Reader: Why I don’t always stop for people waiting to cross the street

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on December 13th, 2012

Source: BikePortland

Scared to stop. (Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Scared to stop.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

A reader sent us a note recently about a traffic situation that I feel could use more community awareness and discussion. It has to do with stopping for people who are waiting to walk across the street. Oregon law (ORS 811.028) clearly states that if you see a person waiting to cross an intersection at a corner, and you’re able to do so in time, you must stop and let them cross.

But what if you’re on your bike and you’re afraid that people behind you in cars (or on bikes for that matter) might not stop and that they’d run into you? That’s a sensation I can relate to. It’s also one that reader Chris S. felt compelled to email us about. Here’s what he wrote:

“I wanted to discuss a situation where the cyclist is definitely in the wrong, but it is better to be wrong than getting rear ended by a car.

Traveling north on Naito coming into downtown just south of Market Street there is a crosswalk (map). About a year ago, I was approaching said crosswalk on my bicycle going the same speed as traffic (about 20-25mph) and a pedestrian wanted to cross. I braked to let them and heard the screeching of tires behind me as a car came within about a foot of rear ending me.

I then decided I would never do that again (even though the law requires me to stop) as I figure I am better off with a ticket than dead.

Well this morning I had the same thing happen except it was up on Barbur where it turns off to Naito and the Ross Island Bridge (map).The woman in the crosswalk yelled at me for not stopping (and I don’t blame her) but with cars immediately behind me (I was in the traffic lane as the bike lane ends at this point) there was no way I was going to risk being rear ended.

I just wish pedestrians understood that bikes don’t have brake lights and I wouldn’t trust a hand signal in this particular situation to properly communicate to a driver behind that I am stopping quickly and they need to as well.

I suppose one day I will get a ticket for this decision, but better a ticket than losing my life.

– Chris

I can definitely relate to your quandary Chris. I always try to set a good example and stop for people waiting to cross the street in front of me, even knowing that my actions might be ignored and/or might make people behind me stop abruptly (I’ve also, unfortunately, had people on bikes fly by me on several occasions). When I’m in a bike lane it’s one thing; but the fear of making sure people in cars stop behind me while in a shared lane is even scarier. I try to be as demonstrative with my hand signals and other gestures prior to the stop, but I realize that might not always do the trick. So, sometimes I don’t stop when I probably, legally, should.

To me, this is yet another example of how people on bikes get a bad rap because they’re trying to get around in a transportation and legal system that wasn’t designed for the operation of a bicycle.

What do you think? Do you have any advice or insight for Chris?

My Response

I take exception to the notion that stopping for people in crosswalks is an indication that “bikes are trying to get around in a transportation and legal system that wasn’t designed for the operation of a bicycle“. Like automobiles we have brakes and we can signal and we can even announce our presence with horns, bells and our voices. It seems somehow a “copout” to decide that bikes are such different beasts that they cannot effectively operate in the same traffic space.

If not then what was the Boub Case here in Illinois all about? We lost that case but fought to be considered “intended users of the roadway”. Now having said that there are niceties that could be added (like bike lanes or better yet segregated bike paths) to make it safer for cyclists (especially the very young or infirm) who are out and about. But nothing that I have seen on Chicago streets tells me that bicyclists are incapable of functioning in that environment.

I really do not think you can have it both ways, which is what I fear is being done here. We want to have millions of dollars lavished on roadways to make us feel safer. But why should a community do this if in fact the roadways are not intended for our use in the first instance. It would be more logical for municipalities to banish bikes to sidewalks and trails and bar them from streets.

But getting to and from work by bicycle is what some people want to do for many good reasons. So in that case we are going to have to make up our minds to consider ourselves a part of the active transportation scene. After all what was the Chicago Bike Federation is now masquerading itself as the Active Transportation Alliance which insists by definition that we are part of a traffic environment that includes pedestrians, mass transit and automobiles.

So trying to opt out of that milieu seems a “copout”.