Sharing the Road from Start to Idaho Stop
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Sharing the Road from Start to Idaho Stop

How abusing a good idea doesn't help anyone, including cyclists.

Photo by Benson Kua from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Benson Kua from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Many Toronto cyclists can be seen engaging the Idaho Stop–in other words, slowing down at a stop sign rather than making a complete halt. There’s nothing wrong with it, and the way it’s described in the opening paragraph of Jordan Foisy’s argument from earlier this week sounds right: slow down, be mindful of your surroundings, and if the coast is reasonably clear, keep moving. If it’s not, and a pedestrian or a car or even another bike approaches the same intersection, you’re slow enough to stop if you have to.

“I’ll slow, take a peek around corners and continue on my way,” he writes, “attempting to be safe while also maintaining precious momentum.” Bang on, and I say that with the full, direct disclosure that I, too, occupy the reviled ranks of Idaho stoppers in Toronto. Here’s where I disagree, though: doing so just to piss off drivers, as Foisy perhaps jokingly claims to do, is amateurish and silly. An Idaho Stop done for those reasons isn’t an Idaho Stop at all. Why? Because it throws off the precarious dance of road-sharing itself, no matter how you get around. And it does so for reasons of egregious self-interest.

What started with a measured look at the Idaho Stop as a technique became a rapid-fire series of smaller, more heated arguments about the privilege of driving, or the potential of the car as a weapon. The meaning of the Idaho Stop changed too. Going slow, peeking around corners and proceeding on course became “gleefully coast[ing] through stop signs,” supplanting an image of caution, prudence and skill in the saddle with its polar opposite. Instead of advocating for sensibly graduated legislation of road vehicles, Foisy’s argument turned to the familiar Toronto road use narrative of us vs. them.

Pitting cyclists against cars and pedestrians, or vice versa, is something that plays itself out on the streets in the same way as it does in conversation. It can—and often does—spell disaster.

I’ve seen it a few too many times, personally.

When that worst-case scenario arises, it’s because road users—cyclists, drivers, pedestrians, maybe even longboarders or e-bikers—are thinking the same way, with their line-in-the-sand, me-versus-everyone outlook fomenting the already precarious experience of getting around in Canada’s biggest city. Toronto’s streets consequently become even more of an urban Thunderdome, not a shared network of asphalt.

In that respect, any argument that accuses drivers of monopolizing the road to the detriment of all, while not recognizing how cyclists and others can do the same, shoots itself right in the foot.

As a cyclist grizzled—and, yes, even embittered at times—by the experience of Hogtown streets, I’m not about to excuse motorists for anything careless or irresponsible that they do, having had my hair parted by many, many near-misses. For years, my ride to work took me from the Junction to the intersection of York Mills and Don Mills, a 25-kilometre route in either direction through the heart of suburban darkness as far as Toronto cycling is concerned. Dupont Street, Pape, Overlea Boulevard, Don Mills Road; these are parts of the city where cars dramatically outnumber bikes, where the presence of industrial trucks, buses and other heavy traffic warp and break the road’s surface, and where drivers are less attentive to cyclists than anywhere else, at least in my experience. I’ll spare you the gory details, but it could get ugly.

As dangerous as it could be, though, responding to the instances in which that danger was demonstrated by digging in, gritting my teeth, and treating the columns of heavy traffic around me as competitors would have only made it worse. Kicking it into high gear and blasting—or even “coasting”—through a stop sign, gleefully waving my middle finger at North York traffic the whole way, might have felt justifiable after those scrapes. But that wouldn’t be anything even resembling an Idaho stop. In that part of the city, all it would be is deadly, both to me and others.

Worse, it would also be my contribution to the unraveling of the very fragile interplay of traffic essential to its safe movement, no matter what my reasons for doing so–and very possibly to the injury of others even less protected than myself, like pedestrians.

A degree of culpability needs to be shouldered by drivers who ignore the unique challenges of cycling, no question. That’s well beyond disagreement. But in the same way, pedestrians who cross against a green, with a cyclist bearing down on them, or who simply step into traffic without looking, are also at fault. So are bus drivers who run red lights, or cyclists who cruise along sidewalks, evidently—and inexcusably—oblivious to the fact that pedestrians are to bikes what bikes are to cars. When it comes to what some cyclists believe an Idaho Stop amounts to, especially considering the reasons they give for doing it, it very definitely applies to bikes, too.

When done correctly, the Idaho Stop can be a way of effectively sharing the road. As Foisy said, the ability to regain momentum from a stopped position is more difficult for some riders than it is for others, and as a result, a bottleneck can happen at intersections when the rules are followed exceedingly closely. Cyclists also have the benefit of a full range of visibility around them, allowing us to read the intersection faster and more accurately than motorists can. The reasons abound for Idaho Stopping, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with comeuppance.

If employed for such reasons, ones that say little more than “Fuck you, I can do what I want; I had no say in your ridiculous rules,” the entire point of the Idaho Stop is lost. Arguments in favour of doing so then become myopic an even hypocritical, obstinate in their unwillingness to consider others—something for which motorists are commonly blamed—and grossly unrepresentative of the rest of us in the cycling community.