Wiggling Toward the Idaho Stop

How peaceful “civil obedience” made a point about transportation equity in San Francisco

The protest against a police crackdown on cyclists who ride past stop signs has opened up an important discussion about equity, respect, and reasonable accommodation for all road users

Yesterday’s “civil obedience” protest against the San Francisco Police Department’s crackdown on bicyclists — in which hundreds of cyclists clogged the streets of the Wiggle by coming to complete, single-file stops at every stop sign — was an excellent conversation starter for a long-overdue discussion about equity among road users.

For too long, cyclists have been vilified with paternalistic put-downs and sanctimonious blame-gaming, criticized for not obeying the letters of laws that disregard the dynamics of riding a bike, for choosing not to wear a helmet (something that isn’t even legally required for adults), and for the behaviors of a few bad apples in a broad brush fashion that doesn’t get applied to car drivers, despite their far larger impacts on public health and safety.

Suddenly, in the wake of this creatively enlightening protest, the local media and policymakers have started talking about how to facilitate safe and practical rules for cyclists, including considering Idaho’s road rules, where cyclists treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs, a common sense solution that doesn’t interfere with other road users’ right-of-way. KQED’s Forum is doing a show on the “Idaho stop” tomorrow and Board of Supervisors President London Breed now says she supports the concept.

That opening is far from universal, with Mayor Ed Lee continuing to tut-tut the cycling community and dismiss valid equity arguments with his ridiculous comment to Streetsblog that “I’m not going to be bending to interests that simply want to disregard public safety,” claiming the bike lanes he’s allowing are enough for us.

They aren’t, and his “public safety” argument just shows how paternalism and irrational animus toward cyclists by drivers and the political establishment is preventing an open, honest, forward-thinking conversation about how to encourage cycling and create equity among road users.

Right now, the transportation system discriminates against cyclists by failing to even consider something that it provides to every other road user: an accommodation toward what makes that transportation choice efficient, safe, and attractive. For cyclists, that’s a standard best embodied by the Idaho stop, which is how people naturally ride anyway.

Think about it: government provides every other road user with the public resources needed to help them get from Point A to Point B as quickly as is reasonable and possible. For car drivers, that includes the Interstate Highway System, which allows motorists to rapidly bypass the intersections of every little town along their path, a system created and maintained at great public expense.

Pedestrians are given sidewalks and their own signal and crosswalk at every major intersection, so they can safely cross the street without waiting for the flow of cars to stop. And when they use public transit, they’re given a choice of options (again, at great public expense) ranging from buses that stop often to express buses and trains, again operating on the concept that making frequent stops is an inefficient way to get around.

So why then are cyclists expected to come to a full and complete stop at every intersection? Anyone who’s ever ridden a bike knows how impractical that is, denying the ideas of momentum and flow that are so central to the cycling experience and that make it by far the most efficient form of transportation.

Yesterday’s protest showed that strict obedience to stop sign laws by cyclists would create a traffic mess for all road users, clogging up intersections with cyclists that move very slowly from complete stops. Enforcing that strict obedience on a daily basis would only serve to discouraging cycling, which would simply put more people into cars or trains that are already at capacity, again hurting everyone for no good reason.

The best thing for all road users would be to legalize the Idaho stop in California, but unfortunately, that’s not going happen anytime soon, as even my friend Dave Snyder, director of the California Bike Coalition, confirmed to me. Snyder said he supports the Idaho stop and it makes sense, but he doesn’t see the political dynamics in car-loving California allowing it in the foreseeable future.

“We’re always open to a winnable campaign that will make a big difference,” said Snyder, who has been more focused on improving bike lane standards and funding and passing the three-foot-rule in recent years.

But he also said that San Francisco could and should implement the standard here anyway. “You can enforce as if there was an Idaho stop law,” he said, calling the recent SFPD tickets of cyclists “cruel punishment for a lot of low-income people who can’t afford other modes of transportation.”

Which brings us right back to the SFPD and the Mayor’s Office, where this conversation began. They can either treat cyclists like children who can be appeased with a bit of paint on the roadways, and they can treat us like the adults we are, people who are making a socially responsible transportation choice and deserve a fair hearing for our legitimate concerns.


Originally published at www.byline.com on July 30, 2015.