Bad infrastructure design leads to bad behavior on bikes

toronto stop sign
CC BY 2.0 Typical Toronto stop sign/ Lloyd Alter

Toronto City councillor Karen Stintz gets a $110 ticket for rolling through a stop sign that didn't exist. Toronto's own Dorothy Rabinowitz, Judith Timson is outraged that Stintz is fighting the ticket, writing in the Star: "She’ll get off on a technicality. Know what you should do Karen? Set an example, pay up, and quit rolling through stops. It’s against the law." Timson says "I'm a motorist ... and I've come to the end of silently tolerating cyclists who break the law."

Timson and the hundreds of commenters on every article attacking cyclists miss the point about why they roll through stop signs. It's because the infrastructure is designed to control cars.

stop signs palmerston
In Toronto, every intersection is a four way stop, designed as a method of speed control. It has nothing to do with right of way (or they would not be four way stops, they would be two way). My favorite example is this residential street with stop signs every 266 feet, installed because residents complained that drivers were using it as a speedway. Even the cars roll through these, yet the Timsons of the world expect that every cyclist should obey the letter of the law designed to keep cars off residential streets. The street where Stintz was ticketed is exactly the same. It's a dumb, fuel-wasting way to slow down cars; It's bad design.

Bike route TorontoLloyd Alter/ Shaw and Barton/CC BY 2.0

Timson complains about cyclists going the wrong way on one way streets. But what about when you really have no choice? I use the official bike routes to get home from downtown, and guess where the northbound bike route ends? At a one-way southbound street. So like everyone else, I ride up the one way street for a couple of blocks until I am legal again. It's bad design.

new york bike lane

Over at the Urban Country, James Schwartz describes his recent experiences in New York.

While the protected bike lanes were wonderful and comfortable, the traffic signal design, which was designed for motor vehicles, made it awfully tempting to break the law and run red lights. For example, while riding down the 9th Ave protected bike lane at a relatively slow pace, we hit red lights at almost every intersection. Obeying the law would put bicycling on par with walking pace, since a bicyclist would need to wait for a full 3-phase signal cycle to complete at almost every block.

Thus, it was no surprise to me that most bicyclists safely passed through a red light when the intersection was clear.

James notes that in Copenhagen, it is a different story.

In Copenhagen, traffic signals along “green wave” routes are timed to provide a constant flow of green lights to bicycles traveling at 20km/hour. Bicyclists who ride at this speed will never hit a red light all the way to the city centre.

He suggests that when the infrastructure is designed with cyclists in mind, there is a disincentive to break the law. When stop signs are designed to define right-of-way like they used to be, then there is a reason to stop. When bike routes are actually continuous, there is no incentive to ride against the one way street. When the sensors in the pavement actually can pick up the weight of a cyclist as well as a car, (and the city admits that "The majority of detectors are not set at a sensitivity level to detect the presence of a bicycle") then cyclists might not go through as many red lights. It's bad design.

There's a reason most cyclists act the way they do, and it isn't out of a sense of entitlement, it is because of really bad auto-centric infrastructure design and engineering. Fix that and you might find there is less of a problem.

Bad infrastructure design leads to bad behavior on bikes
Or, should bicyclists have to stop at stop signs, Part IV.

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