Felix Salmon

Why it’s not OK for cyclists to run red lights

By Felix Salmon
August 5, 2012

Randy Cohen, the NYT’s former Ethicist columnist, has now attempted an ethical defense of running red lights on his bicycle. “I flout the law when I’m on my bike,” he writes; “you do it when you are on foot, at least if you are like most New Yorkers.”

This, of course, is one of the weakest ethical defenses imaginable: if lots of other people are flouting the law, that doesn’t give anybody else the ethical right to do so, let alone the legal right. But Cohen continues:

I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.

The “should” at the end of this passage is utterly indefensible. At best, Cohen has demonstrated that he’s causing no harm to others (although I’ll take issue with that in a moment). But if Cohen is doing something illegal — which, by his own admission he is — then he needs something much stronger than “no harm to others” before he urges such behavior on all other cyclists.

There are cases where flouting the law can be the ethical thing to do, but those are generally cases where following the law, or standing idly by in the face of something which is clearly wrong, cannot be ethically justified. In this case, stopping at a red light and waiting for it to turn green does no harm to anybody, and there’s no morality I know of which would frown on such behavior.

It is important to cyclists that we get the full respect of drivers as fellow road users, with just as much right to be riding down the street as they have. The biggest danger facing cyclists is when drivers get annoyed if we slow them down, or drive as though we’re simply not there. Developing a relationship of mutual respect between drivers and cyclists is the most important thing we can do to improve cyclists’ safety, and to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on the streets. And cyclists will find it much harder to earn that respect if they visibly flout the law every time they reach a red light.

Do pedestrians flout red-light laws all the time? Yes, of course they do. But they also fear cars, and respect the fact that the roadway is built for the purposes of cars and not for themselves. No pedestrian insists on the right to walk down the middle of the road at any time of day or night, and to be respected by drivers while doing so.

Similarly, Cohen — quite rightly — saying that cyclists “are a third thing, a distinct mode of transportation, requiring different practices and different rules”. I wrote as much myself, in my unified theory of New York biking. But that theory was based on the idea that the tragedy of New York cycling is that everybody — pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists — treat cyclists too much like pedestrians. Cohen, by contrast, says that “most of the resentment of rule-breaking riders like me, I suspect, derives from a false analogy: conceiving of bicycles as akin to cars”. I wish that New Yorkers would conceive of bicycles as akin to cars: pedestrians would look first before stepping out in front of us; cars would respect our right to be on the road; and fellow cyclists wouldn’t endanger everybody by riding the wrong way down the street.

One of the weirder parts of Cohen’s essay is that he extols Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which are cities where, to a first approximation, all cyclists always stop at all red lights, and don’t go again until the light turns green. Doesn’t he understand that in order for New York to work as a cycling city, cyclists will have to stop taking the law into their own hands? “Uninterrupted motion,” he writes, “gliding silently and swiftly, is a joy.” Well, yes, it is. Uninterrupted motion is quite nice for car drivers, too, but they stop at red lights. And even pedestrians generally wait until the way is clear before they cross the street.

More to the point, I simply don’t believe Cohen when he writes that he only breaks the red-light rule “if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection”. What about when there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk who’s walking away from the bike? I’ll bet he does it then, too. The point is, when you can make up your own rules, you can also make up when to bend them. I can understand that Cohen would prefer it if New York had rules like Idaho’s. But whatever the rules are, we should obey them. If Cohen wants to agitate for a change in the rules, I’ll join him and support him. But I’m not going to pretend that it’s OK to break the rules just because you think the rules should be changed.

It’s quite common for pedestrians to thank me when I stop at a red light behind the crosswalk. That’s nice of them, I guess — but it’s also a bit depressing: it shows that most pedestrians expect most cyclists to flout the law. And that makes them afraid and resentful of cyclists in general. That’s the last thing anybody wants. And so for the time being it behooves all cyclists to adhere to the law as it stands, even if they’re convinced that they’re doing no harm. Running red lights is highly visible behavior, and every time a pedestrian or a driver seen Cohen do it, that only confirms in them their prejudice that cyclists are lawless people with no respect for the rules of the road. They can’t see the counterfactual case where Cohen would have stopped had there been a pedestrian in the way: all they see is the law-flouter.

I’m no angel on this front: I’ve done, on my bike, everything Cohen has done on his. I just don’t kid myself that I’m behaving ethically when I do so. And I’m trying to set a good example, even if I don’t always succeed. If you ever see me run a red light on my bike, feel free to tell me off. I’ll deserve it.

33 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Amen. And Cohen doesn’t even get the “Idaho Stop” right. It treats red lights like stop signs, not yield signs. In other words, you still need to stop at a red light, but if there’s genuinely no one in the way, you can then go through rather than waiting for the green. I will certainly admit to pulling this maneuver at 6am on my way to the greenway when I’d otherwise just feel like a sucker waiting for the green light when no one else is around, but I’m still fully conscious of the fact that I’m going through a red light at the time.

But I’m also a super-cautious cyclist who errs on the side of stopping and doesn’t trust my skills enough to weave in and out of traffic. So I’m also probably an outlier.

Posted by very-simple | Report as abusive

Bikes burning red lights is just horrific. Not only are they risking death, they often injure and kill pedestrians. It’s no more excusable than a car running a red light. It would be one thing if they ran red lights at a walking pace (like pedestrians), but they are often going 20+mph.

Here in San Francisco, we’ve had at least one fatality this year from a bike running a red light and a friend of mine was hit by bike going nearly 20mph. She already had a traumatic brain injury and was thrown about 20ft landing on her head. Not good – set her recovery back by at least a year. Never mind the number of near-misses I see every day – bikers are lucky car drivers will do almost anything to avoid hitting a bike.

Personally, I think people who run red lights on bikes should have their bike confiscated & crushed and be fined a percentage of their income. We can’t do much else to them since they don’t have driver’s licenses…

Posted by ckm5 | Report as abusive

I stop at red lights because A) It’s a dumb thing to risk getting in trouble for B) It’s dangerous in and of itself – and possibly the biggest one C) Because when people driving see bikes acting unpredictable, unsafe, or illegally, those drivers are going to act unpredictable every time they see a bicycle. I come across drivers constantly that treat me like a wild animal that could do the dumbest thing possible at any time, and it just makes things less safe.

Posted by grinstall | Report as abusive

Yeah, I definitely don’t run red lights, as a cyclist or pedestrian. I do, when biking, often treat stop signs (or flashing reds) more like a yield or flashing yellow — slow and observe, rather than come to a complete stop (which requires putting a foot down and then getting started again). I kind of think we ought to give more leeway for “rolling stops” for cars, as well, given that there’s a substantial difference in the amount of gas you burn getting started again from a full stop, vs getting back up to speed from a slow roll. (In theory we could accomplish this by simply replacing many stop signs with yield signs, but I think some people don’t even understand what a Yield sign means.)

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

Okay, so Cohen says that “I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs.” He then claims that this would pass the Kantian “categorical imperative” test.

I don’t buy it either: Cohen is making a category mistake by assuming that he *can* treat a red light as a yellow light. Kant, once he got over the shock of being exhumed (there’s an unintended pun in there somewhere), would probably note that the duty to stop at a red light is coexistent with the right of others to not stop at a green light. A yellow light or yield-controlled traffic approaches exists in its own space; either all approaches are yield controlled (and thus drivers and bikers are alerted to the need to exercise caution and follow the usual rules of exchanging traffic rights), or where the traffic designer believe that the conditions are such that it is safe to yield-control a subset of approaches. One cannot exchange a stop-controlled intersection with a yield-controlled intersection without categorical harm.

That Cohen believes an approach to be clear of traffic is immaterial, unless he has extrasensory powers that give him the ability to determine, 100% of the time without fail, that there is never oncoming traffic that may be in any way affected by his decision to roll through the light. (This includes second-order effects, but we can ignore those for now.) Cohen’s imperative, then, can be boiled down to “All bicyclists can treat an approach believed by others to be stop-controlled as yield-controlled.” He is therefore treating others as a means, not a moral end, and fails both freshman philosophy and the usual tests of Kantian morality.

A stricter version would be “All vehicular operators can treat…” based on the assumption that Cohen’s argument does not draw a necessary distinction between the sort of vehicle operated. (After all, if no one’s coming, why not just blow through that red light?) That, even Cohen agrees, wouldn’t work as a general principle, and thus he attempts to handwave it away.

Bottom line, I don’t trust Cohen as either a bicyclist or an ethicist.

Posted by twb | Report as abusive

i stopped riding in brooklyn and queens basically for this reason. when the nypd started enforcing bicycle regs, i found that i had to spend 30% of my time stopped at red lights and hurt my knees stopping and starting several times a minute. street riding was no longer worth the trouble.

Posted by q_is_too_short | Report as abusive

Disagree, Felix. Everything you say could apply to pedestrians, too, yet you fall short of saying that in NY (as in Germany) they should not cross against the light even when there is not a car — or even another soul — in sight.

Today, crossing at a busy intersection, a pedicab barged through the crosswalk against the red light, seriously endangering me, and my owner, too. And others. This is NOT what Cohen is talking about. Abuse occurs, and by cars, and even pedestrians, too.

But carefully crossing against the light on a bicycle when it is safe to do so is completely reasonable.

Posted by samadamsthedog | Report as abusive

>But [pedestrians] also fear cars, and respect the fact that the roadway is built for the purposes of cars and not for themselves. No pedestrian insists on the right to walk down the middle of the road at any time of day or night, and to be respected by drivers while doing so.

You’ve obviously never lived in Berkeley. But otherwise, I’m with you 100%.

Posted by MarkInCA | Report as abusive

A pedestrian pushing a bike has no need to wait for red lights.

Or simply cycle to the front of the queue and put yourself directly in front of the lead car. When you get a green light set of steadily. I expect drivers would find that more annoying than you running a red light.

Can I suggest everyone calms down. This is just a symptom of a bullying government and a thieving banking system, creating stress in all of us.

Treat each other with respect. I ride a bike, a motorbike, drive a car and a van. The rule is ‘exercise greater care towards a more vulnerable user’.

If a cyclist runs a red light then that is their choice. In this case the more vulnerable user is a pedestrian or a woman and pram. Exercise extreme caution when near these users as someone else may decide to break a law of their choice.

Posted by DR9WX | Report as abusive

stop with the philosophy………and start thinking about engineering.

bicycles are extremely efficient, when at ‘cruising’ speed. starting from a full stop, requires a lot of energy.

what makes a good ‘bike lane’ work, is a lack of stop signs

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

Cohen is right, but for the wrong reason. Kant’s categorical imperative, as we know, is a universalized version of the golden rule: do unto others as you’d have them do to you. But Cohen doesn’t universalize his action (which would mean: obey the law when you want to, or judge it is safe, etc.) because this contradicts the concept of law, which is to be followed even when you don’t want to. Cohen is right, however, because riding as he does is the norm, and norms (as Habermas reminds us) have moral force (which the law should follow). Anyone who rides in Germany (just one example of a normally more law-abiding country than America) will immediately see why they do not run red lights. But in America, as the norm allows running the light (having looked and acting with care), Cohen may do so without an ethical problem. This is just one of many examples where the law does not account for norms. Maybe the law in America, being wrong (not reflecting the norm), should be changed?

Posted by JustJustin | Report as abusive

Cohen’s excuses are just that, an attempt to rationalize behavior that he wants real badly to engage in. However, there’s much that can be done to make it less inconvenient for cyclists to comply with traffic rules. In Denmark, bikes and pedestrians both get the green ahead of cars. This gives the cyclists time to get up to speed before an onslaught of cars begins trying to pass them. Countdowns on traffic lights would allow approaching cyclists to gage the time before they get the right of way, so that they can slow down an appropriate amount as they approach the light and thus avoid a complete stop without breaing the law. While I agree that we should ALL be stopping until we have the right of way, we should also recognize that the current system was designed for cars and (sometimes) pedestrians, and almost never for bikes.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Many bicyclists have come to expect that the road is theirs and because they are more vulnerable they feel they should get special privileges. The rationalizations are abundant and this article is just another example. No licensing, no taxes and no responsibility lead to an attitude that I can do whatever I want.
Think about the fact that I am legally required to wear a seat belt if I drive a car/truck, but if I don’t there is virtually no way I will cause others damage. It’s not about the other drivers it is about the insurance and money. The irony is that if I lose my license for bad driving with a vehicle, I can still operate a bike on a public roadway. Why do you think so many drunks drive scooters!
I think to operate any vehicle on a public roadway you need a valid drivers license (on your person), vehicle inspection and liability insurance.
If you think this is unreasonable, then take for example my 14′ canoe which requires a title, property insuance and licensing just for me to move at 3mph across the ‘waters of the US’. I don’t like regulations either, but I do think they should be fairly applied to all vehicles, on water or land.

Posted by Stickystones | Report as abusive

I’d say Cohen is making a possible argument for changing the laws, but not a good argument for disobeying them. I’d also say that Salmon is getting a few things wrong as well.

The good thing that Cohen is pointing out is that the traffic control system in the US is largely designed with motor vehicles in mind. That is, it’s designed to allow high-speed travel of dangerous machines while attempting to minimize the danger. In order to do that, restrictions were put on all road users that make little sense for cyclists or pedestrians. FHWA recognized this as a problem over a decade ago, and has been trying through its “Complete Streets” and other initiatives to rebalance the design compromises to make it safer and more convenient to bike and walk. We *should* periodically reconsider how our streets work.

But deciding for yourself which laws to obey invites a very dangerous sort of chaos on the roads. What we *don’t* want is the operators of those dangerous high speed machines deciding to ignore laws intended to make the system work safely. The real problem with what he’s proposing is that motorists will decide to ignore the laws as well. That could become tragic very quickly.

Of course, what New York should probably do is take out most of the traffic lights and stops, set low speed limits with automated enforcement, and make fault for crashes presumptively the responsibility of the highest kinetic energy private vehicle involved, with higher fines for more kinetic energy. People would be amazed at how well that worked out.

Posted by KJMClark | Report as abusive

“It is important to cyclists that we get the full respect of drivers as fellow road users, with just as much right to be riding down the street as they have. The biggest danger facing cyclists is when drivers get annoyed if we slow them down, or drive as though we’re simply not there. Developing a relationship of mutual respect between drivers and cyclists is the most important thing we can do to improve cyclists’ safety, and to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on the streets.”

I strongly disagree with the premise that cyclists are somehow responsible for the actions of motorists. We just aren’t. If motorists are behaving like psychopaths and endangering your life, there’s simply no excuse for it. Not running a red light, not going the wrong way, not even if that jerk is riding in the middle of the damn street instead of the bike lane where he belongs.

Also, any inconvenience caused to motorists should not be seen as a bad thing. Many people who ride bikes (and plan cities) have this radical idea that driving in a city is a bad thing and people do too much of it. If cyclists cutting you off at intersections is just another irritating part of driving in NYC then I would say the cyclist is doing the city a favor.

“Running red lights is highly visible behavior, and every time a pedestrian or a driver seen Cohen do it, that only confirms in them their prejudice that cyclists are lawless people with no respect for the rules of the road. They can’t see the counterfactual case where Cohen would have stopped had there been a pedestrian in the way: all they see is the law-flouter.”

The more pedestrians see cyclists roll through red lights safely and courteously, the less threatened they are by the behavior. I’ve ridden in NYC for a long time and I’ve noticed a marked difference in pedestrian attitudes about running red lights over the years. New Yorkers are more sophisticated than you give them credit.

Posted by ChesseSpleen | Report as abusive

Illinois recently passed a law allowing cyclists to run red lights after stopping for a reasonable amount of time. This is because the vehicle sensors embedded in the roads are often not sensitive enough to detect a bicycle (or a motorcycle sometimes).

This said, we are more concerned about motorists running red lights than we are about us doing it. They have a weight advantage.

Posted by Fishrl | Report as abusive

Look a bicycle has about 1/10th the weight of a car, 1/2 to a 1/4 of the speed, a sharper turning radius, is more nimble, and has a less restricted view of its surroundings. A bike has basically no stopping distance when taking an intersection at a normal rate of speed (say 4-8 mph).

It can literally stop in a foot or two, compare to a car which is stopping in dozens and dozens of feet, and hitting with about 20 to 40 times the force.

All this means the rules governing cars are completely inappropriate for bicycles. It is foolish and silly for bicycles to obey the stop signs and semaphores when there are no other vehicles around. Just as it is silly for them to ride in the middle of the lane like a full fledged vehicle. By all means you should race through lights at 20mph, that is a good way to end up dead, but on residential streets with little to no foot/car traffic coasting through an intersection at single digits mph harms no one.

Granted New York does not have many intersections like that, but most of the county is not new york. I live in the middle of Saint Paul, and Bike to the middle of Minneapolis, all on residential streets with basically no traffic. I probably run 10,000-20,000 stops signs/stop-lights a year, and obey another 10-20k. As always you following the basic rule of vehicle operations “Operate your vehicle in accordance with the prevailing conditions”.

The bottom line is there is a big difference between someone coasting through a stop sign at an intersection that sees 800 cars a day at 4mph and someone run a red light at 24mph through an intersection hat sees 15,000.

Treating it as all the same behavior is the heart of what is wrong with the roads in America. Too much slavish devotion to signage, not enough paying attention to your surrounding sand driving accordingly (yes the speed limit may be 55, but if there are a lot of pedestrians around with small children perhaps you should slow down?).

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

Running a red light “if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk” assumes perfect knowledge by the cyclist. A pedestrian can suddenly appear from behind a parked truck or a car stopped at the red light. The pedestrian may not be looking for the bike as they have the walk sign and right of way.
The whole idea of traffic flow is ensure safety by controlling who has the right of way. As soon as both the cyclist and pedestrian both believe they can go on red things become dangerous.

Posted by Kane1200 | Report as abusive

When you break a law you show how little you believe in Democracy. The system we all espouse as the best one basically states that we elect other people to set the laws we will abide by; if we don’t like their laws, we elect someone else to change them. Breaking the law for reasons of one’s own enrichment, convenience or ego just says you agree with Democracy only so long as you benefit personally, but Democracy isn’t about pleasing the individual, it’s about pleasing the majority. It’s about the ‘we’, not the ‘I’.

That counts no matter what the law – riding through red lights, paying taxes, or investing in the stock market.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

The only time I have ever found it okay to run a red light is when bicycling after dark, and not because nobody notices but because of safety issues. When approaching a light in my neighborhood I slow down and make sure it is all clear of any other parties, even a pedestrian that I could easily get around with no disturbance to them or myself will get me to stop. I do this because I am often biking at the same time as let out for the bars (which there are a considerable amount of in my neighborhood) and coming to a stop at an intersection when not necessary (even with a light on both the front and back of my bike) can often leave me vulnerable to an intoxicated driver that does not notice me or misjudges the stopping room between me and them. During any other time though I obey all traffic laws regarding bicycles and learn all regulations of wherever I am riding.

Posted by Mostlysane | Report as abusive

I’ll 2nd most of KJMClark’s comment. These are all good arguments for “Idaho stop” type laws, not good arguments for breaking the existing laws.

While I disagree with Felix’s implication that cyclists are primarily responsible for gaining driver’s respect. I do think it is true that generally going around violating laws does increase the sense of non-cyclists that we are all an unruly bunch that must be regulated and adds to the general perception that we are unpredictable which has real safety implications.

For myself, on small streets with empty intersections I’ll generally proceed carefully through a stop sign. But I make it a point to always stop at them at any larger intersection, when there’s traffic or any pedestrians around.

Posted by MaxUtil | Report as abusive

I am reminded that Randy Cohen frequently provided horrible answers as The Ethicist, with unnecessary smugness to boot. It does not at all surprise me that he contorts himself to come up with a rationale for why Randy Cohen should be able to do what’s convenient for Randy Cohen.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

Perhaps Cohen’s desire to run red lights will be reduced by the collision with the driver on the other side of the intersection who decided to enter the road from a driveway because he assumed Cohen, on his bike, would stop. Many of the reasons for stopping “when no one else is around” or “it is safe” are not always obvious because there may be others who are basing their driving (or walking) decisions on the assumption that others are following the same rules.

Posted by NYUMark | Report as abusive

Most of the arguments from cyclists who say that we should stop at red lights seem to boil down to the desire to engage in a PR campaign to earn the “respect” of other road users. Thanks, but I’m not interested. My priorities are 1) be safe; 2) be courteous 3) be efficient; 4) follow the law. In that order.

Felix did not examine the direct safety of stopping at a red light, but only a speculative PR-induced effect. Some people argue, and while I don’t think it’s been proven, I think it’s very plausible, that running the red light carefully is actually safer because it allows you to get ahead of the platoon of car drivers eager to speed to the next light.

Regarding laws and ethics, there is an implied assumption that being ethical and following the law are generally the same thing. I think they are almost orthogonal. When no one follows a law, it is a pretty strong indication that the law is wrong. You may wonder why jaywalking is illegal when everybody does it. Isn’t this a democracy? The reason is that because it is never enforced, nobody cares. Imagine what would happen if the NYPD started to strongly enforce against jaywalking–let’s say giving several hundred thousand tickets a day (which still wouldn’t even cover 1% of jaywalking incidents in the city), every day. I’m pretty sure that there would be a bill to legalize jaywalking within a week, unless the NYPD chose to stop enforcing and returned to the status quo.

“No pedestrian insists on the right to walk down the middle of the road at any time of day or night, and to be respected by drivers while doing so.” Really? I don’t know which neighborhoods you frequent, but I see this all the time in NYC.

Posted by qrt145 | Report as abusive

The root of the ethical conflict lies in the fact that our local streets have been over-engineered with highway-oriented black & white restrictions codified in laws. Why should local one-lane streets have a solid red light when no traffic is coming? It’s silly. Signals at streets other than major avenues and highways should be engineered to more accurately reflect the real traffic conditions. Instead of going from green to yellow to red, signals should go from flashing yellow to flashing red, indicating that you can proceed if no one else is coming, and assigning hierarchy based on your signal’s color. Most red signals are akin to the snaking barriers for the line at the bank when no one else is waiting – they’re designed to impose strict order an maximum efficiency on a large crowd but at most times a much lighter touch is called for. Even if one or two people are waiting at the bank line, you can walk outside the barriers up to the front and just get behind the two people who are waiting. Sometimes you have to bend and go under the barrier to file into place – something that feels just as silly as waiting at a red light when there’s no traffic. It doesn’t mean you’re cutting in front of them, you are just trying to use your common sense and manners to determine what kind of adherence to the design-imposed order the situation really calls for. This should therefore be a question of manners, not ethics, the only difference being it’s not against the law to go around the barriers at the bank line.

However, I’ve found at the airport the security line barriers are often open to the last available lane, and a monitor will close off lanes as they fill up. Our traffic signals are not similarly responsive but they could be. We have more than adequate technology to have traffic lights that could be programmed to anticipated traffic levels, or even to respond to real-time traffic conditions. If the signals actually prescribed behavior that is more aligned with drivers’ and cyclists’ sense of good manners, I think you’d find a much higher rate of compliance without causing this ethical dilemma.

Posted by Heoore | Report as abusive

Felix is ignoring one key thing here which is the primary reason why traffic signals aren’t respected by many cyclists and quite a few motorists. NYC has gone completely crazy with traffic signals, including implementing horribly complex timing patterns at intersections of 3 roads in the outer boroughs whereas a roundabout would be perfect in this situation. As a result, often red light cycles are in excess of one minute. During last night’s ride between 1 am and 2:30 am I actually saw a fair number of cars pass red lights, so it’s not only cyclists who feel lights are too frequent and too long. Given this awful environment, how can one not expect most cyclists to pass lights when stopping and starting repeatedly will take as much energy as riding a stage in the Tour de France, and will also reduce average speeds to walking speeds (why even bike if it’s no faster than walking)? NYC hasn’t even bothered putting in vehicular and pedestrian detectors so at least lights wouldn’t go red unless something was actually crossing. A few weeks ago I saw an amazing contrast between NYC and everywhere else. I rode out to Glen Cove Road at about 1 am. I took NY 25 most of the way home as usual. For the first 6.3 miles before I hit city limits I didn’t see one single red light. Evidently the lights out there all had detectors, and since there were no cars waiting on the side blocks, the lights on NY 25 remained green. I did see a few lights go red from a distance when a waiting car triggered the signal, but the light changed back to green within seconds after the car passed, long before I got there. Once I hit city limits it was back to the same old sh*t despite the traffic level being just as low as during the rest of the ride. I must have saw 15 or 20 red lights in the last 2.8 miles I was on NY 25, compared to none on the first 6.3 miles. So my question is if NYC insists on having so many traffic signals, why can’t they do the same thing as Nassau Country and most of the rest of the country and use detectors? Having dumb timed signals which force everyone to wait at 3 AM for literally nothing is about as dumb as it gets, and is also very disrespectful of people’s time. It’s high time we had people petition NYC DOT for a little traffic signal sanity. The situation has just gotten completely out of control. It’s incumbent upon the DOT to engineer traffic safety in the least intrusive way possible. Lights which force people to stop and wait for literally nothing much of the time is counter to that principal.

In the end the problem isn’t red lights per se, but red lights when absolutely nothing is coming. As Heoore mentioned, we have the technology to avoid having red lights unless something is crossing. If red lights actually meant something was crossing 100% of the time, changed backed to green immediately after the intersection was clear, and weren’t so frequent, then you can bet most cyclists would respect them.

Posted by jtr1962 | Report as abusive

“all cyclists always stop at all red lights, and don’t go again until the light turns green”

felix, you obviously have not biked much in central amsterdam. dutch cyclists do as they please and the motorists stay out of their way. its called strict liability and critical mass.

Posted by pinko | Report as abusive

When asking why cyclists run red lights, it’s also worth asking: why don’t drivers? After all, drivers regularly break other laws, particularly speed limits.

From http://washcycle.typepad.com/home/2008/0 7/the-myth-of-the.html :

“A better question is “Why don’t drivers ‘jaydrive’?”

Is it because they love the law so much? Did you skip the previous section?

It’s because their risk/reward calculation is coming up with a different answer. And that makes sense. In a car, you’re several feet farther back from the intersection and you’re often a foot or two lower than on a bicycle, meaning you can’t see as well (I bet those on recumbents don’t jaybike as often as those on standard bikes). In a car, you’re in a soundproof enclosure, so you have no stereoscopic hearing. And if you make a mistake you aren’t as maneuverable as you would be on a bike or on your feet. You can’t just ditch to the sidewalk. Drivers don’t jaydrive because, in their own estimation, they can’t. If they could, I’m sure they would.”

Posted by jvj24601 | Report as abusive

The problem with any criticism of Cohen is that if he is wrong, it is an ethical rounding error. In a typical year people on bicycles kill about 1 pedestrian; people in automobiles kill over 3000 (adjusted for ride share and being generous to the cars, riding a bike as about 15x safer for other people, even with all the rule-breaking that we observe). What’s more important?

The more interesting question to me is: if you have a choice between driving and biking (i.e., a short trip), and you choose to drive, is THAT ethical? Look at the accident rate. And you may think you’re a safe driver, but various studies show that people overestimate their own skill, can fail to see a gorilla walking through their field of view, are essentially driving deaf, and are often unaware of their near-crashes.

To someone who rides a bike regularly, 95% of the criticism of cyclist behavior is tribal nonsense. People driving cars also break rules almost continuously; speeding, rolling stops, stopping past stop lines, poor lane discipline, running red lights, tailgating, etc. Riding a bike doesn’t turn someone from a jerk into a saint, but it does make them a much less dangerous jerk, and if we care about minimizing harm to others, that means a much more ethical jerk. Perhaps even a smug, sanctimonious, know-it-all jerk, but nonetheless, a jerk who made the better choice.

(On “but what about cyclist deaths!” I direct your attention to studies of mortality across large populations. Not biking to work raises your risk of death by 39%, all else equal, among mostly unhelmeted Danes.)

Posted by dr2chase | Report as abusive

Oh, and stop signs also apply to cyclists, btw…

Posted by Frwip | Report as abusive

I agree with Pinko, the notion that Europeans are these super law abiding, stop sign/light obeying cyclists is ridiculous. I live in Geneva and when I first moved here, I was very impressed with all the bike lanes, bike lights, etc. I was under the same impression that cyclists here obeyed the rules strictly since they are A) Swiss (i.e. generally VERY respecting of rules) and B) have such incredible infrastructure dedicated to them. I was wrong. I routinely find myself stopping, or at least yielding for a red (bike specific) light, only to have a mother with a child on the back of her bike blow right on through.

Bikes are indeed a completely different form of transportation that need to be as segregated from auto traffic as possible. As others have pointed out, it takes much more energy to start from a stop (both cars and bikes), but with cars, all that additional energy is blown out into the environment as an externality (additional pollution). Being human powered, bikes absolutely require more leeway in this regard. Ironically, European cyclists are teaching me this every time I ride.

Posted by dansatlantic | Report as abusive

“It is important to cyclists that we get the full respect of drivers as fellow road users, with just as much right to be riding down the street as they have.”

After many years of cycling, I have yet to see a connection between minding traffic rules and gaining respect from drivers. Cyclists aren’t particularly law-abiding in any place I’ve ridden, including The Netherlands and Denmark, where cyclists enjoy equal access to the roads. Drivers respect cyclists when they empathize with them, and when the law demands it with real penalties (see Art. 185 of the Dutch code), not because cyclists are such great road users. In the unofficial hierarchy of road use, cars are king, bicycles are princes, and pedestrians are serfs. It should be the opposite. Pedestrians thank you for stopping at lights; has a single driver done the same?

Posted by Brent123 | Report as abusive

Well in some cities it is legal to ride a bike through a red light. And where I live I would NEVER get through red light. Why…because they only change for a car…not a bike. In some cites when a bicycle stops over the bicycle symbol that is on the street the light changes just as if they were a car. That is what needs to be done but most cities won’t because they just don’t care…period. I am in the street when I approach a stop light and if I were to stop all the time I would have cars mad at me because they feel I am in the way. I could use the crosswalk at a red light, but that is infinitely more dangerous. Why…because cars making a right-hand turn do not care one bit if they hit me and will cut in front of me all the time. Then when I am in the middle of the intersection about to get to the other side, those cars making a turn, either a left going the same direction as me, or those making a right in front of me will ALWAYS cut in front of me. You have to stay in the street and you have to run a red light at least part of the time. Those that don’t ride in the city should not comment as they have NO clue.

Posted by PugsleyDude | Report as abusive

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