Cyclists and Red Lights: Actually, It’s Complicated
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.