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June 28, 2024

Should Pa. join other states in allowing cyclists to roll through stop signs?

A Philly driver's rant after nearly hitting two bikers with his car sparks debate over how to make the roads safer for everyone.

Transportation Road Safety
Philly Bicycle Laws Michael Tanenbaum/PhillyVoice

At 18th and Market streets, a traffic light has a signal for cyclists to pass through the intersection in the bike lane before cars turn. It's one of only a few lights like it in Philadelphia.

The congested roads of cities like Philadelphia were not built to foster a harmonious relationship between throngs of motorists and outnumbered cyclists who don't get much space to operate.

Josh Kim, the owner of Brewerytown's Spot Gourmet Burgers, was running errands in his car a few weeks ago when he said he nearly struck two cyclists during the same trip. One of them rode through a red light near 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. A short time later, he almost hit a cyclist who continued through a stop sign at Poplar Street and Corinthian Avenue.

"I had supplies in the car. I abruptly broke and everything in the back just tumbled. Bottles broken. Two jars of mustard exploded. I'm like, 'What the f---, man?' Kim said. "I could have killed them both. And if I wasn't aware, that's exactly what would have happened."

It's against the law in Pennsylvania for bike riders to go through stop signs and red lights without first coming to a stop at the intersection. Only 11 states and Washington, D.C., allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields in a move known as a rolling stop, or Idaho stop, named after the first state that legalized it in 1982. Some states with rolling stop laws also permit cyclists to treat red lights as stop signs.

Many cyclists in Philadelphia and elsewhere do rolling stops even though they're not legal, and there's been a growing debate among cyclists and traffic experts about whether they should be legalized more broadly. Last year, a fact sheet released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cited statistics in favor of the safety benefits of rolling stops in some of the states where they're allowed.

"Bicyclist stop-as-yield laws allow cyclists to mitigate risk to their advantage, increase their visibility to drivers and reduce exposure," the federal agency said. "Bicyclists have greater incentive to yield, as they are at high risk for injury at intersections."

Discrepancies between the law and what actually happens on the road create unpredictability — and thus safety hazards — for drivers and cyclists. It's why some states have questioned whether it's worth legalizing rolling stops considering the public education needed to implement them.

"Cyclist rage doesn't involve a 2-ton vehicle that could really hurt a lot of people. That's the difference"
– Bob Craskey, Frankenstein Bike Worx

Kim said the cyclist who ran the red light swerved to avoid his car as it entered the intersection and then gave him the middle finger. When the second incident happened, Kim said he "freaked out" and hopped on the burger shop's Instagram account to post a video threatening cyclists who run red lights.

"I am all for bikes in this city. I prefer them over cars, frankly," Kim started the video, which he filmed in his car. "However, you don't get your own set of rules and laws. You've actually got to stop at red lights and stop at stop signs. Next time one of you motherf------ blows a red light, I'm running you over."

Predictably, this kind of vitriol didn't go over well online. Kim says he was just being hyperbolic, but many cyclists in Philadelphia didn't take it that way. When the clip made its way to the r/phillycycling subreddit, hundreds of commenters pointed out the homicidal extremity of Kim's words and noted the irony of it all, considering how often cars don't come to complete stops and break traffic laws with much deadlier force behind them.

Some people noted that Kim has a history of online antics meant to provoke disagreement. And a number of people brigaded Kim's business with negative reviews or threatened him in private messages, he said.

"I think it's foolish as a business owner to put yourself out there that much," said Bob Craskey, co-owner of Frankenstein Bike Worx in Center City. "All you're inviting is tension. It's not going to do anything productive."

Craskey drives a 26-foot truck for his second job moving furniture. He said the issues surrounding cyclist behavior at intersections are thorny and contentious. The "bad eggs" on the road shouldn't be used to stereotype cyclists or drivers, he said, but that doesn't mean all road rage is created equal.

"Cyclist rage doesn't involve a 2-ton vehicle that could really hurt a lot of people," Craskey said. "That's the difference. Road rage for drivers is almost the same as brandishing a gun when you're angry. Cyclist rage is more often being a keyboard warrior."

Kim claimed his original post, which is no longer available, drew plenty of support from people who understood the basic point he was making — before the part about killing people, at least.

"Do I want cyclists to die? That's completely absurd," Kim said. "Was I frustrated because I almost killed two in one day? You're damn right."

Would legal rolling stops be a step in the right direction?

When Idaho decided to make rolling stops legal, lawmakers there initially were motivated to find ways that would reduce the number of traffic code cases that were clogging up courts. The state's laws regarding how and where cyclists can do rolling stops have been modified in the decades since, but in the first year after they were legalized, one study cited by NHTSA found that bicyclist injuries from crashes declined by 14.5%. Other states with rolling stops, including Delaware, saw similar outcomes that led several other states to pass laws. 

Part of the logic behind the safety of rolling stops is that they limit the amount of time cars and bikes are next to each other, which tends to make both parties antsy. And because stopping and starting a bike takes exertion, rolling stops let cyclists keep their momentum and conserve energy. It's an advantage on the road that can be likened to cars being allowed to turn right on certain red lights, as long as they yield to traffic. 

"A rolling stop is good for motorists because it gives them more time to clear the intersection and they spend less time behind the bicyclists," said Jacob Pritchett, a founding member of Philly Bike Action, which organizes advocacy for improvements at the neighborhood level. "Also, it's safer for cyclists because they don't have to start from a stop to clear a safe gap in traffic. The longer they spend in an intersection, the more at risk they are."

In Pennsylvania, one bill introduced two years ago to allow cyclists to yield at stop signs was referred to the House Transportation Committee, but it never progressed beyond that point.

A spokesperson for Philadelphia's Office of Transportation and Infrastructure said the city "has investigated rolling stop laws for cyclists," but doesn't have a definite position on them. At PennDOT, an official said the agency is aware of NHTSA's positive view toward rolling stops and considers any legislation that's designed to improve road safety, if such a law for rolling stops were to gain momentum.

The Philadelphia Police Department also is aware of discussions about legalizing rolling stops but remains focused on "the overall safety and compliance with existing traffic laws," a spokesperson said. Bike patrol officers are expected to stop at signs and red lights to set a positive example for the community.

Despite the justifications for rolling stops, there are questions about how wise it would be to legalize them. Some cycling advocates in the city think they're not the right issue to prioritize.

"A lot of the time, people don't want to talk about it because the way that people ride bikes in the city is used as a way to justify not building safer bike infrastructure," said Caleb Holtmayer, another co-founder of Philly Bike Action. "At almost every meeting we go to, somebody will say, 'Why do we need better infrastructure? The cyclists out there are all crazy. They're all reckless. They're running stop signs and red lights.'"

Kim, who said he used to bike in the city regularly, feels that cyclists can only thrive in Philadelphia if they "at least do the basics" of following laws meant to keep them safe.

"The last thing we need is somebody getting crushed by 2 tons of metal," he said.

How Philly has become more bike-friendly

In 2016, Philadelphia joined the Vision Zero initiative to eliminate all traffic fatalities. One of the city's aims was to become more bike-friendly. Increasing bikes on the road means less vehicle traffic, better air quality and more affordable ways for residents to safely get around.

Indego, the city's bike share program that launched in 2015, has grown to nearly 200 stations and 2,000 bikes across Philadelphia — including a fleet of more than 500 electric bikes.

Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia cites stats from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey that found by 2020 more people in Philly commuted to work by bike, per capita, than any of the other 10 biggest cities in the country. Indego hit 1 million trips per year in 2023, boosted during the pandemic when SEPTA's ridership plummeted and fewer drivers were commuting to offices. And while Philly's bike ridership has fluctuated since an all-time high in 2017, an OTIS spokesperson said this is partly due to wider pandemic work trends and the rise of e-scooters

Entering 2024, Philly also had just under 30 miles of separated bike lanes, which were associated with 17% fewer injury crashes in places where they were installed, according to the most recent Vision Zero report. The city is now on pace to hit its original goal of 40 miles of separated bike lanes by the end of 2025.

On Market Street, between 15th and 18th streets, Craskey praised the city's installation of dedicated bicyclist traffic light signals where there are separated bike lanes. The signals give cyclists a chance to get ahead of cars making turns. They'll soon be extended to additional intersections along that path between 15th and 23rd streets, and the signals are also headed to four intersection along a stretch of Walnut Street between 34th and 63rd streets. 

"When drivers see the cycling traffic lights, it reminds them to slow down and look for the cyclists," he said. "Adding these in areas where protected bike lanes are being built would be great. It's like a walking signal for cyclists."

Philadelphia has made progress toward becoming a more bike-friendly city. The problem is that to the average cyclist, it doesn't always feel that way on the road. Craskey, Holtmayer and Pritchett all said they've been harassed by drivers over the years.

"Never, ever retaliate against a potentially dangerous driver," Holtmayer said. "It will never make things better. I tell people to channel their frustrations into advocacy."

Philadelphia's long-term decline in traffic enforcement for cars was partly reinforced by the passage of a controversial 2022 law meant to reduce the racial bias reflected in police stops for minor infractions. In effect, many cyclists and drivers say it has enabled more reckless and aggressive behavior on city streets.

"They just don't pull people over anymore," Craskey said. "And since then, some people are incredibly brazen in what they think they can get away with. At this point. it's what they know they can get away with. There's bed eggs with drivers and cyclists. I don't think it's fair to slight all cyclists for the behavior of a few people, just like I don't think it's fair to condemn all drivers for the behavior of a few."

Rather than press for legalized rolling stops, Philly Bike Action wants the city to step up traffic enforcement for violators in cars — including those who park in bike lanes — and expand quality bike infrastructure along routes that connect people between their homes and centers of employment and shopping.

"It will bring more people out on their bicycles," Pritchett said.

The Bicycle Coalition, although interested in rolling stop legislation, considers Philly's driving conditions too dangerous to recommend cyclists risk yielding at intersections. But spokesperson Nicole Brunet called called Kim's scolding of cyclists a "privileged" take for a motorist to put out there given the way drivers behave in the city.

"As a cyclist, I see drivers running red lights, stop signs, making illegal right and left turns, and illegally forcing cyclists out of the road," Brunet said. "All of these violations make me angry not just because they are breaking the law but because actions like this can kill pedestrians and cyclists. Until Pennsylvania passes legislation to allow Idaho stops, cyclists should stop at stop signs and red lights, but so should drivers."