Disclaimer: This article is NOT advocating breaking the law, nor is it an exhortation to take unnecessary risks to oneself or others when cycling. Any comments suggesting such will be disregarded. Please read and try to understand the argument before commenting. Thanks.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere in this blog, there is among certain parts of British society a profound hatred of people who ride bicycles. A media bogeyman of the arrogant, ignorant, aggressive cyclist has been concocted, and with that a selection of ready-made prejudices for adherents of that tedious perspective to slip into any discussion of cycling, with the aim of discrediting anyone who takes to two wheels as scofflaws, freeloaders and downright louts. Again, just look in the comments section of any press piece on cycling, however benign, and chances are you will soon tot up a full house on Edinburgh Cycle Coop’s cyclist-hating bingo card:
Some of these are very easy to dispense with. For instance, when we looked at “road tax” we established it’s a fundamentally flawed argument with no basis in fact. Our explorations of hi-vis revealed that “be safe, be seen” needs to be reworded as “be safe, be given a toss about”, i.e. you’re only as safe as other road users are bothered about your safety, no matter how conspicuous you make yourself. Wherever you personally stand on day-glo gear, there is clearly leeway for a discussion about its efficacy in cycling safety.
But surely there’s nothing to debate around jumping a red light, is there? That’s just lunacy, something no one in their right mind would attempt, let alone argue the safety of? Well, as so often when it comes to cycling on a road network chiefly designed for motor vehicles, things aren’t quite as red and green as they may initially appear.
Legitimate red-light runners
First of all, let’s consider a group of road users who routinely treat red lights as a give way rather a stop signal: the emergency services. To paraphrase section 36 (b) Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002: if the circumstances so require, and no one is put in danger as a result, emergency vehicles may run red lights – because they could be saving someone’s life.
All well and good if you’re in a fire engine, but bikes don’t fall within the class of vehicles excluded from observing red lights, do they? However you look at it, it’s illegal to cycle through a red light. What’s my point?
The case study
Well. Having observed hundreds of red-light infractions by other people cycling, I don’t recognise the tabloid portrayal of bike riders barrelling recklessly through red lights with no regard for their own or others’ safety (at least not mostly: there are of course always a few dicks in any random group, but why those dicks are seen to represent the totality of people who cycle while dicks in cars are regarded as separate from the general mass of drivers is a discussion for another day). Instead, the most common cycling manoeuvre I see at red lights is very closely related to what ambulances, fire engines and police cars do: people cycle up to the junction, slow down, check ultra-carefully that nothing’s coming, and then proceed.
And my further point, having had hundreds of close passes by impatient motorists when setting off at a green light, is that we desperately need a change in how our junctions are managed for people cycling. I’d like to illustrate this using a few short videos of a situation I recently encountered in central Manchester. Please take the time to watch them. They are literally each only a few seconds long.
So, here I am cycling along Portland Street (for those of you from out of town, Portland Street used to be awful for cycling, then the council remodelled it as a bus-priority route and made it absolutely atrocious for cycling). I arrive at the lights at the junction of Portland Street and Princess Street and all is well with the world: the lights are on red and a taxi is waiting behind the advance stop box with enough space for riders to enter the box on the left. There is a chap on a bike in the advance stop box and pedestrians are crossing:
However, what happens next is enough to induce a paroxysm of frothing rage in velophobes up and down the land: this chancer only goes and brazenly runs the sodding red light, doesn’t he:
There we go. Textbook idiot on a bike, a reckless cyclist endangering himself and everyone around him and giving all cyclists a bad name. Or so received wisdom would have it. But I’d like us to reserve judgment until we’ve seen the full picture.
I wait for green and set off in full compliance with the law, giving no one a bad name and – hopefully – causing no one to froth at the mouth. After all, obeying the law should make me safer, shouldn’t it? So let’s see what happens next:
The lights go green. I set off, carefully passing the pedestrian stragglers on the crossing. Then: a sharp veer to the left because the apparently patient taxi driver actually turns out to be an impatient arsehole who revs and accelerates behind me with such aggression that I involuntarily swerve out of his way. He doesn’t see fit to overtake safely because that’d momentarily steer him away from his intended destination, the shared bus/bike/taxi lane beyond the junction. So he simply decides to bulldoze me out of the way. Let’s look at the rear view of that manoeuvre, shall we?
What a wanker.
So let’s weigh up the evidence:
Rider 1: decides to run the red light, he carefully proceeds across the junction and gets to the other side safely, well away from any dangerous drivers (acts illegally to get to safety).
Rider 2: waits for green and is instantly subjected to an aggressive, dangerous vehicular manoeuvre (acts legally and ends up in danger).
How can it be that breaking the law is often safer than obeying it when cycling? That’s a nonsensical position that we can seek to address in various ways:
1) Change the environment
Ideally we should create an environment where people cycling don’t have to make the choice between protecting their own safety or acting legally, for example by adding an extra, cycle-specific light phase in places like this (be prepared to be wowed by some special effects!):
Here, our friend sets off as the imaginary bike lights (top left!) go green and has enough time to get across the junction while the knobhead taxi driver is held on a red light, well out of danger.
2) Change the law
In some places, red traffic lights are not absolute stop commands, but rather yield/give way signals, i.e. if it’s safe to proceed through a red light, on you go. The most famous example of this is the Idaho stop, which has also been adopted by several other US states and beyond (for instance, a version of the rule was introduced in Paris in 2016). Were that the case here, our friend’s behaviour would have been exemplary: stopping, checking, getting himself to safety with no additional infrastructure required, whilst, again, the angry little taxi man waits at the red light.
3) Do nothing but tolerate law-breaking
If re-engineering the environment is too costly and changing the law too much of a political faff, there’s always the half-way house of issuing guidance on using discretion. Now while to my knowledge there is nothing of this kind about junctions, there is what’s known as the “Boateng guidance” which states that considerate pavement cycling, whilst technically illegal, should be tolerated given the often dangerous situation on the roads. It’s an acknowledgment of the same principle as we’re looking at here: that if you have (at least perceived) high levels of law-breaking among people who cycle, it’s probably not because of a higher incidence of inherent criminality among that group, but instead a reaction to a systemically unsafe cycling environment.
4) Do nothing and carry on demonising cycling
This is not an option, unless we want to consolidate the status quo, induce more motorised traffic and compound the manifold associated problems (congestion, poor air quality, unpleasant places). I don’t think even the people who think they want that actually want that.
Don’t just take my word for it: we’re seeing an increasing level of debate making the same point. A couple of recent examples: in his article “The Ethics of Breaking Traffic Laws” Eben Weiss writes, “the simple fact is that in a car-centric environment there are many circumstances in which breaking the law on a bike is not only justified but necessary to ensure your survival.” And similarly, in her Financial Times (sic) article “I am a law-abiding citizen – except when it comes to cycling” Pilita Clark writes, “I have no intention of going totally legit when it comes to London’s road rules – not until they stop being so hopelessly stacked against cyclists. I feel the same way about […] other big cities that force a cyclist to choose between life and legality”.
In a sense, then, law-breaking cyclers are involved in a subtle form of civil disobedience: “If you want me to behave on my bike, city authorities, then build me an environment where obeying the law is at least as safe, if not safer, than disobeying it.” After all, if we’re happy for the emergency services to run red lights to keep people safe, then why not let people cycling do the same for the same end? At least while we’re building that truly safe cycling environment. Sounds fair enough to me.