Cyclists should behave exactly like drivers at stop signs

Bicycles are a perennial source of angst in most large cities. Bicycling has become more popular in the District over the last several years, and bicycle rules and infrastructure have become important public policy areas. They are also rife with unnecessary histrionics.

Cyclists’ and drivers’ behaviors are extremely similar. Because commuters are often in bad moods before heading out the door, interactions that result in a slight inconvenience are often blown out of proportion. Mix that with confirmation bias, and every minor incident turns into empirical evidence that drivers or cyclists (whichever one the observer is not) are terrible people who should be banned from the roads.

Attend a public hearing about a bike lane or check the comment section anytime someone writes about bicycles, bike lanes, or cyclists and you’re sure to hear several of the following:
1. Cyclists are scofflaws.
2. Drivers want to kill cyclists.
3. Claims of moral superiority based on mode of transportation.
4. Bike lanes make traffic worse.
5. Drivers are rude.
6. Cyclists are rude.

At a recent meeting to discuss a possible bike lane on 11th Street NW between Florida and U Streets, ANC 1B02 Commissioner Jeremy Leffler took umbrage to the idea that a bike lane was needed to increase safety on the three block route. “The problem is not ANC 1B people, it’s the people coming out of Columbia Heights, going 40mph, joyriding into our community and not stopping,” he said. Based on my experience at 1B meetings, Commissioner Leffler is a reasonable and polite person, so this quote merely demonstrates that misconceptions are widespread.

The following day, police were positioned on the southwest corner of 11th Street and Fairmont in Columbia Heights, ticketing cyclists for rolling through the stop sign. It’s worth noting that southbound cyclists are pedaling uphill at this point, and moving quite slowly. Luckily for the cyclists, tickets did not come with a penalty but had “warning” written into the fine section of the tickets.
It’s true that cyclists rarely come to a complete stop at stop signs unless there is cross traffic that requires the cyclist to yield. Cyclists usually slow to a speed that allows them to ascertain whether or not the intersection is clear, and then proceed forward if it is. This is called an Idaho Stop.
The Idaho stop is not new, novel, or even controversial in practice (though some cyclists prefer a different approach). It’s what nearly every single person on the road does nearly all the time. By not stopping, cyclists are behaving exactly like cars and simultaneously making commuting safer and more convenient for everyone involved.
I went to the corner of 11th and W this afternoon to film the intersection for 10 minutes.
During that time, approximately 57 cars traveled through. Around 35 of those cars did not have to yield to cross traffic. Of those 35, only two cars–less than 6%–came to a complete stop.
Aside from one driver, none who rolled through the intersection put anyone else in danger. Their actions do not make them scofflaws or renegades. They do not lack the moral authority to have input on traffic laws, nor should they have received a fine. They simply behaved in the standard, accepted fashion as appropriate for that intersection.
Similar results are found in empirical studies, though they often show lower stop sign compliance.
When cyclists treat stop signs like everyone else, they better blend with traffic and lower the inconvenience to drivers. There isn’t enough room for cars to pass cyclists on 11th Street between Florida and U Streets, which means that drivers would be considerably inconvenienced by cyclists slowing to a complete stop and then slowly accelerating at the stop signs.
That stretch of 11th Street may or may not be a great place for a bike lane (I’d suggest that they remove 11th Street’s stop signs at W and V Streets instead), but that’s a separate issue unrelated to “scofflaw” behavior. Until it is decided, drivers and cyclists should travel safely and courteously, which means not coming to a complete stop at stop signs.
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Bad math makes for poor reporting

I was forwarded a copy of an article from the Dupont Current about the proposed liquor license moratorium for a circular area surrounding U Street.

In it, staff writer Alix Pianin uncritically paraphrases lead NIMBY Joan Sterling, “In her research, Sterling found that the U Street area has the highest concentration of alcohol-licensed establishments in the city.” Much of the debate about Ms. Sterling’s proposal has revolved around this assertion, which is the central argument made by her and her small group of allies.

This is the same claim Sterling made in her moratorium petition, filed on behalf of the Residential Action Coalition and the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, which she leads:

No other area of the city has so many license crammed into such a small area… Georgetown, Dupont Circle East and West, and Adams Morgan Moratorium Zones, also contain far fewer licenses, singly, or combined when calculated on the size of the Zone, than the proposed Historic 14th and U Street Corridor Moratorium Zone.

In another part of the petition, she claims:

This area has the greatest concentration of alcohol licensed establishments in the city and in fact is significantly higher than any other current Moratorium Zone.

Luckily for us, she provides the following information about the zones and we can evaluate the accuracy of the central claim of the entire petition based on her own numbers:

Location (Moratorium Radius) Total Number of Liquor Licenses
Adams Morgan (1400′) 85
Dupont East (600′) 19
Dupont West (600′) 33
Georgetown (1800′) 94
Glover Park (1200′) 21
U Street (1800′) 107

At first glance, these numbers might make the concentration of liquor licenses in the different zones look comparable. A gullible person might think that U Street does, indeed, have the highest concentration of liquor licenses. But once you recall some basic math the error becomes obvious: the formula for the area of a circle is radius squared, multiplied by Pi. The area of the proposed U Street moratorium (with an 1800′ radius) isn’t three times larger than the Dupont moratorium zones (with 600′ radii), it is actually nine times larger.

Using her numbers, the U Street zone has concentration of 1.05 liquor licenses per 100,000 square feet. Adams Morgan has 1.38 (31% higher concentration), Dupont East has 1.68 (60% higher concentration), and Dupont West has 2.92 (a whopping 178% higher concentration).

Ms. Sterling’s assertion that the proposed U Street moratorium area has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the District is not only inaccurate, but obviously so, and by an enormous margin.

If we’re going to have a reasonable discussion about liquor licenses and development in DC then we need to start from true premises. This debate isn’t about whether or not the DC government should put some limits on the neighborhood in DC with the “highest concentration of liquor licenses.”

This is really about whether or not a small group of disgruntled residents is going to be able to stop a growing neighborhood based simply on their own, inaccurate perceptions of U Street.

In My Backyard – DC, a new group to stop NIMBYism

After seeing yet another proposed liquor license moratorium in DC, I’ve decided to found this group dedicated to creating an environment in the District where residents, small businesses, and neighborhoods can flourish.

It has been too easy for small groups that do not represent most DC residents to derail any kind of new development in DC. With just a few signatures and some complaining, these groups successfully stop businesses and homebuilders from serving the needs of DC residents.

It’s my opinion that DC will be better off with more options for consumers, not fewer. Residents currently face increasingly unaffordable housing, and the only solution to easing this problem is to allow the supply of housing to expand. Allowing developers to build new homes and buildings will lower rents and increase standards of living in the District.

The primary function of this group will be to submit petitions and comments to City Council, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and the Alcohol Beverage Control Board in support of the new developments that can provide homes and jobs for our growing community. We will counteract the close-minded voices who speak out against new housing for consumers and new restaurants and businesses that seek to serve our neighborhoods.

I’m not a developer or politician, but I do want to live in a more vibrant District with more options for regular residents like you and me. If you agree, please fill out the form below to join In My Backyard – DC.

-Michael Hamilton
Columbia Heights