Advanced Stop Lines: Nature Abhors a Vacuum

If there's one piece of cycling infrastructure that is misunderstood, misused, abused and generally falls into the Marmite camp of "love it or hate it", it has to be the Advanced Stop Line (ASL), or 'bike box'.

Essentially, ASLs were first introduced to regulate the widespread practice of cyclists filtering to the front of queues at traffic lights, and giving them a few metres space ahead of cars in order to set off when the lights turn green, giving cyclists space as they wobble up to speed.

Of course being a good 5 metres ahead of the traffic stop line means you should be in the line of sight of any high-cabbed vehicles such as HGVs rather than hidden beneath their windscreens which is a great thing, however in order to get there cyclists must first filter up the inside of that vehicle which is of course the most dangerous place to be should the lights change and the truck begin to move.  On the other hand research conducted on behalf of Transport for London showed that ASLs increased the volume of cyclists getting to the front of the traffic by 24% by comparison to junctions without them, thus helping to increase the attractiveness of cycling.  The same research showed that ASLs reduced the volume of both cyclists and motorists encroaching on to the pedestrian crossing, which must be a good thing for pedestrian / cyclist relations.

A cyclist rides through an Advanced Stop Line. Photo from the Guardian Bike Blog.

Most cyclists I speak to like Advanced Stop Lines and are glad that they are there; being able to get ahead of traffic is a big part of the attraction of cycling and helps to make it the fastest mode of transport in town.  But others rankle at the way in which the box is frequently encroached upon by other road users.  I've seen buses roll over the stop line, cabs sit squarely in the box and motorcycles - who must be the worst road users for this - filling an ASL entirely en masse.  Indeed, positioning myself on the right and forward of an ASL recently I was screamed at by an itinerant motorcyclist to "get out his way" before the lights changed and he roared through a crowd of cyclists at high speed. (Being central London I naturally caught up with him at the next set of traffic lights about 20 metres later and kindly enquired if he'd had his medication today and wouldn't the secure unit be expecting him back soon?)  A 2009 survey by Westminster Cycling Campaign of a sample of junctions found that only 31% of motorcyclists stopped at the first stop line on red or amber, and only 54% of taxis.  By comparison 65% of cars and 92% of buses played by the rules.  Personally I think this behaviour stems from a lack of enforcement as oppose to any intentional malice by other road users, and that lack of enforcement of ASLs is probably because there is a broad range of opinions amongst police forces as to whether encroaching into the ASL is an offence or not.  Indeed, it took Guardian Bike Blogger James Randerson a trip to the very top, to the Department of Transport (via a variety of police services with conflicting opinions) before he was able to establish that encroaching in to the ASL when the lights have turned red is an offence and can carry a fine of £60 and 3 points on a driver's license if they are caught.

All that aside I personally think the Advanced Stop Line is a useful thing, and I couldn't disagree more with the notion which I've heard recently argued that ASLs only help to serve a 'my space / your space' sense of division between motorists and cyclists which is to the detriment of the ideal of 'sharing the road' and that we should all negotiate junctions together on an equal footing and that ASLs breed resentment towards cyclists because they are perceived to be getting ahead unfairly.  Let's face it, when one road user is on a bike and the other in a 40 tonne truck, they're not on an equal footing, and that little bit of extra safe space is a good thing in helping to keep the two apart.

I believe that the trouble with ASLs comes from two sources; one is that motorists don't really understand what they are for (or why cyclists should have 'special treatment') and so roll into them anyway, and the other is that not all cyclists really understand how to use them.  Last week I cycled up the filter lane to approach the Advanced Stop Line, but couldn't get as far as the box.  A cluster of 5 other cyclists had stopped tight left against the side of the box proper and now a bike traffic jam was forming down the filter lane.  Sure enough a driver to the right of me began to indicate that they wished to turn left and we all clenched our teeth and waited for the lights to change and hoped that nobody got squished.  Nature abhors a vacuum and perhaps the reason motorcyclists and other road users creep into the bike box space is because they see that they can - if the box was full of cyclists spread out evenly across the junction maybe they'd hold back properly?

My 3 top tips for using ASLs properly are this:

1.  If you are the first to arrive as the lights change to red, stop at the back of the box (closest to the driver's white line) thus forcing the drivers behind you to stop without entering the box.  Once they have done so then roll forwards in to the primary position.

2.  After you have filtered do not stop on the left hand side of the box and block the filter lane - spread out and use up the entire box.  I see this working particularly well in Bishopsgate every morning where the junction leads to a narrowing in the road.  At each turn of the lights there are usually 10 to 15 cyclists.  We spread out across the whole box, and when the light change literally dominate the road as we lead up to the narrow, therefore physically stopping any cars from overtaking dangerously.

3.  If you arrive at an ASL filter after the lights have changed to red and there is a high sided vehicle or HGV ahead of you do NOT filter down the left hand side of the vehicle to arrive at the bike box.  In the case of large vehicles it is better just to wait back in traffic than risk going down it's side.

And as for motorists creeping in to the box, well, I don't believe enforcing the ASL is going to become a Police priority any time soon, and right or wrong perhaps it's up to us to claim our space a little more boldly ourselves.  I'm starting by sticking these home-made posters up at the junction near my house, what do you think?

ASL poster

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Unknown said...

Perhaps an 'Urban Repair Squad' approach would work here: we could start spray-painting 'no cars no motorbikes' symbols in the ASL boxes?

Yuriy said...

I prefer not to get in front of other vehicles at lights even if there are no HGV ahead of me. It is really scary when the lights turn green while you're trying to squeeze between the lanes in order to get in the box because cars start moving both at your left and your right.

So unless there enough space on my lane to get in an ASL, I don't try to and just wait in the queue. But maybe I just lack confidence.

ibikelondon said...

I like the Urban Repair Squad idea - that's sort of the angle I was going for with the poster. But as Yuriy says sometimes it's pretty scary up there at the front of the traffic - a sign I would like to see at traffic lights is 'do not overtake cyclists at junctions'. That would make me much more happy :o)

mintea said...

Hate to disagree, but as an experienced cyclist in London, I see ASLs as more a detriment to cyclists. For one thing, the rules you have laid out above are a tad complicated. Cyclists have enough things to deal with on the road, without having to think about (or, more like, fight about) the order of who arrives at an ASL and how it relates to where you should stop.

For the most part, being ahead of traffic by 2 feet does little to make you feel more secure as the cars simply catch up and pass you too quickly and too closely, only to be replayed again at the next set of lights.

Having to move horizontally when you arrive at an ASL to get out of the filter lane is also beyond the skills of some cyclists (and awkward for the best of us), especially if the ASL is already filled with bikes.

If a car is turning left, it is just as safe to stay behind and wait, or pass on the right. It means though (oh nos!) that a cyclist may have to stop and wait. I think this is the real reason that cyclists defend ASLs, so that they don't have to stop at lights. Of course, no one wants to slow down and stop. It's a waste of energy.

ASL boxes encourage cyclists to try and get to the front of the traffic line, whether there is time enough or not. Like you pointed out, many cyclists filter up the left side to do this, which is the most dangerous thing you can do at an intersection.

The problem with motorcycles is complicated. Unless ASLs are policed to exclude them there will always be a conflict. As someone who used to ride a scooter, I did take up the ASL quite frequently. As a motorcyclist, you have twice the start-up speed as a car, and so if you are up front you can actually save a lot of time. Not that it's a motorcyclist's right, but it does make riding a lot more pleasant in the city. Any cyclist who wants to get in front of a motorcycle doesn’t really stand a chance. Getting in front of a motorcyclist is just going to anger them. (not that it's an excuse to ride like a manic). You really ARE in their way, (not like a car, which takes a few seconds to get moving from being stopped). Creating ASLs only makes this situation worse. If they didn't exist, then motorcyclists couldn't filter to the front of the lights, as there would be no room to do so.

I do use them, but not all the time. I don't see it as my right to be out front. Sometimes there is not enough time, or space, or there are lots of cars turning left. If they weren't there I would probably still ride up front when I thought it was safe. I think the problem is that it creates a sense of entitlement for cyclists, which encourages dangerous behaviour.

christhebull said...

ASLs are a decent idea, but why oh why oh why must there be a crappy filter lane up the inside that puts you in a dangerous position?

The TfL posters warning about lorries should really say "don't use our pathetic cycle lanes".

ibikelondon said...

@Mintea Like I said they are definitely the Marmite of cycling infrastructure! Perhaps the main problem then is not with the idea of a box at traffic lights reserved for cyclists, but how we are expected to get at it?

I know the lorry posters you are referring to @Christhebull and whilst I don't condone filtering up the inside of large vehicles, I also think the posters are factually inaccurate in that all the cyclists depicted are not in the HGV's blind spot if it has all the correct mirrors fitted (and of course if the driver deigns to actually look!)

Tim Beadle said...

The problems with ASLs that your list of rules addresses are a symptom of a bit of infrastructure that doesn't scale, I think.

When a red phase has only one or two cyclists needing to use the ASL, it's ok, but once the numbers ramp up (as they seem to be doing in parts of London) then the useful limit of the ASL is quickly reached. Time, then, to have more prioritised road space, with cyclist-only traffic light phases.

KarmaCycle said...

Excellent post Mark. It's also really good to hear from Mintea because it's important to understand the thought process of motorbikes and scooters. I'm an experienced cyclist, but there are one or two ASL's where I really do feel "in the way" of motorbikes. The most frightending ASL for me is the one on Shoreditch High Street outside the town hall where traffic can turn left onto the A10. There's always a huge scrum, and two lanes effectively turn into one lane so there's a highly competitive race to get to the Hackney Road. Motorbikes of course win, but cycles creep further and further out of the ASL to get that little bit further ahead. The other really frightening one is the Theobold's Rd/Greys Inn intersection which is also pretty much a perfect storm of cyclists, cars, motorbikes, scooters and buses all vying for the same space.

On reflection, my thoughts are that we should use ASLs almost militantly when there's a bit of space, but hold back on some ASL's where we know it's going to be crazy. Pragmatic but slightly wimpy, I know.

As for the poster - I like the idea very much, but I'm not sure people will really understand what it's trying to say. It could be interpreted as meaning cyclists should stay outside the box (because there's a picture of a bike). I'm not much good at this kind of thing but what about a picture of a bike in a square which says: "Remember: the box is for bikes"

I'll be quiet now ...

Unknown said...

Here in good old Croydon the ASL is considered the stop zone for most drivers, and the cycle lane is considered to be a a marker of where to keep your nearside wheels. Sadly most road users have never read the highway code beyond taking their tests. Without some enforcement, ASLs are little more than very nice urban art.

townmouse said...

One thing you didn't mention is that ASLs are really great when you're turning right, or going straight on at a place where a lot of traffic's turning left. There's some junctions in London where I used to actually hope for a red light so I'd be able to get over into the right hand lane easily in the ASL rather than having to change lanes in flowing traffic, which is never fun.

Yuriy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yuriy said...

Good point made by townmouse - ASLs are *really* helpful when moving ahead from where everybody turns left.

By the way, a related question from newbie if you don't mind. Can anybody tell me how do I need to behave when cycling in the left lane bearing "turn left" symbol (↰) and going straight on a junction?

I am asking because recently I got hit by a car turning left from the same lane (probably the driver was thinking I was about to turn left as well). Luckily, no injuries but I became really concerned about that type of road situation and always try to negotiate a lane to go straight from the one where the forward only arrow is drawn (↑).

Still, I see that other cyclists, motorcyclists, black cabs and buses (actually, every vehicle expected on the left lane) very often ignore those "left only" arrows painted and calmly move forward when crossing junctions from those "left turn only" lanes.

Does that mean that I'm doing wrong when trying to behave as if I were an ordinary motorist?

Sorry for off-topic again, but I'm really curios about that.

Paul said...

Many bicycle users do seem to be ignorant of the purpose of ASLs - they do indeed block access by queuing up in the filter lane, and I even recall an occasion, at the ASL on the north end of Blackfriars Bridge northbound, where a middle aged lady caught up with me and made some remark about testosterone and having to be in front. I spent the next 100 yards up New Bridge St educating her on the purpose of an ASL, how we are supposed to occupy the width of the box and get in front, for our own safety. She very gracefully apologised for her remark.

I don't get too exercised about motorbikes in ASLs as long as they don't directly impinge - I know they shouldn't be there but hey, live and let live, and if I occasionally bend the rules over lights going green I would like the same toleration from them. While a pushbike can typically accelerate from a standing start much faster than a bus, lorry or taxi, or even some cars, a motorbike can leave all of us standing so why not get them out of our way as soon as possible?

All of course on the basis that they don't crowd out the pushbikes at the front or force them back below the eyeline of that lorry driver.

Philip Loy said...

Yuriy, it very much depends on the length of lane you're using and the width of lane and to a lesser extent the size of the whole junction. Which road/ junction are you referring to? If it's fairly short and narrow, it's best to be in the middle of the lane so that drivers behind are discouraged from overtaking you. If it's on a longer stretch of left-turn lane, maybe stay on the left until you approach the junction then move to the middle, but always make sure you look behind and give a quick signal - make sure the driver has seen you and give a quick acknowledgement as thanks. This can make your experience on the road much more pleasant.

Also, I would strongly recommend getting some cycle training, one of the best things to happen for cycling in recent years. It is beneficial even if you've been cycling for years. Contact your local council, or a cycle trainer:

In practice, a facility like an ASL tends to be installed as a standard design and in reality you have to use your skill and judgement to decide if it's going to be of benefit to you. Those people above that say they sometimes wait in the queue instead of always trying to get to the front are likely to be doing the right thing. There are often situations where I don't use the ASL simply because (i) it's more hassle than it's worth and (ii) it offers no advantage anyway, I would get through the lights in the next green phase. There are no hard and fast rules, it's a mixture of experience and judgement.

Yuriy said...

Philip, thanks for the advice.

The junction I was hit is not really that long (Camden Rd / Camden St). Staying at the middle of the lane seems to be a good solution.

ibikelondon said...

Hi Yuri - I totally agree with Phillip- not only is his advice about managing junctions sounds but cycle training (which is often free or very heavily subsidised by your local Council) is really really fantastic. You'll be in a small group and will go out on the road with a very knowledgeable and sympathetic cycle training expert and they will give you lots of tips about your riding technique and how best to manage the roads and traffic flow safely. Even Andreas, from London Cyclist blog, who is an experienced cyclist recently went on a training day and found it really useful. Sign up!

Anonymous said...

I think this may be a UK problem: we have ASL's here in Germany, and in many cases we've had them for years and I don't think thare's a major problem with them: sure, you ger motorists creeping into them, but if you're there, or if you then go in front of them then it's accepted. This is probably because of the strict liability law here: If a driver hits a cyclist than the driver must prove the cyclist was at fault or be prosecuted. It's the same if a cyclist hits a pedestrian: Stronger road users have more responsibility. In the UK it's the other way around. I'd suggest the problem isn't the ASL's, but that they were copied from a country with strict liability, without the legislation to protect cyclists. To use an example above, if a motorcyclist blasts threough a crowd of cyclists and knocks one down, then he's to blame, no questions; in the UK, the cyclist must prove that he was at fault.
A bit of joined-up thinking may be handy here... Oh, wait...

freewheeler said...

As someone compelled to be a vehicular cyclist I like ASLs. The first problem is there is no standardisation – they come in a whole range of sizes, with different surfaces (some pink, some green, some tarmac). That in itself is a symptom of how little importance is attached to cycling by professional transport planners. There is no national standard.

The second problem is that there is no education of drivers as to the purpose of ASLs and no enforcement, even though the London Cycling Campaign website laughably claims that the Metropolitan Police is ‘cycling friendly’. Enforcement needs to be transferred from the useless car-supremacist Met to local authorities. There was talk of this happening but naturally the car-centric Brown government never got round to it, and plainly the current Petrolhead government wouldn’t want to do anything to upset lawless motorists.

The third problem is that there has never been a single cycling protest about the failure to enforce ASLs. Cycling in London is drowning in inertia. We need some cycling Pankhursts to liven things up a bit...

Anonymous said...

Oh this post was really helpful for me...I have always asked my self
the reason for this box!
Now I know it and I will follow your tips!:)

Clive Chapman said...

Toughie this one. Speaking for ASLs in Birmingham, I don't think the motorist or the Constabulary have a Scooby as to what they're for or what the legislation regarding them is.

I never filter into them when the lights are on red, it just pisses drivers off and causes aggro.

If I'm first there I'll take up a central position, as I do when there isn't an ASL just so I'm visible and I don't get left hooked.

A good idea badly executed and publicised if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

Down my end of London, ASL boxes always seem to be ignored by drivers and motorcyclists.
If I really feel the need to be visible and have a good start (e.g. if the road is slightly uphill and pushing off will clearly take more time), I position myself as far forward as possible...even further forward than the ASL box if need be, without blocking a crossing though.

I think that people have to just use their own common sense and discretion when it comes to such matters.

Magicroundabout said...

I, personally, as a cyclist, don't really get ASL's.

I take an approach of mutual respect. If I want to be treated like I'm as wide as a car, then I should behave like I'm as wide as a car.

I overtake on the outside (right hand side) only when it's REALLY safe to do so. I rarely "undertake" on the left, and I only ever do it when the traffic is stationery.

So an ASL that almost forces me up the inside of a moving line of traffic goes contrary to my way of feeling and actually puts me in a position where I feel unsafe.

And for what? To get ahead of a few cars who are only going to want to overtake me once we're moving again anyway.

Cyclists often accuse drivers of being dangerous because they want to get somewhere quickly. Perhaps, sometimes, cyclists also behave dangerously in order to make quick progress, and I think ASL's encourage this.

I like TownMouse's point, but actually, if I've respected the traffic by sitting in it for a while, the car behind is probably going to give me some respect back and let me pull out.

That's just how I do it anyway. Good post and good discussion!

Yuriy said... - as that recent tragedy has shown, apparently, stopping behind the HGV on a junction is safer than making it through to the ASL. Or, more correctly, ASL is not always the safest position available.

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