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.