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Should Cyclists Have to Stop at Stop Signs?

A proposal to make San Francisco the first major city to adopt the so-called “Idaho stop” is under intense debate.

jennyrotten / Flickr

San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation as a city that’s willing to experiment with urban policy. Now that reputation is being put to the test, as legislation that would change the way police deal with cyclists and stop signs makes its way through the city’s Board of Supervisors.

The ordinance, known as the Bike Yield Law, would instruct cops to treat cyclists who roll slowly and cautiously through stop signs as their lowest enforcement priority. It would, in essence, permit the so-called Idaho stop, in which a person on a bike is allowed to approach a stop sign, check for conflicts with drivers and people on foot, then roll through without coming to a complete halt—essentially treating it as a yield sign.

The Idaho stop is called that because it’s been the law in that state since 1982. Idaho, including its largest city, Boise (population 214,000), has served as a large, ongoing experiment in how well this practice works, at least in places with relatively low density. The answer is, apparently, quite well.

A 2010 study showed that bike-injury rates declined by 14.5 percent the year after the law was passed, then remained flat. Comparisons of Boise to comparable cities without the Idaho stop, such as Sacramento, showed that Boise was significantly safer for people on bikes, with collision rates for bike commuters up to 60 percent lower. (The law in Idaho also allows a cyclist to proceed through a red light after coming to a full stop and checking for conflicts, and to make a yielding right on red lights.)

When a similar law was proposed in Oregon, supporters made a video to explain why the Idaho stop is a safe and sensible policy, if followed as intended. Rolling stops, even at very low speeds, allows bicyclists to maintain momentum and increase efficiency. Blowing through stop signs at speed is not part of the program.

Thirty-three years after its passage, the Idaho stop remains uncontroversial in Idaho. Yet it’s been adopted since in relatively few places around the country, and meets with heated opposition almost everywhere it is proposed; that Oregon law, for instance, didn’t pass. To date, just three Colorado counties have local stop-as-yield ordinances, and only a few other states have laws that allow cyclists to proceed through malfunctioning red lights, or lights that don’t change in response to the presence of a cyclist because their vehicle-detection systems are not sensitive enough.

Setting a precedent

San Francisco, then, would be the first major city in the United States to allow bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs (there is no red-light provision in the San Francisco legislation). But the ordinance, which is co-sponsored by six of the 11 members of the city’s Board of Supervisors, faces an obstacle in the form of Mayor Ed Lee, who has vowed to veto it if it reaches his desk.

“I’m not willing to trade away safety for convenience, and any new law that reaches my desk has to enhance public safety, not create potential conflicts that can harm our residents,” the mayor told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Supporters of the legislation would need eight votes to override his veto, a goal that is potentially attainable, as four of the five non-sponsoring supervisors have not declared themselves one way or the other.

Chris Cassidy, communications director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, emphasizes that the legislation is intended to free up police officers so they can, in the words of the city’s Vision Zero traffic safety campaign, “Focus on the Five”—concentrate on issuing citations for the traffic violations that most frequently injure and kill pedestrians. Those include speeding, running red lights, running stop signs, failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, and failing to yield to pedestrians when turning.

One SFPD station captain used Focus on the Five as a rationale for issuing tickets to bicyclists who run red lights and stop signs, even though the data used to create the policy demonstrated that people driving, not people riding bikes, were the problem. His move caused an immediate and significant backlash, which led to the abandonment of what was supposed to be a one-month ticket blitz on bikes. It also led to the introduction of the Bike Yield Law.

But as Mayor Lee’s opposition to the new ordinance suggests, there’s still deep skepticism among many people about what such a policy would mean for pedestrians. Advocates for the elderly and disabled are especially concerned. “People with mobility disabilities, blind people, seniors, and people with baby strollers would feel less safe. This is difficult to quantify, but it is real,” wrote one disability advocate in an email to the Board of Supervisors obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.

Advocates for the new law recognize how important it is that pedestrians not feel endangered by the change. “First and foremost, it’s important that everyone recognize that everyone always has to yield to people walking,” says the SFBC’s Cassidy. “For people to feel unsafe walking is something we really want to avoid.”

Public perception remains a problem

The truth is that the bad behavior of a small minority of people on bicycles has a disproportionate effect on pubic perception of risk. Take the terrible 2012 case in which a San Francisco man—after apparently blowing through several stop signs on his bike—struck and killed a 71-year-old man on foot in a crosswalk. The case received intense press coverage and scrutiny, more than many, if not most, of the numerous fatalities caused by drivers. Outrage over the case was understandable. As the victim lay dying in the hospital, the cyclist posted a detailed account of the crash to a local message board that included these utterly callous words:

I wrecked on the way home today from the bi-weekly Headlands Raid today. Short story: I'm fine. The pedestrian I clobbered? Not so much.

The cyclist eventually pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, reportedly the first time in the nation that someone on a bike was convicted of that offense.

Fair or not, when people who don’t ride bikes themselves hear about the Idaho stop concept, many think of this worst-case scenario—and of the cyclists they see who break the rules with flagrant disregard for safety. This is in part because many more people drive cars than ride bikes, so they relate less to people on bikes than they do to people behind the wheel. It’s also, perhaps, because people on bikes are much more visible as humans than people who are cocooned in the metal shells of cars, and thus easier to see as individual bad actors.

If San Francisco does go ahead with the Idaho stop, it would be a big step forward for those who maintain that this can be the most appropriate way to treat bicycles in cities, and that it would actually create a more law-abiding cycling culture. But the question remains if it will work in relatively dense neighborhoods. Doug Gordon, who blogs at Brooklyn Spoke, has suggested that what may be best for a city like New York would be ”a surgical approach to Idaho stops” targeting low-traffic intersections.

If San Francisco is going to be in the vanguard on this matter, the ordinance’s advocates will have to make a convincing case that it’s not just about cyclist convenience and comfort, but instead about street safety for all users.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear
    Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.