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.

  • Well, this law makes complete sense, which is why most will hate it.

  • Ryan Johnson

    Did I miss the part where they explained why all their arguments didn’t apply just as well to drivers of motor vehicles? Or was it just the part where we are aghast at wasting 100’s of watts of people power, but 100’s of thousands of watts of fossil fuels are no big deal?

    How about we just use more Yield signs instead?

    • Jerry

      One major difference, not explained in the video, is that bikes are a lot slower than cars. Unless they’re sprinting, most bikes are going somewhere along the lines of 8-12 mph. That means there is plenty of time to check out the intersection and come to a complete stop if somebody else has the right of way. Think about driving at roughly parking-lot speeds all the time, and you have a good approximation of what it’s like to commute on a bike.

      • John

        Also – stopping distance for a bike going 12 mph is much shorter than a car doing the same.

        • Ryan Johnson

          Well, that’s just wrong. Cars and trucks have much better traction to weight ratios then bicycles, their larger contact area makes them less susceptible to pavement hazards, and their center of gravity doesn’t give them the same penchant for flipping over their own front tires when stopping too suddenly.

          Of course that’s maximal deceleration, Going back to my previous point; both a bicycle and a vehicle can maintain a standard comfortable rate of deceleration of 11ft/second^2, 7.5mph/second, or ~0.34g.

          In other words, it’s actually less safe for a bike to do this, because they have less safety margin in their traction envelope to react to sudden changes.

          • Brian Simon

            Got data? I bet my fat bike has a higher traction to weight ratio than any production car.

          • Ryan Johnson

            Friction equals Coefficient of Friction times Weight on Wheel. Look at the difference in CoF for tires below. Also consider that rolling resistance (also listed below) is a constant source of deceleration.

            Here’s more science. It’s about motorcycles, but the same metrics apply.

            And that’s still not counting the fact that a bicycle can’t really exceed ~0.7g deceleration without flipping. While Formula One cars can push 5g under braking.

          • John

            I did not know that.

      • Ryan Johnson

        Well I manage to average closer to 15~20 on my bike (a cheapo hybrid), and I’m no paragon of fitness. There are also plenty of areas in and around the downtown’s that I have a hard time getting above 25 in my vehicle between stops and other delays.

        Irrespective of that, in either case you slow down before the stop sign. Sooner if you are going faster, later if you are going slower. Effectively, a person in either situation will have a similar amount of time to observe the crossing.

      • Rob

        forget right of way. the critical intersection approach question is always: are there other vehicles or peds in or about to be in the intersection, such that it’s not safe to proceed?
        if a rider has the right of way but somene is violating it, the bike rider may have a moral victory, but may also be dead.

  • Gary F

    Very subjective. I can see a court case over someone getting killed.

    • Brian Simon

      It’s usually no big deal. A guy in Dakota Territory just got 90 days for killing a cyclist.

  • Mike Worcester

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

    Let me guess — cyclists bitching about boorish motorists and motorists bitching about obnoxious cyclists?

    • Pretty much. And everybody has anecdote about “the other side” that proves them right.

  • Rob

    I live close to a four-way stop intersection that has crappy sightlines, and my worry isn’t that bike riders don’t tend to stop, it’s that drivers don’t tend to make full stops either. Woe to the bike rider who breezes through the intersection at the same time that a driver who has only slowed down a little bit — and has thereby not given themselves enough time to determine that it is actually clear to proceed — is going through the intersection at the same time.

    • That’s just it, cyclists aren’t supposed to “breeze” on through those intersections.

      • Brian Simon

        Neither are the cars.

      • Rob

        I’m with you; I just meant that if the bike rider chooses to breeze, he/she will get the short end of the stick.

  • Fred, Just Fred

    The libertarian in me says bicycles should just go with what they feel; as long as they don’t complain if someone squashes them like a bug.

    • Rob

      Fred, you and I are in near agreement. If a bike rider chooses to be a stop sign scofflaw and gets greased as a consequence of being hit by a stop sign runner in a large metal box, the rider’s injury or death was largely the result of their own poor decision making.

  • Evilimp

    Why not stop in the first place? Because it’s fun to go fast? A bummer to go slow? An anything goes attitude about biking? It’s too MUCH exercise to stop? Is it a similar reason why people don’t respect stop lights at RR crossings?

    • Speaking only for myself on the back roads of Battle Creek: Because it doesn’t make any sense to come to a full stop at stop sign at which there isn’t a car within a half mile of the intersection. It just doesn’t make any sense to.

    • kat

      Also it is very tiring to have to stop and start while cycling. My bike rides are just easier when I don’t have to stop all the time

      • Rob

        poor you.

    • tboom

      Watch the video provided, nobody wants to ride inefficiently. “A bicycle’s efficiency is almost entirely dependent upon its momentum”. Momentum: In physics, the property or tendency of a moving object to continue moving.

  • iceberg

    All damage isn’t about mass or speed. A pedestrian popping out between parked cars can cause a lot of damage if a cyclist or driver needs to quickly adjust their path of travel to avoid hitting the idiot. I’ve regularly used just about every type of transportation mode and safety comes down to predictability for everybody involved. The Idaho stop make sense and if we change the law so it is SOP then it becomes predictable. But cyclists need to be held to the rules just as much as those on motorcycles or in cars. A driver following the rules shouldn’t need to deal with the costs and trauma of an accident with a pedestrian or cyclist who feels like they can do whatever they feel because they aren’t a threat.