Stop Sign Blues

image via City of Berkeley website

Today I ventured out to this amazing place. Cesar Chavez Park is in the western-most part of Berkeley and is, for me, only a recent discovery. I went on a ride not long ago with a friend, on what has so far been the only intentional ride I have taken in the rain. We ended up here by his doing, and even on that overcast and freezing day, it was still beautiful. Even though we did not linger long, I have come back here on my own several times to take in the sights, sit by the water, or just spend some time out of the city. The ride is neither long nor difficult, which makes it a possibility even when I am feeling extremely lazy.

I spent several contented hours reading in the sun and enjoying the quiet solitude, interrupted only by the occasional jogger, cyclist or strolling couple. Not a bad way to spend a beautiful afternoon. But all good things must end, and eventually it was time to go home. Which was when the fun really started.

Unfortunately, getting home is an exercise in culture shock. Even though it is not safe (and is probably illegal), I ride around the city with headphones in. It helps motivate me to keep going, sure, but it also creates a bubble which other people cannot penetrate (the volume is low enough that other things, like sirens, can). But today, it wasn’t people yelling from street corners that were my biggest problem. It was people driving their cars.

Stop signs are possibly the most irritating of all infrastructure. People are fine with them when its just their car, and three directions completely devoid of traffic. But once another car is thrown into that mix or, god forbid, a cyclist, everything goes straight to hell. I will concede that a lot of cyclists, including myself, have alot of bad habits and that drivers are mostly, probably, trying to work around us. But that doesn’t mean they should forget themselves completely.

The conventional rules for stop signs are clear and direct: 1. Stop for three seconds before proceeding, even if no other traffic is present. 2. If two cars approach the intersection at the same time who are not merely crossing one another, the car on the right goes first. It seems simple enough, but with the inclusion of cyclists in this mix, there are decisions to be made and changes to be embraced. In Oregon, for example, a stop sign is considered a yield for cyclists, while in California, a cyclist approaching a three way intersection on the side through which traffic cannot continue, is not required to stop even in the presence of a red light. Cyclists need to be cognizant of their role as part of traffic. At an intersection, particularly with a stop sign, the safest place for the cyclist to be is in the line of cars, not to the side of it. We are not pedestrians, we are traffic. We need to behave that way, and we need to do it consistently – not just when it is of the greatest convenience to us. Do I roll stop signs? Yes, yes I do. I do it constantly. But I do it when there is no traffic around to hit me or be interrupted by me. People seem to have a hard enough time navigating stop signs that I see no reason to exacerbate that situation by just pretending the rules don’t apply to me.

But what I’m talking about here is different. What I encountered today were not atypical but certainly more extreme examples of the above, and all of them happened at stop sign intersections. Take, for example, the man driving in the opposite direction of me, who came to the  intersection, stopped, started to turn left, saw me and then slammed on his brakes. I was present at the intersection, but I was not moving. In fact, I was drinking water, with both feet down on the ground, waiting for him to complete his turn. But he sat there, in the middle of the intersection, staring at me, and emphatically waving me through. We did this until I was able to put my bottle back in the cage and get back up on my bike to pedal through. Another man, turning left from traveling perpendicularly to me, stopped in the middle of his left hand turn to stare at me as I abruptly wove around his car which I was not expecting to still be in the intersection by the time I got there. Yet another person watched me approach in their rear view mirror, and only proceeded through the stop sign once I was forced to put both feet down. I’m not sure what was wrong with these people, but it made my ride home much less enjoyable.

So, drivers, here are some pointers for you:

1. Trust me, we see you: Your car is large. It’s heavy, and it could kill us if you hit us with it. Believe me when I tell you that even the most arrogant of us see you. You don’t need to honk preemptively, or flash your lights or do other distracting things. Knowing you are there is more than enough. We will adjust accordingly.

2. Slowing down and stopping are art forms. Embrace them: If we hit our brakes hard enough, we risk flying over our handlebars. If we don’t hit our brakes at all, we might just go flying over your car. Both are unpleasant to think about. We rely on momentum, particularly people like me who have heavy bikes that are often carrying things, and we don’t like stopping completely unless we have to. So when you decide to slam on the brakes rather than slowing down gently, or when the required three second pause is simply not good enough and you decide to tack on an extra five or six seconds, it makes things harder for both the cyclists who have no idea what you’re doing, and the other drivers who are wondering the same thing.

3. Chivalry is not dead, but its badly wounded: Another common thing I notice are drivers who see a cyclist approaching a stop sign, and then just wait. Let me be very clear here. If a cyclist is approaching your intersection, and you see them slowing down, please proceed. If we are slowing down it means we see you, we know you were there first, and are operating our ‘vehicles’ in the way that you should be operating yours. Waiting throws off the entire routine and is often not necessary. Please, just go already. Often what ends up happening is that traffic is stopped, trying to figure out what the waiting person is doing, the cyclist has also slowed down significantly and is trying to figure out if its safe to proceed or not, and then has to rebuild momentum, taking even longer to get through the intersection than if everyone had just proceeded as normal.

4. Right turns are for turning: Cyclists can’t seem to do anything right. We get yelled at for being in the middle of the road or lane, we get told the place for us is the far right hand side of the road, but all the advocacy groups say that’s the most dangerous place for us, what with the dooring and debris and driveways. The ‘keep to the right’ thing is a hot-topic; where we ride in relationship to it and what it even means. The complication none of us needs is to have people who pull over to the right to make a turn, and then just don’t do it. I cannot pass you on the right, if you are all the way over to the right. I cannot go around you on the left to turn right, because you might hit me when you arbitrarily decide to finally finish making that turn. I can’t go on the sidewalk because, really, I am not risking a ticket for you. I can wait behind you all day long, but I really would prefer to be moving.

5. An approaching cyclist is not a cue for a three point turn: Depending on the width of the street or the traffic on it, a three-point turn can take a while. Seeing me coming down the street at speed, is not the time to execute said turn. The mentality would be different if it was another car approaching, rather than a bike. An approaching cyclist is not ‘no one coming’.

6. There is only one shade of green light: When a light turns green, that means go. Not ‘wait for it to get a little darker’. If there is a city block between me and that light, you better not still be there when I pull up behind you. I’m not sure what people are assessing or looking at in those moments, but I should never, ever have to put my feet down, brake or weave into another lane of traffic because a driver decided to just catch the next green light.

7. Timing is everything: ‘Ride where cars expect to see you’. This is one of the golden rules for cyclists. Don’t ride on sidewalks or in crosswalks, don’t jump out from between cars. Stay consistent. For vehicles, the same rule should apply. As I approach an intersection, and a driver is making a left hand turn, I do not expect that driver to still be there almost a full minute later. Where I, and any other reasonable person, expect them to be is down the street and probably on to the next poorly executed intersection experience. Just as a driver stopped at a stop sign should not still be there after several other people have gone through the intersection. My ability to slow down and speed up appropriately depends heavily on people acting predictably. I am always on defense when I ride my bike, but that only goes so far.

Next time you see a cyclist approaching, take a breath and remember: proceed as usual. Most of us are also drivers. Even if we don’t own cars, the majority of us have at least taken a driving exam and probably also have licenses. We know the rules of the road. Is every single one of us, cyclists and drivers alike, going to obey those laws and suggestions every single time? No. But those of us who do would really appreciate it if we got some love from the other team.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s