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Are Bellingham’s green bike boxes making a difference?

Darrin Kamps, owner of Kamps Painting Co. of Lynden, uses a propane torch to apply bicycle markings on Aug. 17, 2015.
Darrin Kamps, owner of Kamps Painting Co. of Lynden, uses a propane torch to apply bicycle markings on Aug. 17, 2015. The Bellingham Herald

It’s been a year since the first green bicycle boxes were put in on Cornwall Avenue at Ohio Street – a move that was cheered by bicyclists and booed by some drivers and others who questioned spending money on them.

Since the first L-shaped boxes were installed it appears people have, for the most part, adapted to the new traffic markings, which were a big hit with bicyclists who had struggled to make left turns in traffic or get to the front of the intersection to get a bit of a head start, said Chris Comeau, the city’s transportation planner.

“We were hearing from drivers who weren’t happy with the situation, but bikers who were thrilled,” Comeau said. “It all dissipated over a few months.”

The bike boxes at Cornwall and Ohio were the first to go in and, after an adjustment period, things went back to normal, he said.

“I haven’t heard a thing about green bike boxes for months,” Comeau said in an interview Thursday, Sept. 1. “In fact I don’t recall hearing a single comment about the boxes put in at Cornwall and Alabama.”

The green boxes are meant to make it easier for cyclists to move to be seen and move to the front of an intersection to get a head start when a traffic light changes.

Vehicles are required to stop at the white line behind the box, and cannot take a right turn on a red light where there are boxes.

Though some in the community were surprised to see the bright green boxes after they were torched onto the pavement, Comeau said they were the result of a longtime public planning process.

“That was the number one item identified by the public at open houses for the bike master plan: safety at intersections,” he said.

The bike boxes aren’t just meant for bicyclists, either.

“Most of our collisions, and this is true for any city, are near or at or in an intersection,” Comeau said. “It provides additional safety for drivers. It requires them to see these bright green boxes, which are a visual cue to be paying more attention to anything happening at the intersection.”

Other improvements

Since installing those first bike boxes, the city has made many other bicycle improvements.

City workers have now stenciled in the best place to stand at signals throughout town, so bicyclists know where they have the best chance of triggering traffic signals to change a light if a car isn’t there.

Other bicycle markings include white “sharrows” that highlight the best places for bicyclists to ride, and signal to drivers to share the road.

One of the other items of concern for people last year was the installation of sharrows with a green background, Comeau said.

“There was a tremendous misunderstanding about the intent of what that was trying to communicate,” he said. “The public failed to understand that green is the federally mandated color for those types of markings.”

Rather than “green means go,” these arrows are meant to get the attention of drivers to notice bicyclists. They were not meant to signal that bicyclists can just cruise across an intersection.

“When a bicyclist comes to a stop sign or traffic signal, it doesn’t matter what’s painted in the intersection, you’re supposed to obey the sign,” Comeau said.

Because of the confusion, the city has decided not to use the green background for those markings anymore, but just a standard white sharrow.

Upgrades

Later this year, the city will install a bicycle way-finding system, putting small signs on bike routes to show possible destinations and give directions.

“The intent of all this is to try to give people the opportunity to choose to bike,” Comeau said. “We’re not trying to kick people out of their car, but we’re trying to make it safer, easier and more comfortable for people to get on their bike.”

The city is also doing a bicycle study for Lakeway Drive, from downtown Bellingham to the intersection with Woburn and Yew, with help from the Whatcom Transit Authority and the Washington State Department of Transportation, Comeau said.

A public open house from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Carl Cozier Elementary School gymnasium, will give people a chance to see some options the city is considering for bicycle improvements along Lakeway Drive, and give any ideas they might have.

Information about bicycle markings and transportation can be found on the city’s website at cob.org/bike.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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