“Scofflaws?” Scoff.

Something else, posted as comment on Chris Swope’s Urban Notebook, in the vein of several other posts:

Traffic rules as we know them weren’t codified until car traffic overran cities in the 1920s, and even then were created to prevent cars from running over everything else. If the intent of a stop sign is to keep traffic from speeding through an urban neighborhood, then any 10MPH cyclist is observing the intent of that law even if she doesn’t follow the letter of the law. (Not that drivers do, either: stings here in Chicago found 80% speeding through school zones and almost none yielding at crosswalks.)

Cyclists in Amsterdam or Copenhagen get not just bikeways, but also a completely different set of road rules tailored around cyclists — even green lights are timed to move bike, not car, traffic. Actual full stops are relatively rare; instead, signs oblige vehicles to yield. Yet both driving and cycling there are much safer than in the US.

This “yield if it’s safe” approach exists in North America: in Idaho, cyclists may treat stop signs as yield signs; in British Columbia, pedestrians and cyclists may treat flashing-green stoplights as stop signs; and in Portland, stops have been replaced with yields along 100 miles of “bike boulevards.” These acknowledge that a full stop for a cyclist isn’t like tapping the brake pedal in a car, since the car wields 500X as much horsepower (and thus deadly force). It’s more like demanding that drivers stop, shift to park, engage the parking brake, turn off the ignition, remove the key, and start up again. It’s akin to asking pedestrians to sit down before getting back up and crossing the street.

Instead of more enforcement, better laws would go a long way towards improving safe and orderly traffic flow for everyone.

Edit: Here’s an interesting intervention. Installing a “bike scramble” at one intersection in PDX increased cyclist compliance with the signal from 21.9% to 95.8%. [PSU study, h/t Twin City Sidewalks]

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4 thoughts on ““Scofflaws?” Scoff.

  1. “If the intent of a stop sign is to keep traffic from speeding through an urban neighborhood…”

    The intent of a stop sign is not to keep traffic from speeding. That’s made clear by the MUTCD. The intent of the device is just to assign right-of-way. It’s [usually] not a safety tool. It’s not traffic calming. It’s just meant to assign right-of-way. Unfortunately, politicians have taken the tool and put it at every intersection where some local “wish I were a traffic engineer” resident has complained about speeding or children crossing the street.

    Other than that, I totally agree with the rest of the post. Bikes shouldn’t need to stop at every intersection. Neither should cars. Of course, if the stop signs were used as intended, there would be almost no all-way stop intersection and neither would have to.

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  3. tailored for a comment at GGW:

    Actually, there *is* a major, dense, traffic-choked, bike-friendly North American city that allows cyclists to “Idaho stop” and then proceed through red lights: Vancouver, B.C. Okay, so it’s technically not going against a red light and it’s only at some red lights, but many of its bike routes (typically on lower traffic side streets) feature intersections where the bike route has a stop sign, but the major intersecting street has a stop light. The stop light typically flashes green, until it’s activated when a cyclist or pedestrian requests it. Then it turns yellow and then red, and a WALK/BIKE sign goes on for the bike route, overriding the stop sign.

    Here’s a photo of some cyclists waiting at such an intersection — note that there’s no traffic light facing the cyclists, just a stop sign — and here’s a close-up photo of the bike-specific stop sign

    Okay, if the intent of a stop sign is to keep traffic from speeding through an urban neighborhood, then any 10MPH cyclist is observing the intent of that law even if she doesn’t follow the letter of the law. (Not that drivers do, either: almost any graph of observed auto speeds will find a bell curve with the midpoint well above the posted speed limit.)

    Cyclists in Amsterdam or Copenhagen get not just bikeways, but also a completely different set of road rules tailored around cyclists — even green lights are timed to move bike, not car, traffic. The Dutch traffic engineers who recently schooled DC engineers have a saying: “bicycles flow like water, and we should design for it.” Actual full stops there are relatively rare; instead, signs and lines oblige all vehicles to yield. (Similarly, Portland, Vancouver, and other cities with bicycle boulevards have replaced a lot of stop signs with yield signs, and stop lights with signs — see my post above.) Yet both driving and cycling there are statistically much safer than in the US.

    This “yield if it’s safe” approach acknowledges that a full stop for a cyclist isn’t like tapping the brake pedal in a car, since the car wields 500X as much horsepower and takes up much more space. It’s more akin to asking pedestrians to sit down before getting back up and crossing the street. Contrary to claims above, it really does add substantially to travel times — particularly for the less-able among us.

    Instead of more enforcement, better laws would go a long way towards improving safe and orderly traffic flow for everyone. It’s the same general idea as legalizing other safe, victimless behavior: bicycle boxes began that way, by observing that cyclists were safer “breaking” the law (pulling in front of the stop line); leading pedestrian intervals began that way, by observing that pedestrians tend to step off the curb before the green but are actually safer that way; and raising the speed limit from 55MPH also happened that way. Another bike-specific example: in Portland, installing a “bike scramble” increased cyclist signal compliance from 21.9% to 95.8%, and made everyone safer. More broadly, things like legalizing gay marriage are based around the same legal principle.

    As for having one sign mean different things for different vehicles, there are plenty of “except bicycles” signs all over the world — particularly with regard to one-way streets (Boulder, Cologne, Vancouver, and of course Washington D.C.) — but also, to return to the Original Post, right turns on red (Portland, Netherlands). That particular bridge has been crossed already.

  4. Now, news from France that experiments in allowing cyclists to yield to cross-traffic at certain lights “have led to no rise in the number of accidents.” It may eventually apply to all “Zone 30” streets, those in traffic-calmed residential areas — in effect turning them all into bicycle boulevards. That’s a lot more lenient than the “Fahrraden frei” signs that a few German intersections have.

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