Idaho – arguably one of the pointiest states in the union – is back in the news again. This time on the streets of San Francisco. More precisely on the bike route affectionately known as “The Wiggle.” This road has become yet another battleground in the war between local police departments, cyclists, the anti-cycling bias and those frustrated with what they perceive as persistently scofflaw cyclists.
However, this time the news was not about cyclists breaking the law. Rather, it was about a bunch of cyclists going out of their way to follow the very letter of the law. That’s right. It was a deliberate act of civil-OBEDIENCE.It all started (or should we say restarted) when the Captain of the local police district stated his intent to focus additional efforts to ticket cyclists failing to stop at stop signs.
“bicyclists are required to follow the rules of the road,” Sanford said. “There’s a thing called a stop sign that bicycles are supposed to stop at.”
Due to the topography of the city of San Francisco, The Wiggle is effectively the only route between two halves of the city that does not involve steep hills. It is a funnel right in the middle of the city where numerous cyclists and cars both are competing for space on the daily commutes.
In response, a local neighborhood group going by the name “The Wigg Party” – a nod to The Wiggle bike route – decided on a rather unique form of social demonstration. Their idea was to do exactly what the local police department was asking them to do. The intent was clear – to demonstrate why the current laws do not make sense in the context of commuting in San Francisco, or elsewhere.
Instead, they are proponents of the “Idaho Stop” – named after the only state that currently has such a law on the books. The idea is that bicycles can treat stop signs as yield signs, and treat red lights as stop signs. For many these seem like “common sense” ideas. Bicycles are much lighter, more maneuverable, and offer much greater visibility than most motor vehicles. Couple that with the relatively low risk of damage inflicted by a bicycle, and the benefits of increased traffic flow start to look much more balanced.
If the “Idaho stop” has proven that it is safe and makes sense for everyone, why don’t more jurisdictions adopt it? The answer is politics and the bias of the motoring public against cycling. It boils down to this argument: “Too many cyclists ride like scofflaws and don’t deserve a special law.” The problem with this line of thinking is that, while we do have blatant scofflaws among our ranks, so do drivers. A majority of drivers admit to violating laws in their motor vehicles, whether it be speeding, rolling through stop signs, following too closely, failing to yield right-of-way, failure to signal, and texting or cellphone use where it is illegal. But a few bad apples on bikes shouldn’t be used as an excuse to stand in the way of making a better law that will benefit everyone.
Cyclists showed up to the event and did nothing but follow the law exactly. This had the expected results – traffic jams. These traffic jams were met with at least two drivers reportedly becoming frustrated (almost as expected) and passing the cyclists dangerously through the intersection on the wrong side of the road.
Various main stream media outlets picked up on the story, generating quite a lot of discussion. This alone can probably label this effort as a “success” in that it has brought attention to the issue. The Wigg Party plans additional demonstrations in the future, and have set up a form to allow you to receive txt messages when such events are planned.
However, the expected backlash has also started, and is visible in the comments of almost any of the news stories posted about this. It is a repeat of many of the same comments that we are all so accustomed to hearing. Ranging from “I’m and avid cyclists and you guys blowing stop signs make me look bad” to “A cyclist almost hit me in the cross walk the other day. They have no respect for anyone. They need to follow the law.”
Most of these comments seem to come from an emotional reaction that, frankly, I’ve never been able to understand. Any “evidence” they cite is generally a subjective story about something that once happened to them, or something they once saw, or something they believe will happen in the future. For a number of reasons that I can only speculate on, this topic seems to illicit an emotional response on both sides more than most cycling related issues. Given the apparent documented success in Idaho, I can only assume these arguments are really just attempts to justify the position that “Those cyclists shouldn’t get away with something I can’t get away with.”
Unfortunately, those are the types of responses that indicate a mind that has closed to the very idea of consideration of the subject. Their minds are made up.
Which, in the end, makes this particular demonstration especially interesting – not only from a traffic and urban planning perspective, but also from a human psychology perspective. People are up in arms about cyclists apparently “never stopping at stop signs” in response to a demonstration where cyclists deliberately and intentionally followed the letter of the law. The Wigg party is attempting to work within the system to get a law changed. They are not overtly encouraging law breaking, but working to demonstrate what active enforcement of this law would mean to the community at large. And for that, cyclists are still criticized using the same tired arguments again and again.
I’m not saying two wrongs make a right. That drivers break the law doesn’t make it okay for cyclists to do so. I’m trying to point out that traffic laws are some of the least important and most commonly disregarded rules on our books. Drivers break them every day, casually, and usually without much thought. But the way some people talk about rule-breaking cyclists, you’d think our traffic laws were equivalent to the Bill of Rights, Geneva Conventions, and Magna Carta rolled up into one.
If people are unwilling to look at and consider facts and have a discussion based on that, then they simply aren’t part of the discussion in my opinion.