Stop Sign Philosophy

August 6th, 2012 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Even though their heads are muddled, their hearts mean well. When cycling and public-transportation groups chant, “Same roads. Same rules.” they do think they’ve solved the cycling/driving/walking problems.

Alas, such highly oversimplified and illogical solutions solve nothing. We can get deeper in a moment, but you might divert to read cycling scofflaw Randy Cohen in yesterday’s NY Times. The former writer of the paper’s ethics column puts a philosophical spin on the issue…from a very personal perspective. He justifies his own daily trumping of strict interpretation of traffic laws and regulations. He hurts no one and doesn’t even endanger himself by treating stop lights and stop signs as yield signs. He slows and makes sure the way is clear, then makes his own way, darn it.

Whaa. He’s cheating!

You just know that the literalists, the rules-are-rules types, will fume and perhaps send chiding emails. That is the way of the bike/ped/drive conflict. The majority of adults seem to despise, disparage or at least distrust cyclists and are quick with the hyperbolic justifications — all cyclists are reckless, running all lights and endangering everyone on the roads; all pedestrians are jaywalkers who live to imperil themselves and inconvenience drivers; all drivers obey every traffic law and rule…except maybe fudging on speed limits a tiny bit.

Unlike many European nations, we here are not ready for the physical, intellectual and emotional shift to urban cycling. We see in number of cyclists, in lack of enforcement of driving laws, and in the combined driver-oriented actions of the police, prosecutors and judges that Americans illogically and emotionally would like bikes to go away and stay in the kids’ toy class.

Yes, yes, we talk the game of conserving energy. We talk the game of reducing traffic, noise and pollution. We talk.

When it comes time to remove parking spaces to make room for cycle tracks and bike lanes, most of us stomp and wail about the unfairness of it. When we see daily what scofflaws too many drivers are, we still pretend that it’s those damned cyclists that cause the risks, congestion and injuries. The stats report, in the strongest terms, that it’s otherwise, that drivers are the dangerous lawbreakers. Yet, this is cultural and our hearts aren’t there. We’d rather point to real or theoretical bikers running red lights and pretend the problem is with others, not ourselves.

Roads and rules

Back to same roads/same rules. That’s crap. That is intentionally naive and even dumb. There are tremendous differences between cars and bikes. We can’t really set up the roads and laws properly until we become more realistic about those distinctions.

Same roads. First consider that there are numerous essential distinctions between motor vehicle and cycle roads. For example, bikes are forbidden from using limited access highways and toll roads. Motor vehicles can’t legally drive on sidewalks anywhere, even out of business districts, can’t use many designated parkways (although cops rarely enforce that even when the signs are plain that commercial vehicles aren’t allowdd) or shared bike/pedestrian paths or bike lanes or bike paths. Cyclists though can use streets and roads, even when there is a parallel bike path, and can (over the steaming objection of drivers) use a full lane if it is necessary to travel safely. The laws are OK here; they just need to be enforced to the tune of frequent, large fines for motorists.

Same rules. Here’s a huge cultural difference. Motorists in the main are oblivious to physical realities of cycling, while cyclists are or have been motorists and grok the corresponding limits and benefits. More than once, I have been cut off by or threatened by or even brushed by drivers and spoken with them. Most are truly unaware of things that should be obvious, like when a bike stops, the cyclist falls over unless a foot goes out for the pavement or there’s some skilled balancing act. Think about that as a possible driving issues. Bikes can easily go 15 to 25 miles per hours, so turning right immediately as you begin passing a cyclist is both illegal and dangerous. Bikes can stop from speed in 5 to 20 feet, while a car will go 100 feet in the time it takes a driver to move a foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal, not counting the actual stopping time. Cyclists have minimal inertia to overcome and can leave from a dead stop before a driver can being to move. Drivers behave much more sanely when cyclists leave an intersection first and the car can overtake them, otherwise the drivers don’t seem to have a physical sense of where the cyclist is and thus drive erratically.

After decades of urban cycling, I end up concurring with Cohen on the effect if not the philosophy of stop signs and stop lights. He likes to pretend that his scofflaw behavior is morally superior to literal obedience. In contrast, I think the physics and logic of treating those signals all as stop signs have benefits for all. Yet acknowledging those distinctions is what will require that cultural shifts, as they have successfully done in Idaho, even in the very citified Boise.

Consider:

  • it doesn’t take much time or distance for a cyclist to stop or get moving again
  • cyclists can clear an intersection in a small fraction of the time it takes a driver to get moving and get across
  • drivers are very uncomfortable leaving a light at the same time as cyclists beside them
  • drivers are comfortable and seem to feel in control when they overtake and pass cyclists ahead of them
  • motor vehicles are heavy, fast and deadly; they are aim-able weapons
  • silent bikes can startle inattentive pedestrians but by physical reality and by stats are far, far less likely to hit much less damage a person or vehicle

So rephrasing the simpleminded chant is limited. Think, “some of the same roads and many of the same rules.” That demands too much thinking for ordinary folk, particularly the literal minded. It is a potential big education issue and process.

Yet, that’s where major European cities and countries have arrived. We’re far from that though.

More bikes for more awareness

Many biking advocates say repeatedly that when there are sufficient bicyclists commuting and recreating on the streets and roads, people will get it. Drivers and walkers will begin to pay attention, both for their safety and those of the cyclists. A few U.S. cities are almost there, but most are quite a ways off. If preponderance is what it takes, we may be several decades away from drivers and pedestrians taking personal responsibility, as well as the chain of enforcement bring the hammer down on feckless, reckless folk. That, of course includes cyclists, although stereotypes aside, they are far from the most frequent or most dangerous offenders.

Meanwhile, skilled cyclists will likely advocate for Idaho-style sensible laws and acting out their personal versions of them. I doubt many will do the situation ethics justification that Cohen uses, but the effect will be the same. Maybe a few drivers will realize how good it is that those pesky bikers are out of the intersection where they can keep an eye on and pass them. I suspect that many more will have the puerile attitude that someone gets a privilege they don’t. There’s not a lot of prevention or cure for that sort of childishness. It will come with changing laws, the eventual matching enforcement by cops on all concerned, and that distant future of lots of cyclists.

 

 

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