We can all recognize familiar traffic signals like a red light or a one-way sign; but what are you supposed to do with a green square and lightning bolts?

Well, if you’re at the intersection of Scott and Oak, it means that if there’s a red light then cars need to stop a few feet before the intersection and allow bikes to swerve from the bike lane into a special “advance stop” box, also known as a “bike box.”

On a recent afternoon, we stood on the sidewalk nearby and saw that neither bicyclists nor motorists understood what they’re supposed to do with the bike box. Of course, you could be forgiven for scratching your heads at this intersection, since despite a big fanfare and mayoral photo-op, there are no signs, icons, or instructions anywhere to be seen. At least, not officially.

In better-managed cities like Portland, bike boxes are unambiguous: the bike lane is green, so the coloration of bike-friendly pavement is consistent. And there’s a bike icon inside the bike box. And the pavement in front of the bike box tells motorists, “WAIT HERE.” The result: everyone understands what to do when they reach the intersection.

And briefly, San Francisco’s bike box boasted the same features when some helpful pavement hackers chalked in a bike icon and a “WAIT” line earlier this week.

Compared to our earlier observations at the intersection, the guerrilla chalkings were a success: cars stopped where they should and bikes pulled into the bike box. Of course, chalk doesn’t last long; what’s needed is paint.

So how about that? Why no paint? The SFMTA (which manages the city’s streets, as well as Muni) has been developing standards for bike boxes for at least five years [PDF], so they can’t claim that they’ve been caught off-guard. The city’s own bike plan states, “The design guidelines that have been recommended as part of the San Francisco Bicycle Plan can only benefit the City and its residents if they are implemented.”

The only excuse they’ve offered so far is that they’re “collecting information” about how people use the mysterious, unlabeled, unfamiliar, utterly secret pavement marking.

That doesn’t quite ring true, however. How exactly are they “collecting information”? We’ve spent quite some time at that intersection, and never saw an observer. And even if they were really collecting data, what good would it be? “We have learned that if you create a completely unfamiliar traffic marking and do not tell anyone what it is, nobody will know how to use it.” Oh, bravo.

A more likely explanation is that the SFMTA simply ran out of money. Recent service cuts to Muni and impending fare hikes may slightly close their funding gaps, but shortfalls remain. Additional service cuts and fare hikes are anticipated in the next two years. (In completely unrelated news, Muni drivers are the second highest paid in the country, and recently received a $3,000 bonus.) It would not be a huge surprise to learn that the agency cannot afford to purchase a bucket of paint and send someone out with a paintbrush.

But in the end, they may not have to: faced with inaction from the city, volunteers have proven that they’re willing to take matters into their own hands. This time it was just chalk; but emboldened activists may provide a more permanent solutions if the SFMTA proves unable.

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