What does 'stop' mean for cyclists?

New bike fines for New South Wales

What do the new road rules mean for cyclists in New South Wales? Here are some Furry Facts, by John Shakespeare.

To prove that you have come to a complete stop when riding a bicycle, do you have to put your foot on the ground?

Or is it acceptable to come to a brief but complete halt and then pedal away before tipping over? Or, is balancing on the bike without putting a foot down OK?

It's often been a source of debate and even confusion for riders, heightened this week by unconfirmed reports that two cyclists in NSW were fined while doing a "trackstand" at an intersection.

A cyclist comes to a halt at a stop sign.
A cyclist comes to a halt at a stop sign. Photo: Nick Moir

The claim was that they had been fined for "dangerous riding", a new offence that carries a $425 fine - and which we'll discuss further on. (Given the lack of details, NSW Police were unable to comment on whether any such fines had been issued.)

As the name indicates, a trackstand is a tactic often used by riders racing on a velodrome. It's a practised skill - you can read about it on the CyclingTips website, or check out the video below.

But could you use a trackstand to legally obey a stop sign?

What does 'stop' mean?

Transport for NSW tells me that there is no definition in the road rules: "Therefore the plain meaning of the word "stop" applies. If a bicycle is in a stationary position (and therefore not proceeding forward), it is likely to be considered 'stopped'."

The rules are the same for all vehicles, with no additional requirements for bike riders.

Meanwhile, VicRoads pointed me to the Victorian Law Foundation website, where it states that "at a stop line, you must come to a complete stop" – with no mention of feet.

Of course, it's all in the eye of the beholder – and that doesn't mean just you and your mates. As TfNSW told me: "NSW Police enforce the NSW Road Rules and would determine if a cyclist is not stationary."

Why not put a foot down?

As mentioned in the trackstand video above, it's easiest to get moving quickly when you already have both feet on the pedals - which can be useful when sharing space with cars.

This is especially the case with cleated shoes, which give control and security to a rider but can be fiddly to get back into at times after unclipping (read more here about "why cyclists wear cleated shoes").

But pedals aren't the only stop/start issue. There is also the concept of maintaining momentum - especially as not everyone on a bike is looking for a sweat-inducing workout.

The temptation for cyclists is to come to a near-halt at a stop sign, then roll through after checking the way is clear. (And motorists often do the same.)

In other places, however, cyclists have permission to roll through. The famous "Idaho stop law", enacted in the early 1980s, lets riders treat stop signs as give way signs. Studies have shown it to be a safe measure, as explained in this video:

Meanwhile, in Paris, cyclists are now permitted to roll through red lights at certain signed intersections, such as some T-junctions.

"What we want to do is make life easier for the cyclist," the city's deputy mayor told the BBC. "Stopping and starting requires energy, and too often it is completely unnecessary. It is also a way of regularising a practice that is so widespread there is no point in trying to prevent it."

What is 'dangerous riding'?

In March, the fine for riding "negligently", "recklessly" or "furiously" in NSW was raised from $71 to $425, with the offences rebranded as riding "dangerously".

Transport for NSW told me the penalty would be enforced by police in situations such as:

  • Bicycle riders causing accidents with other riders, pedestrians or cars
  • Bicycle riders performing risky behaviour such as riding in and out of traffic and onto footpaths, especially when pedestrians are present
  • Cycling behaviour that could put the rider or other road users at the risk of injury (such as riding at high speed on shared paths, etc).

Ray Rice of Bicycle NSW says the new law is peculiar to NSW and "far too subjective. Anything that puts a rider at risk would qualify, even if it is not the rider's fault. It should be dropped." Craig Richards of Bicycle Network said the guidelines were "vague and iffy" and very much open to interpretation by the police. 

People who ride on the footpath in NSW are already liable for a fine of $106 (raised from $71), but it's worth noting that footpath riding is legal in five of Australia's eight major jurisdictions (Victoria and WA being the other exceptions).

South Australia recently lifted the moratorium on footpath riding (while implementing a safe passing law for cyclists, and not jacking up any fines).

It was great to see the the SA Police defending the change, telling InDaily: "We haven't seen any big trends of lycra-wearing cyclists jumping on the footpaths and travelling at 30 or 40km/h."

A tale of two cities

The City of Melbourne has announced an ambitious target - within four years, it wants bikes to make up a quarter of morning traffic in the city centre.

The plan involves increased parking options for bicycles, and "filling in the many gaps in Melbourne's bike lane network, as a way to encourage more novice riders to cycle into the city and relieve pressure on congested roads and crowded public transport services," the Age reported.

Meanwhile, for Sydney riders, Greens NSW MP Mehreen Faruqi said this week that, if the government proceeds with its intention to force cyclists to carry ID, almost half a million people in NSW could face a $51 fee from next year if they want to ride a bike.

Strange days for Australian cycling.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011. He has won a Cycling Promotion Fund media award and is a regular voice for cycling on radio and television.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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