Today on the Internet: So What Are The “Rules” For Urban Cyclists

A single tweet sparks a debate over who we are and what we're doing. And then drivers ruin it.

What does it mean to be a "good" cyclist? And should we even care?
What does it mean to be a "good" cyclist? And should we even care?

A single tweet on Tuesday by longtime outdoors writer Peter Flax has set off a debate about what it means to be a cyclist who bikes and plays well with others. Or doesn’t.

And it’s the subject of today’s installment of “How We Talk About Ourselves When We Think No One Else Is Listening.” First, the tweet heard ’round the world:

Do we all have such “rules” in our head? And are there only two, as Flax suggested? Fortunately, the Internet was on top of it.

“3rd rule is don’t be a jerk?” added @VannevarB, but that didn’t satisfy Flax.

Something about “being a jerk” and pissing off others didn’t make everyone in the cycling community feel completely comfortable.

Which Peter Krupa dubbed the “don’t be an asshole” rule.

But even “safety” is subjective. Flax suggested that should we “assert” ourselves in traffic, but others weren’t so sure.

And then, inevitably, the entire debate got derailed by a driver who just had to toss a stink bomb into the whole thing.

Which started its own debate…

…Which gets us back where Flax started: Yield to pedestrians and do what you need to do to get home safely. Obviously, drivers don’t care about us.

  • Simon Phearson

    We should distinguish between avoiding pedestrians and giving them the “right of way.” These are not the same thing.

    When a pedestrian crosses the street at a crosswalk with a “walk” signal, they have the “right of way.” That means that you stop for them if they’re in your path of travel and wait for them to safely clear out of the way. When a pedestrian crosses the street at a crosswalk against a “don’t walk” signal, or between traffic signals, you should still avoid them, but that does not mean that they have the “right of way.” It means they are (potentially) violating your “right of way.” They should be stopping for you.

    I have simply been put at notable risk – and injured – by misbehaving pedestrians too often to take these advocates’ platitudes about the “hierarchy of vulnerability” very seriously. I will take care to avoid jaywalking pedestrians in circumstances where they can and should be expected. I will not, however, respect the pedestrian who uses a bike lane as a jogging lane on a busy and dangerous street. I will not patiently wait for pedestrians to finish jaywalking against a solid “don’t walk” signal on a street or turn where I need every second of lead time I can to get ahead of sociopathic drivers. Take reasonable care to avoid causing harm, absolutely. Yield the right of way, no.

  • jay5r

    I don’t agree that pedestrians always have the right away. But I’d agree that we should yield to them whenever we can do so safely. But if they step off a curb into a bike lane while looking down at their phone they’re lucky if they only get yelled at.

    My personal rules are 1) Be visible, 2) Be predictable, and 3) Do what you need to do to stay safe – even if that means pissing off the driver of a car or breaking traffic laws that haven’t caught up with what we know keeps cyclists safe.

  • crazytrainmatt

    This is why DOT gets rightly lambasted here for lack of attention to detail and building infrastructure piecemeal, and their shortcomings exacerbate the unpleasant interaction between pedestrians and cyclists.

    For example, mixing zones put cyclists at risk of fast turns from the thru lane, getting doored by the car parked in the mixing zone, drivers deciding not to turn after all, etc. Experienced riders often mitigate these risks by swerving right and then tacking back to the bike lane as they go through the intersection, which is pretty surprising for everyone else. Pedestrians see some empty space and cross without looking, hang around on the phone or waiting for a cab, push strollers towards the island, etc. They probably assume the cyclist’s attention is fully on them so it’s no big thing to avoid them. In reality cyclists are concentrated on traffic behind their right shoulder, or occasionally on the turning car to their left.

    Another example is the current iteration of the 7th avenue bike lane in Times Square. Often there is a river of pedestrians that stick nice and safe next to the sidewalk barrier. The barrier ends up keeping them in the bike lane thus forcing you to ride within inches of the unprotected sharp bevel down to the street where heavy traffic is not expecting you to fall under their wheels.

    Like a lot of things in NYC, one’s best manners tend to get worn down by repetition, and you’re left ringing a bell continuously and yelling “excuse us”.

  • I will agree that there is a big difference between accepting the responsibility to avoid pedestrians on the one hand, and unconditionally ceding to them the right of way. It’s true that a bicyclist should be prepared to stop at the sudden appearance of a pedestrian, and that failure to do so is presumptive evidence that the bicyclist was going too fast for conditions, was not paying sufficient attention, or both. But bicyclists have to keep this in mind only because so many pedestrians have become accustomed to behaving like total idiots.

    I will take issue with the rule that mentions getting where you’re going as quickly as possible. That may be true if you are running late for work. But often a higher goal is to enjoy the ride (even during the commute); and this may involve using a route that is less direct, but more pleasant.

    The rule that I live by is that every bicyclist, like it or not, is a bicycling ambassador to a mostly hostile general public. Therefore, we should follow traffic laws such as stopping at red lights not on account of any safety question (because bicyclists tend to proceed through the intersection only when it is safe to do so), but solely for reasons of public relations.

    Every act of going through a red light, even when it is perfectly safe, is sure to become the subject of witnesses’ dinner-table conversations on the topic of “those crazy cyclists”. This, in turn, makes achieving progress — or even defending what we have already achieved — far more difficult than it otherwise would be. Unfortunately, in this backward society, the narrative of the “crazy bicyclist” is already firmly established in the public consciousness. Every individual bicyclist thus has exactly two choices: 1) contribute to this harmful stereotype; or, 2) work against it.

  • I’ll push back a little bit, Gersh.

    There is no such thing as “we” or the “cycling community.” Sure, there is a community of *advocates* such as those you’ll find volunteering with TransAlt here in New York, engaging here on Streetsblog, or fighting the good fight across the country, but there really is no *community* of people who bike, and certainly not now that cycling for transportation has entered the mainstream. There are just people. I have no more in common with a person who hops off a train at Grand Central and then rides a Citi Bike to to work than a Brooklyn driver has with someone who commutes by car from Westchester County. We have common interests – getting around safely being the top one – but we don’t really constitute a community.

    As for behavior and following the law, a general rule for life whether you’re on your bike or not, is to be kind to other people regardless of what “community” with which you happen to identify.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Bike defensively. As I was taught to drive defensively.

  • woodyguthrie

    It’s complicated to be an ambassador of goodwill while also standing your ground and protecting yourself. But I try…

  • Joe R.

    One rule for me—stay safe. All other concerns are secondary. I’ll gladly give the pedestrians the right-of-way so long as I’m not putting myself in danger by doing so. A good example might be if I’m taking the lane, with motor vehicles behind me, and a pedestrian is jaywalking. I’ll change position in the lane so as to avoid them, but I’m not stopping or slowing as doing so can get me rear-ended by the vehicles behind me. And yes, it’s very common for drivers to be right up the ass of a cyclist, regardless of how fast that cyclist is going.

  • Joe R.

    I definitely agree with you here. Pedestrians only have the right of way if they’re crossing in a crosswalk with the walk signal, crossing in front of a stop or yield sign, or crossing in an unmarked crosswalk (not very many of those in NYC). In the last case, you must yield to them if they’re in the crosswalk, but it’s incumbent on the person crossing to not enter the crosswalk when you’re so close that you can’t avoid them.

    In all other cases, like crossing midblock or using bike lanes as a sidewalk extension, pedestrians definitely do not have the right-of-way. Sure, you should avoid hitting them purely out of self-interest, but if something does happen they’re at fault. And I strongly feel there are certain places where cyclists should always have the right-of-way, like the loops in Central and Prospect parks, or places like the Hudson River Greenway. Why? There are few places in this city where cyclists can ride without motor traffic. It’s not too much to ask that they have the right-of-way at all times in these places when pedestrians get the right-of-way everywhere else in the entire city.

  • I feel as a bicyclist I am afforded plenty of freedom even while riding conservative and yielding to peds (who have right of way). That is to say we get to run plenty of red lights and stop signs. Anyways one can only travel so fast in the city. Riding like a douche doesn’t really get you past that limit, nor does it effectively save time. I have to ride crosstown from river to river often and I’ve examined the trip closely. You are pretty hard bound by the traffic light cycles. Someone riding hard vs someone riding like a senior citizen, they might manage to skip ahead on a couple of cycles and save like 3-4 minutes on the whole trip.

    And if we are talking about mid-day, both of these hypothetical bike riders will beat any car on a crosstown trip and that gives me plenty enough smug satisfaction. Don’t need to scrounge for every last minute of time savings.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Nobody can violate your right of way, because, paradoxically, it can only be yielded to others, and never possessed. Other people can fail to yield the right of way to you, and there’s even a law for that. But nobody should go around with the mindset that they have it.

  • Simon Phearson

    t’s true that a bicyclist should be prepared to stop at the sudden appearance of a pedestrian, and that failure to do so is presumptive evidence that the bicyclist was going too fast for conditions, was not paying sufficient attention, or both.

    I don’t think you know what “presumptive evidence” means. But anyway, you’re wrong. You can’t, by definition, anticipate the “sudden” appearance of a pedestrian, nor can you reasonably be expected to anticipate any possible sudden action a pedestrian undertake. Imagine going over the Williamsburg or Queensboro bridges behaving like pedestrians who share the space could do anything, at any time, with no forewarning. I am virtually certain you don’t ride like that.

    I will take issue with the rule that mentions getting where you’re going as quickly as possible.

    Ferdinand, it’s been said to you multiple times, multiple ways, that not everyone has the leisure or privilege to ride like you do. The fact that you happen to enjoy riding like a geezer doesn’t mean that’s enjoyable or feasible for everyone, much less a “higher goal.” My speed enables me to see more of the city, more often, than I ever would see otherwise.

    The rule that I live by is that every bicyclist, like it or not, is a bicycling ambassador to a mostly hostile general public.

    My speed, moreover, helps me to express good will toward the drivers with whom I share the road. I guarantee you that you’re burning whatever good will you think you’re earning, by stopping at stop lights and stop signs, by moseying at a speed half the limit, blocking the progress of drivers. You think they’re not complaining about you at their dinner tables?

  • Joe R.

    I’ll also add that for some people, the act of riding fast is a large part of what they enjoy about riding. At least I know it’s that way with me. The wind in my hair, whistling in my ears, the road flashing by, it’s all exhilarating. When I get a good long descent, well, to borrow one of Ferdinand’s references to riding, it’s better than sex. And yeah, you can see a lot more of this wonderful city at a faster pace, especially if you’re time constrained on the number of hours you can spend on a bike. Riding like a geezer, no, that’s no joy whatsoever for me. Apparently it isn’t for you, either.

  • You as a bicyclist cannot predict the sudden appearance of a pedestrian in your path; but you can avoid excessive speed so that you can stop in time if/when one of these f-ing assholes wanders out mid-block. If you are anywhere near a sidewalk, you have to let that possibility influence your choice of speed.

    Every cyclist rides at his/her own pace. I am sure that I could push it past my typical average of 10 miles per hour; but then I would lose energy needlessly, and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy full days of riding such as, for example, my recent rides of 93 miles each way to and from Philadelphia, or my 74-mile round-trip out to Morris County.

    While some drivers no doubt hate me simply because I am on a bike, and while plenty of them hate me on account of my reminding them to stop behind the stopping line rather than in the crosswalk, they sure won’t be able to accuse me of “blocking their progress”. Because of the fact that I am not one of these vehicular cycling morons, I wind up taking the lane very infrequently, typically only on Manhattan cross-streets, where I can keep a speed between avenues that equals that of the cars. Otherwise, I ride on the far right (or left, if it’s Madison Avenue), pulling temporarily into the middle of a lane only to go around obstructions.

    The idea that drivers would be angry at me for stopping at a red light is nothing short of bizarre. While one or two of them have made lauditory comments along the lines of “this is the first time I have ever seen a bicyclist stop at a red light”, most of them don’t take any notice of me because my presence doesn’t impact them; whereas, if I were to proceed through the light that they are required to wait for, they would surely notice that, and would seethe with anger at what they’d consider to be an entitled little prick.

    Don’t take my word for it. Grab a clipboard, go stand on a corner, and ask random people what they think about bicyclists. I guarantee you that a large majority of these people will express anger at bicyclists for going through red lights (along with other forms of law-breaking, such as riding on the sidewalk). Whereas, you could stand there for the rest of your life and never encountere a single person who’d say “You know what I hate? A bicyclist who stops at red lights.”

    So I am quite sure that I am setting a good example by behaving in a manner that minimises the likelihood of reinforcing the harmful stereotype of the crazy bicyclist.

  • TYLER 2

    Um…maybe “Obey the VTL”?

  • carl jacobs

    Roads are engineered for motorized traffic. That’s not even debatable. It’s simply a fact. Moving motorized traffic is the essential purpose for roads. Everything else is secondary. The reason is also quite simple. Motorized traffic is essential to the economy. Bikes aren’t. If motorized traffic disappeared tomorrow, the economy would seize. If bikes disappeared tomorrow, virtually no one would notice.

    Well, that’s not entirely true. Drivers wouldn’t have to worry about cyclists creating a “lane” between the passenger door and the curb, anymore.

  • tiabgood

    You think that drivers would not notice that many more cars on the road of cyclists up and stopped cycling? And then you can complain about the parking! http://humantransit.org/2012/09/the-photo-that-explains-almost-everything.html

  • First of all, paved roads predate automobiles. In fact, roads were first paved for bicycles.

    Secondly, no one objects to the idea of the delivery of goods by road. The problems relating to that are the use of large trucks in inappropriate settings, and the failure to provide adequate loading zones.

    The problem consists entirely of the reliance on the personal automobile. We could have a thriving economy if we restricted the use of private vehicles to commercial traffic, and required that personal transport be done by means of mass transit.

    The entire country would have thriving bus networks, with ample road space for them to operate. We can easily imagine a country in which virtually everywhere were reachable by means of trains or buses, and in which policy and law mandated development that takes into account the value of walkability.

    Street traffic would then consist mainly of buses and of trucks delivering stock to stores. The only cars would be taxis, emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks, vehicles driven by municipal or state authorities such as police cars, and vans driven by people doing jobs that require the hauling of tools or other heavy gear.

    And, of course, the main form of individual personal transport would be the bicycle. Every street would be optimised for the use of bicycles, with protected separate lanes. And even the highways that would connect cities would have protected bicycle lanes alongside the lanes that trucks would use for long-distance shipping.

    The personal auto is a mistake of historic proportions. It produces an unhealthful and degraded way of life, and is absolutely not necessary for a functioning economy. Society got into this mess on account of monstrously bad policy decisions; the appropriate correction consists of good policy decisions that discourage the use of automobiles and promote the use of mass transit and bicycles.

  • Joe R.

    Also, auto use negatively impacts the economy for a whole bunch of reasons:

    1) Money spent on automobiles, fuel, repairs, and insurance could be spent on other things instead which create more jobs.

    2) Some of the money spent on automobiles is money which otherwise would have been spent on public transit, depriving transit of much needed funds.

    3) Automobiles are a far more dangerous way to travel than any other mode. While some may show statistics indicating cycling or walking are nearly as dangerous, keep in mind the majority of injuries/deaths while cycling or walking are caused by automobiles. Take automobiles out of the picture, and cycling/walking would be at least an order of magnitude safer, if not more.

    4) Injuries and deaths from automobiles cost dearly in terms of both actual expenses and lost economic productivity.

    5) Pollution from automobiles causes at least ten times as many deaths as automobiles cause directly. Again, this is another major hit on the economy.

    6) Wars to secure sources of oil for automobiles have cost trillions of dollars. Also, they involved us in a part of the world where we have no business being. As a result, we became targets for terrorists.

    I could go on and on with this but you get the point. Automobiles indeed aren’t necessary to the functioning of the economy. By every metric we would be better off without them. Mobility would even be increased without automobiles. Those who can’t afford a car will have far more options to get around. Those who can will have modes available, like high-speed rail, which are far faster than automobiles. In cities, bicycles and rail rapid transit are already usually faster than driving. Taking automobiles out of the picture would make this even more true.

  • Simon Phearson

    You as a bicyclist cannot predict…

    Once again, you fail to grasp the applying your proposed standard in any consistent way would make efficient progress all but impossible, particularly in circumstances such as the bridge crossings and other shared infrastructure.

    Every cyclist rides at his/her own pace….

    You keep citing your lengthy trips like they’re impressive or entitle you to speak with authority. They’re not, and they don’t.

    While some drivers no doubt hate me…

    Predictably, you avoid the thrust of my criticism by claiming to engage in behavior that you are not legally obliged to engage in and that is, moreover, dangerous. I do not know why you invite close passes by riding in the gutter, but I can assure you that it is not in your interest to do so (as should be evident given the most recent severe injury to a cyclist covered here on Streetsblog). Anyway, unless you are somehow able to shrink your cycling profile to a mere sliver of roadway, I am sure that there are, indeed, plenty of drivers wondering why you don’t speed up, a bit, and are just as irritated by your moseying as they would be any other cyclist’s disregard for red lights.

    The idea that drivers would be angry at me for stopping at a red light is nothing short of bizarre…

    Jumping the shark here, Ferdinand. I never said anything like this.

    Don’t take my word for it….

    And if you paid any attention to the way that drivers actually behave on the streets, you’d realize they’re just as irritated by slowpoke cyclists as they are red light-runners.

    Once again, I’m left to wonder if you’re actually just a fraud.

  • carl jacobs

    How and why roads were built in 1890 is not relevant to how and why roads are built today. A road built in 2018 will be designed to carry motorized traffic. If a system is defined by its intended purpose, then roads are by definition for motorized vehicles. Bicycles may use those roads but that doesn’t change the fact that bicycles are using a network designed for a motorized vehicle.

    I take it you disapprove of personal automobiles. If you worked for GOSPLAN, you might have the power to impose your vision. Unfortunately you don’t have that power, and against you stands the inconvenient fact that a personal automobile is the most efficient form of personal transportation ever devised in the history of man bar none. It allows you to travel where you want when you want by the route you want in the secure and comfortable environment you want, and comes equipped with built-in logistical support. And all at a reasonable cost. That’s why individuals overwhelmingly continue to choose a car over other means of transportation. Yes, I realize that urban planners have much different ideas of efficiency and that those ideas typically involve high population density and limited mobility. Those aren’t the measures of efficiency used by the typical citizen when he makes transportation choices. He will make his decisions according to his own measure regardless of what urban planners think.

    People are free to make such choices as they will. They don’t need your permission to use a car and they aren’t overly concerned about your declaration that doing so is disastrous, and degrading. Neither will they allow you to impose penalties on them for the privilege of doing so. The fact that to achieve your objectives you would have to impose these penalties should tell you something. You are trying to stop people from doing what they would otherwise choose to do. You want them to stop doing what they want and start doing what you want. They have the power to ignore you, and they will. In fact, they do.

    I’m also well aware that under all this animosity is the certain knowledge that automobiles made tax base mobile. Tax base ceased to be a resource to be mined and became a scarce commodity that had to be enticed. Automobiles allowed tax payers to use mobility as leverage. If the city became hostile, people had not just the freedom but now also the ability to move. Do you want to keep tax base in your city? Then you had better cater to its interests. Otherwise you will end up devoid of taxable economic activity. That’s a feature. Not a bug. People aren’t interested in being turned into milch cows for whatever gov’t scheme gets dreamed up next.

    So if you want to make progress, you are going to have to stop making personal cars the enemy. They simply provide too much marginal utility to be successfully fought. You also have to stop trying to herd people back into high density population centers where they can be reliably taxed and controlled. The prospective herd isn’t going to accept it. Instead you have to make public transportation an acceptable complement to cars. If you can’t do that without imposing punitive measures on recalcitrant citizens, then you have already lost. Because cars ain’t going nowhere.

    Sure. Go ahead and make the joke about gridlock if it makes you feel better. I don’t mind.

  • spragmatic

    “I don’t agree that pedestrians always have the right away. But I’d agree that we should yield to them whenever we can do so safely. But if they step off a curb into a bike lane while looking down at their phone they’re lucky if they only get yelled at.

    My personal rules are 1) Be visible, 2) Be predictable, and 3) Do what you need to do to stay safe – even if that means pissing off the driver of a car or breaking traffic laws that haven’t caught up with what we know keeps cyclists safe.”

    I sense a bit of hypocrisy here as if you suddenly rode out in front of a car, as you’re likely to do to “keep cyclist safe” you would demand the right of way from a car. That my fellow citizen is a double-standard which is seen everywhere in this county every day.

    You cannot state that it’s okay to yell at a pedestrian, for any reason, and not accept that you might get yelled at yourself by a car driver. Likewise, if you suddenly appeared in front of a car, you may be lucky that you only get yelled at. In my opinion, regardless of how you choose to get around, those comments are highly conceited and highly questionable.

    It’s these double standards of the pedestrian, cycling, and automotive world that keeps us all at odds. ONCE WE ARE CAPABLE OF ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY OF ONES OWN ACTIONS will we be able to make our streets safer. Until then, the pedestrians will blame everything on the cars and bikes. The bikes on the cars and pedestrians. And the cars on bikes and pedestrians.

  • spragmatic

    I definitely agree with you here. Bicyclists only have the right of way if they’re riding to the right side of the lane and only moving into the full lane to avoid a hazard. Using the left lane unless it is a turn lane means they don’t have the right of way. You must yield to the bicycles if they’re riding within the parameter of the law, but it’s incumbent upon them to not ride into your path when you’re so close you cannot avoid them.

    In all other cases, running stop signs or red lights, or riding any where beside to the right side of the right lane it is purely in your self interest to avoid hitting them. But if something does happen, then they’re at fault. There are certain areas where cars should always have the right of way.

    How does that sound? It sounds pretty conceited and egocentric doesn’t it? Now go back and read what you wrote and explain to me how you didn’t just say that it should be okay to run over a pedestrian unless its not in your interest. If the above paragraph offends Joe R, then hypocrisy is the name of the bicyclist game.

  • Joe R.

    I reread what I wrote. I’m simply saying that pedestrians don’t have the right of way all the time, and if something happens when they don’t have the right-of-way, then whoever hits them isn’t legally considered at fault. That’s well-established in the law. For that matter, the same thing applies to cyclists or any other road user. If I get hit passing a red light, I have no legal recourse against the driver who hit me as I didn’t have the legal right-of-way. That doesn’t imply they shouldn’t try to avoid hitting me if possible. They’re just not legally obligated to.

    Where did I say it’s OK to intentionally run over a pedestrian who doesn’t have the right-of-way? It’s not OK but sometimes it may happen if there was no way to avoid hitting them. And when would it NOT be in a cyclist’s self-interest to avoid hitting a person? That’s a false hypothetical you invented to troll the discussion. It’s always in a cyclist’s self-interest to avoid hitting them as a cyclist can get hurt worse than the person they hit. I’ll never hit a person if there’s at all any way I can avoid doing so without placing myself in more danger. For example, if it’s a choice of swerving into the path of a truck (and facing certain death), or hitting someone and facing far less probability of death, I’m opting for the latter. But that’s a hypothetical which never occurred once in my four decades of riding. Point of fact, I never hit a person even once. It’s pretty easy for a cyclist to avoid hitting people if they keep situational awareness.

    There’s absolutely nothing in the law requiring cyclists to use the right part of the right lane. I don’t where you dug up that gem. Cyclists have the right to take the full lane. On a multilane road, yes, they should stay in the right lane, except when turning left, as should all slower traffic.

    Obviously when cyclists are violating traffic laws, such as when they pass red lights, then they’re considered at fault when something happens, as is a pedestrian who is crossing at a time or place where it is not legally allowed. In both cases however, other road users still must take reasonable measures to avoid them.

    Yes, a cyclist has a vested self-interest to avoid hitting pedestrians. There’s nothing conceited or egocentric about mentioning that. i mention it simply because some idiots think there are kamikaze cyclists out there who run pedestrians over at will. Why would they when they can get hurt worse than the person they’re hitting. On the other hand, a motorist has no such self-interest to avoid hitting either cyclists or pedestrians beyond any sanctions the law might place on them. In this city, that’s virtually none.

  • Joe R.

    Evidently you don’t ride a bicycle. What situation exists where a cyclist would suddenly ride out in front of a car in order to stay safe? Sure, there are times I might move to my left to avoid potholes or pedestrians or car doors BUT I always look before moving. If there’s no room for me to go left, I slow or stop until a gap opens up. Darting out in front of a car is the exact opposite of trying to stay safe.

  • fdtutf
  • jay5r

    Thanks Joe. Yes, you got the context for what I was saying. Spragmatic made a lot of assumptions about me that simply weren’t true.

  • spragmatic

    As someone who drives a big truck in the city, drives a car all over the state, rides a motorcycle all over the country, rides a bike only in the rural areas, and walks all over the city, what I see when I read a post about the “rules” for bicycling is an veiled attempt to circumnavigate the traffic laws. There are no “rules” for riding a bicycle. There are laws. Bicycles must follow them, just as everyone else must.

    And just like everyone else, the laws will be broken, bent, or completely disregarded. But anyone who points to another subset of road users and says things like “well they don’t follow the law, why should I?” misses the point of personal responsibility. Like I said in a previous post, until everyone on the road is willing to accept responsibility for their own actions, there will never be the ability to realize the common goals of everyone being able to use the streets in a non-competitive manner (or something like that).

    Vision Zero is destined to be a failure if it fails to recognize that a large subset of people will never get out of their cars. It will fail if it fails to recognize that bicycles need safer places to ride a bike than the middle of the street. It will fail if it doesn’t recognize that pedestrians, no matter what, will continue to walk into traffic while looking at their phones- or run across traffic to catch a bus that’s about to pull away unless something is done to educate them about not doing it.

    So far, the pedestrians who walk out into the street blame the person who hit them. The bicycles that run the stop sign blame the car that hits them. The motorcyclists that weave in dense traffic blame the cars when they clip one and crash, and the cars blame everyone for being in the way. God forbid you get hit by a truck. It’s likely you won’t be around to blame anyone. Sounds about right?

    Vision Zero is so, so far away.

    If we are going to invent a set of “rules” that aren’t the vehicle code, there should only be one and it should read:

    1. Operate your vehicle in a manner that allows you to scan your surroundings, identify hazards and predict the movements of those on the road around you so you can get home safely without having caused inconvenience or strife with others.

  • Joe R.

    I can actually agree with you that Vision Zero is destined to be a failure, both for the reasons you say, and because we refuse to do anything to radically reduce the volume of motor traffic. When you have large numbers of motor vehicles and large numbers of pedestrians/cyclists in close proximity, bad things will happen, period. You can make all the laws you want but the fact is people make mistakes. Motor vehicles unfortunately ensure that the end results of those mistakes are sometimes deadly. So if NYC or any other city really wants to get as close to Vision Zero as possible, the only answer is to eliminate all unnecessary motor traffic. In cities this would mean the only motor traffic on the roads are buses, delivery vehicles, emergency vehicles, construction vehicles, and paratransit. You might also have a small number of vehicles driven by people whose jobs require that they carry heavy loads when going on site.

    There are no “rules” for riding a bicycle. There are laws. Bicycles must follow them, just as everyone else must.

    The problem with that is the laws haven’t caught up to what actually is safe and sensible for cyclists. For that matter, they haven’t caught up to what’s safe and sensible for pedestrians. For example, it’s often safer to cross the street of foot on the don’t walk signal, provided you look first, because you don’t have to deal with turning vehicles. On a bike. it’s often safer to pass a red light as you avoid being in the middle of a pack of accelerating vehicles jockeying for position when the light turns green. Once you get across the intersection, you also more or less have the entire street to yourself until the pack of cars gets the green and catches up to you. By then they’re usually sorted out where they want to be, and pass you without incident.

    It’s also worth mentioning that the traffic lights and stop signs people chide cyclists (and pedestrians) for disobeying wouldn’t even need to exist if not for the huge numbers of motor vehicles on the roads. And that’s exactly why they should only strictly apply to motor vehicles. For other users, they should simply mean “yield and proceed if safe”. If you rode a bike in the citry instead of only in rural areas you would realize that strictly obeying traffic signals not only places you in more danger, but also severely impacts the efficiency of cycling, to the point you sometimes can walk faster if the light timing is particularly bad. Same thing while walking. It can take twice as long or more to walk in Manhattan if you were to obey every pedestrian signal.

    It makes much more sense if the only rule for road users is the one you mention. The other rules rarely make things better or safer.

  • The mention of my long trips is simply to counter the false (and highly dishonest) assertions that my style and my practices make riding impossible. The fact is that an average of 10 miles per hour is perfectly appropriate for the bike commuter as well as for the pleasure rider.

    (Note that 10 miles per hour is an average. I will go twice that speed when conditions are right: flat ground or downhill; long distance between stop lights; not riding close to the sidewalk.)

    I am simply doing all that any individual cyclist can do, which is to ride in the safest way possible against threats from drivers, while acknowledging my responsibilities to pedestrians. This portrays a good image of bicycling to the general public, and sets a worthwhile example for other bicyclists (more important, for any little kids who happen to take notice).

    And all the while I am accomplishing my goals, both practical (commuting; errands) and pleasure (visiting my mother; basking in the greatness of New York; taking long trips outside of the City), staying in shape, and thoroughly enjoying my rides.

  • Simon Phearson

    The mention of my long trips is simply to counter the false (and highly dishonest) assertions that my style and my practices make riding impossible….

    They would, if you actually followed them to the extent you say they should be followed.

    The fact is that an average of 10 miles per hour is perfectly appropriate for the bike commuter as well as for the pleasure rider.

    As it’s been put to you, repeatedly, you simply have no basis for saying so.

    I am simply doing all that any individual cyclist can do,…

    What you are doing is a combination of complying with the law and ceding your legal right of way in a way that actually exposes you to increased risk but, you incorrectly conclude, actually is noticed and appreciated by drivers and pedestrians. It is a highly idiosyncratic style of riding that you nonetheless recommend that all cyclists emulate, to their detriment.

  • Andrew

    We can easily imagine a country in which virtually every point were reachable by means of trains or buses…

    We don’t have to imagine such a country; it exists in Japan. Tokyo is a city where the vast majority of people get around on train, bus, bike, and foot, and where private automobile ownership is difficult, expensive, and rare. Street traffic largely consists of deliveries and services, and streets are optimized for biking and walking. Even outside of Japan’s major metropolitan areas, it’s usually pretty easy to get around without a private car.

    Given @carl_jacobs:disqus’s assertion that widespread private automobile ownership is a prerequisite to a functional economy, he would probably think that Japan’s economy is virtually non-existent. Such a primitive country couldn’t possibly have a population of more than a few hundred thousand people, right?

  • I agree that “drivers don’t follow the law; so why should I?” is the wrong answer when bicyclists are confronted with their law-breaking.

    There is something to be said for the appeal to civic virtue. I have mentioned several times that I used to ignore red lights and stop signs. My reasoning was that the laws were made with no regard for bicyclists; so we had no obligation to respect those laws. This changed fundamentally when Bloomberg arrived. With the advent of Bloomberg’s bike lanes, bicyclists’ interests began to be acknowledged by the authorities; and this created a duty to respect the law that did not exist before. For the first time, the social contract applied to cyclists.

    However, I tend to ignore that line of argument. The only important reason for bicyclists to follow the law is strategic. Riding illegally creates anger towards bicycling amongst an already hostile general public. This manifests in the anti-bike crazies who disrupt Community Board meetings and try to thwart all attempts at progress.

    Also, riding illegally increases complaints to elected officials, which, in turn, scares these politicians off from backing bike-related improvements. Consider the case of CM Jimmy Van Bramer, who had expressed support for the protected bike lanes on Skillman and 43rd Avenues, but then backed off when confronted by complaints from a bike-hating segment of his constituents. (In this case de Blasio saved the day by putting his foot down and ordering the improvements to go ahead. When you’re out-backboned by de Blasio, hoo boy, then you know that you are truly a spineless weasel.)

    There is always going to be a lunatic fringe; even if every bicyclist rode legally 100% of the time, a certain set of goofballs will come up with reasons to oppose bike infrastructure. We should avoid giving these types free ammunition, and also driving more people into their camp.

    When a bicyclist goes through a red light, this inspires any number of dinner-table rants about “those crazy bicyclists” Never mind that the person delivering this rant surely would have witnessed drivers doing much more dangerous acts. But driver misconduct has become normalised and has faded into the background; while every misdeed of a cyclists is noticed. So every bicyclist who blows a red light is conducting a public campaign against the expansion of (and perhaps even for the removal of) our bicycle infrastructure.

    We must never deny that that drivers’ law-breaking creates conditions
    that are deadly for others. By contrast, when bicyclists break the law,
    this is at worst an annoyance. So drivers need to follow the law in order to
    protect others; while bicyclists need to follow the law in order to
    protect ourselves.

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