxes only work when the traffic signal is red. The most important thing for people on bicycles to remember is that bike boxes don’t work when the traffic signal is green. If you are traveling down the bike lane toward a signalized intersection and the signal is green, you need to yield to and merge into the motor vehicle traffic to make a left turn. You also need to remain watchful for motor vehicle traffic that might be turning right across the bike lane.

When the signal is red though, bike boxes allow you to ride up in front of the queue of motor vehicles and either move left to make a left turn, or stay in the bike lane in a more visible position to continue traveling straight through the intersection. The bike box at 68th and North in East Tosa works well for this because BelAir Cantina and the Rosebud Cinema are both big destinations for people on bicycles, but getting to them from the east has been difficult. Before the redesign of North Avenue, we always stuck to side streets to get to the movies or BelAir. Now we can take North Avenue, which is quicker because it allows us to avoid all the stop signs on the parallel side streets, like Garfield or Meineke.

Rule #1 for Motor Vehicles: Stop behind the bike box. The most important rule to remember if you are approaching a bike box in a motor vehicle is to stop at the advance stop bar behind the bike box. This is really no different than stopping at any other advance stop bar, but it is very important if people on bicycles are to have room to move over to make left turns.

I think the video below from the City of Edmonton offers about the best explanation of how to use a bike box.

This Saturday at 11:30 am I will be at the official ribbon cutting at 61st and North. There will be a bike parade, press conference and safety demonstration at noon for anyone who wants to try using the bike box on camera. As I mentioned, now that bike boxes are approved by the FHWA and WisDOT, we should start seeing them in other locations. My experience watching traffic at 68th Street is people on bicycles seem to be more confused about how to use them than people in cars, probably because we are all used to advance stop bars before crosswalks anyway. It is less intuitive to skip ahead of traffic for people on bicycles, but as more of these are built and more people ride through them, that movement should become second nature.

The Bike Fed has lots of other safety information about bicycling, walking and driving on our Share & Be Aware pages. We also have Share & Be Aware videos, and a number of different free safety information pamphlets in English and Spanish. Contact Jessica Binder in our Milwaukee office to get copies for you, your workplace or event. You can also request one of our Share & Be Aware regional staff to come to your event, school or workplace to do a safety training.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

One thought on “Bike Boxes Only Work When Signal is Red

  1. A very important benefit of bike boxes that should be prominent on the list is that they minimize the emissions effect on cyclists of standing-start cars and trucks (old pickups are the most toxic). For casual cyclists it’s no big deal, but for daily commuters being in front of the traffic through an intersection is far superior in terms of health to being behind it.

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