Something a bit weird happened the other day. I was riding along when a pair of Denver police officers with remarkably smooth skin stepped into the street and gave me the halt gesture. All right. No problem. I don't want no problem officer. They thanked me for riding lawfully, which I was, then handed me one of the little cards pictured here. (Then, in an awkward and somewhat ominous twist, they asked for my name and birthdate and wrote the info down in a notebook. I'm not sure what that was about, but it felt unnecessarily Orwellian.)

The message on the card contains a lot of good and empowering stuff, relatively speaking. On the other hand, it's unfortunate that the most important safety messages for bicyclists are still outright ignored. Big Red Letters: "Be prepared, not surprised! It is common for motorists to overlook bicyclists, whether they are riding lawfully or not. Be ready for it." Something like that would be a crucial addition to any safety campaign. I was also a little disheartened to see that the city and the police department seemed to be gearing up for another law-and-order crackdown on scofflaw bike riders, and that a few well-meaning local bicycle advocacy groups are on board with the effort.

I've been around a long time folks, and I've seen a lot of crackdowns. They don't work. Rather than making me watch successive generations of officials, rookie cops and green bike advocates learn this over and over, let's graduate to a more nuanced approach. (Yeah right.)

The Reality of bicycling in cities like Denver is that riders of all stripes from all walks of life and various sides of the tracks tend to take blatant liberties with the law, rolling stop signs and stoplights in the central area. They do it because it is easy to do, it speeds their travels and the police have much bigger fish to fry. Don't get me wrong now. I'm not saying this lawbreaking is a good thing, but it is reality, an inevitable and organic development of the traffic grid. A somewhat similar phenomenon occurs with pedestrians, known of course as jaywalking. The current illegality of this type of freelance city movement deters only the most scrupulous -- careful -- riders and walkers. Those who least need to be constrained. It's totally ineffective law, and any double-down crackdown is not going to be able to change that for very long. It's like trying to make water flow uphill.

In a nod to reality and common sense, the city should seriously consider bringing the 'Idaho Stop' law to the central business district, where the overwhelming majority of cyclists already exploit the 'Barnes Dance' with apparent ease and success. (The 'Barnes Dance' or 'pedestrian scramble' is the phase of the signal during which all the lights are red, allowing pedestrians to cross from any corner to any other corner. This innovation was first applied to the intersection of 17th and Stout in downtown Denver when Henry Barnes was the city's traffic engineer, according to a plaque at the location.) The idea behind the Idaho Stop is to reward careful bicyclists with a little more freedom of movement and make it a little more convenient to ride bikes in the city, and let the police focus on more important things. Riders are allowed to take some measured liberties with stop signs and red lights as long as they honor the rights of way of other vehicles and pedestrians. If a bicyclist blows through a light in front of cars or frightens peds during the Barnes Dance, throw the book at him. Idaho has enjoyed this law for over twenty years; the bicyclists and police generally call it a success:

 

49-720. STOPPING -- TURN AND STOP SIGNALS

1. A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.

2. A person operating a bicyle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic-control signal shall stop before entering the intersection, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn without stopping or may cautiously make a left-hand turn onto a one-way highway without stopping.

[...]

 

There would be some negative unintended consequences attending such a change in the law I imagine. It's not something that is so important that we all need to get super organized or militant about it. But on balance I think it would leave bicyclists, and the city in general, better off. And it would be extremely difficult to detect any difference in the way bicyclists operate around here after the change in law anyway.

Imagine if we are someday able to crack down on jaywalkers so hard that they all begin to operate in perfect right-angles, crossing only at instersections and on green signals. Certainly this gigantic change in the way the city operates would mean a much safer situation for bicyclists on the street, removing one of our most consistent dangers. But would society in general be better off? There are real benefits that come from easing the non-motorized travels of a city's inhabitants. The benefits of another double-down law-and-order crackdown will be elusive, if not entirely illusory.

 

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