Skip to Content
Streetsblog New York City home
Streetsblog New York City home
Log In
Bicycle Safety

Of Red Lights, Helmets, and Bike Lanes

From Streetsblog San Francisco contributor Chris Carlsson: 

The Oregon Legislature has flushed an effort to bring the Idaho rolling stop
law to that state. It's a bit of a surprise, given both the simple and
proven efficacy of allowing cyclists to make rolling stops, as well as
Oregon's big reputation as a bastion of cycling sanity. I've been an
"outlaw bicyclist" for 30 years in San Francisco, running stop signs
and red lights routinely. The design of traffic laws and the
engineering of our roads are focused on automobile throughput,
parking-and-shopping, and not much else.

Those of us who have embarked on a generation-long effort to
reinhabit the urban environment, partly by daily cycling, have had to
refashion the streets through our own patterns and habits. Rather than
acquiescing to "the law" or to self-defeating rules, we've made safe
but creative use of the rights of way. When I come to a stop sign, it's
always a yield, unless there is cross traffic there ahead of me, or if
there's a cop waiting to nab me. (I've only been ticketed a couple of
times in 30 years, mostly because I never cause anyone danger or
inconvenience by my behavior.) If I come to a red light, depending on
how far I can see the cross traffic, I'll either stop or pause, and
proceed if the coast is clear.

The safest place for me is
on the OTHER side of that red light, where the road is empty. Waiting
to start on the green with the automobiles is to remain shunted to the
unsafe corridor between parked cars and moving traffic, and often
enough, being threatened by a right-turning car. You'll end up spending
most of your urban cycling time in hazardous narrow corridors anyway,
but whenever you can get into an open road without moving cars
alongside, you're safer. It's self-evident! It's also helpful to be
pedaling ahead of traffic, keeping a healthy distance from the door
zone, where approaching motorists can see you clearly and make
adjustments to accommodate our presence on the road.

Over
a decade ago, I wrote a flyer that I distributed at Critical Mass. It
was inspired by a frustrating conversation I had with a woman when we
found ourselves side by side on our way to a memorial at 24th and
Valencia where a cyclist had been hit by a bus some days earlier:

AsI was riding to the memorial for the woman killed at 24th and Valencia,I got a dose of bicyclist moralism. (I have been riding my bike, mostlyas a commuter, in SF for the past 19 years, and I’ve only worn a helmeta half dozen times at most. So far I’ve avoided any serious accidents.)I turned to some unknown cyclists with me in the left turn lane fromMarket to Valencia, and asked if they were heading to the memorial, anda helmeted-woman immediately informed me in that tell-tale "tsk, tsk"tone of voice, that the accident victim "hadn’t been wearing a helmet."I took offense at this blaming of the victim, and said as much, leadingto an alienating and inconclusive exchange regarding the individualresponsibility to wear a helmet.

Most bicycle accidents causeinjury that a helmet cannot help, but still many cyclists share themass media bias that says "if you’re not wearing a helmet, you havegiven up your rights to complain about an accident or the injuries youmay have received." I find this absurd and offensive.

It’s not amoral imperative to buy a commodity that offers meager protection inorder to be critical of a ridiculously hostile road structure. Youdon’t deserve to die, or even suffer injury, just because you refusethe "common-sense Consumer Duty" to buy and wear a helmet. Roadengineering today guarantees serious accidents between bikes and cars,and of course, cars and cars. You may survive a slightly higherpercentage of these predictable and designed "accidents" wearing ahelmet, but you are reproducing an insidious logic when you criticizebare-headed cyclists. It is terribly false to place the onus fortraffic safety on the individual vehicle driver, whether car or bike.The system is designed in such a way that it is entirely predictablethat many thousands of people will die in the "normal" course of eventson America’s roadways. Cyclists who ride without helmets do not therebydeserve the fate handed out by the unforgiving streets of America.

Thisis one example of a moralistic acquiescence to the status quo thatblocks some bicyclists from seeing the radical implications ofbicycling. Another example presents itself in the ongoing tusslebetween advocates and opponents of bike lanes. Bicyclists against bikelanes believe that the best way to improve conditions for bicycling isby bicyclists becoming able to ride as an equal among cars on regularstreets. Rather than changing roads and rights-of-way, they holdindividual cyclists responsible, insisting they learn to behave ascars, moving as fast as autos through normal city traffic. For a largemajority of real and potential bicyclists, this is physicallyimpossible and socially undesirable.

Bike lane opponents seem to think that everyone should be like them. Often these folks claim inspiration from the theory of "Effective Cycling"(John Forester). They embrace cycling with a near-religious fervor andfeel passionate about its "natural" superiority as a mode of transit interms of energy and thermodynamics. Ten thousand hours of experiencequalifies you to claim the status of "effective cyclist," a status forwhich rather few of today’s urban cyclists would qualify.

Iprefer the label "Republican Efficiency Freaks" (REFs) for this crowd,who curiously seem to think that the only cyclists who are a worthypolitical constituency are those who conform to their standards oflaw-abiding behavior and thermodynamic efficiency. Arguing against bikelanes out of some strange paranoia, they claim that bike lanes willghetto-ize cyclists into those areas only. Additionally they haveargued that with a system of separate bike lanes we will see MOREbike-car accidents because of the confusion that exists at allintersections of bikeways and car streets. (2009: All you can say to this is, "Copenhagenize It!")

Wewill never be banished from city streets! There are too many of usalready, and after a new bikeway system, our numbers will quintupleagain. Bike-car accidents are already awful. We need a big publiceducation program about new patterns and priorities, accommodatingbicycles, wheelchairs and pedestrians, improving public transportationperformance, and so on. A network of bikeways is what will encouragemany more people to start riding. The most common reason people havefor not cycling is their legitimate fear of being killed on the streetsby cars.

The attempt to make individuals responsible for asocially-imposed madness is not just foisted on us by our obviousopponents. Unfortunately, those of us in the "bicycling community"spend all too much time fending off the same kinds of blame-the-victimmentalities from within our ranks. But this kind of petty moralism andpolitical self-defeat cripples our utopian imaginations. Opposepolitical arguments that situate the crucial decisions of ourpredicament at the point of shopping for a helmet, or in our abilityand willingness to act like a car when we’re riding our bikes. We wantto change life. Bicycling is an affirmative act toward that end.

— Chris Carlsson, Sept. 1998

I still, after all these years, yearn for a more comprehensive agenda
to remake the city for cycling. We've made some small progress, and
soon with the lifting of the injunction we'll see a bunch more white
stripes and other modest improvements. But we have to go a great deal
further, and if we can generate a compelling vision of a citywide grid
of safe, separate, horticulturally designed and artistically adorned
cycling paths, we might finally have a goal worthy of the decades of
effort that have gotten us this far.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog New York City

Friday’s Headlines: The Polk’s on Us Edition

This afternoon, our reporter Jesse Coburn will journey to Midtown to accept Streetsblog's first George Polk Award, one of journalism's highest honors. But before that, here's the news.

April 12, 2024

Op-Ed: Police Placard Corruption Report Was Weak, Disappointing … and Completely Expected

The Department of Investigations clearly had ample evidence of crimes and serious violations, yet its report lets everyone off the hook.

April 12, 2024

City Unveils Design for Long-Decrepit East Harlem Greenway

Nearly two dozen blocks of crumbling greenway along the Harlem River are slated for a revamp in 2025.

April 12, 2024

Thursday’s Headlines: Bike Lanes are Good for Business Edition

A business owner testifies from the heart (and wallet). Plus other news.

April 11, 2024

Environmental Groups Join to Fight Adams’s BQE Reconstruction

Rebuilding the Moses-era highway for another century is not environmental justice.

April 11, 2024
See all posts