Four Tips for Bicyclists at Stop Signs
Welcome to The Spokesman, our weekly bicycle column written by French Clements, a San Francisco resident and distance cyclist who considers it pretty routine to ride his bike to Marin County or San Jose and back. He belongs to a club, the SF Randonneurs, and is active in numerous aspects of the cycling community. For those of you wondering, the title of this column is a slightly tongue-in-cheek merging of bicycling and blogging terms, not a claim that Clements speaks for anyone but himself.
Shawn Allen / Flickr Bicycle + car = OW! This cyclist wasn't at fault, but the crash did happen at a stop sign.
When riding a bike in this hilly, congested, distractingly scenic, and carefree burg of San Francisco, breaking the law is a little too easy -- especially at stop signs. On Tuesday I wrote about some principles of good communication at intersections. ("S.F. Cyclists: If We Don't Communicate Well With Others, We Don't Deserve Respect.") Now, from a practical perspective, here are some points to aid our role (ha, roll) when navigating intersections with stop signs:
1. Slowing Down Is Great.
As the saying goes, where's the fire? Conservation of energy is great and all, but so is conservation of your life. Boo-yah! That said, the law -- roughly, "stop at that sign, or we'll, um, you know..." -- is broken about 134,000 times a day here. It's effectively unenforceable. Fixed-gear riders and folks in cleated shoes are especially vulnerable to ticketing. That said, more ticketing is not a viable solution. But a solution exists.
Let's find some traction on a citywide campaign to adopt what's known as "the Idaho stop" in a way that works for San Francisco. This Idaho law, on the books since 1982, allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. (The animated video above was created by a man in Oregon, whose legislature is considering adopting a similar law.) In fact, the Idaho law has been so effective that now, even at stop lights, Idaho bicyclists can proceed following a foot-down full stop, conditions permitting.
People would argue that our city's vicious topography and political climate make an Idaho-stop campaign not worth the trouble, and Captain Obvious will point out that even Idaho's largest city is not as big as San Francisco. Nonetheless, adopting or adapting the Idaho stop would find thousands of otherwise lawful riders honoring a more tenable agreement, one that finally synchronizes cyclists' expectations with those of motorists. Meanwhile, those reckless honchos who still prefer self-marginalization -- by rolling rampant through crossings without hesitation -- would dwindle to an enforceable number.
2. Use Your Very Best Signals.
For a long time, I was sheepish about using my hands to signal, but then I got some high-visibility neon gloves. Then, lights! (Did you know a light is required by law?) Today, I am a beacon of rectitude. Signaling feels like something Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation would support. If my hands are occupied, I nod or tilt my head at drivers, indicating either, "Thanks for the courtesy, I'm rolling now," or "You're good to go." Lately, I've been pointing straight ahead to indicate when I'm headed that direction, which by its very oddity often halts a driver's advance.
You see, when we've rolled a stop sign, it's less likely that drivers and pedestrians get angry because we've simply "broken the law." No, just as in a lovers' spat, a key source of their frustration comes from simply not knowing how to react to what we're doing. Why not tell noncyclists how to react?
3. Confound Driver Expectations of Bad Cyclist Behavior.
This one unites the two above and then some. Take intersections slower than you're maybe used to. Signal a bunch. Make eye contact and smile. Wave, even. But there's also a public-relations side to riding. I'm thinking specifically of "The Wiggle," that lowland shortcut left to us by our predecessors. Especially when descending The Wiggle, there's only a few truly combustible intersections. You know the ones I mean. They're epicenters of bad PR. Walkers naturally expect us to kill someone there, and drivers are likely at their wits' end. Does it really hurt to slow down in these spots?
Keep in mind too that this city was practically founded on expressions of nonconformity. So, gifted with a flagship as oddly distinctive as The Wiggle, San Francisco needs an equally distinctive approach. I vote for using hand and head indications at every single intersection where a car is present and its driver stands a chance of being confused. Try it, you'll like it. A critical mass (huh!) of riders consistently using signals will be key to building San Francisco's reputation as The City that Knows How to Ride Bikes Well.
4. Keep Your Ego in Check.
I guarantee that Chris Bucchere was feeling pretty great about himself just before he blew through that Market Street intersection at 30-some-odd miles per hour -- unlawfully it now may seem, and certainly, unprofessionally, out of control -- and hit pedestrian Sutchi Hui in the crosswalk. Egos kill.
Sure, I've spat on cars. And thrown some pretty lurid swears at drivers. But I always end up feeling like the loser afterward, jumpy and miserable. I mean, Jesus, one time I spat on a car that I'm pretty sure was filled with thugs bent on murder -- just afterward they chased me through the Mission and I lost them only by cutting into a one-way alley, heading the wrong direction. Things like that wreck your ride, even if you are right.
Lately, I'm instead having a blast laughing at people who cut me off, shouting truly absurd comments ("Go eat a baloney sandwich!" comes to mind), and if I'm really pissed, giving a long and abrasive "slow down!"
You'll notice that the first words of these four tips spell out SUCK. Just remember, whether or not a driver (or even a wayward pedestrian) near you sucks, you've got to SUCK even harder. To all bicyclists in the city: Adopting a SUCK-y mentality is how we're going to break free of this antagonistic cycle, secure the representation and legitimacy we crave, and fully address the substantial legislative and infrastructural challenges before us -- whichever side of the intersection we're coming from.
The Spokesman is a weekly bicycle column by French Clements on bicycle culture and the ways it's reshaping the city's appearance, economy, and politics.