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Seeing Red
by Richard Conroy, Aug 24, 2011

Gothamist posted an article about a pedicab cyclist who is “puzzled and angry” about getting three citations for running red lights. Really? Puzzled and angry? He might not have known that cyclists must follow the same traffic rules as motorists, but what’s puzzling is getting two more citations after the first one.

Some cycling advocates think it’s unfair for cyclists to be held to the same laws or standards as motorists, citing the weight and speed of vehicles, and statistics showing the huge number of pedestrian deaths caused by collisions with motor vehicles vs. the miniscule number of pedestrians killed in collisions with cyclists (believe it or not, New York City DOH counts 11 pedestrians killed in collisions with cyclists between 1996 and 2005–see p. 20 in the link). But that’s not the way the law is written, and it doesn’t generally treat drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists as having different levels of accountability. Motorists kill more pedestrians and cyclists not only by sheer weight and speed, but also by sheer weight of numbers: there are way more motorists than there are cyclists.

I prefer a simple “rights and responsibilities” formula where everyone using the roads has clear expectations about how to behave in traffic, and how to keep each other safe. So that’s why I’m not terribly sympathetic when cyclists get ticketed for red light running and other important traffic violations. The bar should not be higher for some people in traffic to watch out for others, while the bar is lower for those others to watch out for themselves. There shouldn’t be different rules about obeying traffic signals at intersections for different classes of road users. As a daily cyclist and occasional motorist, I want to be treated as an equal citizen on the roads, and talk of putting different burdens on different classes of road users is dangerous–mainly to cyclists. We are not in the majority to win that kind of battle, and we already have enough problems being treated as 2nd class citizens. So wanting police and others to treat me like I belong there, means acting like I belong there, which means stopping for the reds (and taking a drink of water, resting numb hands, and checking out cute, umm, people).

Blowing off traffic lights, even if you don’t get a ticket or have a crash, isn’t entirely consequence free. This is a situation where what may be good for the cyclist isn’t so great for cycling. Earlier this year, while stopped at a red light, I watched a wrong way cyclist on Columbus Avenue, literally blast into a pedestrian, and then react as if it were the pedestrian’s fault. So what’s the pedestrian who gets cut off or hit by a cyclist going to do? Complain to their friends, who may work in the media, in city government, or sit as a judge in traffic court. They’ll write complaints to the local community board, to their city council member, and to their local precinct. A lot of cyclists I know will say that there are only a few scofflaw cyclists, but that’s not what I’m observing. I see more red light running than I see cyclists “stopping and staying stopped.” When that’s the cycling milieu, it’s not hard to see how it would generate a lot of complaining to public officials and negative media about cyclist behavior. The negative view of cyclists won’t change much if the underlying behaviors and realities don’t change.

There are worse things than getting a ticket or generating some public animosity; one can get killed running a red light. News coverage of every cyclist fatality generates more fear that cycling is a “dangerous” activity, especially among would-be and novice cyclists, who are then reluctant to participate. While that fear isn’t entirely misplaced, it can be exaggerated. Cycling–even in traffic–is mostly a safe activity. Safer cycling is largely safe, while scary cycling is just that–scary for the cyclist and the rest of the community. Getting more of those reluctant cyclists to ride benefits all cyclists: more cyclists on the road has a “Safety in Numbers” effect. We need more of those scared, reluctant fence sitters to get on their bikes and ride, and we cyclists can do a lot to show them how easy and safe it is, even in traffic.

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