Why some trail crossings have stop signs

Pend Oreille Rd E and the Burke-Gilman Trail (via Google Street View)

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:

Draft Bike Guide Feb 2010 (Dragged)

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31 Responses to Why some trail crossings have stop signs

  1. Todd says:

    There are stop signs, I figure, because it takes the legal liability away from the property owner. That way, when you blow through that meaningless stop sign, in the rare event you have bad timing and collide with a car — bummer — it’s on you.

    • Gary says:

      And I figure that for most auto drivers, “Yield” means keep moving, and if you really have to, slow down and let the other guy go, but for heavens sake, don’t stop.

      It’s because they use “Yield” signs when they mean “Merge” at places like freeway on ramps etc.

  2. Doug Bostrom says:

    Considering that all crosswalks do not sport stop signs, yes, these signs are confusing at first blush.

    On the other hand, soaring into an intersection without due diligence– often including a stop or near-stop for scanning– is pretty foolish. Pedestrians travel at 2-4mph, meaning they’ve got a reasonable amount of time to take in the situation on the street before entering a crosswalk, as well as being visible to motorists for longer. The same amount of observation and mental work cannot be done in the time available to a cyclist moving at 12mph, nor will a motorist have as much time to observe and acknowledge the cyclist.

    My experience has mostly to do w/the BG. I pretty much treat intersections with the BG and streets the same whether behind a wheel or gripping bars: slow down enough to do the observational and mental work needed to avoid a collision, which usually means coming to a nearly complete stop.

    • Todd says:

      Yep. I agree. Regardless of who has the “right away” — if there’s a mistake and a collision — it’s gonna hurt me a lot more than them.

    • Shane Phillips says:

      It definitely depends on the intersection. The one going through UW on the east side (pictured above) is the one I’m most wary of, and usually come to a stop or near-stop since sight lines are pretty bad. If a car is coming, even if I’m already stopped I wait for them to stop because they treat it like any other crosswalk: maybe they’ll stop, maybe they won’t.

      For the ones further north near Sandpoint I slow down, but you can see far enough in both directions that I’ve never had to stop unless there was actually a car coming in one direction or the other. Even further north, for the stop signs that are just basically people’s driveways, I don’t slow much there either. Most people don’t seem to, despite these not having crosswalk lines (I think) and therefore being the ones in which cars have the most right-of-way.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        Technically, the crosswalk markings don’t mean anything. A multi-use trail crossing is always going to be a legal crosswalk, stripes or not (I can’t think of an exception, but maybe someone else can?).

        In reality, though, who knows if someone driving is aware that such crossings count as legal crosswalks? It’s best to assume they don’t until you know they are stopping, as with any situation. Eye contact is key.

      • rtk says:

        And the intersection picture even has the flashing LED red lights around the stop sign.
        Mostly I use common sense, instead of following the letter of the law at all times. Make eye contact, don’t except moving motor vehicles to slow and yield.

  3. jeff says:

    What I find more confusing than stop signs on the path are the yield signs. Yield signs mean that I am supposed to give cross traffic the right of way. The crosswalk means that they are supposed to give me the right of way. What does this signage mean?

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Indeed. And does a stop sign also have an assumed “yield” sign in it? I don’t know.

      Basically, the goal is to just have everybody slow down enough so that they can deal with each other (which is necessary). However, I feel like trying to use our nation’s clumsy, made-for-motor-vehicles traffic devices (and our flawed cultural definitions of them) to accomplish this task does not always work. STOP is basically the only sign anyone pays attention to, so we just use that for everything no matter what we’re trying to say or if it technically conflicts with other road rules (like yielding to crosswalk users). Of course, when you place too many stop signs where they are not warranted, users (biking or driving) get into the dangerous habit of ignoring them. That doesn’t help anybody.

      This isn’t to point fingers at SDOT. More just ranting at the state of American roadways. I demand more nuance!

      • JAT says:

        what about the stop signs north beyond Mathews Beach (maybe beyond the 145th city line, I don’t exactly remember) where the crossing streets are private driveways – I note they are (or at least used to be) smaller than the standard roadway stop signs.

        but bracketing the issue of stopping many cyclists for the benefit of only occasional motor traffic, what about the subjugation of a public thoroughfare to a private driveway? Legal? Enforceable?

      • Biliruben says:

        The stop signs in lake forest park were put there at the request of the lake forest park city council years ago at the request of their buddies with lake front property. They are coming out or being turned to apply to the infrequent car traffic during the current work, along with taking out private fences and hedges in the public row and opening up sightlines. Long overdue.

    • Andreas says:

      I second this: the Yield signs are much more problematic than the Stop signs. A crosswalk is an implicit stop sign when peds are present, as evidenced by the “Stop here for pedestrians” signs SDOT has started putting up at crosswalks around town: there may not be a stop sign there, but when peds are present, under WA law, vehicles are supposed to stop as if there were a Stop sign there. Given that the MUTCD says “STOP signs and YIELD signs shall not be installed on different approaches to the same unsignalized intersection if those approaches conflict with or oppose each other”, it would seem that putting Yield signs on the BGT goes against the spirit (if not the letter) of the MUTCD.

  4. Lisa says:

    Seems like some sort of “bicyclists slow to walking pace” sign would be appropriate. Or “slow, intersection ahead” or something. . .

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I wish a sign like that existed. I think the confusion comes because stop signs are most often used to designate that cross traffic has the right-of-way (such as a standard neighborhood intersection). But here, that’s not what they are saying. They are simply saying to stop, even though it’s still your right-of-way.

      Basically, crosswalk trumps stop sign in the right of way designation rules, apparently, but nobody knows that.

      • Greg Barnes says:

        It’s the law that if you have a stop sign, you must yield the right of way.

        http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=46.61.190

        I don’t see the wiggle room there that allows the city to redefine what a stop sign means. Same holds for a yield sign.

        It seems to me that if SDOT wants to create a new sign, they need to do so; it doesn’t work to just abuse Stop signs and claim that somehow state law doesn’t apply.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        To be clear, this guide book is from the Federal Highway Administration. So it’s not just an SDOT thing.

  5. Pedals Don't Peddle says:

    If asked, I think that most WA drivers will tell you that yes, every intersection is a legal crosswalk, and thus they should yield the right of way to crosswalk users. In practice, however, this often doesn’t happen at marked crosswalks, and every time I cross a small arterial by my house at the intersection with no marked crosswalk, I have to wait for traffic to completely clear because almost no one ever stops to yield… Knowing the law and applying it are different things.

    I always thought that car traffic would have to yield the right of way to trail traffic at intersections, even those that have “yield” signs for trail users (which I figured are there more for a “slow down and look, but you don’t *have* to stop” purpose). However, I don’t really trust road traffic to give me the right of way every time. The law does specifically say when to *yield* the right of way instead of giving it, and I believe that the language reflects a good defensive point: you never have the right of way until someone gives it to you. If I cross a road while on a trail and traffic is present, I usually slow down to a near stop or stop all the way until I’m sure that the drivers are all stopping to let me cross. Sometimes I think they see a stop sign on the trail and believe that this means they don’t have to yield the right of way to trail traffic. Same with yield signs, and I’d do the same if there were no signs at all. It’s just good sense to not go flying out into the street if you can’t be sure there’s no traffic. Trail intersections frequently have bad visibility.

    When I drive, I slow down to a crawl before trail intersections if it’s difficult to see whether there’s trail traffic approaching (e.g. BGT intersection at Brooklyn, gaah), ready to yield to crossing people. Better to get honked at than run someone down!

  6. Stacie Bain says:

    I agree that the statutes are not a model of clarity when it comes to determining who has the right of way with a stop sign/crosswalk scenario, but the SDOT guy got one point wrong. The traffic laws don’t always apply to bicyclists. There is case law in Washington holding that RCW 46.61.755 (the statute that applies traffic laws to cyclists) does not apply to a cyclist using a pedestrian crosswalk connecting two segments of a multiuse trail like the Burke Gilman, first, because a multiuse trail is not a roadway, and second, because the crossing cyclists are in a pedestrian crosswalk where special rules apply.

    While it’s clear that a cyclist must stop at the stop sign, the law is also clear that the approaching motorist does not have the right of way and must yield to crossing cyclists. The cyclist at the stop sign is not required to yield to motorists as if in a vehicle or remain stopped at the stop sign until the traffic on the roadway is clear. However, like a pedestrian, a cyclist shouldn’t dart into the crosswalk or he could be found partially (if not totally) at fault if he gets hit.

  7. Gary says:

    You know, the last thing I think about when crossing another street is whether I have the right of way or not. I am usually focused on, a) is there anybody else coming. b) Can I clear it before they arrive. c) If not, do they see me d) are they doing any sort of action to indicate that having seen me they intend to 1) give me the right of way, 2) take it themselves.

    This way I don’t get hurt no matter who has the legal right of way. ’cause in the end, that’s all I really care about.

  8. phil says:

    Aren’t cyclist required to stop and give way before crossing the sidewalk which runs parallel to the roadway? I notice in the picture that the stop sign is at the sidewalk, not the road. Motorist are required to stop before crossing sidewalks (though most don’t).

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      That’s a great question. I know people biking are required to yield to people walking on a sidewalk at all times. But under which situations are people legally required to stop at a sidewalk crossing? I don’t know. It’s one of those rules of the road that almost nobody knows exists, let alone do people know how and when it affects people biking (particularly when they are on a trail or sidewalk themselves)…

      Anyone know the answer?

      • Gary says:

        Google knows all:

        http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=46.61.235

        The operator of an approaching vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian or bicycle to cross the roadway within an unmarked or marked crosswalk when the pedestrian or bicycle is upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning. For purposes of this section “half of the roadway” means all traffic lanes carrying traffic in one direction of travel, and includes the entire width of a one-way roadway.

        (2) No pedestrian or bicycle shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or otherwise move into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to stop.

        with higher penalties for school zones etc…

        #2 means that if the driver couldn’t stop in time, they aren’t at fault…

    • rtk says:

      Good point on the placement of the sign relative to the sidewalk / road.

  9. Al Dimond says:

    What the law says matters only to the degree that it can be followed. If you’re supposed to have right-of-way in a crosswalk but the drivers can’t see you until you’re basically out on the road surface, if you value your life you won’t proceed through until the roadway is clear or it’s obvious that traffic in all lanes is yielding to you. It’s effectively a 4-way stop, except that because you (as a cyclist) don’t know whether cross traffic will actually stop, you may actually have to wait longer, until the intentions of approaching drivers are clear.

    This is the behavior I use all along the Burke, including at people’s private driveways up north. Without slowing down considerably I can’t be sure there’s nobody coming, and I sure as hell don’t want to become a statistic out there.

    Everything about this situation sucks. The rules are confusing and the road markings are ambiguous. Best-practice behavior is slow/annoying/gets you rear-ended, while common-practice behavior (blowing through stop signs across crosswalks across low-traffic streets and driveways) is flatly stupid and can get you killed. Bike paths as they exist in modern cities were designed with utter disregard for cyclists’ transportational needs. They are often sufficient for running (if you’re not going too fast), but only very slow biking. The only way out is to ride on facilities designed for transportation in the way they were designed to be used. Ride in the road and take the lane.

  10. Bob says:

    When biking and approaching one of these stop sign crosswalks (for the trail), if a cyclist comes to a full stop, and the vehicle waits (probably rare when a cyclist does a full stop), then the cyclists crosses, it makes the vehicle have to wait a lot longer, than if the cyclist slows, makes eye contact, the vehicle driver yields, the cyclist waves, and everyone gets on their way. I agree with Tom’s sentiment on this.

  11. Bruce Newman says:

    I drove across the very crosswalk pictured above and failed to stop for an entering bicyclist. I knew he had a stop sign because I had walked on the trail many times, because I pay attention as a traffic engineer, and because the sign is plainly visible to drivers). In the instant I had to evaluate it, I reasoned he was a vehicle operator required to stop and wait, rather than a pedestrian. After he spat on my car and I researched the RCWs, it appears I should have stopped, but some confusion is understandable.

    If cyclists truly must slow down and then use the crosswalk with the rights of a pedestrian, how about a chicane or bend in the trail, with excellent sight distance? Drawbacks include the need for cyclists to slow when there is no traffic and the need to slow a second time when exiting the street. A warning sign for cyclists is okay but it doesn’t seem right to use a regulatory sign inconsistent from its normal use.

    If a stop sign must be used for trail users, I think placing it to be hidden from drivers would greatly reduce confusion.

  12. LWC says:

    Old thread, I know. But for what it’s worth, Mr. Roadshow down in the Bay Area just addressed this same confusion: http://www.mercurynews.com/mr-roadshow/ci_20574012/roadshow-rules-road-motorists-pedestrians-and-bicyclist-city

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