Traffic Q&A: Green boxes in Tacoma bike lanes intended to draw drivers’ attention

Q: At North 26th Street and Pearl, facing east, is a pretty green matting on the pavement in the bike/right turn only lane. A dedicated sign says, “Begin right turn lane/yield to bikes.”

Is the green matting on the pavement there to attract special attention to the dual usage of that lane area? I certainly do like it. I have seen some green matting on the pavement in a couple of other street areas, but did not have time to read anything about them.

– David L., Tacoma

A: You’ve guessed correctly: that green swath of asphalt, perhaps 10 yards long, is there to draw drivers’ attention to potential bike traffic, as is an identical stretch on the westbound side of the intersection.

As anyone who walks between the various Westgate shopping strips and expansive parking lots around North 26th and Pearl can attest, the area feels designed primarily for cars, not bicyclists or pedestrians.

If you dare try, bring some patience with you — the walk button on the northwestern corner is sealed up with plastic and tape, and jaywalking across that five-lane, no-median piece of Pearl is Pamplona-level foolhardy.

Bike paths have been painted onto a increasing amount of Tacoma’s asphalt, but here’s why that intersection (and a few others) gets the special green strip, known colloquially as a “bike box:”

The city has identified it as a potential conflict area, because North 26th Street is a county-identified bike artery where a designated bike lane crosses high-traffic Pearl Street.

City traffic engineer Josh Diekmann said Tacoma has been adding green pavement to bike lanes in such areas for a few years, with similar markings in sections of Stadium Way, Division Avenue and Tacoma Avenue South.

Government being government, official permission to do this had to filter from Washington, D.C., via Olympia. A 2012 letter granted the permission under highly bureaucratic particular-shade-of-green federal rules set forth the previous year.

The continuum of things road-builders can do for bikers is pretty vast, with categories ranging from “absolutely nothing” to “here’s a dedicated bike path with a physical buffer from where cars drive.”

A touch of paint on the asphalt, such as you see on North 26th Street, falls somewhere in the middle, enough to earn at at least a nod of approval from Jeff Aken, advocacy director of the Seattle-based Cascade Bicycle Club.

“Anything that kind of of calls out that space and makes people aware of where bikes are where cars are is good in our book,” he said.

That said, we wouldn’t recommend it to inexperienced riders or anyone who left the bike helmet at home.

Perhaps it was the low number of bikes using the intersection on a recent sunny afternoon, but right-turning cars appeared to cut through the green asphalt (perfectly legally; it’s shared space) at speeds that might make it tough to avoid an incautious cyclist.

Bike traffic is heaviest there at commuting hours or on weekends, since North 26th Street is one of the best places to cross busy Pearl — aka state Route 163 — for pedaling trips between the westbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the central city, said Matt Newport, who until recently was bike coordinator for Downtown on the Go.

“There really aren’t any other good east-west routes through that part of town,” Newport said.

Downtown on the Go proclaimed 2015 the “Year of the Bike” in Tacoma, so we asked Newport what the best money-is-no-object improvement might be for North 26th and Pearl.

He said the studies he’s read suggest one ideal course, even if logistics of the Westgate neighborhood make it hard to envision.

“If you really want to improve safety for bike riders, and if you really want to increase the number of people who go out and ride bikes, you put in a separated bike lane,” Newport said.

The city’s blueprint for future bicycle-oriented improvements is detailed on the website for its Mobility Master Plan.

The plan doesn’t include drastic changes from what you’ll find today at North 26th and Pearl, now that the bike lane and green bike box are painted on the pavement.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693