Hunter College releases a study on law-breaking cyclists

If you haven’t read about it on the Times Spokes Blog, be sure to check  out the article and comments page, where a fierce  debate is being held.

First of all, I had Professor Milczarski for a few classes and I know him to be passionate about transportation planning and an advocate for cycling.  He spent a semester teaching in Paris and happily used the Velib bike share system to travel around the city.  I don’t think that this study was an attack on cyclists, but rather it was an attempt to draw attention to an issue they felt affected public safety.   I don’t doubt that the results of the study are representative of cyclist behavior in New York, but I do wonder if this behavior represents a serious threat to public safety, one that warrants such intensive study.  Unlike the distracted motorists that Professor Tuckel studied previously, a cyclist is not piloting two-tons of steel at 50 MPH.  Given the relative threat posed by the two modes of transit, I think further study on bad driving should be the priority.

Look, we all know that cyclists routinely break traffic laws. TA’s Wiley Norvel’s response is that bike infrastructure is poor and cyclists break laws to protect themselves.  He believes that when conditions improve, cyclists will break the law less.  For some behaviors this has indeed been true, and you do find significantly less sidewalk riding after the installation of the 9th Avenue protected lane.  For other behaviors this is not true, as it seems the extremely wide protected lanes have led to an increase in cycling against traffic.  This is undoubtedly because cyclists feel safer riding in a protected lane against traffic than they do riding in a regular lane with traffic.  The bikesnob has a serious problem with bike salmon, but I can understand why a cyclist might choose to ride counter-flow in 8-10′ protected lane.

The other problem with this argument is that even if every street and avenue had its own protected lane, we’d continue to see cyclist run lights.  The constant stopping at lights timed for motor vehicles makes cycling far less efficient.  Watch Spencer Boomhower’s great video to understand why we hate to stop so much.

Probably the only thing that would stop cyclists running lights would be a draconian crackdown by the NYPD, which thankfully hasn’t happened yet.  While I’d like to see a law that would allow cyclists to treat stop lights as yeild signs, I doubt that will ever happen here.  So instead we are left with the status quo, which is weak enforcement of a bad law.  A bike is a unique form of transportation and the laws that apply to cars and pedestrians do not regulate this mode very well.  The reason why we see so many cyclists break the law is that it doesn’t match the cyclist’s idea of what’s safe and reasonable.

Because cyclists follow common sense rather than the law they are painted as reckless lawbreakers, but we aren’t the only ones breaking laws in New York.  Cars here often do not signal, run through red lights, and violate the city’s 35 MPH limit.  Pedestrians completely disregard “don’t walk” signs and jaywalk when the intersection is clear, and often when it is not.  I’ve had many conflicts with pedestrians when I have the light and they are jaywalking, yet they’ll be the ones to scream at me. I’d love to see a study documenting how many pedestrians stop at “don’t walk” signs.  The only people I see waiting for lights are confused midwestern tourists.

And that’s okay, because I believe peds rule the streets.  I don’t mind weaving in and out of peds as they jay-walk in front of me or even dodging them when they are standing in my bike lane.  I’ve even come to terms with people double parking cars in my lane, because it actually does seem a bit unreasonable to block a moving traffic lane rather than partially obstructing a bike lane.  I can get by, and I do get by.

I know that when I walk, I hate cars and cyclists.  When I am in a car, I hate people walking slowly through the crosswalk or darting out in front of me.   When I’m a cyclist, I hate cars cutting me off and peds with ipods in their ears.  And when I’m driving a horse drawn carriage, I hate everyone.  So when I’m walking, driving, biking, or horsing, I try to be respectful of others and not be someone I would hate if the roles were reversed.

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2 Responses

  1. “I know that when I walk, I hate cars and cyclists. When I am in a car, I hate people walking slowly through the crosswalk or darting out in front of me. When I’m a cyclist, I hate cars cutting me off and peds with ipods in their ears. ”

    I am so, so glad to hear someone else voice this sentiment. I thought I was the only one with such issues! I keep thinking that having experience with all three modes of transportation would make me more understanding and accepting, but not so much. Bike rage, road rage, ped rage…

  2. There is a functioning solution to cyclists running red lights – slow down the speed of the Green Wave – the speed the lights are timed to change. NYC times the avenues for 30 MPH, a speed few cyclists are comfortable reaching.

    Copenhagen has instituted a bicycle speed green wave. Traffic signals on the major bicycle commuter streets – which are also nearly all the arterials feeding the central city – have been timed to about 12 MPH. Platoons of cyclists travel along with this green wave. Another feature there is that the total traffic signal cycle time is usually 60 seconds – total time, red to green to red. NYC uses 90 seconds or longer for most of Manhattan.

    Therefore there is much less cyclists red light running, by engineering design, not by police enforcement. There is little incentive to run the light; first, you get a green in 30 seconds, and once you have that green light, every light on the road will be turning green for you as you reach it.

    Somehow, they have managed to keep bus schedules on time too, even with slower green wave.

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