Friday, July 31, 2015

So, about stop signs. . .

Coming next week in my Metro column: a call to get rid of stop signs, for cars and for bikes.

In part, the column was written because I live right above an all-way-stop T intersection. Sitting on my balcony, I get to see exactly how people really treat stop signs. I've been there on the days a cop car has taken up position on Cedarwood and taken down car after car running the stop. I've also been there on the days when there's no cop. I have yet to see an accident.

This is a video I took in around four minutes earlier this week. I only cut out some lulls where there was no traffic. Otherwise, this is an average afternoon:

Why shouldn't that intersection be a roundabout? My friend Christopher Doyle has even helpfully supplied some visual inspiration:

Doesn't that look nice? And civilized? And would it change anything about the way people go through it? Not really. It would just codify it.

Anyway. There are a lot of things that people hold, dogmatically, to be true about stop signs that just ain't so. "Those damn cyclists" that roll through the stop signs are doing it right alongside an equal number of drivers that do. But a rolling stop in a car is somehow perceived differently.

And then there's the dangerous confusion that can happen because people have motor programs for stop signs that don't include bicycles.

Like the other day. I biked up to a four-way stop in Little Italy. The driver in front of me went through the intersection. I pulled up, and just as I started to pedal again to go through, a woman pulled up as well, on the cross street to my right. But I'd definitely been there first, so I kept going. The minute I was directly in front of her, she just started driving forward, straight at me. I yelled, "WhoawhoaWHOA!" at her, and I recall her sort of looking up indignantly at me, my bike, and my warding hand, and then I was out of the intersection, a bit shaken and pissed, but safe.

Many things contributed to that spooky moment: one, I had stopped and taken my turn, so I was accelerating very slowly into the intersection at a time when reaction time is a factor. Two, she may not have recognized that I was at the intersection first because she just didn't register the bike as a vehicle (we navigate stops on autopilot much of the time). Three, she may have thought she was starting to move at a perfectly reasonable time, if the other vehicle was a car and able to speed up like a car.

BAH. This is why stop signs should die. Replace them with yields and roundabouts. Let people use their common sense instead of applying a bunch of learned rules and motor programs.

Or, at least, accept - and codify - the fact that bikes and cars, at intersections, are very different vehicles.

In San Francisco, this week, a bunch of cyclists staged an ingenious protest: They rode according to the rules of the road.

This meant that when they got to a stop sign, they came to a full and complete stop, ensured they had right of way, then proceeded through the intersections. Just like you're supposed to. In minutes, they had drivers honking at them for holding things up, for clogging up the intersection - for behaving according to the law and not, frankly, in the most efficient manner.

I don't think I've come across a more effective demonstration of why the Idaho stop is a good idea. You know what? Cyclists have already, generally, come up with a means of moving around among cars that is safest and most comfortable for the majority. And its rules are actually different in different situations and for different vehicles.

And maybe the law needs to catch up.


  1. Good points.

    In addition though, there's the fact that stop signs are used way too often. In most residential settings, they're not being used for any intersection-related traffic control function, but rather as a form of cheap speed control by proxy. In a residential grid, a yield sign at every other intersection would suffice for traffic control in most cases.