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:

As
I 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, mostly
as a commuter, in SF for the past 19 years, and I’ve only worn a helmet
a 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 from
Market to Valencia, and asked if they were heading to the memorial, and
a 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, leading
to an alienating and inconclusive exchange regarding the individual
responsibility to wear a helmet.

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

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

This
is one example of a moralistic acquiescence to the status quo that
blocks some bicyclists from seeing the radical implications of
bicycling. Another example presents itself in the ongoing tussle
between advocates and opponents of bike lanes. Bicyclists against bike
lanes believe that the best way to improve conditions for bicycling is
by bicyclists becoming able to ride as an equal among cars on regular
streets. Rather than changing roads and rights-of-way, they hold
individual cyclists responsible, insisting they learn to behave as
cars, moving as fast as autos through normal city traffic. For a large
majority of real and potential bicyclists, this is physically
impossible 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 and
feel passionate about its "natural" superiority as a mode of transit in
terms of energy and thermodynamics. Ten thousand hours of experience
qualifies you to claim the status of "effective cyclist," a status for
which rather few of today’s urban cyclists would qualify.

I
prefer the label "Republican Efficiency Freaks" (REFs) for this crowd,
who curiously seem to think that the only cyclists who are a worthy
political constituency are those who conform to their standards of
law-abiding behavior and thermodynamic efficiency. Arguing against bike
lanes out of some strange paranoia, they claim that bike lanes will
ghetto-ize cyclists into those areas only. Additionally they have
argued that with a system of separate bike lanes we will see MORE
bike-car accidents because of the confusion that exists at all
intersections of bikeways and car streets. (2009: All you can say to this is, "Copenhagenize It!")

We
will never be banished from city streets! There are too many of us
already, and after a new bikeway system, our numbers will quintuple
again. Bike-car accidents are already awful. We need a big public
education program about new patterns and priorities, accommodating
bicycles, wheelchairs and pedestrians, improving public transportation
performance, and so on. A network of bikeways is what will encourage
many more people to start riding. The most common reason people have
for not cycling is their legitimate fear of being killed on the streets
by cars.

The attempt to make individuals responsible for a
socially-imposed madness is not just foisted on us by our obvious
opponents. Unfortunately, those of us in the "bicycling community"
spend all too much time fending off the same kinds of blame-the-victim
mentalities from within our ranks. But this kind of petty moralism and
political self-defeat cripples our utopian imaginations. Oppose
political arguments that situate the crucial decisions of our
predicament at the point of shopping for a helmet, or in our ability
and willingness to act like a car when we’re riding our bikes. We want
to 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.

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