Columns / September 20, 2017

Bike Nice: Cyclists should start respecting stop signs

Bike Nice is an occasional column on personal transportation, on and off campus.

I launch this occasional column with a reprise of a point I tried to make a few years ago with an op-ed in the Galesburg Register-Mail. Specifically that bicyclists should, but don’t, obey stop signs.

The first reason that cyclists ignore stop signs is the physics of riding. One of the famous resources on this topic is “Why Bicyclists Hate Stop Signs” by physicist Joel Fajans and journal editor Melanie Curry at UC-Berkeley. They write: “For a car driver, a stop sign is a minor inconvenience… [but stop signs] make cyclists work much harder to maintain a reasonable speed…” Fajans and Curry compared cycling on a typical low-traffic residential street with cycling on a typical high-traffic commercial street. The low-traffic street had a stop sign about every 500 feet, while the much busier street had lights that would stop a cyclist, on average, about every 3,000 feet. Fajans and Curry found that a cyclist, using the same level of exertion, could travel 30 percent faster obeying the lights on the busy street, compared to stopping at every stop sign on the low-traffic street – which had been designated a bike route. Which means that cyclists, being of that near-universal class that wants to both have and eat its cake, will choose the low-traffic street and blow through the stop signs. Which is what you see every day in this town.

The second reason cyclists ignore stop signs is that they can, in general, do it safely. They’re traveling more slowly and have better visibility than car drivers. As they approach an intersection, they adjust their speed to cross the intersection without crashing. This is similar to our everyday experience as pedestrians, walking through places such as the “Big X” between The Gizmo and CFA. We can easily see those approaching the intersection and, almost unconsciously, adjust our speed and position in the sidewalk to cross without crashing.

We don’t stop because, in general, we don’t have to. We do the same thing when we cycle, and you see it every day in this town. Parenthetically, I emphasize that I said “in general.” Unfortunately, “in general” means “not always,” and the consequences for cyclists can be drastic in those not-always situations. Further, there are other related problems in this field that I’ll address in the future. But I believe that a column should address one and only one topic, so don’t twitter-bomb me just yet for ignoring some, according to you, critical aspect of this problem.

The last and worst reason why cyclists don’t obey stop signs is habit. We were not taught well, if at all, as youngsters. Now, due to convenience and laziness, we’ve gotten into a bad habit and it’s hard to change our ways. Which is precisely what has given cyclists a well-deserved reputation as scofflaws. Yes, there are traffic control changes that can address this. Cyclists are energy-conserving, eco-respecting, fitness-building… yes, yes, yes. But that’s not the problem. As long as cyclists are scofflaws, even with really good excuses, we’ll get and deserve no respect.


Peter Bailley

Tags:  bike nice safety transportation

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1 Comment

Sep 29, 2017


I’m a parent of a Knox student, and an avid cyclist. I’ll probably ride 5000 miles this year, and I commute to work on my bike about 60% of the time. As a long-time cyclist, I have two issues with your column.

The second reason that you give for why bicyclists roll through stop signs because they “can do it safely.” The truth is actually stronger than that. It’s not just that bikes can do it safely, but that it is measurably safer to do so. Rolling through a stop sign is called an Idaho Stop, which you can read about here: The Wikipedia article cites two studies showing the Idaho Stop, which has been legal in Idaho for several years, and has led to 14% fewer crashes and fewer severe crashes. The reason the Idaho Stop is safer is that it takes so much more time for a bicycle to cross an intersection after a full stop that the bicycle can be put in more danger by stopping.

The reason the Idaho Stop is not legal in more municipalities may be because of my other problem with your article, and that is because you’re judging cyclists as a group as somehow ‘less than,’ even though they’re doing exactly what others do. You state that cyclists have a “well deserved reputation as scofflaws,” yet they’re doing the exact same things that automobile drivers do. What percentage of drivers actually obey the speed limit rather than driving a few mph over? Or come to a full top when doing a right hand turn at a stop sign? Or use their turn signal when changing lanes on a freeway? Violations such as these are quite common with automobile drivers, and yet you don’t refer to drivers, as a group, as scofflaws. Somehow, bicyclists are held to a different standard by drivers than other drivers are. I’m not sure why that is, but I think that bias contributes to the reluctance of cities and states to legalize the Idaho Stop.

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