By Mia Birk
Riding home not long ago, I spotted a police officer videotaping bicyclists at a large and lovely traffic circle on one of Portland’s most popular bikeways in Ladd’s Addition, one of its oldest residential neighborhoods. More than 4,000 cyclists a day circumnavigate the roundabout, which features a park in the middle and is the salient feature of this historic neighborhood.
A couple times a year, cranky neighbors complain about cyclists rolling the stop signs. The police usually respond by handing out a couple dozen $242 tickets and then go back to ignoring it. Very productive. Once again, someone had complained, and the officer was there to document the situation.
Sure cyclists don’t come to a complete stop at this or most stop-controlled intersections. Most motorists don’t come to a complete stop either.
I can explain to the officer until I’m blue in the face that it is desirable, normal and natural to keep up momentum when bicycling. The fact is that stop signs were placed at intersections to keep two-ton vehicles from crashing into each other. One-to-two-hundred-pound bicycle riders do not need to come to a complete stop to avoid serious injury. Stop signs may do a fine job of governing the right-of-way for motorists, but cyclists need a different system.
The simplest solution: at the traffic circle in Ladd’s Addition, and at just about every stop sign-controlled location, we should add yield signs and/ or pavement markings to govern cyclist behavior. This infrastructure already appears all over bicycle-friendly cities in Europe. Great idea, but easier said than done. Even in Portland, our progressive, bicycle-friendly traffic engineers are not ready to take that step.
Another option is to change state and provincial laws to allow cyclists to yield at stop signs, as the US state of Idaho has done. Again, much easier said than done. Other attempts – three failed efforts in Oregon, for example – to make this shift have been beaten back by law enforcement advocates who feel that cyclists already have too many privileges. One argument they use is that it sends a mixed message: why should cyclists yield if motorists have to stop? How do we explain this to our kids? On the contrary, it sends a clear message: if you’re driving, stop, and if you’re bicycling, yield.
The fact is that making bicycle-friendly communities is not just about building a bikeway system and encouraging people to use it. It’s also about the evolution of our attitudes and mores, our models and policies, codes and traffic control devices, laws and enforcement practices. 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 based on cycling as its own form of transportation, rather than hold on to today’s commonly-held belief that “the bicycle is mostly the same as a motor vehicle.”