Slate Stop Sign Strife: “Vehicularists” vs “Facilitators”

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Slate has a very thoughtful piece about cyclists, the law, and advocacy. Its not a perfect article, but its easy to surmise that Christopher Beam, the author, is also cyclist, rather than the typical reporter who temporarily adopts cycling in order to complete an assignment.

The piece reflects on one of the most pressing problems for everyday cyclists and cycling advocates alike: following laws that are mostly made for motorized traffic. Coming to a complete stop makes sense when you’re enclosed in and slinging around several hundred pounds of metal and glass. But on a bicycle, with better vision, a higher position, and lighter momentum, stop signs ought to work more like yield signs, as described in the Idaho Stop Law.

This is an ongoing discussion, but Beam does interesting work of outlining the debate between “vehicularists” and “facilitators”:

Today’s cycling activists generally split into two groups: “vehicularists” and “facilitators.” Proponents of “vehicular cycling” believe bikes should act as cars: occupy full lanes, stop at red lights, use a hand signal at least 100 feet ahead of a turn. That’s the best way to make cars—and policymakers—aware of bicycles and to respect them as equals on the road. When it comes to making roads safe for bikes, vehicularists tend to favor training, education (most cities offer bike safety classes), and enforcement. Cyclists should not grouse about moving violations, the vehicularists argue. It is a sign that they’re being treated as equals.

Facilitators, meanwhile, say we should change the laws and the environment to recognize the innate differences between bikes and cars. That means special facilities like bike lanes, bike paths (elevated trails separate from the road), and even Copenhagen-style traffic lights for bikes. It would also mean changing car-centric laws that don’t make sense for bikes, like the rule that says you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

So, do we want to be recognized as vehicles, or have special lanes and bikeways made for us to separate cyclists from motorized traffic?

The debate rages on. Facilitators point to the aesthetic benefits of bike paths. Vehicularists point to statistics that bikeways actually increase the number of accidents. (Partly because segregating bikes makes it more dangerous for cyclists who stay on the roads, partly because intersections involving bike paths can be especially hazardous.) Facilitators say bike paths create more bikers. Vehicularists say the push for paths is the result of more bikers, not vice versa. Facilitators say bike paths are helpful for beginners and older cyclists, who might not want to brave the open road. You know who else liked bike paths? say vehicularists. Hitler.

Part of the problem has to do with how Beam and others set these arguments up as presenting mutually exclusive choices.

I want both. I’d love to see more bikeways. When given the choice, I’d almost always choose to ride where motorized vehicles are not. This is especially the case when riding with my children or loaded down with groceries – and when I want some peace, beauty, and the absence of the noise, heat, and fumes caused by internal combustion engines. When I need to ride with motorized traffic, I will ride as traffic. I’d like budgetary decisions to allocate more funds for bicycle infrastructure. But I will not give up my rights and obligations as the operator of a vehicle when on a bike. Why can’t we have both?

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