Cyclists, Red Lights, and Legitimacy

A lot of cyclists run red lights—if not constantly, at least a high percentage are willing to admit that they have and do sometimes. Drivers hate it, and a lot of other cyclists do too, but how do you stop it when it’s tough to catch them in the act?

Chicago bike lane


In reading up on Tracey Meares and legitimacy, I came across an interesting question she asked: why do people stop at red lights?

No, really: drivers almost always stop at stop lights, even though they could regularly get away with not doing it. Particularly, as Meares mentions, late at night when the streets are clear.

Who doesn’t? Cyclists. It’s one of the complaints I’ll willingly grant people who rail against cyclists, and recently I’ve been paying close attention to how often people blow red lights on bikes. It’s frequent, and actually most frustrating for me when I’m on a bike: a couple times in the past couple weeks, I’ve passed someone, been passed at a red light, and then had to pass the person again, which is doubly frustrating because, for obvious reasons, I want to minimize the time I’m riding farther out in the lane to get around someone. Having to pass someone twice is a statistically minor but still nerve-wracking and unnecessary risk.

I don’t think it’s just me (or the people who complain about it so vociferously) overstating how frequently cyclists run red lights—an Australian study published last month found that 40 percent of cyclists in that country have run them. That was a survey; a field study in London found much lower numbers (a mere 16 percent), and another field study in Australia found an even smaller number of violators. A Portland State field study found an astonishing 56 percent, but that was counting rolling stops as violations, and perhaps reflects the looser interpretations of the law on a college campus.

People like Randy Cohen aren’t helping matters, though perhaps the NYT’s ethicist is instructive:

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.

Even the thoughtful cyclists I know slow and yield at stop signs, coming to a near-halt without planting their feet, but they also come to a full stop at stop lights. Why? I’d submit that Cohen’s behavior does harm people: drivers who do it learn to fear cyclists (there’s a reason some streets have stop signs, and others red lights; it’s not just random); fear leads to anger; anger leads to less tolerance for cyclists, fewer cyclists on the road, and less favor for cyclists when it comes to things like infrastructure. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I believe it. I see Cohen’s categorical imperative and raise him.

Meares’s concept of legitimacy, I think, might be helpful here. There just aren’t enough cops to bust cyclists who run red lights, and because cyclists have a bigger field of vision and go slower than drivers, it’s even easier to see if there’s a cop in position to catch you. So cyclists are going to have to stop because of legitimacy, as Cohen’s argument suggests. And that’s what the researchers behind that most recent study argue:

In these three instances, researchers from the Monash University Accident Research Center determined that more inclusive road infrastructure, amendments to road rules, and targeted education programs could have a significant impact on making intersections safer and possibly reducing the amount of infractions by cyclists.


Educating cyclists on the importance of riding predictably and responsibly–as it relates to their overall safety–could deter some cyclists from bending the rules when no one is around. Even though it’s not always a popular sentiment among the cycling community, as a part of the regular traffic flow bikes are still required to obey stop lights, stop signs, and other basic regulations regardless of whether it’s annoying or inconvenient.

Instead of threatening to withold infrastructure because rogue cyclists don’t deserve it, it’s worth considering the idea that infrastructure (and cyclist education, which the U.S. neglects) has a legitimating influence on cyclists, emphasizing that they’re part of the city, and part of the traffic, rather than a tiny, almost invisible minority—one that, because it’s neither considered nor noticed, has no reason to play by the same rules as drivers.


Photograph: Chicago Bicycle Program



2 years ago
Posted by MrJM

Rolling through red lights reduces the predictability of bicyclists and contributes to the belief that cyclists are inherently irresponsible and erratic.

-- MrJM

2 years ago
Posted by Sweet Old Bob

In the distant past animals roamed the forest, making paths. The native Americans followed the same paths, as did those that came after them as well. With wheels and horses, buggies, bicycles, and trailers soon followed as well.

There were no traffic signs or signals - until the automobile was invented.

Traffic control signs and signals only apply to motor driven vehicles. Where there are no motorized vehicles traffic signals and signs are needed.

2 years ago
Posted by Graham

I won't "willingly grant" anyone this complaint against cyclists, because not all cyclists do it (people only say this because the ones that do are noticed more).
I am not responsible for the actions of other cyclists. I have no right nor authority to police them (nor should I) and there is no rational way I can be blamed for their actions.
If you have a problem with a particular person doing the wrong thing, then take it up with that person or whoever has the authority to do something (eg, the police). There is no point in taking it up with someone else who just happens to ride a bicycle, you are wasting your (and their) time as they can't do anything to help you.

2 years ago
Posted by chiguy

I work downtown Chicago in the loop and I'd say over 95% of cyclists run red lights or otherwise disregard traffic laws like stop signs or one-way streets. In the busiest most congested area of the city. Not smart.

Personally, I take the train into downtown because I live too far to ride, can't look like a sweaty mess when I get to work and actually like walking. When I'm a pedestrian downtown I'm far more leery of a bicyclist plowing me down then any car, or even cabs.

If a cyclist is going the wrong way down the street, running a red light, and plowing through a row of pedestrians crossing at rush hour and they actively get angry at me and other pedestrians for challenging their actions, it's not simply a matter of infrastructure or education that needs to be fixed.

It's enforcement. Cyclists need to be issued tickets for breaking traffic laws. They need to have equal treatment under the law, if they expect equal treatment on the road. Share the Road is a great slogan, but the byline to that ought to be Share the Responsibility. The responsibility being licenses to be on the street, and even license plates mounted on the back of bikes. Cyclists want red light actuators to recognize bikes on the road? Fine by me. Red light cameras can get them, too.

2 years ago
Posted by JohnnyJr

"...and because cyclists have a bigger field of vision and go slower than drivers, it's even easier to see if there's a cop in position to catch you."

This is statement is why I do the same as Randy Cohen and "treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs". It has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with safety. It's often safer to proceed through an intersection when there's less traffic and I have a complete view of the roadway. In many regards intersections are the safest place for cyclists because it's where drivers are most controlled and most attentive. An exception is major arterial streets where traffic is moving much faster. I always wait out lights if it's safer for me to do so. If it's not, I don't.

I call Mr. Cohen's style of riding 'defensive cycling'. Think of the roadway like a food chain: cars eat bikes and bikes eat pedestrians. As a cyclist, I always yield to pedestrians because I have a responsibility for their safety. I can cause them a lot of much damage. Drivers have the same responsibility to both cyclists and pedestrians because they can cause them so much harm. 'Share the Road' is a great slogan if you're the predator farther up the food chain. It's like the lions in Africa saying 'Share the Jungle' to all the animals on their dinner menu; it doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you're a wildebeest. (I realize lions don't real live in jungles but it sounds better than 'Share the Savannah'.)

As a cyclist my number one concern has to be my own safety because drivers are dangerously inattentive. Every other driver is texting while driving, constantly obstructing bike lanes, and throwing their doors open in front of cyclists. I've been hit and doored more than once and have witnessed it happen to other cyclists numerous times. Dooring is particularly dangerous and without exception the driver thinks it's the cyclist's fault -- even as the police are writing them tickets.

The solution is for the city to installs protected bike lanes and for drivers to be more responsible. I'll stop at intersections when drivers stop trying to kill me. Deal?

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