To Obey, Or Not to Obey

Not getting flattened by a 50,000 pound "big rig" is a good reason to stop at a red light if you’re on a bicycle. But how about less skin-saving reasons? Are there in fact, good reasons to ignore traffic regulations when you can, because after all, they are really meant just for cars?

It’s a question that comes readily to mind at times, particularly say when pedaling up a steep hill or going down one, and having to stop at a red light in the middle. Many of us often just cruise through with a careful glance in each direction, but we feel guilty about it. Should we?

Maybe not. If you look historically, you’ll find that there were practically no traffic regulations as we know them before cars. No stop signs. No traffic lights. No left turn lanes. In the 19th century, the streets of New York were a seething mass of horse drawn wagons, walking adults, playing children and yes, in the late 19th century, bicyclists.

Cars changed this. In the 1930s, traffic congestion became a serious and unanticipated problem. How to handle it? Enter the new "science" of traffic engineering. With the addition of stop signs, street lights and all the other accoutrements that are common today, traffic congestion would soon be a thing of the past, the new professionals assured the public.

Of course, this wasn’t true at all. What it did do was make that street much less convenient for someone on a bicycle or using any other form of non-motorized travel.

So here’s my point. Given that most traffic controls were put into place solely for the benefit of drivers, why should the rest of us have to obey them? They’re not helping us. In fact, they’re impeding us.

What we may need to move toward is some sort of system where cyclists, non-motorized scooter riders, skaters or users of any other kind of self-propelled vehicle are exempted or partially exempted from traffic controls. It could be understood that a red light is there to control the car or truck, not everyone else.

There are a number of options. What Montreal does on some streets is to let cyclists proceed six seconds before the cars do at some red lights. This frees cyclists from being lost in a swirl of drivers going around them. In many Dutch cities, drivers are bound by one way streets, but not cyclists. Imagine such a thing here.

Most effectively, the state could rule, as most Scandinavians have, that in any collision between a pedestrian, a cyclists or a driver, the largest, heaviest vehicle is at fault. This means that pedestrians take precedence over cyclists, and cyclists take precedence over drivers. This would be a de-facto way of exempting cyclists and pedestrians from most automobile-oriented traffic regulation.

One particular regulatory device we could consider having cyclists relate differently to is one way thoroughfares, which are so ubiquitous in New York City.

One way streets are a fairly recent "innovation," many being put into place in the 1950s and 1960s, and again solely for the supposed benefit of drivers. There were many ill effects, and not just for cyclists. Jane Jacobs commented in her classic 1961 "Death and Life of Great American Cities" that every time New York City converted an avenue to being one way, bus traffic would take a significant drop, because people now often had to walk an avenue over to catch a bus traveling in the right direction.

I may be digressing here, but people give those poor delivery guys hunched over their bicycles so much grief for going the wrong way down one-way streets. But rather than penalize their employers, something currently proposed by the New York City Council, how about getting rid of a lot of the one way streets? Or even exempting cyclists from having to obey one way regulations?

This may sound insane, but the fact is it’s often irresistible to a biker to go the wrong way down a one way street. If I’m at 15th and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, for example, to get to 14th and Eighth Avenue would require a very long journey if done legally. I would have to cycle down 15th to Ninth Avenue, and then up 14th Street back to Eighth Avenue. That’s almost a half mile, given how long Manhattan blocks are. Or, I could travel illegally a 100 feet or so down Eighth Avenue. You can understand why a delivery person, or I, for example, would be so tempted.

There’s a school of cycling called "vehicular" or "integrated" cycling that advocates that cyclists in essence act like motorists. That is, they should take up a whole lane of traffic, and obey all traffic regulations. While this may make sense tactically at times, for example to avoid getting squeezed out by city bus, it’s a stupid philosophy. A bicycle is not a car, much less a truck. It’s a very different device, and it needs a different set of regulations, one that can be looser and more permissive, given its less substantive nature.

Photo: hen power/Flickr

  • Paul

    “….This means that pedestrians take precedence over cyclists, and cyclists take precedence over drivers.”

    Except in America pedestrians can easily, and most often do, weigh more than me and my 20 pound bike put together.
    Volume-wise they are larger too…

  • Richard

    “Run” red lights, no. However in NYC it is probably safer to get a jump on a red light before all the taxis do after allowing peds to cross safely. Legally you are not even allowed to pull up in the crosswalk which is absurd. So yes, in a place like NY the laws need to be changed so they are not the same for both cars and bikes. Bikes lanes are being added here but unforunately they are often used as parking lanes for limo fleets. I wish the cops would enforce that law!

    I don’t think one way streets are so bad here. If most became tw- way I think it would make life hell for peds and probably increase the kill rate a lot.

  • neopran

    If you want to ride on the street you should obey the laws just like everyone else has too. Otherwise it’s too confusing and will cause even more accidents. I hate it when cyclists don’t obey the rules of the road (ie. red lights) and then they expect me to respect and treat them as a regular vehicle.

  • Ken O’Brien

    The rules of the road are written with vehicles in mind, not just motor vehicles.

    The rules of the road are written with human physiology in mind. Vehicle rules allow drivers to devote quality attention where it is needed when it is needed.

    The original author’s descrption of what is taught by Vehicular Cycling is inaccurate. Vehicular Cycling is not ‘stupid.’ It is good sense built from logic, practice, and data. The phrase usually used to introduce it is ‘Bicylist fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.’ I encourage readers to ignore the original’s author description of what this implies and learn what Vehicular Bicycling really means once you reach the details. It is a well thought out, well researched, and well supported by data program.

  • Dave H.
  • The comments that point out pedestrian safety are very apt IMHO.

    I run red lights all the time while biking in NYC, sometimes it’s more safe for everyone when I do. But cyclists need to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Many pedestrians assume cyclists will not yield and seem surprised when I do.

    I think the key to the problem is that cyclists inhabit a dangerous gray area. Pedestrians are so often clueless and distracted — not watching where they’re going — and drivers are the same! It seems 95% of the time that the only people really paying attention on the streets are the cyclists 🙂

  • bc

    to me this is an issue of ‘defensive bicycling’ that sometimes requires an offensive disposition to maintain a moderate level of safety, which does not seem to exist in the way traffic is operating.

    one main concern is that this is often not just to do with ‘one bicyclist’ and often involves others, who may be near or across a street, and then could mimic or follow a person into traffic, and get hit as a result of thinking there is a green light. in this case, i would never cross if there are young children or even elderly people around, who may subconsciously or unconsciously move into traffic, thinking it is safe to go ahead, because the person ahead of them does so. so, that is the ethical aspect i think could be missing, that you may get through traffic, yet in a rushed mentality, sooner or later, someone may assume it is safe and follow another bicyclist into an intersection and get hit.

    for some reason, bicycling seems to be quite a bit harder for some people to deal with, in terms of all the variables about what could occur – it is as if some bicyclists are not awake and many bicyclists who do not know how to bike are the most dangerous thing i encounter in my riding, and it is these factors i think that should be considered before simply deciding to move into traffic. what about the cars and the pedestrians — what is the overall and the total situation, and also, are there other bicyclists around — and then make a decision: stop or go.

  • A very disjointed rant with bits of “history” thrown in for God knows what reason. Maybe to buy legitimacy? I am a cyclist and a driver. I can’t stand drivers who say cyclists should be off the road. But I also can’t stand cyclists who think rules don’t apply to them. They’ll run red lights then in the same breath argue that they should be treated like cars … umm except stopping at stop signs and red lights. What?

  • Mike B

    Should they obey or should they not? A University of south Florida student was killed thus past Sunday when he ran a stop sign and was hit. Yeah, we’ve all run lights, signs, and ignore most other traffic laws when riding the bike, but eventually it just might catch up to you.
    http://media.www.usforacle.com/media/storage/paper880/news/2007/10/23/News/Founder.Of.Usf.Cycling.Team.Dies.In.Bike.Accident-3049475.shtml

  • galvo

    i think people should clarify their meaning of running red lights, i stop for red lights. look and if clear proceed. stop signs i always slow for , look to see if it is a four way stop , if it i will slowly go through as long as no cars are already stopped. i wish they would paint the back of the stop sign with a bright color, to enable quick determination if it is a 4 way.
    i saw a bicyclist run the red light at 5th this week, he ran the light and fortuately was only clipped his rear wheel was tacoed. he never went down and the car looked back and kept on going. i think the car thought he might have him him, but since he never went down, figured he missed. as much as a advocate as i am, the bicyclist was an idiot, lucky his only damage was his bike, maybe he wont blow through lights any more?

  • Alex, I think you mischaracterize integrated cycling. We do not advocate taking up a whole lane of traffic generally, as your unqualified statement implies. We do advocate taking a lane when it is unsafe to allow yourself to be passed. Some advocate the center of the lane as a “default” position, but moving to the side to allow passing when overtaking traffic approaches and it is safe to do so. Many of us regularly take the lane while stopped at a red light or waiting at a stop sign, to be more visible to those around us, and to avoid going through the intersection with a car next to us. Then you move back to the right afterwards. Not difficult. And most I know will acknowledge that if you must take a whole lane for an extended period of time, common courtesy dictates that if other traffic starts piling up behind you, try to pull over somewhere and let it pass. Of course this is all very situational-dependent.

    I see your point that traffic law by and large came into being because of the advent of cars, but that’s not at all the same as saying it only need apply to cars and their drivers. I think it is more accurate to say that the presence of cars on the road is the reason that ALL ROAD USERS now must follow a predictable set of rules. At least two very well-established sets of rules have already been developed, one for motorized vehicles, and the other for pedestrians. The debate seems to be whether bicycles should largely follow the rules for motorized vehicles, the rules for pedestrians, or a third set of rules somewhere in between. This looks to me to be how the debate breaks down.

  • Steve

    As someone who has been a ped, a cyclist, and a motorist at various times, I find myself sick of hearing about cyclists wanting special treatment. Riding is great, it’s good exercise, lower impact, and makes much more sense. However that doesn’t mean you’re ‘special.’

    In regard to the Idaho law discussions; I’ve read, perhaps a dozen times here, “It would be the cyclists responsibility NOT to run the red light, so drivers wouldn’t have to worry.” Yeah. Right. Well currently it’s the cyclists responsibility NOT to run the red light at all, and we see how well THAT is working.

    It absolutely can be tough, and dangerous to ride a bike at times. I’ve had a few harrowing moments. And it is perfectly fair to demand equal treatment with automobiles. However equal treatment means following the same rules. Too many cyclists are whiny little pricks who want to have their cake and eat it too. They want a full road lane when it suits them, and the ability to weave around traffic, ride the sidewalks, ignore traffic laws, and endanger themselves and others when they feel it would be easier. Bicyclists are a minority on the roadways, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve equal consideration, however is does tend to preclude me from wanting to grant them ‘special dispensation.’

    Yeah it sucks to stop midway down a great downhill when all you want is the momentum to get back up the next side. Get over it. It would be easier for me as a driver to ignore that one-way sign so I could get to my destination faster too. Fair or not drivers in this country do own the roads. They pay far more for the improvement and repair of them (gasoline taxes, tolls, other fees, etc.), not to mention the fact that they drive two-thousand pound vehicles. In an accident, car beats bike every time.

    Peds can often be the same way (who the hell doesn’t look both ways before crossing ANY street?). Regardless of fairness, it is the responsibility of the ‘lightest’ vehicle to watch out for larger ones, simple because of that disparity in weight. It’s self preservation really, because in a collision knowing that some asshat driver was at fault won’t do you much good when you’re dead. All he has to do is wash off your blood off his Hummer and buff out the scratches your teeth left on his bumper.

    Besides, quite frankly I’d be more open to adjusting the rules for cyclists if they could follow the ones they are currently have. I suspect bicycling safety would increase dramatically if we all followed traffic laws. People would begin to expect us, and as we were obeying the same laws, we would become less unpredictable. Eventually that might allow us to earn the capital for some extra consideration.

  • Bruce

    Rather than going further down the path of increasing complexity, how about the simpler European approach known as Shared Space?
    http://www.shared-space.org/

    Quoting from a draft version of the UK’s Manual for Streets:

    7.4.31 The underlying philosophy of Shared Space … is that streets can function better where users negotiate priority and movement with one another, rather then obeying fixed rules that are set by some public authority… this can work because the need to negotiate causes drivers to travel slowly, and others to watch out and make eye contact before proceeding. In order to achieve this, Shared Space involves the removal (or absence) of road markings, signage and physical limitations on movement such as kerbs and pedestrian guard railing.

    7.4.32 Up until 2006 at least, most Shared Space schemes for busy areas were retrofit schemes.

    7.4.33 Initial data suggest that this scheme has reduced collisions… Vehicle delays and queues have also been reduced.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Bruce, shared space may be nice at low speeds, but I don’t see it working at speeds over ten miles per hour, at least not without a huge change in the way people view bikes.

    Also, I invite you to try to implement any kind of shared space here in Queens, where the DOT denies requests from relatively conservative community leaders to paint crosswalks.

  • Dave H.

    I’m beginning to tire of this discussion but

    “Regardless of fairness, it is the responsibility of the ‘lightest’ vehicle to watch out for larger ones, simple because of that disparity in weight. It’s self preservation really, because in a collision knowing that some asshat driver was at fault won’t do you much good when you’re dead.”

    This would seem to lead to the opposite conclusion: that the law should place responsibility on the heavier vehicle, since the lighter one already has enough of a reason to watch out. Knowing the driver is at fault won’t do you a lot of good if you’re dead, but the driver won’t be too happy about it when he gets sued.

    “In regard to the Idaho law discussions; I’ve read, perhaps a dozen times here, “It would be the cyclists responsibility NOT to run the red light, so drivers wouldn’t have to worry.” Yeah. Right. Well currently it’s the cyclists responsibility NOT to run the red light at all, and we see how well THAT is working”

    This is a question, since I don’t drive: do drivers currently worry about running into cyclists in cross-traffic when they (the drivers) have a green light? Since I don’t drive, I don’t know the answer but it certainly seems like ‘no’ to me.

  • Mig

    Bruce, I bike in Paris, France, and I fully agree with you. Authorities should make live as easy as possible for bicycles and as hard as possible for cars, changing the traffic regulations is a step in the right direction.

    The worst possible situation you can be in, as a cyclist, is a red-light where most of the cars turn right: if you wait for the green light to cross the street, you risk being hit multiple times by cars who won’t check their right mirror to see if there’s a bicycle.

  • motorist

    What if bikes just got in the back of the line and waited their turn just like everyone else at the intersections? There would be no more right hooks. That would save some lives. The suicide bombers here in Portland would hate it for sure…

  • Paul

    From my desk at work I have a clear view down upon a 4-way stop and have been observing car and bike traffic the last few weeks. It is not really a busy intersection, but there is a lot of bike traffic. Most of the cars at least do a rolling stop, if there are no other cars. I rarely observe a complete stop unless totally necessary anymore.

    I would say 50% of the cyclists do not slow down at all if they don’t see a car approaching or stopped. The remaining seem to slow a bit, and some even stop, but not many unless there are cars already stopped. Some cyclists are traveling quite fast. Other, not so fast. In fact a good portion of them may be traveling slower than many of the rolling stops of the cars.

    Since no one really stops at stop signs anymore, cars, bikes and city buses included, I would conclude it’s all about speed. Cars normally travel quite a bit faster than bikes, so their rolling stops appear more dramatic. If a cyclist traveling at 10 mph slows a few clicks then continues through a stop sign, it is not so apparent to the observer. Since the cyclist is approaching at 10 mph instead of say, 25 mph for the car, the cyclist theoretically then has much more time to assess the intersection, other traffic, pedestrians, etc.

    I’m all for cyclists following the rules of the road. It is fun to weave traffic and haul ass through the city hopping obstacles, but in the past few weeks in Portland there have been 3 bicyclist deaths, all I believe involving collisions with vehicles in the city. I think we cyclists need to be more aware, courteous and respectful of everyone on the streets. It’s tough out there sometimes, but for the most part I enjoy being out there on my bike. We’re still the minority and if we want respect on the roads, we need to earn it.

  • David

    “Most effectively, the state could rule, as most Scandinavians have, that in any collision between a pedestrian, a cyclists or a driver, the largest, heaviest vehicle is at fault.”

    This is not true, at least not in Sweden.(Can’t vouch for what the other Scandinavian countries are up to though, but usually Scandinavian laws are fairly consistent.)
    What the state HAS ruled is that, unless otherwise regulated(lights, entrances, exits…), the biker or the pedestrian has the right of way over the vehicle. But this is a far cry from giving bikers/pedestrians absolution from traffic violations, a biker/pedestrian STILL has to comply with certain basic considerations.
    It’s set up as a mutual thing, if you fail to provide the vehicle with a reasonable chance to react you’re still fair game, but once a vehicle HAS noted you it is required to let you pass.
    The main effect from a biker’s perspective is that you don’t need to be particularly skilled at track stands any more in order to get through an intersection w/o putting your foot down.
    The drivers have accepted the change with surprisingly good humour.

  • Michael

    This is an extremely dangerous proposal for cyclists. Right now, bicycles have the same rights on the roads as motorists, in exchange for having the same rules to obey. As soon as there are different rules for cars and bicycles, there will be many restrictions on which roads, etc. bicycles are allowed to ride on. There are many people out there who would like to ban bicycles from roads. Let’s not give them any more ammunition.

  • bikermah

    The solution to the delivery man on one-way street is not banishing one-way streets. I think that might be the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Converting all those streets to two way would cost millions and in many cases will be impossible especially in the cases where there is bus service going down the street. Dealing with the left turns would be a nightmare. Come on. Is it that much of a hardship to ride an extra 3 blocks to get to your destination? Biking 3 blocks is a piece of cake. Don’t be lazy.

  • sonoanonima

    you said “the fact is it’s often irresistible to a biker to go the wrong way down a one way street.”

    bad argument. i might just find it irresistible to steal your laptop one day. does that mean i can help myself and get away scott free? just because you are tempted to do something doesn’t mean that it should be permitted. come on! that kind of argument gives all cyclists a bad name, reinforcing the idea that cyclists are anarchists on wheels with no regard for others.

    sonoanonima,
    biker and pedestrian
    brooklyn, ny

  • Sam

    Thank you, sonoanonima!
    Change the laws, if you want it different. Don’t disobey them because you don’t agree. I’ve had too many close calls because bicyclists find it irresistable to break a traffic law… and you’re right, I’d be at fault in my car because some idiot rode through a stop sign.

  • Davis

    People often forget in this conversation that, far and away, the biggest volume of law-breaking on NYC streets is done by pedestrians. I can’t tell you how many close calls I’ve had on my bike because some pedestrian decided that they needed to step out in the street into the small sliver of lane reserved for bicyclists instead of just standing on the sidewalk to wait for the light to turn green. These pedestrians have no idea that they are pushing cyclists into on-rushing traffic when they do that. The amount of jay-walking on NYC streets is staggering. Pedestrians don’t follow traffic laws at all.

    Meanwhile, not only is is “irresistable” to “break the law” when biking in New York, I find it to be absolutely, 100% necessary. Every morning I take a 3-year-old kid to school on a bike. The “law” would have me ride my child, much of the way either in the middle of traffic, on very busy, almost highway-like avenues or more than one mile out of my way (and up a hill) to get to his day-care center by the approved bike path.

    Thanks, but no thanks. I ride part of the way the wrong way on a one-way street, usually on a sidewalk, because it is, far and away, the safest route for me to take. If there are pedestrians walking on the sidewalk, I give them priority. I don’t try to pass them. I apologize if I’m in their way. But I’m not going to put my kid at risk to follow laws and adhere to street designs that were created for motor vehicle traffic.

  • Mitch

    I think we cyclists need to be more aware, courteous and respectful of everyone on the streets.

    I agree. In my opinion, courtesy and respect are much more important than technical compliance with the letter of the law.

    Even when pedestrians and motorists are themselves violating the law (as they do most of the time), it is best to treat them with courtesy and respect.

  • Aidan

    What is up with everyone caring about cyclists obeying road laws? Cyclists have to be out in the weather, use their own strength to get back to speed, and are exposed to the dangerous rage and stupidity of automotive drivers. Is there so much resentment in the human soul that I have to obey the same rules as people without those dangers and inconveniences, because they resent my urban mobility? Just as likely to be scorn, but we don’t admit there is class-warfare in N. America, now do we? You want resentment and scorn? Anybody with a child, or a place in the biosphere, ought to legitmately criminalize car drivers.

  • It’s not that difficult to ride a bike in traffic and among pedestrians.

    Common sense and riding skills get us through our rides everyday. There are so many “what ifs” that border on the absurd. Just as we do when walking or running in the city, use your head and do your part and things will fall into place.

    Have fun.

  • Leo

    1. Regarding your example of a biker having to travel 1/2 a mile to get from 15th St. to 14th St., the biker could dismount and WALK the bike on the sidewalk that short block along the avenue. It takes all of 30 seconds to get to a street that has the direction he needs. Also, I avoid the main crosstreets like 14, 23, 34, 42 or 57 because there is absolutely no room for a bike to travel in.

    2. Regarding declining bus patronage, DOT could try making more less driven on avenues 2 ways – like West End Ave. is or the avenue it becomes further south is. Then MTA can try bus service in both directions on one of those same avenues to see if bus patronage rises. Of course there would then be less room for a good buffered bike lane on those avenues.

    3. In midtown I am testing myself by staying stopped at all red lights and only proceeding on green (except on a right turn from a right lane, for example). I have found that because of the intense density of traffic, I get where I’m going just as quickly and with much less stress. I also get a much needed rest every few blocks. I’m not constantly trying to get an extra edge of some kind. Not going the wrong way on a street is also stress relieving for me. Bikers doing that make life very difficult on other bikers going the right way because the bike lanes are usually so narrow and an accident may be more likely.

  • Mirco

    Kay. When you were a kid, what was drilled into your head over and over and over again? LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE CROSSING THE STREET. Just because it’s a one-way doesn’t mean there isn’t some sleepdriver, cell-phoner, burger-sucker or just plain inattentive driver cruising up there. (or a cyclist trying to maintain some sanity in this car-crazy world) Take some responsibility for yourselves, people. You don’t look before you hop into the street??? are you tired of living? Of course a cyclist should be extra-careful on the 100 or so yards wrong-waying, but they could also do it on the sidewalk, if it’s not full of people. and yea for red-light yields. seriously. we’re bikes. it’s different.

  • jordan

    Bad idea, in my opinion. Cyclists should definitely obey red lights even if it’s inconvenient to stop going up a hill mid-way up. Those laws don’t just protect the people in the cars, they protect us bicycle folk too. Perhpas, if there was some different infrastructure in place a system could be devised to allow cyclists and other pedestrians a way around or through intersections safely. Until then, it’s best just to obey the laws- even if it means traveling a half mile extra or losing momentum on a hill. It’ll only make you stronger, anyway.

  • Kelly

    What I would like to know is where these streets are in Montreal that allow for a cyclist to leave 6 seconds before traffic. As a Montreal resident and avid, all year cyclist, I’ve yet to see this anywhere.

    That said, I agree completely with your argument and will most likely adopt it myself. The only rule I follow is that I never cut off pedestrians. If they are crossing on a red light without looking (which is common in Montreal) I’ll let them know, but the last thing I want to do is run into some poor folk out for a stroll.

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