Bikes v. Cars

I recently posted a link on Facebook to a great article on Vox explaining why bikes should be able to treat stop signs as yield signs. Also known as the Idaho Stop, this is a common-sense approach that keeps everyone safe while still allowing a cyclist to maintain some forward momentum—which is especially important if that momentum is dependent on pedaling as fast as you can.

Very simply, this Idaho law eliminates the requirement for a cyclist to come to a full stop at a stop sign and instead allows him or her to slow, assess the traffic, and then yield to traffic if necessary. It does not allow a biker to blow through a stop sign, ignoring both cars and pedestrians.In case the article was unclear, they even included a helpful video:


Bicycles, Rolling Stops, and the Idaho Stop from Spencer Boomhower on Vimeo.


The response I received was immediate, unambiguous, and indignant. People were opposed to this practice and opposed to bikers receiving any special treatment on the road. At first I thought it may be that people didn’t quite understand how a yield sign worked. After all, we don’t encounter them often and when we do, our actions are so ingrained we don’t think about the actual rules behind them. However, it soon became clear that it wasn’t about how yielding at an intersection actually worked, it was about fairness.

“I’m sorry, but a bike is a vehicle and should follow the rules of the road.”

“I wholeheartedly disagree with this. As a motor vehicle operator, I depend on those around me, including bicyclists, to obey the law.”

“Sounds like an accident waiting to happen.”

“But it is illegal. As long as bike commuters insist on riding down the middle of Broadway because its their legal right (and in spite of the bike lane on Ash,) then I expect them to adhere to the letter of the law.”

“If bicyclist have to ride on the road with vehicles then they should have to follow the same rules.”

Now, these are all fairly typical people—no one I’d consider particularly cranky (you know the type). So it’s clear that cyclists in general are being tarred for the behavior of a few bad actors. There are enough cyclists who actually do blow through stop signs that drivers tend to see all cyclists as scofflaws. The initial reaction is to crack down on all bikers because they’re making it more difficult for drivers to maneuver through a city.

Fair enough—no one likes a road hog, regardless of their chosen method of transportation. Even when I’m on a bike, I get annoyed at the bikers running stop signs and speeding down the sidewalks. The intent of this policy is not to condone or protect this type of reckless biking.

Beyond that, I was surprised that the discussion reflected a rules-based approach rather than a reason-based one. Put differently, the most important consideration became whether or not someone was following the same rules as everyone else. There’s a sense among the car drivers that bikers are somehow getting off easy and that above all, everyone should be following the same rules because that is fair.

The unfortunate part of this emphasis on fairness is that it closes down other, more efficient ways for people to move through cities. Imagine an alternative perspective on this, one that isn’t focused on treating everybody exactly the same. Instead, when crafting good policy you’d look at all different factors such as who is most vulnerable while traveling, who travels the fastest, and who is using their own momentum to travel. This makes perfect sense—it’s easier to get injured if you’re not surrounded by steel, easier to stop and avoid a collision if you are moving slowly, and harder to get moving again if you’re using your own energy. Take all that into consideration and you’d get a system where slower, more unprotected travelers who are using their own momentum would have the right-of-way

In fact, that’s exactly how we got laws that treat pedestrians differently than cars. Pedestrians have the right of way because they are the most vulnerable people on the street. No one is up in arms about the fairness behind these laws or frets that pedestrians are treated differently or demands that pedestrians come to a complete stop at a four-way intersection. That’s because different rules for different types of travel makes sense. Cyclists certainly don’t need to have the same rules as pedestrians but do they require the exact same rules as cars?

I’m not sure what it would take to bridge this divide between those in cars and those on bikes. Certainly, a person on a bike doesn’t take anything away from a person in a car, just as a pedestrian who has different rules of the road takes nothing away. Perhaps with time, as more people begin riding bikes, we’ll be able to move past a concern for simply following the rules and work on drafting rules that take these differences into consideration.