A few months ago, Scott Gutierrez at the PI got a question from a reader asking whether people biking are required to stop at stop signs along the Burke-Gilman Trail (specifically, near U Village). The answer, of course, is yes. All road (and trail) users are legally required to obey traffic control signs.
I responded, however, that the situation is a little more confusing than it needs to be. When a trail crosses a roadway, it is a crosswalk. Legally, operators on the road are required to yield to people walking and biking in a crosswalk. So, when a user on the roadway approaches the crosswalk at the same time someone on the trail approaches the stop sign, who has the right-of-way?
I posed this question to Scott, who researched a little further. Technically, the trail user has the right-of-way, but is still expected to come to a stop. So as the person on the road approaches the crosswalk and notices a person biking on the trail, they come to a stop. Then the trail user comes to a stop before being the first to continue through the intersection.
My question is: How many people behind the steering wheel or handlebars know this is the legal order?
According to the PI, SDOT does not think this situation is confusing:
Brian Kemper, SDOT’s acting city traffic engineer, responds:
“We do not have evidence that this intersection is confusing for motorists and bicyclists. No matter the location, traffic laws apply to bicyclists just as motorists, and we expect people to follow the law and the ‘rules of the road.’
“Seattle Municipal Code, Section 11.44.120, Riding on a Sidewalk or Public Path states: ‘Every person operating a bicycle … shall obey all traffic control devices.’ Assignment of right-of-way varies along our trail system. Typically, where the trail crosses a roadway at a mid-block location, the roadway will have the right-of-way. In other words, people on the trail have to yield to roadway vehicles. This is typically due to a higher volume of vehicles on the roadway and the tendency for motorists to be less aware of a mid-block crossing. In this case, we install a regulatory sign, such as a stop or yield, for the trail.
That being said, at any uncontrolled marked crosswalk (that is, a marked crosswalk with no accompanying traffic signal or stop sign), pedestrians and bicyclists have the right-of-way and motorists must stop for them. There is a stop sign on both the northwest AND the southwest corners of the trail, which means that cyclists must stop before entering into the crosswalk. This allows motorists to see them and then stop and then they must allow the bicyclist to cross.”
You catch all that? A busy roadway will be given priority, except that the trail crossing will also be a crosswalk, which means it has priority … wait, huh?
I went searching a little further to figure out why stop signs are sometimes used at crossings, but not always. Basically, stop signs at trail crossings should only be used if some special factor demands it, according to the AASHTO guidebook. Often, sight lines are the issue, so stop signs on trails or roadways are used to make sure all road and trail users have a chance to see each other before continuing through an intersection. This is clearly an important function, and you will notice that at many trail stop signs, there are visibility issues the prevent road users from seeing each other until they are very close.
Engineers then decide whether the roadway or the trail should be given priority and erect stop signs accordingly. Either the road or the trail should get a stop sign, but not both.
Confusing the right-of-way at a trail crossing when it is not warranted does not help anyone, and the AASHTO guide on bicycle design (2010 draft) specifically warns against unnecessarily installing stop signs on trails as an attempt to increase safety:
5 Application of intersection controls (YIELD signs, STOP signs, or traffic signals) should follow the principle
6 of providing the least control that is effective. Installing unwarranted or unrealistically restrictive
7 controls on path approaches in an attempt to “protect” path users can lead to disregard of controls and
8 intersection operating patterns that are routinely different than indicated by the controls. This can
9 increase an unfamiliar user’s or driver’s risk of collision, and potentially lead to a loss of respect for the
10 control at warranted locations.
11 A common misconception is that the routine installation of stop control for the pathway is an effective
12 treatment for preventing crashes at path‐roadway intersections. Poor bicyclist compliance with STOP
13 signs at path‐roadway intersections is well documented. Bicyclists tend to operate as though there are
14 YIELD signs at these locations: they slow down as they approach the intersection, look for oncoming
15 traffic, and proceed with the crossing if it is safe to do so. Yield control (either for vehicular traffic on
16 the roadway or for users on the pathway) can therefore be an effective solution at some midblock
17 crossings, as it encourages caution without being overly restrictive.
While the jury is still out on whether the law should even mandate that bicycle users fully stop at stop signs (the so-called Idaho stop law allows bicycle users to treat stop signs as yield signs, slowing to a reasonable speed but only stopping if other users are present), it is very useful to know that a stop sign on a trail is likely trying to warn you that something about the upcoming crossing requires increased attention and caution.
Here are the relevant pages from the AASHTO guide pertaining to mid-block trail crossings: