Cycling and stop signs

Jordan Moffatt
Oct 27, 2017 · 8 min read
A T-shaped intersection with a separated bike lane in Ottawa. Cyclists going straight do not come into contact with other road users, but still must come to a full stop. There are many T-shaped intersections just like this one.

So you’re driving on a road and everything’s fine when suddenly you see another road just up ahead, perpendicular to the one you’re on, and there’s another car driving on that perpendicular road, and you and that driver look at each other and think, well if neither of us do something our cars will hit each other at the same place this road hits each other. That’s basically what intersections are: roads hitting each other. And when roads hit each other the users of the roads will hit each other too unless something happens or somebody does something. Stop signs are that something, and stopping is the something that somebody does.

With a stop sign, instead of just driving right into each other, the two cars from the previous paragraph will look at the stop sign and the stop sign will say, Ok, everybody stop, and then they stop, and whoever was there first is the first one to start going again, and then, once everything’s clear, the next person goes. It’s like, Stop, ok, you go, now you go. If there’s a bunch of cars, it’s Ok everybody stop, ok you go, now you go, you go, you go, etc. If it’s a two way stop, it’s, Ok stop, make sure another car’s not coming, ok now go. That’s how stop signs work for cars. Pedestrians complicate things a bit. If a pedestrian wants to cross, the stop sign says, Whoa whoa, hold on cars, there’s somebody walking, and then once they cross it’s back on to the driving.

Stop signs were made so cars don’t smash into each other when roads smash into each other. Pedestrians can cross at them too.

Now, how about bicycles? Well, bicycles, which are much smaller, slower, and softer than cars (the three esses of cycling), still have to obey the stop sign rule put in place for cars: when they come to a stop sign, cyclists have to come to a full stop. But do most cyclists follow this rule? No! Why? Because bicycles stopping at stop signs is unsafe and impractical.

To illustrate why, let’s consider a couple hypothetical examples. Let’s say a bicycle’s in a separated bike lane travelling in the same direction as a car, and they both come to a stop sign. So, if they’re following the rules, they both come to a full stop. Here’s the problem: the bicycle’s going straight, and the car’s turning right. So the cyclist will start going straight while driver of the car will go to turn right and it’ll turn right into the cyclist. Ouch! Now, if this happened and the cyclist treated the stop sign as a yield, slowed down to assess potential dangers without losing momentum while the driver of the car comes to a full stop, they would be able to continue through the intersection without hitting anybody. How nice is that! (This is an example of the unsafeness.)

Example two: let’s say a car (with a person driving it) travelling north comes to a stop at a stop sign at the exact same time as a bicycle (with a person pedalling it) travelling west. So they both come to a full stop, and then whoever has the right of way (the cyclist) will proceed through the intersection first. So the cyclist has to get back up to speed after coming to a stop and the driver of the car just has to sit there and wait. Which isn’t, like, too bad time-wise, but it adds up for everybody if this process repeats at every intersection. Okay now same example — but this time it’s a slow cyclist. Bad knees. Old bike. And so this slow cyclist has to slowly and painfully (knees) pedal their way through this intersection (and it’s uphill). If the cyclist yielded, they still would’ve been first through the intersection except they wouldn’t’ve lost all the momentum — it would’ve been the exact same outcome, but less time would have elapsed and less effort would’ve been expended. But now, instead, this slow cyclist has injured themselves more and added more time to their trip. Plus the driver of the car added time to their trip! And they were both late for appointments! What a pointless waste of time for everybody involved! (This is an example of the impracticality.)

There are a whole bunch of other problematic hypotheticals caused by cars and cyclists having to stop at stop signs together: “Will drivers take turns with bikes in an orderly way as they do with other cars? Will [drivers] start to go, notice the bicyclist, and suddenly stop again to wait, whether the cyclist is stopped or not? Will [drivers] roll through the stop without seeing the bicyclist? Will [drivers] roll through the stop even though they see the bike? An experienced cyclist knows anything is possible.” (Fajans 31).

We are not doomed to live in a world like this. There are alternatives. Thinking that all of our intersections need stop signs for bicycles is part of the *cultural hegemony*.

A potential alternative to stop-signed intersections are mini-roundabouts. These can be effective for T-shaped intersections (Sawers 50) on one-lane, low-speed streets (Brude 17), but stop being effective for mixed-use as you increase the amount of lanes (Bode 6). Roundabouts in general are more dangerous for cyclists unless there’s separate cycling infrastructure attached (Harris). But these mini ones on one-lane T-shaped intersections, they can be nice. You come up to the intersection and then just slowly and cautiously make your way through it, and everything’s fine. Roundabouts and mini-roundabouts shouldn’t replace stop signs everywhere, but they are a good tool in the toolbox for street design and can make things safer and quicker for cyclists if designed for them in mind.

But the best way to combat the issue of stop signs doesn’t involve a change of road structure or signage. In fact, it’s totally free and easy to accomplish. All that needs to be done is to change the laws so that when cyclists see a stop sign, they consider it to be a yield sign. Once more for emphasis: all stops become yields for cyclists. Yielding, according to the MTO, means “you must let traffic in the intersection or close to it go first. Stop if necessary and go only when the way is clear.” Stop if necessary. Doesn’t that sound nice? In other words, if there’s something in the way, don’t go, but if nothing’s in the way, sure, go. You may notice that this is the exact thing that cyclists already do! So, like, instead of having something that everybody does be illegal, Ontario (and all the governments in the world) should look at themselves and say, Geez, this should just be legal. The roads would be safer, the roads would be more practical, cyclists wouldn’t be fined for normal behaviour, and non-cyclists would have one less reason to be mad at cyclists.

The last little part of the last sentence of that last paragraph I think deserves its own paragraph, so here we go. Read any anti-cycling newspaper article (please don’t actually do this) or any comments section on any type of article even tangentially related to cycling (please, please, don’t actually do this), and you’ll see some variant of “cyclists are lawless stop sign blowers-through!” Well, what would happen if cyclists only had to yield at stop signs? What if the common practice was considered legal and socially acceptable? Would anti-cyclists and cyclists finally live in harmony? Would the world be a more agreeable, peaceful place? Gosh, I certainly think so. And this is possible!

The yield-as-stop was legalized recently in Delaware. It’s been legal in Idaho since 1982 (thirty-five years ago!) and has been great there — cyclist injuries went down by 14.5% after the law’s implementation (Meggs 5). Again, most cyclists in most places already do use stop signs as yield signs. So why would legalizing it make it safer? Well, it’s partly due to motorist expectation, and partly due to making cycling more appealing. If yielding is a rule for cyclists, motorists can predict more effectively what a cyclist is going to do at an intersection. If motorists can better predict how a cyclist is going to behave, cycling becomes safer (Whyte 15). If common cycling practice is legalized by the government and accepted by the public, cycling will be more appealing, and more people will start cycling. And if more people start cycling, the roads will become safer because more drivers will have exposure to cyclists (Jacobson 207).

So what’s clear from all this data — at the very least — is that forcing cyclists to stop at stop signs is not a safer option. Even better: not having cyclists stop at stop signs is safer. Which means that the best way to fix this issue of stop signs in Ontario (and everywhere else) is to make yield-as-stop the law.

The current design of intersections with stop signs and the current laws regarding cycling and stop signs make cycling more dangerous, less practical, and less appealing. This can be fixed quickly and cheaply by changing select T-shaped intersections to mini-roundabouts and allowing cyclists to treat all stop signs as yield signs. These are very easy to implement alternatives. Please, everybody in control of this, start implementing the better alternatives.

[Update: Based on some excellent feedback from well-informed readers (thank you!), I’ve made changes to the mini-roundabout paragraph to make it clearer that while roundabouts can be effective in certain scenarios, they don’t usually benefit cyclists. The best, lowest-cost alternative to stop signs provided in this post is to change the laws to allow cyclists to yield instead of stop.]

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