How do we get bikers to obey traffic laws?

How we get from here to there.
Oct. 16 2009 12:44 PM

Stop Means Stop

How do we get bikers to obey traffic laws?

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.

I'm far from the only menace on two wheels. A colleague was recently slapped with a moving violation after breezing through a stop sign. My roommate was pulled over 30 feet from our house for the same infraction. And driving around Washington, D.C., recently, I saw a cop scribbling out a ticket to a bewildered biker.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

I had never heard of a biker getting ticketed in D.C. Has there been a sudden crackdown? "I'm not specifically aware of any stepped-up enforcement," says Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Kenny Bryson. Eric Gilliland, a lawyer for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, disagrees with the policeman's take. Bike ticketing "comes and goes in waves," Gilliland says, but the rate has gone up over the last five years.

Something felt wrong. 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?

The D.C. Code recognizes the special status of bikes. Bikes shall follow all traffic laws, the code says, except for rules that "can have no reasonable application to a bicycle operator." Presumably, this refers to laws governing highways, some sidewalks, and other non-bicycle-friendly turf. It doesn't apply to the stop-sign scenario, even though some bicycle advocates argue that stop signs "have no reasonable application to a bicycle operator."

"If there weren't cars, we wouldn't need stop signs," says Andy Thornley of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "They're not there for bicycles." Bikers can safely slow down, look both ways, and proceed without sacrificing the momentum necessary to keep cycling, says Thornley. Lawmakers tend to favor the full-stop, in part because not all cyclists are skilled enough to judge the safety of proceeding through an intersection. During a debate in the Oregon state legislature, one representative admitted that he doesn't like stopping at signs. "But I do it because it's the law," he said. Plus, if bikes can cruise through stop signs, why not cars? Why do bikes deserve special treatment?

The reason, say cycling advocates, is that the traffic laws were designed without bikes in mind. It was not always so. After all, bikes were here first. In the late 19th century, a group of bicyclists called the League of American Wheelmen lobbied local governments to pour asphalt on their roads so bicyclists could cruise around more easily. This "good roads movement" paved the way for cars. It wasn't until after World War II, when nearly every American household had an automobile and Eisenhower pushed to build the interstate highway system, that modern traffic laws evolved. "You didn't need stop signs until cars were in common use," says Thornley. "You just looked in the eyes of the other guy and it sorted itself out."

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.

What to do? Today's cycling activists generally split into two groups: "vehicularists" and "facilitators." 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 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. (Slate's Seth Stevenson provides a handy guide to European bikes.) The result is a relatively slow, comfortable, and civilized riding experience.

Vehicularists see the potential transformation of America into a Euro-style bike paradise not just as a far-fetched utopia but as an insult. 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. John Forester, the author and engineer known as the intellectual forebear of vehicular cycling, traces the philosophy back to a set of laws introduced in 1944 that relegated bikes to the far right of the road, prohibited cycling outside of bike lanes, and banned them from the street if bike paths were available. (These laws were part of the Uniform Vehicle Code, a national model on which states base their own traffic laws.) Since the rise of the automobile, vehicularists have seen any attempt to treat bikes differently as a civil rights violation.

The debate rages on. Facilitators point to the aesthetic benefits of bike paths. Vehicularists point to statistics that bikeways actually increase the number of accidents. (Partly because segregating bikes makes it more dangerous for cyclists who stay on the roads, partly because intersections involving bike paths can be especially hazardous.) Facilitators say bike paths create more bikers. Vehicularists say the push for paths is the result of more bikers, not vice versa. Facilitators say bike paths are helpful for beginners and older cyclists, who might not want to brave the open road. You know who else liked bike paths? say vehicularists. Hitler.

The strongest argument in the vehicularists' favor is realism. Building bike paths is expensive, and state budgets are already hurting. Who's going to want to put taxpayer dollars—and most taxpayers also happen to be motorists—into frivolous bike playgrounds?

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." The "Idaho stop" has become a rallying point for vehicularists and facilitators alike—a sort of Great Compromise for bicycles. Many vehicularists like it, because it acknowledges the proper role of bikes on the street rather than on silly pathways (although purists will say that it should apply to cars as well). Facilitators like it because it recognizes a core difference between cars and bikes: the importance of momentum. As this great video explains, riding a bicycle becomes a lot less efficient as soon as you have to start making regular, complete stops.

For motorists who see bikers as law-flouting pests, this momentum argument will certainly sound like a self-serving justification for breaking the law. Perhaps that perception explains why no states have followed Idaho's lead and made their traffic codes more bike-friendly. (A movement to bring the Idaho stop to Oregon failed earlier this year.) Skeptics say that the rule would lead to more crashes. But a follow-up study of the Idaho statute found that accidents involving bikes actually decreased the year after the law was passed and haven't varied much since.

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. (Some will know this as the paper bag theory of law enforcement.) 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.

As a biker, my wish would be for police to crack down on more dangerous behavior, such as riding at night without a light or tearing the wrong way down a one-way street. Yes, I committed the latter crime just yesterday, and I admit I was in the wrong. 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.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.