The Rules of the Road Are Everyone’s Responsibility

I’ve been trying a little experiment lately as I ride around town on my bike: doing my level best to follow the letter of the law. I’ve been inspired by both the carrot and the stick. In the carrot department, Transportation Alternatives’ new Biking Rules handbook has made a very nice case for more rule-based cycling in the city: "the simple principle that our responsibility to others on the street increases in relation to our potential to cause harm. With Biking Rules, NYC cyclists are taking the lead to create safer, saner streets." I would like to be a part of that sanity, even if I think it would be more appropriate for law enforcement to take the lead by enforcing the laws that apply to motorists. So I’m giving it a shot. So far I’ve gotten thanks from two pedestrians for stopping at red lights, and that felt pretty good.

0501081246_01.jpgLAPD Officers ride the Hollywood/Vine crosswalk until they defer to the primacy of the motor vehicle and ride out into the oncoming traffic. Photo by SoapBoxLA.

In the stick department was the $50 ticket I got for riding on a path in Madison Square Park a couple of months ago. The Parks Department employee who wrote it didn’t care that there were no pedestrians within 50 yards of me, or that I had chosen to ride through the park rather than on 23rd Street because of the hazardous mash of traffic conditions (buses stopped diagonally across the lanes, construction vehicles, double-parked cars, etc.) that existed there at that minute. She was just enforcing a rule, and I had to admit that I had broken it. (She also suggested that I fight the ticket, which seemed just bizarre to me. I paid it instead.) 

I’ve tried this experiment before, back in the dark ages of the late ’80s, when I was commuting by bike from Morningside Heights to the Gramercy Park area. As I recall, Mayor Ed Koch had told the cops to crack down on cyclists, and tickets were being handed out rather liberally. I was poor and didn’t want to get one. What I got instead, as I waited for the light to change one day near Grand Central, was rear-ended by a taxi that evidently expected me to run the light. I wasn’t badly hurt, but I did need a new rear wheel, and I’ve been skeptical of being law-abiding ever since.

As I read the posts from bloggers around the country about cycling and the law, I’m continually struck by the confusion and misinformation that seems to prevail almost universally. Today we’re featuring a post from SoapBoxLA that discusses a tragic case in which a woman riding a bicycle was struck and killed in a crosswalk:

The LAPD’s Public Information Officer confirmed the report that the LAPD considered the cyclist the "primary cause" of the incident because she was riding a bike in a crosswalk which is a violation of CVC 21200 which requires a cyclist to obey the rules of the road. The PIO explained that a cyclist must either dismount at crosswalks or ride on the right side of the road with traffic.

I asked if he had ever ridden the Orange Line Bike Path or the Chandler Bike Path or any of the City’s bikeways facilities that actually direct cyclists into the crosswalk at intersections. The PIO paused and then suggested that I speak to the investigating officer.

I called the LAPD’s Specialize Collision Investigation Detail (SCID) and spoke to the investigating officer assigned to this case who also explained that cyclists must obey the rules of the road which prohibit riding a bike in the crosswalk. I asked for the actual vehicle code or municipal code that prohibits cyclists from riding in the crosswalk and he simply referred to CVC 21200 and repeated the claim that cyclists must dismount before using a crosswalk.…

I believe we have an obligation to be accurate in applying the law to this incident and it is either illegal for a cyclist to ride a bike in a crosswalk or it’s not. That is a simple issue that can be settled quickly and if the LAPD’s appraisal of this incident is based on that ruling then it is very important that we are accurate in applying the law.

I contend that it is not illegal to ride a bike in the crosswalk. It might not wise, it might not be advisable, but it is definitely not illegal. cyclists are not required to dismount at intersections or at crosswalks.

The fact that
there is confusion over such a simple issue demonstrates the real need for specific training for the LAPD on bicycling activities and applicable regulations and laws.

Transportation Alternatives has the right idea with the Biking Rules initiative. But in order for a truly law-based cycling culture to emerge in New York or anywhere else, law enforcement, prosecutors and drivers all have to be educated as well.The burden of doing things the right way — and knowing what the right way is — shouldn’t fall primarily on cyclists.

Bonus: Today on Greater Greater Washington, Stephen Miller writes about the opening of the fabulous Wilson Bridge active transportation crossing between Virginia and Maryland — and the baffling lack of bike access to the National Harbor on the Maryland side.

  • No, not primarily, but no less on us than anyone else. The best way to be an ambassador for *anything* you do is to obviously enjoy it, be friendly about it, and do it well. For bicycling this has to mean following the law, and expecting others to do the same. I often smile and/or wave or say “thank you” to drivers who obey the law with regard to me when I’m on my bike. I shouldn’t *have* to thank them for just following the law, but it makes them more inclined to be friendly to me in return. This isn’t being wimpy about bicyclists’ rights, it’s just being friendly while being law-abiding, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Fighting it isn’t bizarre given that you were choosing the safer option and often going to court means a reduction in the ticket just for showing up (at least where I’ve lived). It means a few more people hear about the issues for cyclists. THe fact is, those rules we’re supposed to be following were, for the most part, made with automobiles in mind and *not* with bicycles in mind at all, which only usually doesn’t make much difference. The case about the crosswalks is evidence of that – the laws aren’t at all clear.
    I, too, get thanks for little courtesies … and for having lights… and for pulling over on one particular corner that’s really not wide enough for the bus…

  • Yes a cyclist might get a ticket for using the crosswalk, but you can also get a ticket from many cops for making a “vehicular” left hand turn. Since you are damned either way, you might as well err on the side of safety and use techniques that are standard in regions with a stronger bike culture, like Copenhagen.

    In Copenhagen you ride your bike in the crosswalk in order to make a left hand turn – that’s the recommended way, unless there is a striped bike lane or bike track directing you to do otherwise (separate signals for bikes!). First you go straight on the crosswalk, then you wait for the light to change with your foot on the curb at that corner, then proceed to bike on the crosswalk in the direction you were turning. This keeps the bikes and automobiles separated, which works a lot better for large numbers of cyclists. It also encourages cyclists not to blow the light and eliminates one of the mast common accidents for cyclists – left hand turns encountering drivers going straight.

    This technique also works great right here in the USA for average people using the bike to get around. By the way my grandmother does this in Cape May, where she rides here bike daily at the age of 73.

  • Bill from Brooklyn

    I am an extremely courteous and safety conscious biker, but if I was to exactly follow all of the rules designed for automobiles, I would never commute by bike it would just take too long from where I live in southern Brooklyn. In order to be followed the rules for bicycles need to be rational and behaving like a car is not rational for a bike. The key to rational, sane and safe biking is always being ready to yield to pedestrians and treating red lights and stop signs as yields. Additionally, except in a real and immediate safety emergency a biker should not utilize the sidewalk.

    I realize it is an uphill battle, but one of the best things TA could lobby for is a change in the rules of the road as they apply to bikes. A yield law (except perhaps at certain major intersections) is what makes the most sense and the yield method is how most rational bikers are going to behave regardless.

  • I have to admit that I break the law every time I ride home from work. There’s one particular section of Queens Blvd that I haven’t figured out how to negotiate legally and safely. See here: http://tinyurl.com/nucae9

    I’m continuing straight ahead so I know I should be in the middle of the three lanes that are available, but cars make the right from all three lanes, and at ridiculous speeds. I feel extremely exposed and vulnerable wherever I position myself. So I ride on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. And every time I feel bad, wondering how I can possibly criticize other cyclists for breaking the law.

    Tomorrow things will change. I’ll find an alternate route home. And I’ll stop (and wait) at every single red light, even the dopey little ones where there are no cars or peds in sight. Then I’ll be able to get all indignant and righteous without that little nagging voice whispering “hypocrite” in my ear.

  • King C.

    What Bill said.

    The whole point of riding my bike is that it’s fast and it’s on my terms. That hardly means I’m reckless–in fact, I would say I’m the most careful person on the road out there. Neither motorists nor pedestrians pay nearly as much attention as I do to their surroundings (not that pedestrians should have to, but still).

    The day I follow all the rules is the day after every motorist and every pedestrian in NYC follows all the rules (that is: never). I see too many motorists run red lights and too many pedestrians simultaneously cross against the light and behave stupidly or unpredictably.

    It’s a jungle out there. I won’t give up what I see as my rights until everyone else does or until there is any type of equitable enforcement of the rules.

  • Thank you, Sarah, for your informative post.

    Here’s the clip-and-save version for pretty much all comments (including my notional ones):

    I am a bicyclist and I follow the rules of the road, except when it’s inconvenient, but it’s OK because:

    (choose one of the following)

    that’s how they do it in Amsterdam/Portland/Twin Falls;

    that’s how it should be if DOT/Albany would implement my sensible suggestions;

    that’s a rule that was put in place to benefit the automobiliarchy.

  • dporpentine

    I obey the rules of the road with absolute inflexibility, and I’ve never gotten anything but grief for it. I’ve had several people (including one lummoxy biker) yell to say that I’m supposed to go through the lights. I’ve had cars–many cars–beep at me at stop lights and inch their way up, to suggest they’re going to hit me if I don’t move out of their lane.

    And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: stopping for lights does not slow you down significantly. Maybe over a longer ride you might save a few minutes by blowing the lights and endangering yourself and others and helping ensure that the murder of bikers goes unpunished–but no more than a few minutes.

    That dumb biker who yelled at me to go through lights is a perfect illustration. I passed him a few minutes later and stayed in front of him for the rest of the time we were riding in the same direction.

    There are no excuses for not obeying the law! Whether biking or driving. And shame on TA for not putting stopping at red lights on their “Biking Rules Street Code.”

  • Stopping at red lights IS on the Biking Rules Street Code: “No one can see how good-looking our bikes are if we speed through intersections. And new cyclists will be following our example. Take a break and relax at red lights. (Law: VTL §1231)”

  • al oof

    i guess i can go look it up, but i’m a little confused about the accident in LA. if the bike was in the crosswalk, where was the car that hit them? cars are absolutely not supposed to be in crosswalks when the light is red. how can they consider the bike rider at fault and not the car driver?

    i don’t ride in manhattan or anywhere else that there is much traffic. i stop at red lights, but don’t always wait for them to turn green. i know it’s illegal and i’d take a ticket if i got one, but i still do it. the fact is, cars don’t want me there waiting, most of the time. they honk if i’m taking up the lane, because i can’t start as fast as they can. and if i’m on the side and they want to turn, they don’t like me getting in their way then either. and it can be scary when people in cars are irritated with you.

  • dporpentine

    “Stopping at red lights IS on the Biking Rules Street Code.”
    No it’s not. It indirectly suggests not speeding through them and recommends relaxing at them. That’s not stopping. I can relax and blow lights all the same.

  • al oof

    >>”Stopping at red lights IS on the Biking Rules Street Code.”
    No it’s not. It indirectly suggests not speeding through them and recommends relaxing at them. That’s not stopping. I can relax and blow lights all the same.<<

    actually, it specifically says “take a break” in the ‘street code’ section, which directly suggests stopping. it also has a section in the ‘laws’ part of the handbook that says:

    Bicycle riders in NYC are obligated to follow all the
    rules of the road that apply to motor vehicles. This
    means always:

    -Stopping at red lights and stop signs.

    -Riding with the flow of traffic on
    two-way and one-way streets.

    -Stopping before crosswalks so they are free
    for pedestrians crossing.

  • John Carroll

    I think following the law as best you can is a good thing. I stop and wait at every red light and at most stop signs, though I admit I don’t plant my foot at every stop sign. We have a responsibility to be safe and follow the law, BUT, we need not be ashamed if we don’t always tow the line under every circumstance. Cyclists are not any worse than any other group that uses public streets. Drivers and pedestrians all break the law – and with the same frequency.

    The greatest discovery I’ve made about always stopping? It actually slows me down and helps me relax and concentrate on enjoying my commute and the fresh air. I say good morning to other cyclists that stop too. Ripping through intersections never really saved me much time.

    We ALL need to slow down and enjoy life more often. Once upon a time I never would have said that – but the recent death of someone I loved very much has made me really concentrate on the important things in life. And enjoying every day and being safe and healthy are just a few of the things that are the consequences of me changing my ways.

  • dporpentine

    Old post, but I see someone tried again to claim that the Biking Rules demand that bikers stop at red lights. They don’t.

    What I was talking about was the “street code” part of the biking rules. That’s TA’s original contribution, the part that they’re touting as new and important and have built a website around. There’s a big difference between that and some listing of laws in some minimally circulated print version that’s obligated to acknowledge in some back section that, yes, it’s illegal to run red lights.

    Here’s what the relevant part of the street code now says: “No one can see how good-looking our bikes are if we speed through intersections. And new cyclists will be following our example. Take a break and relax at red lights.”

    Note that this is under the heading “Untangle Intersections.” The emphasis is on keeping intersections clear. And as we all know, one great way to do this is to blow the light. That way you’re away from the intersection, not tangling it at all!

    Then comes a cheeky appeal to (supposed) biker vanity. Compare that to the all-caps shouting of the first rule, which reads in its entirety: “Pedestrians always have the right of way. PERIOD.” (And to that I say bullshit. If a pedestrian is acting illegally and endangering me, as happens virtually every day in my commute, I don’t have to die or get injured for that person’s sake. I’m obligated to do what I can to avoid hurting that person, but that’s a far cry from some unquestionable right of way.)

    The cheeky opening clause sets up a very indirect set of guidelines: speeding through intersections is a bad idea, so you should take a break at them and relax. And here’s how plenty of people do all those things at once: they slow down at intersections or trackstand or come to a complete stop for a second and then go on. All those things are not speeding through lights! All those things can be considered relaxing! All those things fall under the heading of taking a break!

    I’ll believe that TA is serious about getting bikers to stop at red lights when it says it directly and prominently. And maybe it’s important enough to whip out the all caps for.

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