This article was originally published under the title “Green Means Surrender” in Share Document, a limited-run book edited by Clifton Burt and Nicole Lavelle for Design Week Portland. The entire book, which includes writing from a variety of local designers and curators, is quite beautiful, and available for purchase from Ampersand Gallery on NE Alberta Street.
At the corner of SW 3rd and Madison, in downtown Portland, on the western approach to the Hawthorne Bridge, there are two white bicycles. One is a Ghost Bike, spray-painted white, disabled to discourage theft, and chained to a post. Ghost Bikes are installed as memorials to people who died while cycling; in this case, a 28-year-old woman named Kathryn Rickson, who was run over by an 18-wheeler a year ago last May.
The other is more abstract: a white bicycle shape stencilled on the pavement in a field of bold, optimistic green, to create a marking that traffic engineers call an “advanced stop line,” though it’s more commonly known in Portland as a “bike box.” This particular bike box is preceded for half a block by a green-painted fragment of bike lane; together they form a sort of flag shape when viewed from above. Riding home one evening, a few days after the anniversary of Rickson’s death, I pass over it, and I’m struck by the similarities between the bike painted on the pavement, and the one chained up nearby. Besides their shape and color, they both serve as quiet warnings and, to some degree, as apologies.
As transportation infrastructure goes, bike boxes are cheery looking, especially compared to the bureaucratic black-and-white signage that cities usually use to direct drivers. They’ve shown up in countless blog posts and articles over the past few years, often serving as a kind of visual shorthand for bike-friendliness. Highly visible and relatively cheap to install, they’re popular among traffic engineers and bike advocacy groups. Their only real drawback is that they don’t work.