Red Light

This week a waitress at a popular restaurant in Greenpoint was mowed down by a cyclist speeding through an intersection against the light. Her injuries are severe.

This is awful.

It’s awful and unnecessary.

My fellow cyclists have got to start acknowledging that this behavior is hazardous. And untenable.

The rider claims he couldn’t stop. Why not? Time to replace those worn-out brake pads? Not so hot at stopping while riding a fixie? Feet stuck in your clips? Any way you look at it, it’s irresponsible.

Check it out! We’re stopped at a light. Even unclipped and everything. Look how easy it is!

The red light issue is a big one for cyclists, because there are a lot of reasons to be tempted to run a light. It’s the law we’re most likely to break, the law we’re most likely to be targeted for breaking, and the situation where we can cause the most harm. It’s legitimately when we’re the worst menace, but it’s also how we try to compensate for streets that are stacked against us.

Traffic lights are timed to suit automobile speeds, not city cycling speeds. Cyclists who obey the lights often need to stop at every corner, because the traffic pattern is not designed for us. Traffic lights are designed for cars to proceed for several blocks in a row unhindered as long as they maintain a certain prescribed speed. Bikes don’t go at that speed. So even though we’re classified in the same category as automobiles, this isn’t exactly fair because we aren’t actually automobiles.

We’re also not pedestrians. The “I do what I want” attitude you can get away with as a pedestrian becomes dangerous once you’re on wheels. Bicycles may not be as deadly as cars, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still cause extremely serious injury. They can and do. Please stop using “bicycles are less deadly than cars” as an excuse for inconsiderate behavior. Even a minor collision with no injury is not OK. Don’t collide with people. Don’t even weave around them while they’re trying to walk across the street. Even with no collision, that’s stressful. You have to stop.

For the record, ALL of the major bike advocacy organizations (here in NYC, that’s Transportation Alternatives, Bike New York…) explicitly instruct riders to follow the law. Safe, legal riding is a core part of their platform. They teach safety classes. Never let anyone claim that these organizations encourage scofflaw behavior.

Please stop using “bicycles are less deadly than cars” as an excuse for inconsiderate behavior.

But flatly stating “cyclists just need to follow the law” seems like it may not be an adequate answer at this point, because the laws we have lead to frustration and injury. Re-examining our laws might be necessary.

So I’m a big fan of the Idaho Stop — a legislation which allows cyclists to treat red lights as stop signs — because I think it could be a good compromise. It still requires us to be mindful about not blasting through oncoming traffic and pedestrians, but also does not completely kill momentum. Enacting the red-as-stop-sign would apply a code of safe behavior that more riders might consistently follow (instead of the mayhem we have currently where everyone follows their own completely random personal code of dubious honor) — while not forcing cyclists to adhere to a car-oriented code that’s inherently awkward to follow because it wasn’t designed with bikes in mind.

But the city has little incentive to update the law because ticketing cyclists is so easy. This is maddening because it’s such a clear case of combined bias and laziness. If they were also diligent about ticketing automobiles — who routinely speed, block the box, run lights, drive in restricted lanes, fail to yield, and kill people — that would show that they are actually concerned about safety and maintaining orderliness on the road. But they don’t, because they love cars and that’s just “the way it is.” If they cared about really curbing bad bike behavior, they’d ticket bikers who are actually engaged in actual hazardous behavior. There are plenty. But that’s not their priority either. They’d rather set up a sting somewhere they can catch a few dozen cyclists going through an empty intersection with no traffic in it, and call it a day.*

*Example: Flushing Avenue along the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a series of T-intersections. The Manhattan-Bridge-bound bike lane has no cross automobile traffic, only crosswalks. There is very, very little foot traffic along this stretch, with unobstructed visibility, which means it’s very easy and safe for bikes to proceed after a quick check for pedestrians. Cops LOVE Flushing Avenue for ticket stings, because it’s such a low-key spot that even cautious bikers will run those lights rather than sit at five empty intersections in a row waiting for nothing. Ticketing here clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with safety, because no one is being endangered. It’s just easy pickings, and generates more resentment than lessons learned. This stretch, which is part of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway (the borough’s bike equivalent to the BQE) and thus a major thoroughfare for bike traffic, should have bike-specific lights which switch from green-to-yield. And then by all means go ticket the people flying off the Pulaski Bridge across Manhattan Avenue and down Franklin, because that area is full of pedestrians and other conflicting traffic!

The answer isn’t to make it harder for people to bike. It’s to make it easier. Craft laws that actually suit traffic flow for all modes of transport. We all need better traffic safety education, since right now we seem to be in a highly destructive “me first” mode whether we’re in a car, on a bike, or on foot. Our collective sense of entitlement is the spoiler, not bikes. Well-ordered cycling leads to safer streets and less crowding on the subways. It’s a terrific way of getting around the city, or would be just as soon as we get used to it being normal and not adversarial. Part of that normalcy is adhering to our social code that tells us to not run people over, and we are responsible for that NOW.

We’re all in this together. Cyclists can’t expect to be given space on the road but not yield in turn. There was no decree that gave us the right to be juggernauts just because we’re on two wheels. Getting to work is not a gran fondo race. If you cannot stop at an intersection you need to reexamine your skills on that fixie. Every time one of you runs a light, people forget about the 20 of us who stopped.

And on a very bad day, someone gets horribly injured.

You. Have. To. Stop.