How NOT to be nice to bicyclists

At intersections, some motor vehicle drivers offer to let bicyclists go first, even though it is not the bicyclist’s turn. To the driver, this may seem like a nice gesture, but it is often not taken that way by bicyclists.

Intersections are about taking turns, and about right-of-way rules. At a signalized intersection, the signal indicates whose turn it is and makes things simple, but at intersections with stop signs (two-way or four-way), or yield signs, or no signs, the driver (of the bicycle or motor vehicle) must use the rules and their eyes and their brain. These are the rules:

  1. First come, first served.
  2. First come, first served.
  3. First come, first served.
  4. If two vehicles (bicycles or motor vehicles) arrive at the intersection at the same time, at an angle, the one to the right goes first.
  5. If two vehicles (bicycles or motor vehicles) arrive at the intersection at the same time, facing each other, the one going straight goes before the one turning left.

Why did I repeat the first one three times, other than being funny? It is because too many people know the other two rules, and don’t seem to know the first.

When a motor vehicle driver yields to a bicyclist when it is the motor vehicle driver’s turn to go rather than the bicyclist’s turn, they are violating this most basic rule.

Why is this a big deal? When drivers do not take their correct turn, it leads to uncertainty for everyone, and uncertainty can lead to, at the least, frustration and anger, and quite possibly crashes.

As a bicyclist, I will not go when it is not my turn. If I did do that, I’d leave myself both physically and legally vulnerable. I have absolutely no guarantee of the behavior of other drivers who may be not polite, but taking their rightful turn, or who get impatient, or who push their way in, or even just are not paying attention.

So there is a stand-off. I shake my head no, and if that doesn’t work, I wave the driver whose turn it is to go. And then I wait. And sometimes wait, and wait, and wait. Meanwhile, I’m in a vulnerable position. Drivers behind me may get impatient and angry, not understanding why I’m not going. If I’m making a turn, I’m often stuck out in the intersection in a place that I don’t want to be hanging out, rather than having already safely completed my turn. This stand-off doesn’t increase the risk for people in motor vehicles significantly, but it very much does for bicyclists.

Motor vehicle drivers may say, “but most bicyclists don’t take their turn.” Yes, this is often true. I believe there are two things are work:

  • Many bicyclists ride just like they drive. They don’t take turns at intersections, pushing their way in before it is their turn. They don’t stop at stop signs, figuring if they never really stop, they have the right of way. Yep, the same thing motor vehicle drivers do. My anecdotal observation is that car-free bicyclists are much more likely to do the right thing at intersections than bicyclists who also drive motor vehicles. My data-based observation is that bicyclists and motor-vehicle drivers comply with stop signs at almost the exact same rate. Don’t believe me? Spend some time at an intersection and see how many drivers (of bicycles or motor vehicles) come to a full and complete stop, as the law requires. Not many.
  • Bicyclists have been trained by “polite” motor vehicle drivers that they don’t need to take their turn, and so they don’t. Every time a motor vehicle driver yields inappropriately to a bicyclist, it reinforces this behavior.

So, if you are one of those motor vehicle drivers, I ask you to stop yielding inappropriately.

“But, what about the bicyclist who doesn’t stop – I don’t want to run them over.” Or, “what about the bicyclist who doesn’t stop, I’m angry that they won’t follow the law and think themselves above it.” The answer is to be hyper-aware at every intersection. These are the places where most crashes occur, and so they are good places to pay extra attention, and use your brain rather than your emotions.

What everyone should be doing at every intersection (assuming no traffic signal) is:

  1. stop at the stop bar, or the edge of the crosswalk if there is no stop bar; if you can’t see from there, then creep forward until you can see, but only after having initially stopped
  2. look left, right, and left again before entering the intersection
  3. make eye contact with any person who may do something unexpected; this means other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, really, anyone else who is there
  4. yield to pedestrians
  5. continue looking left and right, as well as forward, going through the intersection; you can never be certain that someone else is not violating the law and endangering you

If you do this, then the “rogue” bicyclist who is not following the law and taking turns will not be a complete surprise to you. You will be able to respond appropriately, ensure that a crash does not occur, and go on your way. Everyone ends up safer, everyone ends up happier.

By the way, a bicyclist who does not stop when there is no one there to yield to or to take turns with is, yes, violating the law, but is not failing to practice safety. Bicyclists can see better and stop faster than any motor vehicle driver. So if you see a bicyclist at a distance, slowing and looking but not stopping when there is no one there to interact with, understand that they are acting in a completely safe manner. Take off your law enforcement vigilante hat, and smile.

What are stop signs for? Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Streets should be designed to induce traffic speeds that are appropriate to that street, consistent with surrounding uses. In my mind, that means 20 mph in residential areas and up to 30 mph in commercial areas. What about all those other roadways? They are mis-designed stroads. Properly designed streets:

  1. have a grid pattern so that use is spread out rather than concentrated on a few streets, so that intersections may functions without stop sign or signal control
  2. have good visibility at intersections
  3. have both physical constraints and visual clues to ensure that they are used at the intended speed
  4. have a minimum of signs

Of course that is largely not what we have now. What to do?

r1-2The solutions to an excess of stop signs are:

  1. Roundabouts, covered in my previous post What is a roundabout?
  2. Spread out traffic by installing traffic calming equally on parallel streets, rather than focusing traffic on select streets by installing traffic calming on other streets.
  3. Change intersections to increase visibility, by modification or removal or vegetation, fences, and parking.
  4. Replace four-way stops with two-way stops where there are sufficient gaps in traffic on the busier street.
  5. Replace both four-way and two-way stops with two-way yields, with the yield signs being on the lower traffic street.
  6. Remove all signs from low traffic streets, and allow vehicles normal yielding behavior at the intersection.
  7. Analyze all intersections over time to assess whether signing is really necessary, with the default assumption being that it is not.

I suspect that after analyzing intersections for the purpose of the stop sign, and alternate solutions, the number of stop signs would be reduced by at least 60%. Safety would not be reduced. Speeds would not increase. Both motor vehicle drivers and bicycle drivers would be happier.

What are stop signs for?

Rosswood-GrandOaks_crosswalksIn the month of May I bike commuted to work in Carmichael and Citrus Heights most of the days. I had plenty of time to think about stop signs, as there are a lot of them on my regular routes. A few less, now that the county has removed some from the parkway path, but still, a lot. At most of these stop signs, there are no cars anywhere in sight, particularly at the beginning of AM and PM commute hours when I’m riding, but even at other times of day. So I started thinking, why are these stop signs here, and what are stop signs for?

Stop signs get used for these purposes:

  1. When there is a busy intersection with a more or less equal flow of vehicles on both streets. The four-way stop signs assist people in taking turns.
  2. When one street is so busy that gaps long enough to cross that street are rare.
  3. When there are visibility issues that prevent vehicle drivers to see each other.
  4. When motor vehicles are going too fast, and they need to be slowed down.

Looking at each purpose in more detail:

Continue reading “What are stop signs for?”