this post on BlogTO to my attention: Toronto is giving a new kind of bike infrastructure a try - the bike box.
I saw one of these in Edinburgh when I was there this summer. It was painted red with a white bike icon in the middle, and I didn't know what it was. I asked my sister, who's been living in Scotland for nearly two years, and she explained. I thought it was brilliant (and it went into the mental file of reasons Edinburgh came across to me as a particularly bike-friendly place, along with bike lockers in the parking lots, actual bike lanes - unlike the half-lanes I saw in Aberdeen - and bike parking all over the streets.)
What bike boxes do is provide a clear space for bikes at intersections so they're more visible, and allow them to go first when the light turns green. Bikes stop at the forward stop line, while cars stop about ten feet back at a secondary line. Yeah, this does assume that cars obey stop lines. And if you watch any intersection long enough you'll see cars pulled up across the crosswalk, with the stop line somewhere under their back end: they're one of the least obeyed traffic signals. But assuming the drivers know what the bike box is (which they'll learn, given time and enough exposure) and obey the lines, the system works. Bikes get a little protective air around them to stop, wait, and start again, and the boundaries are that little bit clearer.
This is especially welcome to me in the case of left turns. I do merge across lanes to turn left, when and where I can do it safely, but in some cases it just can't be done and I wind up using the pedestrian crosswalk, which is technically illegal. With a bike box, I could bike up along the right side, cross to the left in the bike box while the light is red, and be all set to make my left turn when the light changes. It also gives bikes a little more space and time to accelerate, which I find a little uncomfortable in traffic at times - on a hill, or when space is tight, it's unnerving. If you're going to wobble at all you're going to do it while starting up and gathering speed.
So far there's only one bike box in Toronto: I think it won't be easy to tell how well they work until more are put in and people learn how to use them. A public information campaign would also be fantastic: but then, I think a public information campaign on cycling and cars in general would be a great idea. And I can think of a few intersections in Ottawa that could really use a bike box: Elgin and Catherine for one. Alta Vista (which is an official bike route) and Heron. That insane intersection just below the war memorial (although, maybe it doesn't need to be any more confusing than it already is.) I'd love to see this tried out here: I'll keep an eye on the Toronto boxes and see how it goes.