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“In Defense of the Law-Breaking Cyclist”

October 24, 2013

Jake Blumgart, writing in Pacific Standard, has a nuanced take on the reasons why he, as a regular bike commuter, breaks the law:

Because bikes belong on the road, they have to contend with laws and infrastructure that were not made for them. Most of Philly’s bike lanes are not separated from traffic, so people park and idle in them, taxis swoop over to pick up fares, and on the big boulevards—which you have to cross to get to many neighborhoods—cars are going up to 50 miles an hour.

He continues:

In such an environment, it’s not a level playing field for bikers. I have to take my advantages where I can to avoid one of those awkward outbound hospital calls that mothers are so loathe to receive.

Like Blumgart, I experience this need to “take my advantages where I can” every day.  Take, for example, a situation where I’m stopped at a red next to a line of drivers and scan ahead to see cars parked in the bike lane just beyond the intersection.  In such a scenario I have three choices:

  1. Stay to the right of the driver at the front of the queue.  When the light turns green, attempt a dangerous merge with a steady stream of moving traffic, since cars can accelerate from a dead stop faster than a person on a bike.  If it’s an intersection where drivers can turn right, run the additional risk of a right hook.
  2. Pull in front of the first driver in the queue.  When the light turns green, take the lane until I pass the double parked cars and can re-enter the bike lane.  This choice yields additional choices: pedal as fast as I can when the light turns green or pedal at a normal pace and risk an angry honk from the driver behind me.  (Note: sometimes pedaling fast also yields an angry honk.)
  3. If there’s no cross traffic nor pedestrians in the crosswalk, go through the light, cycle at a relaxed pace around the double-parked cars, and re-enter the bike lane long before light behind me turns green and the drivers can catch up.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I opt for choice three.  In the absence of a clear bike box that’s respected by drivers, a cycling-specific traffic signal or leading interval, and a general culture of civility, it is one of many situations I and many other people on bikes face in which the technically illegal choice is by far the safer one.

  1. October 24, 2013 5:59 pm

    To this you can add another rationale: I’ll stop running reds when turning drivers start yielding to me when I’m proceeding straight through the intersection. My daughter and I almost got mowed down by a left-turning taxi on 79th and Riverside Drive this morning while I was proceeding straight through the intersection. Granted, this intersection is usually too busy to cross on red, but there are plenty of intersection where you are safer proceeding straight through while cars in your direction are stopped and there happen to be no cars in the cross direction.

  2. October 25, 2013 1:21 pm

    Footnote (which I hope to clarify/confirm with DOT soon, as a friend who works closely with DOT passed this info on): even when there is not a bike box painted at an intersection, it is legal for bicyclists to positions themselves ahead of cars at a red light. Effectively, every intersection contains an invisible bike box. If there are any DOT folks reading, perhaps you can confirm?

    This doesn’t solve the underlying problems at play, but if it’s indeed the law, at least useful to know.

    • October 25, 2013 1:27 pm

      I think that is correct.

      But, of course, the reason why a bike box is important is that it tells drivers who may not be aware of the law that cyclists can do this. There are also huge advantages for pedestrians, since a driver who comes to a stop before a bike box is that much farther away from people in the crosswalk.

    • October 27, 2013 9:09 am

      I love this. I have been told by an NYPD White Shirt, while waiting for the light, my foot ON the stenciled biker in the bike box on 5th ave (Bklyn) and 9th street, that I was “Standing in the middle of the street.” It was about 6 am, no other cars, peds, or distractions, and say to the guy, “Are you sure? You might want to brush up on traffic law.”
      Cop says, “I know how to do my fucking job.” (I write it out in full because that’s what this dreamboat of a city employee actually said to me).
      So I ask again, “Are you sure? I am standing on a painting of a cyclist here.”
      They didn’t wait for the light to turn green,

  3. October 25, 2013 2:08 pm

    While I’ve been thinking about it for years, I’ve nevertheless just about always* worried that it would seem too embarrassingly self-important to invoke the work of civil rights leaders like MLK when talking about NYC cyclists’ place in society, on the road, and before the law. But the red light dilemma and choice that you describe in the beginning of this article are so precisely relevant to the main such theme I’ve been kicking around for years that I don’t feel embarrassed to mention it: NYC cyclists would do well to let their approach to existing laws be informed by the section of text concerning just laws, unjust laws, and how to deal with each, in MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

    Of course, even through the filter of the Letter, not every cyclist will view each law the same as every other cyclist, but what the Letter has to say about laws and how to deal with them is the best conscience-compass I can think of when it comes to cyclists’ dilemmas like this. Actually, it would be great if a noticeable majority of the bikenyc community could agree upon a list of Letter-from-Birmingham-Jail approaches to the various existing laws that most often present us with dilemmas, but that wish is probably about as realistic as the time in 2004 when I rode in an NYC Critical Mass** with a big sign taped to my backpack saying “Ask me why I’m stopping for red lights! Join me!” (Dork)

    *except for this very morning, when I happen to have tweeted about it…!

    **either “THE” 2004 Critical Mass (the one that coincided with the start of the RNC) or one of the ones before it. Can’t remember.

    • Jesse permalink
      October 25, 2013 6:08 pm

      I agree with all of this. Don´t let people bully you into shying away from this comparison. Cyclists rights are not trivial. The topic implicates issues ranging from environmental contamination, urban design, extreme wealth inequality, LIFE AND DEATH, and the very basic human right to access your own environment.

  4. Alex permalink
    October 25, 2013 3:01 pm

    The lights around Cadmen Plaza in downtown Brooklyn frequently warrant riding through illegally. The head of Clinton St. sends a stream of turning cars across the bike lane through the intersection, so it’s often safer to roll through when there’s no cross traffic. Also the right then left from Tillary to Court to Clark is often safer to navigate against the lights. And, of course, where the bike path on Tillary crosses the closed-to-cars Cadman Plaza street is just a joke so long as you yield to the few pedestrians that cross there. But try telling that to the fleet of NYPD officers dispatched on a nearly week-long bike ticket blitz earlier this month. I don’t suppose while they were there they ticketed any of the cars turning onto Court failing to yield to bikes and peds, or the drivers that block — or even DRIVE IN (yes, I’ve seen this) — the separated bike lane.

    It really is all unjust and could be labeled as harassment. David is right to be cautious about drawing too many parallels between cyclist harassment and the oppression of racism in his post. They are on completely different levels. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK.

  5. October 26, 2013 1:23 pm

    • On streets without bike lanes, there’s a vague sense that the slower traffic should keep to the right, but often it’s the cars that are slower and they fail to do that. I want to behave predictably, but that failure is more predictable than what’s right — so I have to compensate, because safety is the top priority.

    In general, I look for the way through that minimizes the possibility of conflict. If right turns prevail, I want to be on the left. If left turns prevail, I’m on the right. NYC has many one-way streets in a grid with other one-way streets, so I can find myself changing sides every block. All very sensible, but the reasoning might never enter a driver’s mind.

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