So the spies questioned [Jesus]: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Luke 20:21-25 (context)
Ian sent me a Slate article titled “Stop Means Stop: How do we get bikers to obey traffic laws?” As I read it, I felt increasingly compelled to talk back. For those of you with short attention spans, everything summarizes up as Bicyclists fare best when they act and are treated as vehicles. For those of you with lots of time and long attention spans, here, in all its 2,500-word glory, is my response to that article.
Read my response. 1. “Heading home from work yesterday, I ran five red lights and three stop signs, went the wrong way down a one-way street, and took a left across two lanes of oncoming traffic. My excuse: I was on a bike.”
This immediately sets a tone that stops discussion dead and undermines his credentials. If he’s committed all these moving violations, what authority does he have to talk about bicycling laws and safety? His own safety aside, the author sounds like one of those bicyclists that motorists see and think, “This is why I hate bicyclists.” His kind of behavior ruins cycling for all those law-abiding riders everywhere.
2. “Something felt wrong [about bicyclists getting ticketed for running stop signs]. It wasn’t injustice, exactly—all of these bikers broke the law. But was their behavior any great public-safety risk? Even after hearing about the spate of tickets, I haven’t changed my behavior. What’s the point of traffic laws for bikes? And if there is a point, is there any way to get me and my stop sign-flouting cohort to follow the rules of the road?
Bikes occupy a gray area of the law. They’re neither cars nor pedestrians. Most states do carve out special laws for bikes, but not enough to avoid confusion. Take this scenario: I’m approaching a stop sign on my bike. There are clearly no cars coming from either direction. Do I come to a complete stop? Can I cautiously slide through? The traffic laws say full stop. But in practice, few bikers hit the brake, put their foot on the ground, and then start pedaling again. Are they criminals?”
There is nothing wrong with cyclists getting ticketed: tickets aren’t only given out to for people who are creating a “great public safety risk.” You get parking tickets all the time, after all, when you’re stopped and putting nobody at risk. Since, according to the League of American Bicyclists, “bicyclists fare best when they act and are treated as vehicles,” it is more than reasonable for bicyclists who break laws to get ticketed. (Caveat: I am a freshly-minted League of American Bicyclists Cycling Instructor. This will naturally color my views.)
“What’s the point of traffic laws for bikes?” the author asks. Well, hmm, let’s see. Oh—so we have a way of predicting what somebody’s going to do! Think about walking around in a huge crowd, like at Disney World or Disneyland. It’s impossible to guess what the people around you are going to do, so you end up with total chaos. You constantly have to weave and stop and maneuver around people doing unpredictable things; it takes much longer to walk around than if we had designated positions for people going to certain destinations, with people signaling their intentions beforehand. Traffic laws give all road users, including bicyclists and pedestrians, a way of predicting what other road users are going to do so we can avoid collisions. (Note that I used “collision” instead of “accident.” The word accident implies an act of God, an earthquake or a tornado, something unavoidable. We can avoid nearly all collisions, whether in cars or on bikes, which is why we don’t have accidents.)
Then the author says “Bikes occupy a gray area of the law. They’re neither cars nor pedestrians.” No, they don’t. In all 50 states, bicyclists are considered vehicles with exactly the same rights and responsibilities as motorists. Many cyclists act as if they exist in a gray area, picking and choosing which traffic laws to follow, but legally bicyclists have a well-defined place smack in the same category as cars. As a bicyclist you can easily become a pedestrian by dismounting and walking, but just because you’re small and more maneuverable than a car doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.
I don’t disagree with some of the author’s discussion of stop signs, because if there’s one traffic law I break fairly often when on my bike, it’s rolling through stop signs. However, the answer to his question “Are they criminals?” is clearly “Yes.” I acknowledge that I should obey to the traffic control device, and that by choosing not to, I’m risking (a) injury to myself (but probably nobody else); and (b) a possible ticket. That doesn’t make it OK, and it doesn’t mean that bicyclists should have special rules. Special laws just for bicyclists would make it more difficult to teach people to drive their bikes safely and legally. Right now, you can tell somebody “Do the same thing on a bike that you’d do in a car,” and that pretty much covers your bases. The major difference is lane positioning, since bicyclists have a narrow profile that makes motorists want to squeeze by, even in unsafe situations. That’s a different story, however. Let’s get back to the Slate article.
If the world consisted entirely of bicyclists, we might be able to make do with yield signs. Unfortunately, since we share the road with motorists, stop signs exist and so bicyclists are legally compelled to obey them. In the grand scheme of things, come on—this really isn’t that big of a deal. You lose momentum. OK. Learn how to do a pedal step mount and starting from a stop isn’t particularly onerous.
3. “In this history, bikes are the American Indians to the car’s Christopher Columbus. Everything about our road system, from the lanes to the signs to the traffic lights, is designed for the car, often at the expense of the bike.”
This is true, but does it mean that bicyclists should get special privileges? By now, you probably already know that my answer is a resounding “No.” I firmly believe that motorists and bicyclists need more education on how to interact. Other secondary bicycle facilities, such as bike lanes and multiuse paths, may encourage non-cyclists to start and provide a good place for new riders to gain confidence, but they should never be our primary bicycle infrastructure.
4. The author delineates two different camps in the bicycling advocacy world:
“Proponents of ‘vehicular cycling’ believe bikes should act as cars: occupy full lanes, stop
at red lights, use a hand signal at least 100 feet ahead of a turn. That’s the best way to make cars—and policymakers—aware of bicycles and to respect them as equals on the road. When it comes to making roads safe for bikes, vehicularists tend to favor training, education (most cities offer bike safety classes), and enforcement. Cyclists should not grouse about moving violations, the vehicularists argue. It is a sign that they’re being treated as equals.”
“Facilitators, meanwhile, say we should change the laws and the environment to recognize the innate differences between bikes and cars. That means special facilities like bike lanes, bike paths (elevated trails separate from the road), and even Copenhagen-style traffic lights for bikes. It would also mean changing car-centric laws that don’t make sense for bikes, like the rule that says you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.”
The author is drawing a false dichotomy here. The League of American Bicyclists talks about the Three Es: Education, Engineering, and Enforcement. Education falls into the author’s “vehicularist” camp, and I became a League Cycling Instructor because I think it is crucial. Engineering, on the other hand, falls into the authors’ “facilitator” camp, encouraging the creation and redesign of roads to facilitate safe, legal bicycling. However, some bike lanes actually set bicyclists up to do illegal things, so even engineered solutions aren’t perfect. Finally, Enforcement would be the earlier discussion of bicyclists receiving tickets when they break the law. This is fair and reasonable. Most bicycle advocates don’t say cyclists should only ride on multiuse paths or only on the road, or that bicyclists should only have their own rules or only be exactly the same as motorists. This is not an either-or situation, and a solution to the true problem of how to accommodate both motorists and bicyclists on roads safely, efficiently, legally, and with a minimum of conflict will ultimately include aspects of both camps.
5. “The beauty of this approach, say facilitators, is that it creates compliance from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Bike-friendly pathways encourage more people to bike. More bikes create peer pressure for bikers to follow the law. (In Copenhagen, for example, you’ll see long lines of bikes stopped at traffic lights.) When more bikers follow the law, the heavy hand of enforcement becomes less necessary. Roadway design also influences bike design. City bikes in Northern Europe are heavier and more durable—in other words, more carlike—than the hybrids and racing machines you see in American cities. …The result is a relatively slow, comfortable, and civilized riding experience.”
There is nothing wrong with bike paths, bike lanes, and other bicycle-friendly roadway designs. Anything that gets more people riding is a plus. One concern is that often, road designers will make bike facilities that actually cause cyclists to make dangerous or illegal moves. Bike paths are dangerous at street crossings, and guess what? They often have stop signs for bicyclists that get ignored. You can’t rely on roadway design to solve the problem because often the designs are unsafe or poorly thought through.
However, by and large I agree with this paragraph, except the last bit about bicycle design. Give me a break! “Roadway design also influences bike design”?! No way. New bicyclists may feel more comfortable on upright cruiser-style bikes, but that has nothing to do with road design. I’d argue that it’s the prevalent American conception of bicycling as recreation rather than as transportation that leads to extremely lightweight carbon fiber frames with little space for useful attachments like lights, fenders, and racks. That doesn’t mean people don’t ride practical bikes in America, though: You see people riding comfort/hybrid/Dutch city bikes everywhere you see people riding mountain and road bikes. What makes “heavier and more durable” European bicycles a more “comfortable, and civilized riding experience”? Where does that put my titanium commuting bike? In the fast but uncomfortable and uncivilized category? It sounds like the author is actually judging cyclists who choose not to ride big, clunky, awkward, ugly, car-like bikes.
6. Vehicularists see “Dedicated bike paths are an admission that the cyclist deserves pity and should be walled off from the world. Bike paths are separate but unequal—a way for motorists to get bikers out of their way.”
False. First of all, I’ve never heard bicyclists say they felt bike paths implied “the cyclist deserves pity and should be walled off from the world.” What?! Pity? I’m pretty sure that most motorists don’t pity bicyclists, and I’ve yet to meet a bicyclist who felt pitied by drivers. Hated, yes. Pitied, no. Additionally, even proponents of vehicular cycling would say that bike paths, more accurately known as multiuse paths, have an excellent place in our culture. What they aren’t good for is letting lots of bicyclists move rapidly—above about 10 mph—from Point A to Point B, since the cyclist on a bike path takes on the same role as a motorist on the road. You have to slow down and announce your presence to other path users and stay very alert to the many possible unexpected hazards (children, dogs, people wearing iPods). The problem with paths is that they mostly don’t have rules to dictate behavior, which makes them unpredictable and dangerous for fast-moving bicyclists. Most bicycle advocates see bike paths as a way of getting people riding at all—a very positive outcome—and then you can focus on education to help build up the knowledge needed to ride safely on the road.
7. “‘You know who else liked bike paths?’ say vehicularists. ‘Hitler.’”
This is plain insulting.
8. “Enter the Idaho stop-sign law. The rule, passed by the Idaho state legislature in 1982 and updated in 2005, essentially allows bikers to treat stop signs as yield signs. If a biker slows down and sees no cars coming, he or she can roll through a stop sign—a so-called ‘rolling stop.’”
… “But even if we can’t create our own private Idaho—you hear that groaner a lot among San Francisco bikers—we can still get pretty close. Despite the anecdotal increase in bike-related ticketing in Washington recently, police rarely crack down on bikers who execute a rolling stop. (I tested one out in front of a cop car just the other day.) In the end, the legal gray area is everyone’s friend. It allows cops to avoid stopping every last biker who rolls through a stop sign. …And it allows bikers to ride knowing that safe, reasonable behavior will not be punished just because it doesn’t follow the letter of the motor vehicle law. Even if you do get the occasional ticket, $25 is a small price for the increased freedom you have as a cyclist.”
Towards the end of the article, the author offers this apparent compromise, and discusses the reaction from his two camps of cycling advocates. I don’t know enough about the law to speak to it specifically, but I’m pretty confident that just changing stop signs to yield signs for bicyclists wouldn’t really solve the larger problem of how bicyclists should behave and be treated in the real world. Legalizing or de facto legalizing rolling stops seems to treat the symptom (rolling through stop signs) rather than the disease (conflict between bicyclists and motorists for use of the road). Just because you can get away with it, or because the punishment is light, doesn’t mean it’s OK! Who decides what’s “safe, reasonable behavior”? Traffic laws exist to define safe, reasonable behavior; without them, drivers (of bicycles and cars) would always choose what is most pe
rsonally expedient, even to the detriment of others.
9. “If cops started handing out more tickets for one-way infractions, bikers like me would probably clean up their most-outrageous behaviors. Once that happens, maybe all of us—cyclists and car people and activists and cops—could agree to leave the rolling stop alone.”
The author has spent the entire article setting up a straw man argument, with the rolling stop as the easy-to-knock-down straw man. But, as I said in number 8, this really doesn’t address the larger issue of what to do with bicyclists on the road. The multiuse paths versus roadway riding discussion really isn’t an issue, either, since we will never have multiuse paths that go everywhere cyclists need to go and multiuse paths will always have dogs, children, and other unpredictable hazards that make them impractical for fast-moving bicyclists. Cyclists need to know how to drive their bikes on the road in a predictable, vehicular way that will let riders blend in to the flow of traffic safely and legally. If cyclists didn’t do harebrained stunts like riding through red lights and the wrong way up one-way streets—if they rode the same way people drove their cars—I suspect that drivers wouldn’t have such a difficult time accepting bicyclists as vehicles too.
The author thinks he’d stop riding the wrong way up one-way streets if he got ticketed, but I honestly doubt it. Such behavior really endangers the cyclist more than anybody else. If self-preservation isn’t enough motivation to obey common-sense traffic laws, then how effective will the threat of a ticket really be?
In the end, this entire article has colored bicyclists in an unflattering light, depicting us as full of bickering factions, incapable of agreeing on something as simple as whether to stop at a stop sign. The author’s choice to position himself as a bicyclist who blatantly disobeys traffic control devices taints all bicyclists and throws doubt on his credibility in discussing what is required to get bicyclists riding safely and legally. He doesn’t ride safely and legally, so what does he know about it? What does work, while we’re trying to figure out how to squeeze bikes onto already crowded roads, is teaching bicyclists that “Bicyclists fare best when they act and are treated as vehicles.”