On Scofflaw Cyclists, the “Idaho Stop” and Lawbreaking Drivers, and Why It Works

On Scofflaw Cyclists, the “Idaho Stop” and Lawbreaking Drivers, and Why It Works

Bicyclists cruise through stop signs. Drivers roll through stop signs. Bicyclists generally move slower than the posted maximum speed limit. Drivers generally travel faster than the posted speed limit. All-in-all, this basically works in St. Louis, meaning there’s no real daily animosity between drivers and cyclists that boils over into real conflict. Cars generally let bikes roll through stop signs and bikes don’t expect cars to drive the speed limit or come to complete stops.

Cyclists cede space to cars. It’s how St. Louis prioritizes its transportation system. That in a few places bicycles are accommodated on streets alongside cars, only highlights how unaccommodating most places remain. Still, the rant against scofflaw cyclists pops up here and there. Scofflaw motorists, well, that’s just how things work.

Below is an example. I decided to watch how traffic actually works at a couple intersections in one St. Louis neighborhood. The first video is from the corner of S. Taylor Avenue at Arco Avenue in The Grove. Traffic is moving north. More than one person has told me that cyclists not obeying the law is serious problem and why they do not support efforts to increase the number of people riding bikes in St. Louis. I’m also told that drivers do obey the law.

Video transcript:
car rolls through
car rolls through
car rolls through
car rolls through
car rolls through
car rolls through
scofflaw cyclist!

Over approximately 20 minutes at three different intersections in The Grove (two videos below), I didn’t observe a single vehicle coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. This appeared to be slightly worse on S. Newstead Avenue where the street receives the ridiculous combination of concrete ball barricades and stop signs for a two-way stop.

The thing is, this works, more or less. What we see in the videos is just fine (though some examples are much more egregious and dangerous. Also, that thing some motorists say they want, they don’t want that. In a recent act of civil disobedience, cyclists in San Francisco obeyed the law. They came to a full stop, single-file, at every stop sign. Drivers weren’t happy.

The absence of conflict in St. Louis is partially due to the relatively low number of bicyclists. Most drivers do not encounter a cyclist on their daily drive. And it works due to the relatively low number of drivers on most streets at most times. Ride through St. Louis City on a weekend and most stop signs and lights become optional as there’s no other traffic. Most St. Louis County roads see sparse traffic on early weekend days. Cyclists can easily take a lane without impacting traffic, or ride for miles without encountering a car.

But cycling daily, as a means of transportation, is different. On many routes, infrastructure accommodating bicycles is needed. Our current streets do not provide residents and visitors the freedom to choose whether to ride or drive. Of course the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic (recently changed to Department of Transportation) famously stated, “We’re a highway department; we’re not a bicycle department.”

{Arsenal Street accommodates multiple uses, providing predictable and safe space}

There are incidents and moments when one of these forms of transportation draws the ire of the other. This may be on the increase in St. Louis as the number cyclists continues to rise, and as some streets see added infrastructure to accommodate more users than just cars. There’s now a physical manifestation challenging the dominance of driving, and a physical object to focus one’s frustrations.

That cyclists are scofflaws (and yes, drivers too) has a practical basis. To stop and go in a car, a driver slightly flexes his or her foot. Avoiding that complete stop when doing so doesn’t cause conflict can save a driver a few seconds. To a cyclist, momentum is everything. Stopping and starting drastically diminishes the utility of riding a bicycle. Quite a few places recognize this. The “Idaho stop” is being codified in various cities and states. In short, the “Idaho stop” allows cyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign, and a red light as a stop sign.

This is a practical, commonsense codification of how bicycles operate (and should be codified here). Perhaps the city’s new traffic engineer will recognize this. Some stop lights never change without a vehicle triggering a sensor. When no other vehicles are present, it doesn’t make sense for a cyclist to stop and start. Operating a vehicle necessarily requires more responsibility. A typical family sedan weighs more than 3,000 lbs. At 40mph, only one pedestrian in 10 survives a collision with a car. While there have been incidents of a cyclist hitting and killing a pedestrian, the speed, force, and risk of driving presents a exponentially larger danger, and actual death toll.

Impact of speed on pedestrian deaths

The key to bicycles and cars co-existing safely is predictable behavior. More-or-less this is done by treating each mode as a vehicle. It’s not helpful when a driver waves a cyclist through an intersection when it’s clearly not the cyclist’s turn to proceed. It’s not helpful when a cyclist moves to the front of a string of cars at a stoplight instead of staying in line.

Where’s there’s space, budget, and need to separate functions, bicycle infrastructure will continue to be added to city (maybe even county) streets. This helps keep bicycle and car movement predictable and safe. Of course, given that the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic (recently changed to Department of Transportation) famously stated, “We’re a highway department; we’re not a bicycle department,” dedicated infrastructure outside the city border may be hard to come by.

So this is rather simple. While cyclists certainly do ignore stop signs, drivers break the law constantly. That thing drivers think they want, that everyone obey the law, they don’t want that.

Sidenote: How is it still legal to text (or use a phone at all) while driving if you’re over 21 in Missouri. Think about that, it doesn’t make sense in any way. Few things are more unsettling than to be at an intersection on your bicycle and see drivers in each direction with heads down looking at their phones. By the way, the current fine for someone 21 or younger found to be texting and driving in Missouri? $20.50.

Sidenote to preempt predictable rants: We’re not talking about those cyclists and drivers we all hate. The cyclist that blows past stopped cars and through a stop sign or rolls through a red light in traffic. Likewise, cyclists and drivers alike know the drivers who do 50mph in a 30mph zone, change lanes erratically, and tailgate.


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