Moralism vs. Utopianism–of Red Lights, Helmets, Bike Lanes and…

29587076_e533f1f7ef.jpgFlickr photo: Dear Knucklehead

The Oregon Legislature has flushed an effort to bring the Idaho rolling stop law to that state. It’s a bit of a surprise, given both the simple and proven efficacy of allowing cyclists to make rolling stops, as well as Oregon’s big reputation as a bastion of cycling sanity. I’ve been an "outlaw bicyclist" for 30 years in San Francisco, running stop signs and red lights routinely. The design of traffic laws and the engineering of our roads are focused on automobile throughput, parking-and-shopping, and not much else.

Those of us who have embarked on a generation-long effort to reinhabit the urban environment, partly by daily cycling, have had to refashion the streets through our own patterns and habits. Rather than acquiescing to "the law" or to self-defeating rules, we’ve made safe but creative use of the rights of way. When I come to a stop sign, it’s always a yield, unless there is cross traffic there ahead of me, or if there’s a cop waiting to nab me. (I’ve only been ticketed a couple of times in 30 years, mostly because I never cause anyone danger or inconvenience by my behavior.) If I come to a red light, depending on how far I can see the cross traffic, I’ll either stop or pause, and proceed if the coast is clear.

The safest place for me is on the OTHER side of that red light, where the road is empty. Waiting to start on the green with the automobiles is to remain shunted to the unsafe corridor between parked cars and moving traffic, and often enough, being threatened by a right-turning car. You’ll end up spending most of your urban cycling time in hazardous narrow corridors anyway, but whenever you can get into an open road without moving cars alongside, you’re safer. It’s self-evident! It’s also helpful to be pedaling ahead of traffic, keeping a healthy distance from the door zone, where approaching motorists can see you clearly and make adjustments to accommodate our presence on the road.

Over a decade ago, I wrote a flyer that I distributed at Critical Mass. It was inspired by a frustrating conversation I had with a woman when we found ourselves side by side on our way to a memorial at 24th and Valencia where a cyclist had been flattened by a bus some days earlier:

As I was riding to the memorial for the woman killed at 24th and Valencia, I got a dose of bicyclist moralism. (I have been riding my bike, mostly as a commuter, in SF for the past 19 years, and I’ve only worn a helmet a half dozen times at most. So far I’ve avoided any serious accidents.) I turned to some unknown cyclists with me in the left turn lane from Market to Valencia, and asked if they were heading to the memorial, and a helmeted-woman immediately informed me in that tell-tale "tsk, tsk" tone of voice, that the accident victim "hadn’t been wearing a helmet." I took offense at this blaming of the victim, and said as much, leading to an alienating and inconclusive exchange regarding the individual responsibility to wear a helmet.

Most bicycle accidents cause injury that a helmet cannot help, but still many cyclists share the mass media bias that says "if you’re not wearing a helmet, you have given up your rights to complain about an accident or the injuries you may have received." I find this absurd and offensive.

It’s not a moral imperative to buy a commodity that offers meager protection in order to be critical of a ridiculously hostile road structure. You don’t deserve to die, or even suffer injury, just because you refuse the "common-sense Consumer Duty" to buy and wear a helmet. Road engineering today guarantees serious accidents between bikes and cars, and of course, cars and cars. You may survive a slightly higher percentage of these predictable and designed "accidents" wearing a helmet, but you are reproducing an insidious logic when you criticize bare-headed cyclists. It is terribly false to place the onus for traffic safety on the individual vehicle driver, whether car or bike. The system is designed in such a way that it is entirely predictable that many thousands of people will die in the "normal" course of events on America’s roadways. Cyclists who ride without helmets do not thereby deserve the fate handed out by the unforgiving streets of America.

This is one example of a moralistic acquiescence to the status quo that blocks some bicyclists from seeing the radical implications of bicycling. Another example presents itself in the ongoing tussle between advocates and opponents of bike lanes. Bicyclists against bike lanes believe that the best way to improve conditions for bicycling is by bicyclists becoming able to ride as an equal among cars on regular streets. Rather than changing roads and rights-of-way, they hold individual cyclists responsible, insisting they learn to behave as cars, moving as fast as autos through normal city traffic. For a large majority of real and potential bicyclists, this is physically impossible and socially undesirable.

Bike lane opponents seem to think that everyone should be like them. Often these folks claim inspiration from the theory of "Effective Cycling" (John Forester). They embrace cycling with a near-religious fervor and feel passionate about its "natural" superiority as a mode of transit in terms of energy and thermodynamics. Ten thousand hours of experience qualifies you to claim the status of "effective cyclist," a status for which rather few of today’s urban cyclists would qualify.

I prefer the label "Republican Efficiency Freaks" (REFs) for this crowd, who curiously seem to think that the only cyclists who are a worthy political constituency are those who conform to their standards of law-abiding behavior and thermodynamic efficiency. Arguing against bike lanes out of some strange paranoia, they claim that bike lanes will ghetto-ize cyclists into those areas only. Additionally they have argued that with a system of separate bike lanes we will see MORE bike-car accidents because of the confusion that exists at all intersections of bikeways and car streets. (2009: All you can say to this is, "Copenhagenize It!")

We will never be banished from city streets! There are too many of us already, and after a new bikeway system, our numbers will quintuple again. Bike-car accidents are already awful. We need a big public education program about new patterns and priorities, accommodating bicycles, wheelchairs and pedestrians, improving public transportation performance, and so on. A network of bikeways is what will encourage many more people to start riding. The most common reason people have for not cycling is their legitimate fear of being killed on the streets by cars.

The attempt to make individuals responsible for a socially-imposed madness is not just foisted on us by our obvious opponents. Unfortunately, those of us in the "bicycling community" spend all too much time fending off the same kinds of blame-the-victim mentalities from within our ranks. But this kind of petty moralism and political self-defeat cripples our utopian imaginations. Oppose political arguments that situate the crucial decisions of our predicament at the point of shopping for a helmet, or in our ability and willingness to act like a car when we’re riding our bikes. We want to change life. Bicycling is an affirmative act toward that end.

— Chris Carlsson, Sept. 1998

I heard the SF Bike Coalition was making efforts to send the upcoming Valencia makeover back to the drawing board, in order to get a Copenhagen-style sidepath system installed during the new Great Streets redesign. I hope that’s true, and I still, after all these years, yearn for a more comprehensive agenda to remake the city for cycling. We’ve made some small progress, and soon with the lifting of the injunction we’ll see a bunch more white stripes and other modest improvements. But we have to go a great deal further, and if we can generate a compelling vision of a citywide grid of safe, separate, horticulturally designed and artistically adorned cycling paths, we might finally have a goal worthy of the decades of effort that have gotten us this far.

  • This is simply awesome.

  • This is the opposite of awesome. Same rights, same responsibilities; if you behave like a juvenile anarchist, motorists who are otherwise friendly will stop being so, and you may find yourself legislated onto the sidewalk.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Yeah right, because motorists are all about following the law. Meet me in from of the door to my office and within five minutes I guarantee we will see someone speeding, running a red light, double parked, parked in a loading zone, parked in a handicapped spot, parked in front of the fire hydrant, parked in the bike lane, driving in the bike lane, parked in the bus stop, driving the wrong way (no joke, this happens a lot), making prohibited left turns, making prohibited right turns on red, blocking the box, or colliding with cars, bikes, pedestrians, or fixed objects.

  • Pat

    “Same rights, same responsibilities.” Not only is that false by law, but it is complete nonsense. I don’t have to take classes, tests and pay fees to ride a bike. I also can not kill several people (or even one) in a collision on my bike. I take it you have never rode your bike in San Francisco.

  • greg h.

    Cars and bicyclists cannot be equals on the road. It is not possible because cyclists embrace this idea that they can get away with whatever they want. I single out cyclists knowing that drivers do it too, but drivers will cause more damage when they disregard traffic laws. I’ve been on both sides, and its infuriating either way. As a bicyclist or driver, you cannot just choose which laws apply to you and which don’t. To behave with such disrespect for the law – ANY law – is absurd. By getting on your bike in the morning you CHOOSE to put yourself in harm’s way. Until BOTH sides decide to act responsibly and agree on a set of Road Rules we will have chaos on the streets of San Francisco.

  • @Mike Dahmus

    No bikes on sidewalks ever. Sort of a tangent but I feel the need to bring it up because, anecdotally, I’ve seen a huge uptick in the number cyclists clipping my elbows on the sidewalk.

  • brilliant! A new-old masterpiece. Abraços!

  • Pete

    This isn’t about anarchy or whether motorists obey laws or not. The opposite of cyclist is not motorist, it’s non-cyclist. It’s a fallacy to say that you’re putting yourself in harms way on a bicycle any more than as a pedestrian or driver – check the numbers – and the Idaho statistics that Oregon legislators gathered from the Idaho State Police and DOT showed an incidental decrease in bicycle injuries and fatalities (which you’d think would satisfy critics saying Idaho stops are dangerous).

    The ‘Idaho Stop’ law simply documents the (sensible) behavior of just about every cyclist in California and Oregon I’ve seen in my 25 years of riding. To educate the non-cycling public that legalizing this is a good thing for everybody (including insurance agencies), though, would seem to be an insurmountable task – especially when legislatures are more focused on economic issues. Let’s hope Oregon (and the BTA) have better luck with this in 2010.

  • Running a red light or a stop sign is a childish tantrum, not a sensible act (unless it’s an emergency). And, again, the more likely outcome of pushing this juvenile anarchism is that ‘swing motorists’ will stop taking cyclists seriously and instead, as I put it, legislate them to the sidewalk.

    No, motorists don’t break the law in the quantity or quality that cyclists do. Anybody with a substantial amount of experience commuting in both modes, as I have, knows this to be true – it’s only the virulently car-free cyclists that are able to delude themselves into believing otherwise.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    And yet the streets are littered with the bodies of people killed by cars, not by bikes. Strange, eh?

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    By the way, if you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is, bring a tempting sum of money to the corner of New Montgomery and Howard, 5pm, any weekday. If no motorist commits and unlawful act in the first five minutes, I’ll double your money. Otherwise, you donate it to the SF Bicycle Coalition.

  • greg h.

    I’d have to agree with Mr. Baker on that one. I agree that motorists are the largest offenders in this discussion (by, what I can only imagine, is a substantial margin). There are simply more cars on the road than cyclists. I can understand the logic behind this ‘Idaho Stop’, but I can see this innocent and well intended new rule being horribly abused by some cyclists in this city. It would be hard enough to get around (MUNI or car) without any cyclists on the road, and if they can legally coast through stops we’ll never get anywhere. I just don’t see it ending well.

  • Tragically, another example…

    http://www.ktvu.com/news/19267665/detail.html

  • Mr. Baker, your logical skills are highly wanting — there are so many more motorists that, yes, you’ll see more lawbreaking in aggregate (if you count speeding); but the quality of lawbreaking from cyclists and proportional quantity blows them out of the water.

    To be clear, I consider running the middle of a red light cycle to be about the worst offense you can make, in a car or on a bike (I almost wrecked my car trying to avoid killing a cyclist doing that near UT some years ago; would have injured myself and another motorist in that process). “Running the orange”, something that both cyclists and motorists do in near equal measures, is far less serious; and minor speeding just a blip.

  • @Mike Dahmus,
    You make a very dangerous statement there, excusing “minor speeding” as “just a blip.” Minor speeding is fatal, literally. The chances of survival for a pedestrian hit by a car going 20 mph (not speeding on most streets in most cities) to 40 mph (speeding by 5-10 mph on most streets in most cities) are drastically lower.

    Take a look at the graph here:
    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/03/02/valencia-signals-re-timed-to-improve-traffic-flow-and-safety/

    Though I don’t know if he published it anywhere, economist Charlie Komanoff did analysis of red light running for cars and for cyclists in NYC. The NYC DOT estimates that cars run more than 1 million red lights every day in NYC. Charlie estimated that cyclists run around the equivalent, despite smaller aggregate number of cyclists.

    That said, when was the last time you heard of a ped/cyclist fatality? And one caused by running a light? When was the last (20) time(s) you heard of ped/car fatalities?

  • Pat

    There is a stop sign on every single corner in the city of San Francisco. Coming to a full stop at each one on a bicycle would result in absolutely no one riding a bicycle.

    The entire point of stop signs is to calm automobile traffic and prevent automobile collisions. If there were no automobiles, far less than a stop sign would be required since bicycles can easily avoid each other and pedestrians, and collisions even at top flat ground speed on a bicycle generally will only result in scrapes and no injury. So it does not make sense to compare auto traffic and bicycle traffic when crafting stop laws.

  • SfResident

    Yeah! Way to tell ’em! Those crazy (majority of) bicyclists who take simple and inexpensive steps to protect themselves by purchasing helmets and stopping at red lights are just tools of the machine.

    But seriously, as an almost-always pedestrian (walking is awesome!) and occasional muni rider I say “A pox on both your houses.”

    Yes, cars are more dangerous and getting hit by a bike is unlikely to be fatal but it’s still no walk in the park, especially for children and the elderly. One of my colleagues is permanently disabled and, ironically, can no longer ride a bike because a cyclist slammed into her – yeah, she’d probably be dead if it were a car but that’s not too terribly comforting. Also, far too many bicyclists are a penchant for yelling at pedestrians as they run stop signs and otherwise push themselves into our right of way – it happens to me at least once a week and it’s terrifying and physically intimidating.

    And in any case, Mike Dahmus is spot-on, this kind of holier-than-thou “the rules don’t count for me” attitude does nothing but alienate those of us who are likely to be your allies in transportation fights. If you want pedestrians and motorists, the vast majority of city residents, to work with you to create a more bike-friendly city (something that shouldn’t even be controversial) then you should get off your high horse and realize that for most people bicycling is a mode of transportation, not a revolutionary act, and is just one component of a healthy city. How are we to believe that cyclists will follow a law that requires them to yield to motorists and pedestrians at stop signs if those who purport to speak for cyclists express contempt for the rule of law?

    As a pedestrian my gut reaction to the Idaho law is a physical fear of giving bicyclists the perceived ability to blast through stop signs without becoming clearly legally liable for injuries they may cause. San Francisco ‘aint Boise. I can be convinced otherwise, and there are some compelling arguments for the law, but posts like this don’t help.

  • CBrinkman

    “realize that for most people bicycling is a mode of transportation, not a revolutionary act”

    But in SF we’ve made cycling a revolutionary act by not designing the streets for the mild mannered cyclists. Easiest way to be a rebel in SF? Buy a bike and ride it. Easiest way to curb rebel behavior? Get more people biking – it’s hard to act like a jerk when there are 15 mellow cyclists in front of you at the light. Easiest way to get more people biking? Design the streets for all users; bus, ped, bike, and car. SF is an odd example since we have had no new infrastructure for bikes in so long – 1,039 days as of today. When the streets are designed correclty, I think a lot of problmes will be resolved.

    Me – mellow rider except when really threatened, no helmet on my commute, treat stops as yields, sometimes jump red lights carefully – to get ahead of the bolus of car traffic, as Chris points out, it can be safer when done correctly. And always careful of pedestrians.

  • When it comes to transportation, I am multi-modal. I walk 10% of my trips, take Muni 10% of my trips, ride my bike 30% of my trips, and drive my car 50% of my trips. (I am working to get my car percentage down.) Like anyone who’s lived in the city a while, I’ve seen pedestrians do insane things, bicyclists do insane things and drivers do insane things. The only conclusion I can draw is that there are a lot of people with no fear of death in San Francisco.

    In terms of morality, I believe it is more immoral to be homicidal than suicidal, so I do put more burden of responsibility on those wielding three thousand pounds of steel with them wherever they go. When you add in the dire prospect of global warming, cars really do need to come last in city priorities, not first.

    As a bicyclist, I never run red lights. Never. When I come to a stop sign, I always yield to whoever is there first. (If I pull up the same time as a car, I figure I’m not destroying the planet, so I get to go first.) It’s really a matter of simple courtesy–take your turn. However, if I’m riding down a quiet street like Cabrillo or Sanchez where there’s a stop sign every block, and I scan the intersection and there’s no one there, I will calmly ride through the stop sign at six or seven miles an hour. This harms no one, and benefits me quite a bit. I don’t blast through, I’m not unsafe, I never threaten a pedestrian. In fact, the only time I’ve come close to hitting a pedestrian is when one stepped directly into a bike lane in front of me from between two parked cars.

    I think courtesy and common sense are what is required here. Moving at fast speeds in crowded areas is not safe no matter your mode of transportation. (Slower speeds allow the brain more time to process information and react, as well as lessen the impact involved in any collision.) And being courteous enough to take your turn is part of how we all get along in this world. This may seem a ridiculous thing to say, but let’s be gentle and cautious out there with each other.

  • CBrinkman

    “This may seem a ridiculous thing to say, but let’s be gentle and cautious out there with each other.”

    Not ridiculous at all. As Gil Penalosa says of the kamikaze type cyclists – they ride as if they love no one and no one loves them. As if they have no parents, no children, no spouse or friends that will care. They are the 1% who will ride no matter what the road conditions, no matter how awful or frightening. We shouldn’t be designing our streets for them. But we have been.

  • the greasy bear

    Like most SF cyclists, I run stop signs and red lights when practicable. The physics of cycling incentivize that kind of negotiation through an antagonistic traffic management system designed only to facilitate motoring.

    Any argument that begins with the premise that bikes should operate exactly as cars is irrational. Cars put out 1,000 times more energy than cyclists, weigh exponentially more, kill tens of thousands more people, and so on. I am neither as powerful nor as dangerous as a motorist behind the wheel. Legitimate rules of the road will concede these realities when balancing the needs of motorized and non-motorized transportation on our shared streets.

    Early in the 20th century, San Francisco voluntarily retrofitted its decades-old roads and laws to accommodate the private motorist. Today’s cyclist-citizens deserve the same accommodation from our shared government. Yet peaceful change to that end has been illegal in SF for 1,039 days and counting.

    Cyclists in more progressive and better-adjusted cities like Portland are by all accounts more lawful and courteous than here, because their needs are being met legally. As long as the law continues to work against SF cyclists, SF cyclists will continue to work against the law. Motorists can smugly enjoy the entire road and wag their fingers at cyclists shunted to the sidelines, but the unruliness on the streets here won’t change until we eliminate the root of the problem–the brittle, irrational, and environmentally damaging autocentrism that dominates SF traffic management and street design.

  • “I consider running the middle of a red light cycle to be about the worst offense you can make, … and minor speeding just a blip.”

    We should decide which is the worst offense based on which is a greater threat it is to innocent lives. Speeding by cars, even “minor speeding” is a direct threat to life.

    I treat stop signs as yields while bicycling. I do not think bikes should run red lights and do not do so myself. However, a bike running a red light is clearly less of a threat to life than a car speeding.

    I think the author’s attitude is not constructive. It is self-destructive to refuse to wear a helmet, and it is self-righteously self-destructive to say “It’s not a moral imperative to buy a commodity that offers meager protection in order to be critical of a ridiculously hostile road structure.”

  • Dave Snyder

    Many have rightfully criticized Mike Dahmus’s logical fallacies (same rights, same responsibilities?!), but nobody has yet contradicted his assertion that by obeying the law rigorously cyclists will gain more respect from motorists. That’s wishful thinking and is not borne out by my experience, which is that motorists in San Francisco have over the past two decades of my riding learned to give cyclists much much more respect. I used to get yelled at all the time (for perfectly legal and safe behavior, by the way); now it’s very rare.

    No marginalized group has ever gained its victory by avoiding confrontation with their opponents.

  • SfResident

    In response to:

    “We should decide which is the worst offense based on which is a greater threat it is to innocent lives….”

    and

    “I am neither as powerful nor as dangerous as a motorist behind the wheel.”

    While I agree with the general sentiment here, that the fundamental problem is that our streets are designed for cars über-alles, I think its important to remember that from a pedestrian’s perspective cars may be murderous but bicycles are still dangerous.

    All too often I think bicyclists lose sight of the very real threat that they pose to pedestrians. Perhaps I’m repeating myself but I just came back to my house angry because in the time between my fist post and now I had to literally jump away from a cyclist who was making a no-stop right turn off Valencia.

    Sure getting knocked to the ground by a bicyclist isn’t near as bad as getting run over by a car, just like getting punched in the face by a mugger isn’t as bad as getting shot in the head. But neither are things that pedestrians should have to face. And it’s certainly not an argument for allowing bicyclists to push into the right of way of pedestrians (or cars, for that matter). No bicyclist thinks that they’re causing problems for pedestrians but a large part of that is because, in our vehicle-centered city, most people forget we exist.

    Let’s work together to make the streets safer for all of us. And please, please, please notice pedestrians.

  • the greasy bear

    SfResident, you assert SF cyclists are dangerous to pedestrians–how many pedestrians were injured or killed last year by cyclists in SF?

  • @SFResident, I completely agree, and your comments are very well put.

    I fully and actively support the bicycle as a transportation mode over the car. But I am confounded by bicyclists (the bad apples if you will, though a lot of them there are) who don’t show any respect to pedestrians. To be honest, it tempers my advocacy for bicycling.

    Without questioning anybody’s personal motives in any particular situation, I always wonder why somebody who deals with dangerous bullying from cars would turn around and exact the same sort of behavior on road users more vulnerable than they are.

  • the greasy bear

    Again, though, how do we justify the declaration that cyclists are “dangerous” to pedestrians if none of us has any actual facts to back up such an assertion?

    It’s not an inconsequential question, nor is it unfair to ask of those making such an assertion.

  • SfResident

    Okay Greasy Bear. Between 2000 and 2006, the amount of time covered by the MTA’s last major report on the topic, two pedestrians were killed in collisions with bicyclists in San Francisco. Most years there’s between 15 and 20 reported ped-bike collisions that result in injuries.

    This is much lower than bike-car and (especially) ped-car, but there are a few factors that make bike-ped collisions significantly under-reported including the fact that most bike-ped injuries are minor and that the MTA systemically under-reports ped-x injuries. This is a fact that the MTA explicitly makes clear in their report. There’s also an interesting article in the 2005 academic journal “Accident analysis and prevention” about the serious under-reporting of pedestrian injuries generally in SF.

    What these statistics tell me is that cars are far and away the most dangerous vehicles on the road but that serious injuries and sometimes death still results from bike-ped collisions. The “minor” injuries that result from most unreported bike-ped collisions are still an assault on the safety and security of pedestrians. Like I said, just because getting punched in the face isn’t as bad as getting shot doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about folk getting punched in the face.

    My point is that bicyclists have the potential to injure and infuriate pedestrians when they ride recklessly and without regard for the laws. When you act like that you become a less deadly version of the ‘crazy driver’ who thinks that their mode of transit gives them ownership of the road, all other users be damned. And when you’re dealing with pedestrians the whole “greener than thou so therefore I own the road” argument holds no water.

    And yes, pedestrians regularly act like jackasses and we also present a danger to bicyclists when we do so. We need to all realize that the streets are a public commons and start acting like people who use other forms of transit are human beings.

  • stevem

    If you really want to become a fully participating member of the transportation mix, and achieve some of the dreams that you talk about in your post, you need to leave behind your “outlaw” persona.

    Every time you run a stop sign or blow a red light or otherwise break the law, you are giving ammunition to those that say cyclists are scofflaws, dangerous and irresponsible, and hence unworthy of respect and that cycling is not a “serious” form of transportation. Quite simply your behavior is damaging to the cause of cycling as a viable form of transportation in the city.

    We cyclists have many goals: to get more folks to want to ride: to move public policy in a more cycling friendly direction; and to enlist drivers and cops as friends/supporters rather than hostile adversaries; to gain the respect and “place at the table” that we deserve. None of these goals are served by “outlaw” cycling.

    Your opinion that obeying the traffic laws somehow puts you at risk reeks of serious rationalization to me. I’m not claiming perfect behavior, but I think that obeying traffic laws while cycling makes me a safer rider because my actions are predictable: I stop for stop signs, red lights etc. I signal when turning, take the lane when required for safety, stay out of the turn lane if I’m not turning, and otherwise conform to the rules of the road. How could that possibly make me less safe?

    If we want the rights granted to us by laws, we have the responsibility to obey those very same laws.

  • stevem

    Greasy Bear,

    Gains have been made by cyclists for a lot of reasons, but I don’t believe for a moment that gains have been made by cyclists running red lights and stop signs. Trying to spin this behavior as some from of civil disobedience is amusing at best.

    One of the biggest obstacles to fully achieving our shared dream of cycling being treated as a valid form of transportation worthy of equal standing with automobiles is the bad PR generated by those that think they are above the law. It’s easy to dismiss the rights, needs and concerns of scofflaws.

    In my opinion, your behavior as you describe it is self-indulgent and counterproductive.

  • The idea that these cities weren’t designed for bicycling is ludicrous – the core of San Francisco predates the automobile, and had plenty of stop signs back then, too. Likewise, there’s plenty of stop signs and red lights in European cities we’d all view as much more friendly to cyclists. (They have these same arguments in London, by the way). What would ‘designed for cyclists’ look like, anyways? In my experience as a cyclist, it would mean more traffic lights and less stop signs (so right-of-way can always be obtained), but still plenty of stopping for cross traffic (otherwise, why should cross traffic stop for you?).

    You’ve spent an awful lot of energy rationalizing why your law-breaking is somehow good – but at its core, it’s really about preserving your momentum (effort). That’s not noble; it’s selfish. Why can’t a motorist use the same exact argument in Europe, where they spent a pretty penny for the fuel that accelerated them to speed?

  • the greasy bear

    Stevem, I already explained why so many cyclists run stop signs, and it wasn’t something amusing like civil disobdience. Hint: physics.

    Remaining in motion when practicable–efficient cycling–is only “self-indulgent and counterproductive” for cyclists who happen to live where traffic laws are 100% about the car, and where the needs of non-motorized transportation are willfully neglected by law. You know, places like San Francisco.

    In more progressive cycling communities than ours, like Idaho, rolling stops are legal, predictable, and efficient. Imagine that–the physics and the law are in congruence!

    Hmm…maybe cyclists could get 10,000 people together in a bicycle coalition of some sort, and work for years and years to change traffic law and street design to better balance the needs of motorized and non-motorized traffic! That’s what you support, right? Oh, wait–that kind of change is illegal here. And has been for 1,040 days.

    The streets are chaotic under the anti-cycling status-quo, and shall remain so until redesign and reform come to San Francisco.

  • the greasy bear

    Preserving momentum on a bike is selfish only where currently illegal.

    3-ton cars don’t need to preserve their 100,000 watts of output in order for motoring to remain a viable transportation option. Motorists are able to physically survive a drive that includes lots of stops and starts (see freeways at rush hours). Cyclists–not so much. Cyclists put out 100 watts, and every dead stop requires us to red line it. Cyclists can only endure so much red-lining–exhaustion will and does suppress urban cycling.

    So what do we as a community do? Few cyclists will ride if they must stop and start just like 100,000-watt cars can and do. Fewer cyclists and little further growth in cycling means more motorized transportation as a result. More pollution. More oil-wars. More obesity and higher health care expenditures for the state. Is it really selfish to change the law to make the physics of cycling and the law more congruent? Is it really selfish to make cycling easier and more attractive to as many interested persons as practicable?

  • anonymouse

    In Europe, stop signs are much, much more rare than they are in the US. Roads generally have yields, often implicitly from the side road to the main road. The whole concept of a four-way stop is entirely alien there. So roads are in fact designed somewhat differently there. As for stopping at stop signs: when was the last time you saw a car come a complete stop for 3 seconds at a stop sign when nobody was around? I can’t even remember. So let’s stop arguing about law-abidingness, and start talking about what actually matters: safety.

  • While not defending anyone who takes a right on red without a stop or rolls a 4 way stop without checking for pedestrians…

    I took it upon me to address this topic on my blog

    http://holierthanyou.blogspot.com/2009/04/pedestrian-cyclist-collisions.html

  • Frankly, the idea that the only way biking becomes a viable mode of transit is if you “preserve momentum” by running stop signs is ludicrous. I bike to work every day, and it’s really not that difficult to stop at a stop sign and then start again. It’s more work, but getting exercise is part of the benefit of riding, right? I mean, it’s also a lot easier for cars not to stop when they take a right at a stop sign, but by and large they do.

    I’m in favor of the Idaho stop legislation, but I feel like the best way I as a cyclist can advocate for my chosen mode of transit is by displaying a little common courtesy (and as others have pointed out, predictability) in traffic.

  • Great post Chris. The question really comes down to which side are you on. Challenge car dominance? Capitulate to car dominance? The “effective cycling” crowd capitulates, effectively. Fortunately, in San Francisco they’ve been marginalized, and 15 years of challenging car culture have started to yield grudging improvements.

  • What a brilliant read. Absolutely splendid.

  • Liam Kavanagh-Bradette

    Not wearing a helmet while riding is akin to not wearing a seatbelt while driving. Yes it would be pleasant if the system was redesigned with cyclists at the forefront of the planning but it is still foolish in my opinion to ride any vehicle without some form of protection, and the belief that wearing a helmet does nothing to save you in the event of a collision with a motor vehicle runs the false assumption that any serious collision will leave you dead and does not take into account the very real and serious possibility of a crippling brain injury which might have been prevented by wearing a helmet.

  • Crispin Glover

    Mike Dahmus, you’re a douche.

    There I said it.

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