It's the Annual "Why Do Cyclists Go Through Stop Signs" Update

Palmerstion Avenue

It's a ritual; every year I get lonely and want to read more comments from our dear readers, so I write a story about why cyclists should be able to roll through stop signs, which is guaranteed to generate a hundred comments from admiring correspondents. I usually illustrate it with a photo I took of a quiet residential street in Toronto with four-way stop signs every 266 feet, put there decades ago by a city councillor who was trying to get cars to use a parallel arterial road, and still known to some as the Ying Hope Memorial Speedway. Because it is the perfect example of how stop signs are not used to determine right of way, but are a form of speed control for cars and have nothing to do with bikes. Or as TreeHugger emeritus Ruben once noted. "Calls for cyclists to obey car laws are as misguided as suggesting cars should obey bike laws, or that parakeets should obey dog laws."

Meanwhile, in Torontoist, a cycling comedian, Jordan Foisy, has written a call for the Idaho Stop generated the usual polite discussion, leading off with "You, sir, are an idiot." and going down from there. He's not happy about breaking the law when he goes through stop signs:

I’m tired of feeling like an irresponsible lout, like a punk because I don’t follow traffic laws in a city that has made minimal efforts to create laws and infrastructure that keep me safe. I’m exhausted from worrying about getting ticketed for not obeying rules of the road that were never designed with me in my mind to begin with.
He also makes some very good points about urban design.
Any debate about how cyclists should act then obscures the fact that cars, and their potential for tragic irresponsibility, have ruined roads. Before cars monopolized roads, thoroughfares handled a variety of functions. Kids could play sports, streetcars could run beside carriages, vendors could set up shop and fantasy novel quests could begin. Then cars, with their irrational wish fulfillment, flooded the streets, dominating what was once a shared space with merciless, steel phallic symbolism.
It’s like roads were once a great bar where you could go, listen to music, and have good beer and conversation—until one day a bunch of uber-douches show up and start fist-pumping and pushing people around. Instead of kicking them out, road legislation behaved like the owner of this hypothetical bar, metaphorically pumping Tiesto and declaring it would only serve Coors Altitude.

More on the "Idaho Stop" and why cyclists should be able to roll through stop signs

toronto stop sign

Typical Toronto stop sign/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It's an argument we have been making for years on TreeHugger: Four way stops are a method of speed control for cars and have little to do with right of way. Over at Vox, Joseph Stromberg rounds up the research (including a bit of TreeHugger) and writes Why cyclists should be able to roll through stop signs and ride through red lights. He describes what's known as the Idaho Stop.

Why cyclists roll through stop signs: It's really bad design

stop harper

Lloyd Alter/ Seen on Haida Gwaii/CC BY 2.0

Regular readers will know my position that stop signs are designed for speed control of cars, not right-of-way management; That's why the street in the photo has four way stops every 266 feet. Now Charles Marohn of the Strong Town Blog rolls in to discuss how whenever any of us say this, we get attacked by the "If cyclists want legitimacy, they should obey the rules of the road" crowd. Charles is an engineer and a planner and I think knows what he is talking about.

Should cyclists be able to do the "Idaho Stop"?

palmerston avenue
CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

"Calls for cyclists to obey car laws are as misguided as suggesting cars should obey bike laws, or that parakeets should obey dog laws."

Why Cyclists Blow Through Stop Signs: It's Physics

CC BY 2.0. Neal Jennings on Flickr

Neal Jennings on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The fact of the matter is, those stop signs are there to regulate speed, not right of way; two way stops actually do a better job of that. And bikes have a hard time beating the speed limit...And I am sorry, but for this particular issue, the law is an ass. It defies logic and physics. I wish the traffic engineers who put these signs in would acknowledge this.

It's Time To Rip Out The Stop Signs And Stop Blaming Cyclists


Stop signs don't even slow drivers down.

An unwarranted STOP sign installation reduces speed only immediately adjacent to the sign. In most cases, drivers accelerate as soon as possible, to a speed faster than they drove before STOP signs were installed. They do this apparently to make up for time lost at the STOP sign. STOP signs are not effective for speed control.

Should Cyclists Have to Stop at Stop Signs, Part III

A bicycle is not a motor vehicle. To expect bicycle riders to behave exactly like motorists is like expecting kayakers to follow the same rules as motor boaters. Ultimately, we need to tailor a set of laws that is based on cycling as its own form of transportation, rather than today's the-bicycle-is-mostly-the-same-as-a-motor vehicle line of thinking...

Bad infrastructure design leads to bad behavior on bikes

Bike route Toronto

Lloyd Alter/ Shaw and Barton/CC BY 2.0

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.

And the first in the series, from 2008:

Should Cyclists be Allowed to

Blow Go Through Stop Signs?

Stop eating animals

Stop eating animals/ Jo Morcom on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If one acknowledges that stop signs are primarily for speed control rather than safety, then there is really no reason to demand that bikes stop, rather than yield. But maybe a better alternative that would make everyone happier would be to remove the useless stop signs and use some of the other forms of traffic calming that don't involve full stops.