Stop the Signs!

McMaster has been sprouting stop signs faster than spring tulips. Since I’ve been on campus, my route between Cootes Drive and Sterling Street has gone from one stop sign to five. This on a path 780 metres in length, or an average of one every 156 m.

Usually, as a cyclist, I don’t come to a full stop at each of the signs, unless there is a compelling reason, like the presence of other traffic, pedestrian or vehicular.

Oh, I know, I am subject to the same laws as a car driver.

But there are two difficulties with this issue, as presented so far.

  1. Are the stop signs necessary, or is another traffic control possible?

  2. Are bicycles more like cars than they are like pedestrians.

Allow me to begin with the second point: my theory is bicycles are more like pedestrians than cars Let’s take a look:




Human power

Human Power

Mechanical Power

Runs on food

Runs on Food

Runs on gasoline




Slow (7km/hour max)

Slow-to moderate (30km/h max)

Fast (rarely under 50km/h)




Can stop on a dime

Can stop near a dime

Can’t see the dime

Legs in motion

Legs in motion

Legs not in motion

Exposed to weather

Exposed to weather

Alienated from weather

Carries her/him self

Can carry vehicle

Cannot carry vehicle

Healthy active mode

Healthy active mode

Unhealthy mode

Needs minimal infrastructure

Needs minimal infrastructure

Needs major infrastructure

Causes minimum damage in collision

Causes minimum to moderate damage in collision

Causes major damage in a collision

Easy to repair vehicle (shoe laces)

Easy to repair vehicle

Need a professional




Does not require licensing

Does not require licensing

Requires License

The unscientific point is that there is a case for a practical distinction between cars and bikes, and marked similarity between bikes and a person walking.

Despite the obvious differences, bicycles, by law, must be ridden on roads, not sidewalks, for example, or, as it relates to the current argument, if I roll through a four way stop on my bike, with no other traffic in the vicinity, I would not be treated like a pedestrian, but as though I were driving a car.

Laws are blunt instruments, often too blunt to factor in nuance. As a mathematician once said “Definitions pin things down, they limit the prospects for creativity and diversity. A definition, implicitly, attempts to reduce all possible variations of a concept to a single pithy phrase.” (Ian Stewart, Letters to a Young Mathematician). This thinking applies to laws regarding bicycles and Stop signs.

As it turns out, all-way stops are the most common request Traffic Operations and Engineering receive in Hamilton. The problem with four way stop signs, a former high ranking traffic bureaucrat in Hamilton once told me, is that they are political answers to neighborhood traffic problems. A bold red sign spelling out S.T.O.P has the appearance of a response, but besides creating an unnecessary hindrance to cyclists, ubiquitous stop signs may actually encourage illegal behaviour:

Unwarranted stop signs create problems at both the intersection and along the roadway by:

* encouraging motorists to drive faster between intersections. Placing stop signs on very low-volume streets promotes speeding between the stop signs as drivers try to offset delays caused by stopping at every intersection;

* encouraging violation of traffic laws since as the number of stop signs increase (so that nearly every intersection has one) the rate of stop sign violations tends to increase;

* increasing the chances that drivers will disregard conflicting vehicle and pedestrian traffic, which raises the risk of collisions.

(NYC Dept. of Transportation, quoted on

According to McMaster Security, they have been handing out warnings to cyclists rather than the Mac-specific $30fines. The Hamilton Police, on the other hand, are known to hand out Highway Traffic Act violations to cyclists drifting or blowing through similarly unnecessary four way stops on Sterling Street. These tickets are three times as much as the Mac ones. Beware!


Rather than ineffective all-way stops, shouldn’t the university as a place of innovation look at alternatives? There is a fledgling trend in North America to introduce more effective traffic controls like roundabouts or “traffic circles” which “have been shown to reduce fatal and injury collisions as much as 75%. The reduction in collisions is attributed to slower speeds and 50% reduction in conflict points compared to a traditional intersection.

Other benefits to roundabouts are:
* Maintenance – The roundabout eliminates maintenance and electricity costs associated with traffic signals.
* Delay – By yielding at the entry of a roundabout, rather than stopping and waiting for a green light, delay is significantly reduced.
* Capacity – High volume of left turns are better handled by a roundabout than a multi-phased traffic signal.
* Traffic Calming – A considerable speed reduction is necessary to negotiate the roundabout whereas at a traffic signal, vehicles may not slow down during the green phase.
* Environmental – A reduction in delay corresponds to a decrease in fuel consumption and air pollution.” (City of Hamilton Traffic Operation and Engineering)

Other options might include the more risque sounding Naked Streets. Get rid of a roadway’s excess clothing, by removing signs, lines and other traffic coding we associate with streets, blurring the line between vehicles and pedestrians. Sound dangerous? It seems not. By making the space more confusing, and forcing various users to actually communicate, these spaces can prove to be safer than they were with all the clutter.

Best might be to have no roadway at all, and make the campus truly pedestrian friendly, with sidewalks that could double as emergency vehicle routes if needed.

Whatever route we might take, stop signs need to yield to a more effective method of control, better reflecting the needs of McMaster’s cycling and pedestrian community (who according to my calculations, are a hybrid species.)

Randy Kay ( TLC Working Group)