I knew it was coming.
The minute I finished reading Joseph Stromberg’s piece on Vox, “Why cyclists should be able to roll through stop signs and ride through red lights,” I had a feeling that a response would be published by someone somewhere — Felix Salmon? Slate? — and that it would have a somewhat tsk-tsk-sounding headline. “No they shouldn’t” or something like that. I had been waiting to weigh in on the subject of cyclists and red lights myself, in fact, until such a piece was written, because I knew it would frame the discussion in a typically binary fashion and I was hoping to stake out a more nuanced position.
Well, the response I was waiting for was just published on Grist.org. In a piece headlined “Why bikers should live by the same laws as everyone else,” Ben Adler says that Vox.com and anyone advocating for Idaho stop laws, at least in cities, has it wrong.
I had a lot of problems with this piece, starting with the title. Should bikers live by the same laws as everyone else? What does that even mean? First of all, which laws? The laws applying to drivers or the laws applying to pedestrians? Because the laws that apply to each of those groups are very different. (Pedestrians, for example, can’t walk on interstate highways, while drivers, at least in theory, aren’t supposed to drive on sidewalks.) Cyclists, being a third thing somewhere between pedestrians and drivers — but obviously much closer to the pedestrian side of the spectrum — need their own laws. Which was essentially what Stromberg argued at Vox.
Second, to live by the same laws as everyone else implies that everyone else follows the law. We all know that’s not the case. Here’s Strong Town’s Chuck Marohn, in one of the best pieces I’ve read about cyclists and the law:
“Why do cyclists deserve special treatment?” “Why should they have their own standard?” “This is a civilized world, after all.” “If you don’t like it, take a car.”
To say that I find this hypocritical and somewhat maddening is stating it lightly. First, drivers don’t follow traffic laws. Today on the way in I drove 64 mph in a 55 mph zone for about six miles. I set my cruise control at 64 because – and we all know this – the police generally tolerate a modest amount of speeding. In fact, a county sheriff was traveling in the opposite direction when I was speeding and didn’t stop me. He was probably driving 64mph too.
Two wrongs, of course, don’t make a right, and I don’t bring up Marohn’s example to say, “But drivers do it too!” Rather, it’s to point out that expecting cyclists — or anyone, for that matter — to make lawful decisions “in a system that treats us all like deviant idiots,” to quote Marohn again, is an almost childlike way of viewing the world. We need better arguments than “But it’s the law!” As I’ve written before, it is possible for cyclists to technically break laws and make entirely rational decisions at the same time.
Adler has written some great pieces on Vision Zero for Grist, so he’s not coming at this story from a bike-hating motorist’s point of view. His perspective is that of a pedestrian. And that itself presents some problems because in the rest of the piece, without exactly saying so, he creates a false dichotomy between people on foot and people on bikes.
Advocates never put it in these terms, but Idaho stops essentially allow bikers to impose on pedestrians’ green lights and rights-of-way. Bikers would be prohibited from going if a pedestrian is in the intersection, but if a biker gets there first, a pedestrian would have to wait at the corner until the bike passes, possibly running out of time to cross. Do we really want to create a mad dash to be first at an intersection and claim right-of-way? As our population ages, and empty nesters return to cities, this would have a particularly negative effect on the elderly.
Advocates never put it in these terms because that’s not what Idaho stops do. People aren’t going to suddenly run to “claim right-of-way” as if they’re trying to get the last available taxi in a rainstorm. That’s a straw man.
If anything, the situation Adler describes is precisely what’s happening now, only with no law on the books to help choreograph the dance. As it currently stands, pedestrians have a lot of uncertainty at intersections, even if they get there first. “Will that cyclist stop? Will he at least yield? Will I get hit? If I wait for the cyclist to pass, will I still have the walk signal?” Law-abiding cyclists approach intersections with the same questions. “Will that pedestrian step off the curb? Will I be able to stop in time if he does? If I swerve will I wind up under the wheels of the bus that’s coming up behind me?” I’m not arguing that an Idaho stop law would be instantly accepted and observed overnight in New York City, but Adler’s specter of chaos if one were to be enacted rings hollow. Such chaos already exists.
Adler mistakenly views arguments in favor of rationalizing traffic laws for people on bikes as somehow punitive to people on foot, and applies some flimsy logic.
There is a larger point at issue: the mistaken focus on easing the movement of bicycles even at the expense of pedestrians. Biking is a good and important part of urban transportation. But, in any major city, there are vastly more trips made on foot than by bike. (Just look at the commuting mode share in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.) Many people — the elderly, the disabled, small children, shoppers carrying large items, the drunk, the desperately poor, people who need to wear business suits, people who hate getting sweaty — will always walk instead of bike. Their needs must be accommodated, because walking and public transit can be a backup option for bikers, but biking is not always an option for pedestrians.
Never mind the “Some of my best friends are bike lanes” qualifier in the paragraph’s second sentence or dismissal of cycling as a serious transportation in the middle. (People in suits! Shoppers carrying large items! Small children! It’s always easy to dismiss cycling as illegitimate if one suggests that the city is filled with well-dressed people carrying microwaves and babies.) No one is arguing that planners or lawmakers should drop everything and immediately begin prioritizing cyclists over pedestrians. And while Adler is right that in cities like Boston, San Francisco, or New York “there are vastly more trips made on foot than by bike” it seems like a different standard than just “majority rules” should apply. Otherwise, if you want to walk in Houston or Dallas — or even in more car-dominated parts of Brooklyn or Queens — it can all come down to someone saying, “Walking is a good and important part of urban transportation, but there are vastly more trips made by car than on foot.” Good urban planning and smart laws can balance a lot of needs and uses.
Adler enlists cycling advocates to his side, writing that not even the biggest names in the bike advocacy world think Idaho stop laws are a good idea, even if they “don’t perceive any concern or threat on the part of pedestrians” from such laws, as Jeff Miller of the Alliance for Biking and Walking says. Here’s what Dorian Grilley, executive director at the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, has to say:
“Bike Minnesota does not agree that bicyclists should be able to roll through stop signs. It would especially be a problem in cities. There is plenty of data out there that shows that bicyclists are regarded as scofflaws. That is a reputation BikeMN is working to change.”
Transportation Alternative’s Caroline Samponaro, a good friend and someone whom I truly respect, has a similar take:
“Signals, and people obeying them, is how we can create predictability and work together to make sure that everyone is safe. We think that everyone should obey the signals.”
But what are these advocates really saying? Are they saying that Idaho stop laws are dangerous? No! Grilley’s statement is the most revealing. He’s essentially saying that since cyclists suffer from a scofflaw perception there’s not a lot to be gained for advocacy organizations to lobby for Idaho stop laws. Who wants to spend that kind of political capital? Given that Americans tend to discuss cycling with an utter lack of nuance, I can’t say that I blame them. If the choice is between getting a few more good bike lanes or rolling through stop signs, I’ll take the former, please.
So what is the biggest mistake Adler makes in the piece? Omitting that the reason there’s such tension between cyclists and pedestrians in American cities is because they’re designed for cars!
Traffic lights and signs are how we organize urban movement, so that it can proceed safely.
Traffic lights and signs are how we organize urban movement in places where there are a lot of cars. Here’s Chuck Marohn again:
And there is the other rub; we are treating traffic regulations like they were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. If people actually understood the haphazard way traffic control devices were developed and the random way in which they are applied, they would not hold them in such majesty. Just recently I was at a meeting where it was decided that a stop sign should be put at an intersection solely because the clerk lived on the street and wanted the cars to drive more slowly. That kind of rigor in where to display what kind of sign is fairly common. Traffic control is voodoo science, at best, now reinforced by what have become societal norms (all auto-based). Some of it might work, but separating the good from the bad is borderline heretical.
“Separating the good from the bad.” That’s what brings me to the middle ground I had sought to stake out between Vox and Grist. A blanket Idaho stop law probably wouldn’t work in New York City, where we wouldn’t want to leave the choice to determine right-of-way at a busy Midtown intersection up to individuals. But our current laws that say that cyclists need to obey all traffic signals and signs don’t really work either. If it’s late at night, do I really need to stop at every intersection on Bergen Street, even if I can clearly see that no cars or pedestrians are coming? With so many streets, intersections, and laws that don’t make sense for cyclists, is it any wonder that so many cyclists often behave as if they lack any sense?
What New York City needs is a surgical approach to Idaho stops. DOT should look at low- or no-conflict intersections and change the signage to allow cyclists to proceed after yielding to pedestrians and other traffic.
Take the intersection of Chystie and Rivington, for example:
Cyclists heading north on Chrystie often do “run” the red light here. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, but chief among them would be because it’s relatively safe to do so. The odds of a car coming through Sara D. Roosevelt Park are virtually nil and pedestrian traffic, particularly during the morning rush hour, is fairly light. So can pedestrians and people on bikes negotiate this space safely using the basic idea of an Idaho stop? Sure. It happens every morning, at least when the cops aren’t out issuing easy tickets.
Or how about this intersection at Flushing Avenue and Cumberland Street in Brooklyn?
This is another intersection with low pedestrian traffic that many cyclists roll through after looking for cars or trucks entering and exiting the Navy Yard. (It’s also on a stretch that’s another NYPD favorite for issuing tickets to cyclists.) What would be the problem if the signs were changed to allow cyclists to proceed carefully? Essentially the city would be legalizing what many already do here without any problems. It’s not about “officially allowing bikes to steal a pedestrian’s right-of-way,” as Adler says of loosening restrictions on cyclists, but identifying the places where no theft would have to take place for an intersection to be more rational.
Walker Angell at Streets.mn, after observing a bunch of boys blowing through stop signs on their bikes, considered the long-term effects of what is nominally considered “lawbreaking.”
These kids, nearly all under about 14, have already learned something important—U.S. laws are not necessarily to be obeyed. This seed will grow in the coming years as they begin to drive and face the fear of obeying the speed limit on a highway with nearly every other car going 10 mph over, or of deciding whether to completely stop at the rightmost side of a very lonely T-intersection they go through every day.
And this all carries over to adulthood. Law breaking is no longer a line never to be crossed, but merely a bump on the road to self-absorption. Laws, particularly traffic and vice laws, become only suggestions, to be regarded so long as they don’t inconvenience us too much.
New York City, in designing intersections and creating laws that consider drivers first and cyclists and pedestrians as a distant second, is complicit in creating scofflaws. People who ordinarily wouldn’t think of breaking the law in fact do so every day because the laws that guide the system they must use to get to work, to school, or just around the block, don’t make any sense. Is that what we want?
Adler makes one last point that I think is important to address:
As Felix Salmon, an avid biker himself, once noted in a Reuters column, some of the world’s best cities for both biking and walking, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, expect bikers to obey red lights and stop signs.
Amsterdam and Copenhagen don’t “expect” bikers to obey red lights. Quite the opposite. Dutch and Danish cyclists are better behaved because the infrastructure is designed to accommodate them! As Mikael Colville-Andersen writes:
Behaviour hasn’t changed for over 100 years – and won’t be changing anytime soon. Here’s my baseline: We can’t very well expect bicycle users to adhere to a traffic culture and traffic rules engineered to serve the automobile, now can we? It is like expecting badminton players to use the rules of squash.
Signals and streets in Copenhagen prioritize people on bikes and on foot, not in cars. In Copenhagen, for example, a “green wave” on Nørrebrogade allows cyclists pedaling at about 12 mph to go 2.5 kilometers without hitting a red. The street engineers the scofflaws right out of it. It’s safer for pedestrians, too, since cyclists are more predictable and automobile speeds are correspondingly slow. Compare that to a street where the lights are timed to accommodate cars going 20 to 30 mph; it typically means cyclists hit a light every two to three blocks, making complete fidelity to “the law” a great way to remove the efficiency from choosing a bicycle for transportation.
So what to do?
We need to rethink our urban areas. They need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people.
The choice, as I hope I’ve made clear, isn’t that all cyclists should get to roll through all stop signs and traffic signals whenever they want. Nor is it that they need to follow every law in a system that wasn’t designed for them. One is anarchy, the other a weird kind of urban fascism.
It’s time to “separate the issue of bike lanes from the issue of cycling conduct ,” says Albert Koehl in the Toronto Star:
…since the building or expansion of roads isn’t premised on an assessment of motorists’ conduct there’s no logical reason to apply a higher standard to cyclists. Last year 40 pedestrians, including seniors and children, were killed in Toronto in collisions with motor vehicles, but there was no cry to cancel new road projects. Ontario’s Chief Coroner has called all pedestrian deaths preventable. The undue attention to cycling conduct diverts attention from the far greater danger posed by motorists and the best available solutions.
Finally, it isn’t fair to punish all cyclists — by depriving them of safe cycling routes — for the conduct of a minority of bad actors. Motorists as a group are not penalized for the actions of drivers who drink, text or speed. Nor is one pedestrian punished because another crosses against a red while chatting on a cellphone. Those who imply that it’s OK for cyclists to be injured or killed because others behave badly have a rather macabre — and backward — sense of justice.
Koehl also takes aim at pedestrians who seek to deny safe space for cycling because of the bad apples. They’re not just punishing cyclists, they’re punishing themselves:
Those pedestrians who oppose bike lanes because of the conduct of some cyclists are similarly misguided. That opposition, where successful, only yields greater danger for all. New York City, for instance, documented a drop in injuries for all road users after the installation of certain bike lanes.
On Thursday, May 15, join Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (District 38), Councilmember Ben Kallos (District 5) and StreetsPAC for a solidarity bike ride to City Hall in support of Bike Month and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan. Later that day, Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez and the Transportation Committee of the New York City Council will hold their Executive Budget Hearing, focusing on funding the next steps toward street safety for all.
Help us make widespread safety a reality! Vision Zero presents a comprehensive blueprint for ending the epidemic of traffic fatalities, enhancing the safety of all New Yorkers, regardless of their mode of travel. In the past month, more than 20 resolutions and amendments to local law have been discussed, all aimed at making our streets safer.
Starting points in both Brooklyn and Manhattan!
From Brooklyn Borough Hall (2 miles to City Hall)
Meet at steps of Borough Hall at 8:00 AM for brief remarks
– Bike Train to City Hall departs @8:20 AM
*CitiBike option available near the steps of Borough Hall on Cadman Plaza
From Union Square (2 miles to City Hall)
Meet at steps at southern end of Union Square at 8:00AM for brief remarks
– Bike Train to City Hall departs @8:20 AM
*CitiBike option available on Broadway at SE corner of 14th street.
- Please bring water, wear comfortable clothes and a helmet
Both groups will arrive at City Hall at 8:45 AM, and combine for a powerful, unified showing of support for Vision Zero.
StreetsPAC is a political action committee dedicated to improving the safety, mobility and livability of New York City’s streets.
From Judge Cynthia Kern, in her decision to dismiss the Plaza Hotel’s Citi Bike lawsuit:
“Specifically, the bike share station at issue was placed on the street, is lower in scale than the many cars that line Grand Army Plaza and is similar in appearance to nearby street furniture such as bus stations.”
That’s pretty much what I said!
Thanks to Google Map’s new timeline feature, you can now take a digital before-and-after tour of some of the city’s best livable streets improvements.
Here’s Gorilla Coffee on 5th Ave in Park Slope in 2007:
And here’s the same location in 2013, after the installation of a bike corral:
Space for one car or space for eight bikes…and one scooter!
Here’s Prospect Park West in 2009, before the installation of the protected bike lane:
And here it is in 2010:
You can clearly see the effect this road diet had on the boulevard’s traffic.
And Sands Street in 2012:
“There is literally nothing I can do that makes people madder than just riding my bike the way I am supposed to.”
On Thursday morning, as I was riding to work via Jay Street, I happened to find the bike lane blocked by a van, as one often does on this rather chaotic corridor. So I did everything by the book: I looked behind me, stretched my hand out to signal that I was merging with the car lane, and merged left, taking the northbound lane.
Just as I passed the offending van, I heard a car speed up behind me, some honking and then a person screaming at the top of her lungs. The driver of a brown sedan pulled into oncoming traffic to pass me, and as she did she yelled through her open passenger-side window, “Get in the bike lane! Stay in the bike lane!” (She may or may not have used an obscenity to describe said bike lane.)
Mere feet later at Willoughby, the light was red — drivers always need to speed up to the red, don’t they? — and I pulled up next to the woman’s car. She continued screaming through her open window, “You need to stay in the bike lane!”
At first I remained calm. “Ma’am, see that van back there? I had to pass it. So you’re welcome to go back and tell the driver to stay out of the bike lane if you want me to stay in it.” She nodded sarcastically, flashing what could politely be called an excrement-eating grin. (When she told me once again that I needed to stay in the bike lane anyway, I may or may not have told the driver to go have intercourse with herself.)
Then the light turned green and I was on my way. The woman, of course, was stuck behind a number of buses and slow-moving traffic, and I’m almost certain that I was halfway up to the on-ramp to the Manhattan Bridge bike path before she probably turned right on Tillary to get to the BQE. If there was something that delayed this woman en route to her destination, I was a mere speck in the giant cosmos of traffic.
There was nothing particularly special or different about my experience on Jay Street yesterday. It was a sign that the thoroughfare, like so many streets in our city, doesn’t work for anyone. Did this woman want to become so enraged that she could have killed a father of two, taking out another driver and some pedestrians in the process? Did I need to lose my cool at this woman? So I mostly chalked the episode up to just one of those things that we’re trying to fix. We’re trying to build streets that foster not only safety, but civility.
In light of all that, I found this epic rant posted on Craiglist Toronto very satisfying. It’s exactly what I would have wanted to say to the driver, had I thought it had any chance of sinking in. It’s titled, “You almost ran me down while screaming ‘get the fuck out of the way’.”
Some choice bits:
…I have something very startling to tell you about the material world: it is not possible for a person on a bicycle to drive THROUGH a parked truck. The person will somehow have to go around it, even if that means minorly inconveniencing you, comfortably sitting in your vehicle with your friends, for a few seconds.
And this is what I had the gall to do today, westbound on Bloor, about 20 feet east of Christie, after signalling, well ahead of you. You, lady in your blue BMW with three friends who were hopefully embarrassed to be seen with you, drove directly up behind me, laid down on the horn, yelled, “get the fuck out of the way!”, and then swerved around me in a way that made me feel really, really unsafe.
People who have purchased/rented/borrowed vehicles capable of going fast have not actually puchased/rented/borrowed the ability to move through a congested city fast. You have purchased a certain amount of comfort and freedom of movement (in distance and direction) not available to those using other modes of transportation.
Imagine being in line at the grocery store and, feeling that the person in front of you was taking too long to get out their money, standing directly behind them while yelling at them to fuck off. That would be really, really weird! And it happens to me as a person who travels by bicycle all of the time.
Look: I am a friggin rule follower extraordinaire, a goody-two-shoes, and a people pleaser. There is literally nothing I can do that makes people madder than just riding my bike the way I am supposed to. I feel bad and scared doing something I love and have the right to do, something that is good for the roads, the planet, and the cardiovascular system. It fucking sucks. Your attitude is terrible.
It’s that bolded sentence, empasis mine, that really sticks with me. I was doing everything right – I signaled, merged, and then quickly pedaled back into the bike lane – but it wasn’t enough for this woman.
Let’s design better roads, please. For my sake and hers.
When it comes to parking, “only” is relative.
Take a mile-long bike lane that requires the loss of, say, 15 to 20 car parking spaces in order to install mixing zones or pedestrian islands. To most people, trading this amount of automobile parking in the name of greater safety and mobility for thousands of people sounds like a fair trade-off. But to anyone with a strong windshield perspective, seeing the greater good isn’t always easy. So measuring bike lanes by the number of parking spaces that need to disappear only along the affected corridor is a recipe for controversy. Whose “only” is it, anyway?
According to Michael Andersen of the Green Lane Project, there’s a better way:
…when it was planning its signature downtown bike project in 2005, Montreal got past those concerns with a very simple tactic. Instead of counting only the change in parking spaces on the boulevard De Maisonneuve itself, a measure that might have led to headlines and perceptions that “half of the parking” was being removed, it counted the total number of auto parking spaces — public and private, on-street and off — within 200 meters of the project.
The district, it turned out, had 11,000 parking spaces. Converting one of the corridor’s two auto parking lanes to a protected bikeway would remove 300 of them, or just under 3 percent.
As Vision Zero planning moves from the murky process of explaining what Vision Zero is to actually laying out projects that will require some amount of physical change to the streetscape — and, yes, sacrifice on the part of drivers — the de Blasio administration would be well advised to consider this tactic. It’s something DOT used effectively during the arguments that erupted in Brooklyn last spring over bike share station siting.
First, some facts: There are 6,800 on-street parking spots in the area bounded by Classon Avenue, Fulton Street, Flatbush Avenue and Flushing Avenue. In that zone, 22 bike-share stations were installed, adding 600 public bike docks. Two-thirds of the stations are on the sidewalk, after community meetings revealed a preference for that type of installation. Stations that were installed in the roadbed took 35 parking spaces, [NYC DOT's Jon] Orcutt told the audience – one half of one percent of the total number of spaces in the neighborhood.