The email below recently generated a lot of discussion on the Milwaukee Bikes to Work listserv I manage:To my fellow bike commuter this morning at the top of St. Mary’s Hill…southbound on Terrace at around 8:40, Greetings! I love seeing you out there with your bike, helment, riding clothes and backpack with your gear for the office. It’s great, what a lovely morning. But did you have to race through the stop sign past motorists at the other corners of the intersection who had already stopped and were waiting their turn? Did you have to fly past me as I was stopping and engaging in appropriate hand signals that give the motorists the security and peace of mind that I am not about to cut in front of them but instead am going to abide by traffic rules and wait my turn? Did you have to let the motorists go on their way this morning shaking their heads and saying “bike commuters are selfish and unpredictable. ..they’re just not safe.” I think the answer to all those is no, you didn’t have to. You could slow down and behave like a reasonable member of this community of bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians who are sharing the roads of Milwaukee. Next time you ride I hope you will.
What a great way to express that everyone should obey the laws. The whole “slow bicycle movement” which is part and parcel part of the Cyclechic movement, leaves room for people riding bikes to fully embrace the laws and stop at stop signs and especially red lights. What’s the hurry?
I frequently hear this rant at work: “Somebody needs to do something about those scofflaw bicycle riders! They all just blow through red lights and stop signs, ride on the sidewalk and cut me off. They are going to get themselves killed. It infuriates me when they ride up close beside me, balance there in their tight shorts or skinny jeans and prevent me from turing right when I had my signal on, and then they run the red light.”
I usually begin with my standard response: “I agree, the world would be a nicer and safer place if everyone obeyed all the traffic laws, bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists too.” That is usually enough to quiet the complainer because I agree that bicycles need to obey the laws, but occasionally I get rebuked and told that people riding bikes “NEVER” stop and they are the real problem, not motorists, they always stop for red lights.
Well, since about a third of my work day involves responding to complaints about speeding cars or cars failing to yield to pedestrians, I know that is simply untrue. When we get complaints about speeding, we do a radar speed study and traffic count. The data typically shows a bell curve of speed over volume centered with the median a few miles per hour above the posted speed limit. That means a little more than 50% of people driving cars disobey the speed limit. Everbody to the right of the 25mph mark in the graph below is breaking the law.
But when it comes to yielding to pedestrians in a crosswalk, the number of law breakers is even higher. Even with the bright yellow in-street signs that say “State Law Yield to Pedestrians'” our compliance studies show 95% to 60% of drivers are breaking the law.
In my experience, about 50% of people break the laws they can get away with. That means about 50% of people speed when driving cars; 50% of pedestrians walk when it says don’t walk; and 50% of people on bikes blow stops or red lights. That is my belief based on statistics as well as observation at intersections.
I went to the intersection of Fairy Chasm and Lake Drive in Bayside to watch cars and bikes at the contentious all-way stop there. This is an extremely popular bike route and after many complaints, the Village of Bayside posted “Bikes Also” undter their stop signs. (Note this is not allowed in the MUTCD). Watching and counting for about an hour, I found that 70% of the cars failed to make a complete stop, some never even slowed down. I found that 70% of the people on bikes failed to stop, and some never even slowed down. Now that is greater than my 50% rule of thumb, but I think it is because this is probably an unwarranted all-way stop. I am willing to bet it was put in because of complaints, not because the right-of-way issues warranted it. Motorists and cyclists alike are less likely to obey unwarranted stop signs than they are warranted ones.
What constitutes a warranted stop? Well the bible of traffic engineers, the Federal Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, allows for engineering judgement but has a number of conditions from number of approaches, approach speed, sight distance, crash history and differences in traffic volume to determine when to put in stop signs. It also clearly states: YIELD or STOP signs should not be used for speed control.
Too often though traffic engineers are overruled by elected officials and stop signs are put in after complaints about speeding. All these unwarranted stop signs in neighborhoods across the country have bred contempt for the rules of the road. When I learned to drive a few decades ago, most intersections on local residential streets did not have any stop control or yield sign. These uncontrolled intersections were deemed safe by traffic engineers because only a few hundred cars a day went through them. People were expected to slow down, look and drive carefully. The rules of right of way from the uniform vehicle code were to be followed and everyone would get along fine. But now most intersections have some manner of control, whether it is a yield or a stop sign.
So, bottom line is that people are people, whether a person is on a bike, in a car or walking, a significant percentage will break those laws they can get away with that add convenience to their trip. It shortens a car trip to speed. It shortens a bike trip to run red lights or stop signs. It shortens a walking trip if you don’t wait for the walk light. People who ride bikes are no better or worse than people who drive cars in this arena.
That said, there are a couple big differences. First, most traffic controls are designed to accomodate cars, not bikes. Signals are timed for cars and bikes often end up hitting red after red. Stop signs are installed because cars speed or crash. Because bicycles are often ignored in traffic engineering, it is understandable that people on bikes may ignore traffic controls like stop signs.
Second, when people in cars break laws, they are more likely to kill or hurt an innocent person. A person speeding just 5mph is much more likely to kill someone in a crash than if they were going the speed limit. A person who rides their bike through a red light is most likely to be the victim.
But I want to get back to that well written email that started this train of thought. I think we can encourage people who ride bikes to set a higher standard and obey the laws. We already want to encourage more people to ride and one way to do that is to set a shining example as happy, healthy, safe and law abiding people.
In keeping with that well written email, lets all slow down, wait for the red light and smile more. I think we will get more out of it than the good will of motorists. I think we will enjoy our rides more as well.