Traffic signs should be self-explanatory. Their text and symbols should be patently obvious. Interpretation should be out of the question — or so I thought until I stumbled upon a strange bicycle oriented sign bearing a message I’d never seen before.
The sign was tacked below a “do not enter” sign and it read: “except bicycles.” I was perplexed. Did it mean that bicycles could enter the one-way street going the wrong way for the sole purpose of accessing the apartments along the street? Or did it mean that bicycles could ride against the flow of traffic?
Either way, a sign of this type would make it difficult to admonish a cyclist for riding against traffic. But, this could not have been the sole intent of the sign. Its meaning lay deeper, in some indiscernible place.
Given the number of apartment buildings on the street, I would expect cyclists to turn into the street against traffic to get home. Any reasonable person would expect this, even if they thought it was wrong for a bicycle to ride against traffic. So why the sign?
It couldn’t be to warn cars driving on the road to look out for bicycles riding towards them; the sign faces away from the traffic, at the end of the road. Only drivers trying to turn into the road would see it. And, it wouldn’t make any difference to them or affect the way they were driving since the “do not enter” sign would prevent them from entering the road. Therefore, we can safely conclude that this sign was not posted with the intention of preventing a collision between a car and a bike.
A more plausible explanation might revolve around the idea of putting the public on notice. Many pedestrians walk along the main street where the sign faces. Perhaps the sign was intended to educate them. Perhaps not. But even if it was, what message would it send to them?
They might take it to mean that normal traffic rules were going to be suspended on this particular road. Or they could take it a step further and interpret it as applying to all roads in the area. If we’re going to make bicycle exceptions, why stop with just one road?
Sometimes it helps to read a story into a static situation. It would go something like this: Perhaps the sign was posted in response to complaints from people in the neighborhood who objected to cyclists riding against traffic on that road. A dispute over this may have arisen. Public debate may have ensued.
And in the end, the cyclists won out. They obtained an exception to ride the wrong way down the street prompting a sign to be posted to that effect.
While this is a nice story for explaining the sign’s presence, there is no way to verify it. Such an explanation is pure speculation.
But what does seem clear is the possibility of a private meaning rather than a public one. A reason must exist for why the sign was posted. But only a select group of people know what it is. The rest of us will just have to scratch our heads in wonder.
The more I thought about this, the more I began to wonder about the effects of such a sign. On one hand, it does give cyclists permission to enter the road. On the other hand, it reinforces a common theme drivers often replay about cyclists, namely that they do not want to follow the rules and they expect to be catered to.
This sign certainly does look like catering, especially out of context. As it stands, the sign just makes people see cyclists as receiving preferential treatment. An image of cyclists as prima donnas is created. After all, if cyclists rode around the block they could ride down the street in the right direction. Cars do it all the time.
In cases like this, the true meaning of the bicycle exception sign can not be precisely determined. For to know the true meaning, one would have to know the intent behind the sign.
Such a sign does not stand on its own. Nothing about it is self-evident. Mixed messages ooze from its surface, almost as if to say that bicycles are vehicles who must obey the same laws as cars do except in cases where someone tacked up a sign making an exception for them. In this case bicycles are being excused from their role as vehicles.
I see this as a victory for the cyclists who want special rules for bicycles. Most of them want to be able to roll through stop signs and cross an intersection against a red light. They say that bicycles are different from cars and should not be treated like cars.
Every rationalization under the sun has found its way into their arsenal. If bicycles are not like cars, the argument goes, then they should not have to obey the same laws as cars.
Do not enter signs should not apply to them. Stop signs should not apply to them. Red lights should not apply to them. But all of the rights drivers have ought to apply to them. They want the same rights, without being regarded as the same.
Despite the downside to this sign, it raises some important points such as that transportation must be integrated. Cyclists must be allowed to get to their destination without undue burden. Entering a one-way street in the wrong direction allows cyclists to go directly home from their destination.
Maybe what’s needed is an intermediate sign allowing cyclists to enter the road, but then asking them to walk their bikes on the sidewalk to the apartments. That’s one possibility, and there are probably others. Meaning can be murky. But life is about compromise and in order to compromise we must allow exceptions, hence, the existence of signs such as the one pictured above.