We see too much misinformation about bicyclists and the laws that govern their use of public roads. Let’s set the record straight.
1. The Idaho Stop law. Originally passed in 1982, this law permits bicyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign and a stoplight as a stop sign. Bicyclists are permitted to roll through a stop sign with no cross traffic. They must stop at a red light; when the intersection is clear they may proceed.
This law benefits drivers as well as cyclists by removing bicyclists from conflict points where their presence may impede the progress of vehicular traffic, such as when a motorist wants to turn right. Many big cities have installed special traffic signals that allow cyclists to get a head start through an intersection. These lights are expensive. Idaho has wisely chosen to address the situation with legislation to accomplish the same thing.
2. Bicyclists break the law. Well, motorists do, too. A study by Wesley Marshall, Ph.D., from the University of Colorado-Denver, indicates that motorists break the law (8 to 9 percent) at slightly higher rates than bicyclists (7-8 percent). A follow-up study asked why bicyclists break the law and the primary reason was safety. We all get angry when we see bicyclists riding on sidewalks. If those cyclists had a lane separated and protected from car traffic, we’d likely see less sidewalk riding.
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3. The roads are meant for cars. This statement belies the fact that 30 percent of our population doesn’t drive because of age, income, disability or desire. Rights-of-way on many streets (especially Downtown) are valuable, and were acquired through prescriptive right-of-way laws or were sanctioned as public right-of-way. Idaho law states 25 feet of either side of center line is public right-of-way. Therefore, 50 feet of any street is automatically public space meant to handle two lanes of traffic and other needs such as parking, sidewalks, drainage swales and bike lanes.
4. Bicyclists don’t pay for roads. We all pay for roads through the general fund, property taxes and sales taxes. Local roads have been built and maintained largely through property taxes. Gas taxes fund state and federal highways because those governments cannot collect property taxes. Additionally, gas taxes don’t come close to covering the entire cost of building and maintaining our highways.
We conducted a survey in 2016 and found that 96 percent of Idahoans who ride bicycles on the roads also own a motor vehicle. Therefore, nearly every bicyclist also pays vehicle registration fees, gas taxes and other costs associated with car ownership.
5. Special bicycle facilities cost too much. Modern roads have been designed for the safety of people inside cars, not outside. This puts bicyclists at risk. Separating bike traffic from car traffic eliminates much of the inherent conflict and everyone arrives safely at their destination. We pay for transportation infrastructure with an expectation that it promotes safety on our roads for all, not just for drivers and those in vehicles.
Cynthia Gibson has been the executive director of the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance for five years, and is a lifelong walker and bicyclist.