“Saner Rules” for Bicyclists Won’t Make NYC Streets Safe

“I argue for saner rules for bikes,” tweeted traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz yesterday, referring to a post that he and fellow former NYC DOT engineer Gerard Soffian put up on CityLand. “[F]or their own safety and for the safety of others,” bicyclists should comply with traffic laws, they wrote. In keeping with Sam’s trademark common sense and fair play, the two also said that fines for cycling through red lights and other violations should be lowered, and traffic laws changed to “permit bicyclists to make turns and other movements prohibited for motorists.”

Ticketing more cyclists won’t make streets safer. Photo via ##https://twitter.com/OpSafeCycle/status/502490308798459905/photo/1##@OpSafeCycle##
Ticketing more cyclists isn’t the way to make streets safer. Photo via ##https://twitter.com/OpSafeCycle/status/502490308798459905/photo/1##@OpSafeCycle##

The point, said Sam and Gerard up front, is that “Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative to substantially reduce traffic fatalities can only be achieved if all users of our roadways respect traffic rules.” No argument there. Or even with Sam’s contention that cycling violations are rife in New York City. But even so, are cycling violations a big contributor to fatal and serious-injury crashes — or, as some charge, to a culture of traffic chaos? And is clamping down on cycling violations — whether in the ham-handed way of so-called “Operation Safe Cycle” or in Sam and Gerard’s more evenhanded sketch — a way to make our streets safer?

No and No, says this city cyclist (who is also a long-time admirer of Sam’s and, these days, a partner of his in pursuing the Move NY fair-tolling plan). Notwithstanding its kinder and gentler ethos, Sam’s first cut yesterday of “saner rules for bikes” doesn’t match up well with on-street biking conditions in New York City.

To begin: Forcing cyclists to stop — and wait — at red lights runs up against some basic physical realities. In summer, to stop at lights is to be bathed in sweat, as the broiling heat swallows the breeze you’ve worked hard to manufacture; to stop in winter is to forfeit the heat you’ve built up, and feel your extremities start to burn. Moreover, dead-stopping at any time cuts directly into the efficiencies that are central to city cycling. Not only do you lose time in standing rather than moving, but you have to raise your exertion in order to power up again.

Back in 2001, two Bay-area cyclists — a U-Cal Berkeley physics professor and the editor of the transportation journal Access — documented that a route with frequent stop signs took 30 percent longer to cover on a bike, compared to one with few stops. They also found that stop signs took away less time and energy if the cyclist merely slowed rather than halted outright. Though big city conditions are somewhat different, the message is the same: Yes, blasting through red lights at speed is deeply antisocial, but slavishly stopping at them defeats the continuing motion that so much in cycling depends on.

In cities like New York, where cyclists’ place on the road can be tenuous, there’s also a safety imperative to slipping through red lights: it takes us out of the way of potentially aggro drivers and gives us a little holiday from cars that helps us manage the next close encounter. Not to mention that our safety is enhanced when there are more of us cycling — the well-known safety-in-numbers dynamic that aggressive ticketing threatens to squelch.

Then there’s the NYPD. Sam and Gerard didn’t say much about the police other than call for a “healthy complement of NYPD traffic officers dedicated to bike-related enforcement” directed at both drivers and cyclists. Perhaps in a follow-up, they’ll say more about such a squad’s mission, training and tactics. Hopefully there’ll be no repeat of the Orwellian “Operation Safe Cycle” that is now nearing the end of its supposed two-week run. As Streetsblog noted yesterday, “readers report a lot of fish-in-a-barrel ticketing activity and flat-out bogus summonses. No one has written in to tell us about NYPD nabbing a wrong-way cyclist who just went through a crowded crosswalk.” The NYPD even seemed to make a point of blocking bike lanes while meting out tickets, as documented in the barrage of photo-tweets by my fellow Right Of Way organizer Keegan Stephan, among others.

Sam and Gerard didn’t directly address “Operation Safe Cycle.” While that’s understandable in such a brief piece, how the police enforce traffic laws and otherwise administer the streets is going to have to become part of the conversation about cycling and New York City. That conversation also needs to envision how much cycling we want there to be, and whether and how NYPD culture needs to change to get us there.

I’m generally optimistic about NYC cycling. I’m certainly thrilled with how much bigger — and safer — it’s gotten over time, particularly during the reign of DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. But Operation Safe Cycle has been depressing. It suggests that our police commissioner has been so smitten with the theory of Broken Windows that he hasn’t gotten the paradigm of Harm Reduction, which abjures absolutes and looks for the interventions that go furthest in banishing danger and lessening injury. And it suggests that while our mayor is committed to Vision Zero, he has yet to grasp that Vision Zero is connected to, and may even depend on, More Cycling. Memo to the de Blasio administration: Virtually every study [huge PDF, see pp. 28-30] of every new bike lane installed by the previous mayor found that everyone’s travel — by foot and motor vehicle as well as by bike — got safer when bike lanes were added and more people biked.

We cyclists agree that reckless cycling must end. But to create the conditions in which that is possible, reckless driving must end, especially speeding, failure to yield, and inattentiveness.

All over the world, the cities with the safest cycling are the cities where traveling is safest. To stop reckless cycling, let’s make it safe to cycle.

  • JK

    Perhaps this is cynical, but maybe City Hall wants cyclists to howl in outrage over a couple of weeks of harassment ticketing so the mayor can call Vision Zero enforcement “balanced,” and inoculate himself from the criticism of Know-Nothing tabloid ed boards. (Unlike Bloomberg, DiBlasio is in permanent campaign mode and his political operatives actively manage his policy initiatives.)

    Secondly, many cyclists perceive it as safer to go through a red light so they are not caught in the turning movement of the “platoon” of cars they are riding next to. Unlike motorists, cyclists always have to worry about inattentive or aggressive drivers cutting across their path. And, it is a heck of a lot safer to go around double parked cabs and trucks when there are no cars overtaking you.

  • empidonax_road

    A good articulation of the common-sense solution that is the Idaho Stop. Can this please be repeated endlessly in front of everyone in a position to change the law and the enforcement of it?

  • Andres Dee

    Outstanding analysis by Charles, as always.

    Some personal exceptions: IMHO (and with due respect to Charles), simple is sane. As a cyclist, I want the same access to the road that a motorist has and the same protection against assault. I want the rules of the road to be as uncomplicated as possible, easy for for cyclist and motorist to understand. To that end, I’m willing to treat red lights and stop signs in the same manner as motorists are expected to. In the same manner as when I’m on my feet I expect them to. I don’t have a problem unclicking from my pedal and putting my foot down. I don’t have a problem with my trip lasting longer. As an advocate, I don’t want to provide blatant, quotable rationalizations of why the laws should not apply to us, because they make us “less efficient”. Motorists rationalize too and the results are ugly. Let’s not be that way.

    To be clear, I’m in favor of focusing enforcement (and setting penalties) on the parties who do the most damage by their actions.

  • YetAnotherRIer

    Those are some very bizarre reasons why stopping at a red light is a bad thing. I wonder how I survived all these years on a bike (and never stopped using it), stopping at red lights, sweating or freezing, or taking a few minutes longer. Listen, you decide to take a bike you automatically agree that it comes with certain inconveniences which are balanced out with a lot of advantages.

  • wkgreen

    “In cities like New York, where cyclists’ place on the road can be tenuous, there’s also a safety imperative to slipping through red lights: it takes us out of the way of potentially aggro drivers and gives us a little holiday from cars that helps us manage the next close encounter. Not to mention that our safety is enhanced when there are more of us cycling — the well-known safety-in-numbers dynamic that aggressive ticketing threatens to squelch.”

    This is not a rationalization. Komanoff is spot on with that remark, and simple is not sane if it does not apply. Bicycles are different. They should have different rules. Period.

  • Alex

    I agree that the convenience argument for allowing cyclists to go through reds is a weak one, and it’s easy for some to champion the “accept the rules of the road” notion. But the fact remains that traffic lights are not designed for and certainly not timed for cyclists. If enough drivers complain that they’re getting every single red light as they try to traverse a number of short blocks, the DOT will likely make changes to the timing. They’re not going to do that for cyclists (at least not yet). So, yeah, when I come to a red light at an empty residential intersection after only having ridden 2 short blocks, I’m going to look around and, if it’s safe, proceed. But that is a very different thing from weaving through a large number of pedestrians crossing a wide Manhattan Avenue with the light. That crap sends me up a wall. And yet, I am the more likely candidate for a ticket because I’m an easy target for the police.

    There are also very real instances when getting a head start on cars at a light isn’t just a matter of convenience, but one of safety. When I turn right off of Tillary onto Court, it is FAR safer for me to go before the light changes to avoid the 2 lanes of cars that whip around that corner.

    Ultimately, I think it being technically illegal to cycle through reds makes sense if you follow Schwartz’s advice of allowing right-on-red and lowering the fines to something sensible. Couple that with police training that emphasizes ticketing the cyclists that are actually dangerous, and you have something workable. Instituting the Idaho Stop in NYC would be great, but I just don’t know if it’s practical.

  • Alex

    In thinking about it, before the jaywalking crackdown earlier this year, I might have said bikes should be given the same leeway as pedestrians at red lights. It’s technically not legal, but you’re unlikely to get a ticket for it. The problem of course with that as we saw is that the police can suddenly decide they need to “crack down” in order to “protect” us.

  • Joe R.

    In order to move forward, we must acknowledge that when a particular set of laws is widely ignored, there must be a good reason for it. We must also at the same time observe if there are any negative consequences to ignoring a set of laws. If the answer to the second thing is no, then perhaps the problem is the law itself. That’s really the heart of the issue here. The idea that cyclists should follow the exact same rules as other road users was the result of a tenuous compromise early in the 20th century as motor vehicles gradually displaced bikes and horses on public roads. Bikes were only allowed to continue to use public roads if they agreed to abide by the same set of rules as autos. This worked OK in the beginning because auto speeds were a lot lower, and very restrictive traffic controls like traffic signals were relatively rare. As a result, it was neither very burdensome nor dangerous for cyclists to follow the same set of rules as everyone else.

    We never reexamined these rules as the automotive landscape changed. Cars got faster, a lot faster. They could now accelerate to highway speeds in less than one block. Traffic got a lot heavier. This required ever more intersections to be signalized. In the end it became ever more burdensome and dangerous for cyclists to follow rules meant for cars. Predictably, these rules were increasingly ignored in the interests of both self-preservation and efficiency. In effect, the rules were just no longer practical for the majority of cyclists, especially those in urban areas. Now this would have been fine had we designed separate, suitable infrastructure for bikes which kept them safe and in motion but we largely didn’t. Bikes and the laws governing them are an afterthought on today’s streets. For some time, this was implicitly acknowledged by police departments which largely ignored technical traffic violations by cyclists. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, perhaps because serious crime levels dropped so many police had little to do, it became favorable to focus on cyclist violations, even though most traffic laws as written make little sense when applied to cyclists, and even though the vast majority of violations aren’t even remotely dangerous. One can only speculate on the real motives here. I suspect one of them is to just reduce the numbers of cyclists so the city can then justify removing bicycle infrastructure because it isn’t being used. Or perhaps there is no real motive, just a misguided police department driven to issue summonses based on what the locals complain about, instead of what’s truly dangerous.

    In the final analysis, the only real solutions are to change both the law and infrastructure if we’re really serious about including bicycles in our transportation network. If neither is done, I can only conclude the answer to that is negative. Cycling won’t grow under the current laws and enforcement structure. That’s a given. We need to make a decision on what place bikes will have in the future, and then act on it immediately.

  • John A

    There’s an even more obvious flaw in any plan based on targeting cyclists for enforcement that Charlie isn’t bringing up: Every penny and minute spent enforcing cycling rules is a penny/minute NOT spent enforcing motoring rules. Given that cyclists’ traffic violations pose a tiny safety risk compared to motor vehicles’, this is a huge waste of resources. OK, sure, Cyclist scofflawism is a real phenomenon, and it deserves some sort of attention. But it generates a level of concern and anger that is wildly disproportionate to the risk it poses. Driver scofflawism’s lack of anger and concern is wildly disproportionate to its impact as well, but in the opposite direction. That’s something that the Sam’s and Gerard’s of the world need to take on.

  • Driver

    I always found one of the biggest advantages of bicycling to be not having to complete stops at stop signs and not having to wait at red lights.

  • Crusty

    The ticketing a bicycle and ticketing a car serve
    totally different purposes. The point of giving me a ticket (as the cop
    repeated over and over) is for my own safety- paternalistic but true.
    The reason for ticketing a car is to prevent other people from harm.
    Protecting the public should be a greater concern to the public than
    protecting someone who is likely to scare other people and hurt herself.

  • Tyson White

    When talking about Vision Zero, it’s important to make a distinction between (a) deaths and injuries that happen as a result of driver behavior, vs. (b) those that happen because of pedestrian or cyclist behavior. One has a choice to protect him/herself from category b, but category a is indefensible. The government needs to focus on category a.

    Police may enforce jaywalking and reduce deaths from category b and brag about their success in the media, but they have done nothing for innocent people who get hit crossing the streets legally with the light or those hit by curb jumping vehicles.

  • Cold Shoaler

    “And yet, I am the more likely candidate for a ticket because I’m an easy target for the police.” This is why Operation Safe Cycle is a farce at best and probably nothing more than harassment. What’s the point of focussing on the easey-to-stop over the wild riding scofflaw? Every cyclist I’ve ever seen getting a ticket was doing something ‘illegal’ but innocuous. I’ve never seen the one “weaving through a large number of pedestrians crossing a wide Manhattan Avenue with the light” get pulled over. I’ve also never seen a car obstructing a bike lane getting a ticket. Never. Not even during this crackdown.

  • Andres Dee

    Because a cop says “it’s for your safety” doesn’t make it so. Individual cops can’t be expected to know and understand the public policy foundation for their actions.

    While cyclists do less damage than motorists (and city enforcement should be on those who do the most damage), there’s a lot to be said about what we (as advocates) can do to be better cyclists. I say this based on an experience yesterday: I’m heading up 1st (in the bike lane) and trying to keep my eye on the “mixing zone” at 33rd and the cyclists behind me…when suddenly a cyclist – wrong way on 33rd – turns wrong way into my lane. I now have one additional hazard to mind and need to slow down, missing the light. No one was hurt, but that’s to my credit as a cautious cyclist, not to the “salmon”. I get something like this every day. We don’t want the city to “train” us to be better cyclists, but is this the best we can do?

  • Il_Matto

    Going through red lights takes good judgement. I see too many cyclists, often inexperienced ones, riding through red lights as if they just don’t apply to them at all. The real solution would be a police force capable of exercising the good judgement to only issue tickets when they observe bad judgement when breaking certain rules and not have everyone making an issue of it. I’ll keep dreaming!


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