Randy Cohen’s recent oped in the New York Times rekindled the debate about whether cyclists should face the same rules as motorists when it comes to traffic lights and stop signs. Regardless of where you come down in this debate it raises interesting points about the dynamics of rules.
Some cyclists, like Spencer Boomhower, the Oregonian who produced the video below, advocate for an Idaho Stop rule. The rule allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, slowing down and rolling through provided they have the right of way and can do so safely. A version of the rule proposed in Oregon would have imposed steeper fines for cyclists who failed to yield, blowing through a stop sign altogether.
But there may be a reason the Idaho Stop is named after Idaho. The efficiency of the rule will depend in part on the scale and density of human interaction in the area where the rule applies. The density of car, bike, and foot traffic in Brooklyn is far higher than that in Boise. A rule that works well in Idaho could lead to a costly and unacceptable uptick in car-bike collisions in a place like NYC. (Boomhower alludes to this point in his video but suggests that it’s not much of an issue for Oregon, a state where Boise would be second in size only to Portland.)
This is not to say that cities like Portland or New York shouldn’t experiment with something like the Idaho Stop on a provisional basis. As Cohen makes clear, some New York cyclists already ride as though it were law, often without incident. But it is important to remember that good rules are not a one and done proposition. To remain efficient, the rules that constrain social behavior, whether formal laws or informal social norms, have to change as urban densities increase.