This piece was originally written in 2014, but it is still one of our most popular posts to date. The conversation about bike infrastructure and safety is as relevant today as it was two years ago.
Last week I started a discussion on Facebook by making a statement I felt to be fairly obvious. Apparently not everyone sees it the same way. What I said was: "Stop signs weren’t designed for cyclists."
In fact, very little of our built environment was designed with cyclists in mind. What we have done -- as I pointed out way back with the video on the diverging diamond -- is developed a tolerance for cyclists, and that only with some heroic effort. Engineers now generally accept cyclists and have even created checklists to help us accommodate them – at least the skilled ones – at a minimal level in our current transportation system. Tolerating cyclists, and sometimes even attempting to accommodate them, is a far cry from designing systems based on their needs.
A Heated Debate
So should stop signs and all the other traffic controls devices outlined in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices apply equally to cyclists? Apparently some of you think they should. Here is a smattering of the feedback on that Facebook thread:
NO! If cyclists want legitimacy, they should obey the rules of the road...just like other road users. The best example of this is Holland, where cyclists, motorists and pedestrians rely on each other to create a safe environment for all road users...by obeying the rules and laws that apply to them. This is just an example of cyclists feeling that they somehow deserve special treatment...and will be the cause of much friction and uncertainty in an already uncertain road environment.
I HAVE TO DISAGREE. Those who use the roads need to be held to the same standard
Horse pucky. If you want to live in a civilized world then there needs to be rules to protect EVERYBODY from morons. I can't tell you how many times I witnessed a bicyclist being hit or, at very least, almost hit because the cyclist cruised through an intersection or stop sign. If you don't like the stopping and going on your bike then take public transit or a car.
Disagree, especially because of things like heavy traffic.
For those of you that believe automobile traffic laws should apply to cyclists, my first reaction is (and please don’t be offended because, granted, this is a broad brush): Do you ever bike? Do you bike in traffic? In the United States? Perhaps you do. I admit that I didn’t until the last few years, but doing so opened up my eyes to a new set of challenges and changed a lot of my beliefs on cycling in urban areas.
We are Failing Cyclists
Here in my hometown, cycling is looked at as a recreational activity, not as transportation. As such, we do a fairly decent job with things like rails-to-trails and other recreational improvements outside of our urban and suburban areas. Our trails often don’t go anywhere -- they won’t get you to any of the grocery stores, for example -- and my family often finds ourselves loading our bikes on the bike rack and driving to a parking lot so we can get on the trail. #failure
When I was an engineer and a planner, I designed a number of cycling facilities, but I really hadn’t used them. At least not regularly. So, a few years ago I decided to start biking to work. I couldn’t do it during the school year or when I needed to pick up my kids, but on the days that I could, I would bike the 12 miles each way to and from the office. I could take back roads for the first eight miles or so, but the last bit was on nasty stroads in high traffic areas where I experienced a rational human response: fear.
Friend of Strong Towns, Eli Damon, has taught me a lot about how to be visible and the benefits of riding in traffic – of becoming traffic – and why that is safer. I get it and have a ton of respect for him (he is legally blind, by the way, and biking is his only independent mobility option), but it is scary as hell. The driver in that car coming up behind me need only have a little bit of inattentiveness and I’m done. Not a lot of second chances when car hits bike.
The Importance of Complete Streets
I’ve referred to the concept of a “complete street” as “separate but equal”, not to diminish the despotism of racial segregation but to show the parallel of mindsets with how most of the country treats bikers and walkers. When we build a trail -- or a separate drinking fountain –- we’re (engineers, planners, drivers, society) doing something within our comfort zone. It allows us to feel like we’ve fairly accommodated others while not really having to change our approach to be accommodating. We can continue to act in a despotic way only now with a tinge of self-righteousness. We paid for them to have theirs, after all.
“Why do cyclists deserve special treatment?”
“Why should they have their own standard?”
“This is a civilized world, after all.”
“If you don’t like it, take a car.”
To say that I find these statements hypocritical and somewhat maddening is stating it lightly. First, drivers don’t follow traffic laws. Today on the way to work, I drove 64 mph in a 55 mph zone for about six miles. I set my cruise control at 64 because – and we all know this – the police generally tolerate a modest amount of speeding. In fact, a county sheriff was traveling in the opposite direction when I was speeding and didn’t stop me. He was probably driving 64 mph too.
I’m recalling my commute right now. When the county highway hit the state highway, I rolled through the right turn. I did this because the left across traffic was going in the opposite lane and so there were no cars entering the lane I was turning into. In a system that wasn’t so stupidly designed, I should have had a green arrow, I didn’t, so I rolled it. Totally illegal.
When I got to the intersection of Highway 371 and Highway 210, I needed to make a left turn across traffic. The green arrow is really short that time of day but the cycle is about three minutes. We were running a little late (I have two daughters that share one bathroom) and so I accelerated through the intersection on yellow when I could have stopped. Every other direction entering the intersection was stopped and so clearly there was no chance of another vehicle crossing my path. Again, totally illegal.
Note that I had my kids in the car. I’m not risking their lives and I wasn’t driving recklessly. I was making logical decisions that are commonly made by thinking, rational people in a system that treats us all like deviant idiots.
And there is the other rub; we are treating traffic regulations like they were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. If people actually understood the haphazard way traffic control devices were developed and the random way in which they are applied, they would not hold them in such majesty. Just recently I was at a meeting where it was decided that a stop sign should be placed at an intersection solely because the clerk lived on the street and wanted the cars to drive more slowly. That kind of rigor in where to display what kind of sign is fairly common. Traffic control is voodoo science, at best, now reinforced by what have become societal norms (all auto-based). Some of it might work, but separating the good from the bad is borderline heretical.
Bikes ≠ Cars
Finally, isn’t it fairly obvious that there is something of a mismatch between a vehicle weighed in multiple tons and a bike that is weighed in pounds? We stopped at the indoor playground at the mall this winter and discovered that my oldest child was too big to play there. As initially disappointing as it was for her, parents out there will understand why there is such a rule. When big kids and little kids are running around enjoying the same, tight space, they sometimes run into each other. There is a huge mismatch when the nine year old runs into the three year old, whether or not the act was reckless or intentional. We can put all kinds of rules in place, but big kids aren’t always conditioned to consider little kids.
Last year I got a chance to meet Walker Angell, a blogger over at Streets.MN. He described to me an experiment he did where he, as a cyclist, followed all traffic regulations to the letter for a full thirty days. He even went so far as to wait multiple cycles for a crossing to turn from red when it was clearly broken and wasn’t going to change (I think he finally broke that law). His conclusion? Following every law was impossible, ridiculously so. He shared his thoughts and insights in one of my favorite Streets.MN series.
We need to Rethink our Urban Areas
Our urban areas need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people. It is people that create value. It is people that build wealth. It is in prioritizing their needs – whether on foot, on a bike or in a wheelchair – that we will begin to change the financial health of our cities and truly make them strong towns.
(Top photo by Billie Grace Ward)