Why Do Cyclists Break the Law?

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CC BY 2.0. A cyclist at a red light in Toronto/ Lloyd Alter

A new episode of the War on Cars looks at an issue dear to my heart.

What's weird about the picture above? I took it because I was so surprised; a cyclist in front of me stopped at a red light at a T intersection when there were no pedestrians crossing. I had seen this in Copenhagen, but never in Toronto. I had never done it; it makes no sense, as nobody can hit you and you are not interfering with anyone. That's why they recently made it legal in France. As someone who considers myself a moral person who respects the law, why would I find this strange?

It's one of the reasons that my favourite podcast is The War on Cars, which covers issues like this, and the battle to take back the streets from big metal boxes. The latest episode specifically covers an issue that I have been writing about for years: Why don't people on bikes obey the law? Why do they go through stop signs, red lights, ride on sidewalks or go the wrong way on one-way streets? I apologise to readers who have heard this all before from me (see related links below); perhaps listening to fresh voices will help.

The War on the Cars gang is so serious about this issue that Doug Gordon even consults with a Rabbi, to get a talmudic interpretation about when one is allowed to break laws. But the problem, as I have written many times,

Yehuda Moon

© Yehuda Moon

This is not a legal issue; it is fundamentally about bad design. Cyclists don't go through stop signs or ride the wrong way because they are evil law-breakers; neither are most drivers who go over the speed limit. Drivers do it because the roads are designed for cars to go fast, so they go fast. Cyclists go through stop signs because they are there to make cars go slow, not to stop bikes.

Palmerstion Avenue

Lloyd Alter/ Palmerston Avenue, Toronto, with stop signs every 266 feet to slow down cars/CC BY 2.0

People ride on the sidewalks when they do not feel safe on the road. Cyclists go through stop signs when the stop signs are installed as a method of speed control, not a tool for figuring out who has right-of-way. Drivers drive fast because they tend to go at the speed that the engineers designed the roads for, often with big curve radii at corners and wide lanes so that fire trucks can go fast. There is a good reason for this. As TreeHugger Emeritus Ruben wrote:

slow the cars sign

© Strong Towns

I learned in design school that The User is Always Right. It doesn't matter what you think you have designed, the user's behaviour tells you what your product or system actually IS.... A great example is how roads are designed for 70 km/h, but then signed for 30 km/h – and then we wag our fingers at the speeders. These drivers are behaving perfectly normally for the system. If you wanted people to drive 30 km/h, then YOU FAILED. The people are not broken, YOUR SYSTEM IS BROKEN.

New York City, where the War on the Car is recorded, is particularly terrible for people on bikes. In Manhattan, most of the north-south routes are giant one-way car sewers, separated by very long blocks. A driver might go for miles if they catch the wave of green lights that are timed for them, but a cyclist could have to stop every couple of hundred feet. To legally go a block north on a southbound street, a cyclist might have to go 100 times the distance around the very long blocks. No wonder people go salmoning.

Fifth Avenue with two way traffic

Ephemeral New York: Two way traffic on Fifth Avenue/via

If you want to slow down cars and you want cyclists to stop salmoning, how about returning the avenues of New York City to two-way traffic, as they were 50 years ago? If you want to stop cyclists from going through stop signs, then remove the stop signs and use other forms of speed control.

Bikes are not cars. If we are going to get people out of cars and have them walk or cycle instead, we have to give them a safe place to do it, and rethink the rules that govern it. You don't have to be a talmudic scholar to figure that one out.

Listen to the War on Cars, and support them on Patreon like I do.