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The Rules of the Road Are Everyone’s Responsibility

10:11 AM EDT on June 9, 2009

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 thatthere 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.

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