Bikes and red lights

Counting red lights

If you ask a biker– any city biker– about bicycle safety and traffic laws, they will all start with the same line: “of course I stop for red lights, but…”  What will usually follow is a complaint about the many cyclists they’ve seen that were acting stupid, or reckless.  And if you ask me I’ll probably tell you the same thing.

But here’s the truth: We all run red lights.  All the time.  Just not all of them.

On my way home last night– a 17.5 mile trip that takes about 90 minutes– I counted the number of times I technically violated a traffic law by traveling past a red light or through a stop sign, and lost count after fifteen.

And I’m a safe biker.

One more time

Now, when you tell someone “Oh, I ran a red light” what the person you’re talking to is thinking of is probably a busy X intersection where running a light means careening through two-way traffic.  To bike through that kind of light one would have to force cars to stop for you, which is dangerous and stupid.  But those aren’t the kind of intersections I’m talking about when I say “I run red lights.”  These are:

  • a T junction, where I’m going straight across the top of the T
  • during a walk signal, when there are no pedestrians in the street
  • a delayed green, where the opposite side has a left turn signal but there are no cars there to turn left
  • a light that will not turn green unless something as heavy as a car rolls over a pad under the street
  • A stop sign leading to a one-way street with no cars or pedestrians on either street
  • a light where I’m turning right without crossing the path (or the potential path) of any cars

I slow down at each of these intersections, and stop if I need to in order to assess the traffic flow.  And then I go if the way is clear, whether the light is red or not.

And any biker that tells you they don’t do this is either lying to you or hasn’t been biking long enough to figure this out.

But there are laws!

I have heard much hue and modest amounts of cry lately over bikes in the city, with the most heinous being this Boston.com piece. (*See footnote)  One thing most everyone seems to agree on is bikers should be forced to follow traffic laws.

Well, this is a stupid point.  Here are plenty of reasons it’s stupid:

  1. A reckless biker can get himself killed, but a reckless car driver can get himself and a shitload of other people killed.  This is why police are always going to care more about cars breaking traffic laws than bikes.
  2. As we all learned from the end of E.T., even if a cop wanted to stop a bike, doing so while in a car is extremely difficult.
  3. The vast majority of the time, a biker violating the law is getting out of the way of your car.  Do you want me to stop and take up space in front of your fender while waiting for the light when I don’t have to? According to the state of Massachusetts, bikes have equal claim on the road– the entire road– if needed.  If you want me to act like a car, you’re going to have to live with the fact that I’m not getting out of your way and I’m not going to be going much faster than 25 MPH.
  4. Have you, as a pedestrian, ever walked across the street on a Don’t Walk signal?  Or stepped out where there was no crosswalk?  There are a lot more pedestrians than there are bikes; should we give all of them tickets too?
  5. For that matter, as a driver, did you ever take a right on red even when a sign told you not to?  Ever rolled past a stop line to see up the street?  Turned without signaling?  Gone through an intersection just as the light has gone from yellow to red?  Done a rolling stop at a stop sign?  Put down those stones.

Bikes terrify people

Most of the time I am harassed when I’m riding, it’s while I have right of way and am not doing anything illegal whatsoever.  Last week I had a driver turning left in front of me lean on her horn and scream because I zoomed past her and she had to stop.  But I was going through a green light at the time, it’s just there were no cars going through it with me.

A few weeks before that I got stuck behind a car that was trying to get around a parked city bus.  The guy went extra-super-slow because he thought he was going to get clipped by the people speeding past him (in cars) on his left, so he took forever to get past the corner of the bus.  Once we both got past the bus the car behind us leaned on his horn and started pointing fingers at me.  Why?  I don’t know; he apparently didn’t like being behind me, even though it was the car in front of both of us that caused the slowdown.

And just last night, I “cut off” a car turning right.  Except I didn’t do anything of the sort.  He was going straight and decided to turn right without bothering to use his turn signal or checking his mirror to see if I was there.  I sped up to get past him before he completed the turn– my other option was to skid, which is what happens when you try to go from 20 MPH to 0 MPH immediately on a bike–forcing him to slam on his brakes and honk.  This was not my fault.

I have hit intersections just as lights turned green and gotten honked at by the cars at the head of the traffic who were startled when I went past them.  I have had people stop their cars dead when turning left after discovering I was on their right and turning left with them.  I have had cars wait until the traffic was clear on the other side of the street so they could give me a six foot berth before passing.

This is the real reason people consider bikes a menace: it’s not because all of the bikers in the city are reckless– although some certainly are– but because most of the drivers in the city aren’t expecting someone on a bike.  

I too drive

I am a driver too, and I grant that it’s startling to have a bike suddenly fly past the right (or left) side of the car when I didn’t know they were there.  But that isn’t the biker’s fault.  It’s mine, for not expecting them or looking for them.

Yes, I agree there are more bikes than there used to be, and I have lost chances to turn and missed green lights because they were in front of me.  But as a wise bumper sticker maker once wrote “Bikes aren’t causing traffic.  Bikes ARE traffic.”

*   *   *

*Footnote: it’s possible the writer of this piece was shooting for some sort of Swiftian satire, which would mean we don’t have to take anything he wrote seriously.  But to be Swiftian it would have had to have actually been in favor of bikes in the city, and it is clearly not.  Also, this writer isn’t nearly as talented .  He may not believe what he wrote, but he knew fully well it would resonate with some portion of The Common Man, because if history has taught us nothing else, it is that, by and large, The Common Man is a fucking idiot.

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