This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 109.
Lecture 2: The Mysteries of the Advanced Stop Box
See this traffic light here? Right at the front of the junction the tarmac is red, the sign of a bike is painted on the road surface. What are we to make of it? Do motorcycles assemble here at a red light so that they can get a better start? Is it the memorial for a cyclist who was run over by a car while waiting at a red light? A special waiting area for unicyclists? A design to improve the general view of the intersection? Perhaps it is a place for cyclists to assemble and hold short boxing matches? An ‘impact cushion zone’ which keeps the intersection clear in case a car already waiting at the traffic light is being hit from behind, allowing lateral traffic flow to continue. Wait, it is a balcony! The bel-air balcony!
In some locations the advanced stop box is always crowded with cyclists, for instance Bridge Street crossing Chesterton Road. Many other boxes are studiously kept empty. Perhaps they could be used for short-term parking? Some cyclists place their bikes there when waiting for a green light, but only if there are no cars behind them. The second and third cyclist often finds access to the front area (the balcony) obstructed and waits in the bike lane (the aisle).
Advanced stop boxes do work, they just don’t work perfectly. Surveys find that those in a car and those on a bike do like them (otrec.us/project/227). The cyclist comes to a stop at a red light. Initiating bicycle movement from a stationary position is a problem for those cyclists who have not mastered the 2 o’clock pedal position for starting. The box gives them the space for their initial wobble. They are also a real lifesaver to prevent left-hook conflicts at intersections, but only for those cyclists located in the visual field of the driver. First the cyclists go straight ahead, then the cars turn left. That’s the big idea. They are also a real benefit for right turners, allowing the cyclist to move into the correct lane position for the right turn. If the box is well populated, it allows cyclists going straight through to clear the intersection before cars overtake them. Many intersections have a pinch-point straight ahead: The pavement design and centre islands often restrict the width of the roadway at the other end of the intersection. It is good practice for cyclists to clear this bottleneck before allowing cars to pass them. To achieve this, ideally all straight-ahead cyclists would start from the balcony of the box and ride in formation, distributing into a line once they have fully cleared the intersection. As always, when a large lorry is part of the mix, stay clear! The driver has a dangerous blind spot around his cabin (allow 4 metres distance!)
Advanced stop boxes give increased visibility to reduce conflict. In Cambridge, a city which for many centuries has learned how to queue, they are often not used optimally, because cyclists (polite) queue in the approach aisle, also called bike lane, rather than distributing in the box. But on a bicycle, the demands of politeness and the local habit of queueing can increase conflicts and even endanger your health. Queue busting is not appropriate at the cashier in the department store. It is not done at the bus stop. But when cycling in traffic, queue busting is the safest and the best thing to do. Fill up the balcony and allow others to pass ahead, don’t worry about being in the way of a car.
If you are the first cyclist to arrive at the balcony, place yourself so that others can also enjoy the view and the fresh air. Drivers appreciate it when they can see you clearly and when they understand your intentions. Think of the advanced stop box as the express checkout service provided for vulnerable road users. Use it! Still worried about obstructing traffic? The professor of cycling says: Don’t worry about obstructing traffic, better to start worrying about the car that has not seen you. Better to start worrying that your position on the road may send the wrong signal to the driver behind you. Do you really want to invite the driver to overtake you here, when the pinch point is just a few metres ahead, and the second driver behind has not yet had a glimpse of your backside?
If motorcyclists use the advanced stop box, they ought to be fined. Say: Nice day to ride a bike. Your chain needs a few drops of oil. Do: Check out the other bikes. Say hello. Did we wait in the same traffic light yesterday? Don’t: Read the newspaper. Don’t wait for the music to start. Enjoy the company of fellow cyclists.