By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
When I heard about Santa Cruz’s new bike boxes, I was pleasantly surprised. We’ve had bicycle storage lockers for years. I didn’t know we needed more, but I was all for it.
Turns out I wasn’t in the know at all! I discovered that “bike boxes” actually refers to green-and-white painted markings on the road that increase the visibility and safety of cyclists at intersections.
Figuring I wasn’t the only one who’d missed the seminar on how to speak planning jargon, I set out to demystify two new cycling developments that cyclists and others are buzzing about and explain their benefits. One is the bike box, the first of which in Santa Cruz County was recently installed across the top of northbound Seabright Avenue’s left-turning lane onto Soquel. The other is a contraflow bike lane on Pacific Avenue downtown between Church and Cathcart streets, which was completed last month.
Those are just two of several new bike safety features that have popped up around town — including bike lanes along both Broadway and Seabright Avenue — all of which make me breathe easier as I pedal down those busy thoroughfares. These infrastructure improvements don’t show up by chance overnight; workers and volunteers have devoted years to enhancing safety for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers.
“The Pacific Avenue contraflow bike lane and the new bike box at Seabright and Soquel are both examples of the city’s commitment to encouraging bicycling in Santa Cruz,” said Santa Cruz Transportation Coordinator Amelia Conlen. “We have one of the highest rates of biking to work in the state and hope to see that increase to 12 percent of commute trips by 2020,”
And why should that matter to you? The overall aim is to improve quality of life for all residents by reducing automobile traffic congestion and pollution and increasing health benefits, among other benefits.
So here’s the lingo you can toss out in casual conversation to make you an extra cool commuter during the hot summer.
For an official definition of bike boxes, Janneke Strause, Executive Director of Bike Santa Cruz County, pointed me to The National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Bikeway Design Guide. It classifies bike boxes as one of many types of “intersection treatments” (think makeover for a street). Specifically, a bike box is a designated bright green area at the head of a traffic lane at an intersection with a traffic signal that provides bicyclists with a safe and visible way to get ahead of the traffic that is lining up at the yellow or red light.
It’s a mouthful, but if you are a cyclist you will feel less stressed out about being clipped by a car while making a turn or going straight through an intersection. Bike boxes also help prevent “right-hook” conflicts with turning vehicles at the start of the green light. When multiple bicyclists are grouped together in the green bike box at an intersection, they can move more quickly, causing fewer impediments to cars. Even pedestrians benefit because the boxes should channel more cyclists off the sidewalks because they will feel safer to ride on the road.
This is not a new concept, though it is new to Santa Cruz. It’s popular in many European cities and is growing in the U.S.
Tips for cyclists: The bike box should only be used when the traffic light is yellow or red. If you approach the intersection when the light is green, use the bike lane to approach the intersection and proceed normally.
Tips for drivers: Cars should stop their cars behind, not on top of the green bike boxes.
PACIFIC AVENUE CONTRAFLOW BIKE LANE
This term makes more sense to me than “bike boxes” since the word “contra” means “against.” The new contraflow bike lane through downtown on Pacific Avenue creates a two-way street for bikes between Church and Cathcart streets, even though it remains one-way for motor vehicles.
The project is funded by $85,000 in Transportation Development Act grant funds and originated with the City of Santa Cruz Downtown Commission’s discussions around changing Pacific Avenue to a one-way configuration, according to transportation planner Conlen.
She said, “the biggest obstacle was that this is a fairly unique design — there are not too many examples of contraflow lanes next to parked cars, though Washington, D.C.; Cambridge, Mass., and Chicago have all implemented similar designs. Because of the slow speeds on Pacific, and the fact that wrong-way riding and riding on the sidewalk were big issues there, the city council decided to move forward with the design.”
Tips for cyclists: “Cyclists should definitely be very aware when they ride the contraflow lane, and keep an eye out for pedestrians who may be crossing mid-block, drivers exiting parking spaces and car passengers about to open their doors,” Conlen said. “One advantage of the design is that cyclists in the contraflow lane and car passengers are facing each other, making it easier to see one another — unlike a standard bike lane, where a driver has to actively look behind them to prevent ‘dooring’ a cyclist, and it’s harder for cyclists to see what people in cars are doing. Riding slowly on the contraflow lane, using hand signals and riding defensively are the best ways to prevent a collision.”
Tips for drivers: Expect to encounter bicyclists traveling in both directions, and keep the green lane clear for cyclists when you drive on Pacific Avenue. Drive as if it were a normal two-way street, look ahead for turning cyclists and make left turns with care. And remember to use your turn signals so bicyclists can anticipate your moves.
I’ve been biking around town for nearly two decades (and, before that, in-line skating all the streets) and this is the biggest number of improvements I’ve seen in a long time. I’m proud that we are cruising towards a prestigious Platinum designation from the League of American Bicyclists after capturing the Gold in 2015 for being a bike-friendly community.
Finally, in case you were mistaken like I was that “bike boxes” meant storage lockers for your bike, the good news is that enclosed, weatherproof bike parking and storage units are provided by the City of Santa Cruz in nine downtown locations for 5 cents an hour. That’s the best parking rate in town, and now it’s safer than ever to cycle there.
Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.