Last night I was biking home from the movie theater when I got caught at one of those red lights that cyclists dread. If you are a cyclist, you know the situation: you're on a small road and need to turn onto a larger road. Unfortunately, the light only changes if a car trips a sensor under the road. Your options now are limited: you can either run the light, wait for a car to trip the sensor, or climb off your bike and push the cross-walk signal (if there is one.) Well, at first I waited for a car to come, to no avail. Nor did the street have a cross-walk signal. My only option was to run the light, but as a law abiding cyclist, I wasn't terribly excited about the idea. One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing cyclists running lights and stop signs, riding on the wrong side of the road, etc. After all, while motorists often don't seem to know how to share the road and put others in danger, cyclists greatly damage their image by not obeying the laws of the road.
A Bicycle is Not A Car
I ended up running the light after making sure there were no cars in the vicinity, but that's not the point. I tell this story because it got me thinking about the fact that while cyclists have the same rights--and responsibilities--as motorists, a bicycle is NOT a car, and perhaps shouldn't be treated as such. (Of course, I believe a bicycle can do everything a car can!) Conversely, if we are to really view bicycles in the same way as cars, at a a minimum from a legal perspective, then we have done a pitiful job of providing the requisite education and infrastructure to make that a reality. How to Enforce Equal Rights
Let me start with what we would have to do to truly enforce equal rights and responsibilities for cyclists. For starters, all new drivers should have to demonstrate an understanding of how to interact with cyclists on the road, in a variety of situations. They should know what rights cyclists have, as well as how to ensure that both driver and rider are safe. At the same time, cyclists should at least be given the opportunity receive the same education as drivers (this is being done in Santa Cruz, California, for instance). Many cyclists don't know or simply don't care that they are required to follow the rules of the road. But just as importantly, they are often unaware of the fact that in many situations they can, for instance, take over an entire lane if there is no shoulder or if glass or potholes force them into the lane. Again, the problem is that a bicycle is not a car; it doesn't move at the same speed, takes up a fraction of the lane and poses almost no safety risk to others. As such, the law has to accommodate those difference (and while there are laws that do that, most cyclists and drivers are not aware of them, and even then they provide awkward solutions.)
The bottom line is that when cities are designed without cyclists in mind, it becomes awkward to say that riders have equal rights. When a road is built in such a way that it becomes dangerous for a car to make a left turn, say, then people are justifiably outraged and the problem is often rectified. The fact that the vast majority of our roads are not built to make cycling safe means that we have to ensure that everyone clearly understands when and why cyclists can run lights, take over lanes and get other special rights, while at the same time we desperately need to invest in better infrastructure. Otherwise, we have a recipe for mistrust, misunderstanding and accidents. This is especially true now that gas prices are inspiring more people to get back on their bikes.
Some Cities Are Addressing the Problem
Going back to my example at the red light, a simple, though perhaps costly, solution would be to make lights sensitive to the presence of a cyclist. Where that is impractical, the law could be amended so that in certain circumstances (say between the hours of 7 pm and 7 am) cyclists can treat red lights as stop signs. In fact, at least in my hometown of Los Angeles, this is already the case. And in San Francisco, there is talk of changing the law to allow cyclists to ignore stop signs, although "bicycles would still have to yield if there was a car at a stop sign. They would still have to stop for that car and let them go through." Finally, Portland is addressing the infrastructure issue in many ways, including the use of bike boxes to protect cyclists from drivers making right turns.
As things stand now, there is a strange disconnect between what the law says and what actually happens on the roads, and there is no one in particular to blame. Legal scholars will say that, ideally, the law codifies social conventions, but in America the social conventions surrounding cycling are underdeveloped. A combination of education, legal reform, and infrastructure improvement are needed to ensure that our roadways accommodate all forms of travel.
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