A case for the ‘rolling stop’

Nothing stirs up a Friday like an op-ed column suggesting people on bikes get/don’t get a little break from time to time.

The issue has become a metaphor for the larger society. Someone with an advantage cries “unfair” when it’s suggested that an advantage is, itself, unfair.

Bloomberg’s Justin Fox ignited the latest brouhaha with a commentary, reprinted today in the Star Tribune to predictable reaction.

He’s a cyclist who rolls through red lights and stop signs. Minnesota lawmakers have tried a few times to relax the rules, but have always run up against an aghast audience, just as right-turn-on-red did back in the day when that seemed the road to ruin.

Fox, accurately, points out that there’s a big difference between bicyclists and drivers of vehicles. Still, he says, cyclists probably deserve a ticket if they do so.

A key difference between stop signs and lights is this: If a city deems an intersection busy enough to merit a traffic light, it’s saying it doesn’t trust drivers to make their own decisions about when to go. So why should it trust bikers?

One reason might be that bikers are less likely to cause harm to others than drivers are. Pedestrians can’t really harm anybody just by walking, so I buy the argument made by Dante Ramos in the Boston Globe last week that enforcing jaywalking rules is a waste of the police’s time (the risk of injury and death more effectively shapes pedestrian behavior than jaywalking fines do). But bikers can cause harm to others. They’re also usually allowed to share the roadway with cars, which pedestrians aren’t. So I’m having trouble articulating a strong case for why they (meaning I) should be allowed to selectively ignore red lights. I do think we have too many traffic lights in general, but that’s another argument entirely.

And bikers who think that traffic rules don’t apply to them really are a problem, in New York City and lots of other places. In part because they’ve been ignored and embattled for so long, many bikers in the U.S. have an outlaw attitude that you don’t really encounter in bike-friendly countries such as the Netherlands. That’s understandable, but it’s also dangerous — and a terrible way to sell the rest of the population on the idea that getting more bikes on the streets is a good thing.

Of course, New York City is an entirely different animal from anywhere in Minnesota.

Boston writer Simon Waxman has a different view on what he calls “the contest of passions” between driver and cyclist.

Some cyclists do illegal things, such as cutting off pedestrians in crosswalks. This fuels the just-ticket-them crowd, which senses a penchant for lawbreaking. But it is a parochial complaint, and not really fair, because pretty much everyone breaks traffic laws. Pedestrians jay-walk. Drivers fail to signal turns. They take the speed limit as a suggested minimum rather than maximum. And they speed up through yellow lights. It’s just that we’re so used to these infractions we don’t notice them anymore.

This is not to say that cyclists are innocents and that everyone else is in the wrong. In fact, most of us on the road are covered in the same grime. There are a few saints, and I feel for them. The rest of us devise schemes, possibly illegal, to secure our own safe and efficient movement.

Let’s accept that rather than quarrel over our biases. Sometimes, we’re better off with rules, such as the Idaho stop, that acknowledge and accommodate our collective aggressiveness.

The reaction to Fox’s column has been precisely what you’d expect.