The Case for Cyclists Breaking Traffic Laws

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A familiar Citi Bike advocate for New York's new bike share program. Photo courtesy of Citi Bike.

Robert RivardShould cyclists obey the same traffic laws as vehicle operators?

For people whose only mode of transportation is their car, the answer is an emphatic “yes,” quickly followed by the claim that cyclists are notorious lawbreakers based on personal anecdotal observations.

For cyclists, the issue is far more nuanced. Some cyclists obey traffic laws all the time. Some ignore them. Most of us who cycle regularly (and who also own and drive vehicles) obey traffic laws in traffic and tend to ignore them in the absence of traffic.

This is the last in a series of recent stories I’ve written looking at everything from the Great Helmet Divide (The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety, and Hell Yes and Hell No to Bike Helmets) to making San Antonio’s streets safer for cyclists sharing the road with vehicles (San Antonio’s Drive Toward Safe Cycling).

First, let me make a point with drivers enraged by cyclists who only pause at a stop sign, or worse, run a red light once they confirm there is no traffic coming in either direction on the crossing street. Don’t you routinely break speed limits on both surface roads and highways? No? Really? You always go the exact speed limit or less? You must travel other roads and highways than those I travel, where traffic routinely moves en masse at speeds above the posted limit.

How many of you change lanes or make turns without using turn signals? How many of you maintain one car length’s distance for each 10 mph of speed between your vehicle and the one you follow? How many of you end a cell phone call when you enter a school zone, or use Google Maps on your cell phone while driving to an unfamiliar address?

Police would have time for nothing else if they started pulling over the great mass of motorists ignoring traffic laws. If everyone drove the legal speed limit on highways, the average urban commute for the suburban driver would probably grow by at least 10%.

Bike to Work Day in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Bike to Work Day in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

So please redirect your unfounded rage at cyclists. We have the same right to the road that you in your car do. And yes, we own cars so we pay the same taxes you do. Let’s restart the conversation by acknowledging that most of us — behind the wheels of vehicles, or at the handlebars of a bicycle — self-identify as law-abiding citizens who also use common sense in our commuting, and that often means breaking traffic laws.

A San Antonio police officer once pulled me over for running a stop sign on my commuter bike one block from the newspaper offices where I worked. I saw him sitting in his parked patrol car, but it was a Saturday morning, there was zero traffic, and I didn’t expect him to pay any attention.

He issued me a warning, but didn’t appreciate my efforts to engage him on the best use of his time parked in front of an empty church and stopping a lone cyclist when there must be more important work elsewhere. I still wonder: If police realize moderate speeding is essential to traffic flow, and if they realize it’s counter-productive to stop everyone who fails to use a turn signal, why stop a cyclist crossing a deserted intersection? In my opinion, I posed no more danger than a pedestrian crossing in the middle of the same deserted block. When was the last time a San Antonio cop stopped a pedestrian on an empty street?

A driver who doesn’t ride a bike might ask: What’s the problem with stopping? Cyclists power themselves, and they do it by pedaling. If they are on a road bike, chances are their shoes are clipped in to the pedals, making their pedaling more efficient, powering the upstroke as well as the downstroke. Stopping the bike, clipping out to put a foot on the ground for balance, then reversing the process is a waste of time and energy with no obvious purpose when there is no other traffic.

Even though I believe cyclists should be allowed some leeway to use common sense and judgment, I also realize cyclists probably will have to agree to obey traffic laws in order to win concessions from city planners and law enforcement, necessary allies in the conversion of dangerous urban grids into complete streets that include protected bike lanes.

I consider a protected bike lane to be a cycle track completely separated from the vehicle lanes by a curb or other barrier, or at least a well-defined bike lane with signage and enforced no vehicle parking.

Cyclists, if we want to assert our rights to the road and be able to safely commute, likely will have to obey traffic laws with the same regularity as the guy next to you in a pickup truck. It will really start to matter if bicycling reaches critical mass in San Antonio’s urban core, which is increasingly possible as residential density builds and many of the new residents prefer cycling to driving a car short distances.

Chicago now reports 20,000 people commute to work downtown daily. New York’s bike share program recently launched with 6,000 bikes and 300 stations, and after two weeks had 36,000 paid members. Daily bike commuters doubled in San Francisco between 2007 and 2011.

A familiar Citi Bike advocate for New York's new bike share program. Photo courtesy of Citi Bike.

A familiar Citi Bike advocate for New York’s new bike share program. Photo courtesy of Citi Bike.

Henry Grabar, a cyclist and journalist, recently made the case in an Atlantic Cities article that cyclists should hold out and not agree to be treated like motorized vehicles just to win their fair share of the road. With complete streets, he argues, roadways become streets with two sidewalks, one for pedestrians and one for cyclists. With the exception of the occasional stupid cyclist (think vehicle driver recklessly weaving in and out of highway traffic) most cyclists are restrained by common sense, and will not violate a traffic law if it might result in an accident. We ignore the law only when it doesn’t matter.

One day earlier, Sarah Goodyear, a journalist who lives and cycles in Brooklyn, took the other position in another article on the topic for Atlantic Cities. While admitting that she’s run her fair share of stop signs and red lights, Goodyear also sees herself as a cycling ambassador, someone who believes cyclists most conform in order to gain better cycling conditions. The image of a cyclist as an outlaw, she writes, needs to give way to a new image of cycling as a mainstream transportation mode. That will take some doing in New York, a city famous for its hostile bike messengers and others speeding the wrong way on streets, intimidating pedestrians and even grabbing hold of moving vehicles for a free ride.

The state of Idaho allows cyclists to pause at red lights and stop signs, and if conditions merit, to proceed with caution without stopping. I don’t know of any other states that make the same allowance, but I like it. I’m also a realist, and can’t imagine the Texas Legislature doing anything that favors cycling, or anything else that a rationale person would deem progressive.

The City of San Antonio, on the other hand, could pass an ordinance allowing cyclists outside the busy downtown grid to exercise similar judgement in the absence of cross-traffic. It would be a worthy experiment and demonstrate the city’s determination to attract more young professionals to the urban core by understanding they don’t subscribe to the one person-one car ethos practiced by so many others.


Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


Related Stories:

San Antonio’s Drive Toward Safe Cycling

Hell Yes and Hell No to Bike Helmets

The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety

SicloVerde: Riding Bikes, Visiting Gardens For a Cause

Building a Bicycle-Friendly San Antonio, One Committee Meeting at a Time

Share the Road: SAPD Launches New Program to Catch Unsafe Drivers

The Feed: National Bike Month Rides into San Antonio, Just in Time

The Feed: B–Roll on the Mission Reach

The Feed: Show Down + Síclovía = Fit City, USA

The Feed: Get Outside the Box for an Outdoor Workout


32 thoughts on “The Case for Cyclists Breaking Traffic Laws

  1. I understand your argument about pausing for stops signs when a street is clearly deserted, but the same argument should be extended to cars, too.

  2. I feel that most people who give bicyclists crap for not stopping at stop signs/streetlights have never biked long distances in the hot Texas sun out of necessity. I strictly obey stop signs in a car because the energy required for me is simply pressing a pedal. Having to speed back up after stopping on a bike when my legs are sore and I’m sweating like crazy takes more effort than you think. And don’t cyclists deserve a few perks for not polluting the environment?

    • Great point Matthew, but not everyone out there is sensible at cycling safely. Back in the days I stopped at STOP signs not because of the law, but because I was taught it was for safety. Passing a Red Light is breaking the law, though I do sympathize with you as I see many sweaty cyclists stopping and then passing the Red Light and don’t blame them. But not every cyclist stops or yields at the Red Lights…

    • If you are too lazy to stop, then take the tickets/crap.
      You still get to game the system for a very low cost.

      Don’t like it? Then stop.
      It makes you stronger.
      No perks for being smug.

  3. Well, cars are faster moving and have infinitely more blind spots than bicycles. The car itself insulates the driver from hearing other cars approaching, even with the window down. As little as many drivers might want to admit it, it makes sense for cyclists to facilitate the flow of traffic by scooting by and getting out of the way when possible. It makes it safer, because we’re out of the way by the time the light turns green. If drivers in cars did the same it would negate that safety completely.

  4. Everyone agrees with the laws (rules) that benefit them and call the laws that inconvenience them little laws to be bent. i.e. picking your wife up and loading your groceries in the fire lane just because it’s raining. I always look to Kant in this case…”act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

  5. This is well stated. Cyclists know that carefully going through stop sign gets one through the intersection faster, and we all know that automobile drivers are not saints regarding traffic laws, but what was not stated is the real reason for such heavy traffic enforcement on cars and bikes is based around revenue generation. Cops are not in a position to admit this, of course, but traffic enforcement has big budgets and somebody has to pay.

    How this relates to the cyclists continuing dilemma means that we need to consider the advice in this article. I agree that it isn’t fair that cyclists are going to have to look more like the “good guys”, but we are at a disadvantage and we are not going to change the system of people in cars pointing the finger and cops looking to make a point to a cyclist while ignoring an infraction in a automobile driver. It is an uphill battle in so many ways to ride a bike, but the efforts are worth it.

    Finally, many of the rights of way in San Antonio are completely utilized, so there is not an ability to create bike tracks or lanes. This means that we need to learn to ride better on the roads that we have. Riding skills go a long way towards opening up safe cycling opportunities.

  6. The dire consequences of bicyclists who don’t use commons sense and judgement make for enraged automobile drivers. Those bicyclists who drive between cars and traffic lanes. Those who pass cars on the right hand side (through a red light) when the automobile is making a legal right turn on red. Those who sail through red lights, (the perk for not polluting should be the good karma of just knowing you aren’t polluting; similar to the perks I get for car pooling). I could go on because I see lots of those cyclists. My commute (by car) is about 10 minutes, strictly on city streets. And yes, I car pool and a pedal bike isn’t an option. If I saw three cyclists in a row who were obeying traffic laws then I would have respect for them. But I don’t, and I keep count because I want to have someone change my mind. So please, more protected bike lanes because both the automobile drivers and cyclist camps have a fair share of idiots.

  7. Learn to trackstand. All you have to do is stop all forward motion to comply with the law, putting a foot down is not required.

  8. Great article and many great comments on it, especially the difficult of a complete stop when your feet are in styrups or cleats. I’d also add to that: in the heat of summer, stopping at an intersection waiting for the light to change is a lot more uncomfortable on a bike than in an air-conditioned car!

    • Whether or not something is UNCOMFORTABLE or INCONVENIENT should not determine whether or not it is okay to break a law.

      • WGM, Indeed. Consider this. We are a nation of criminals, as there are so many laws it is very difficult to avoid breaking at least one. The point of the article is, it is common in driving a car to break scads of laws, and we think nothing of it. If a cyclist doesn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign, there is hell to pay. Is this equitable?

        • Kevin, Exactly. Thanks for the help. I don’t think a single response today from self-identifying motorists/non-cyclists has addressed head on my assertion that the city’s very traffic flow is predicated on mass violations within reasonable bounds of the traffic laws. –RR

      • Thank you. It really is a poor excuse.
        Flat pedals for utility cycling make sense, you aren’t racing.
        Clipless is oversold, it makes money to rationalize tiny nominal gains and sell specials shoes and pedals.

  9. Anyone who’s been riding long enough has seen their fair share of road rash and close calls on both sides of the law. I have to disagree with Goodyear’s “ambassador” model, because depending on where you’re riding, it can be dangerous to assume that your full left hand arm extension will be understood, much less even seen. Riders have a responsibility to their own well being, and while it’s probably not the best approach to ride like cowboy all the time, sometimes you’ve gotta do some risky stuff to avoid a street sandwich. The current bicycle laws don’t seem to reflect that reality and, as pointed out in this article, the SAPD seem keen to pull bikes over for even minor infractions, to the point that it seems discriminatory. I do appreciate that the SAPD at least sees bikes, that is more than you can say for most SA drivers, but if there really is a citywide push to get people to ride rather than drive, why not incentivise bicycles rather than scrutinize them. Give bikes the right of way, let the stops be yields…What better way to motivate than make bikes easy to use and convenient, isn’t that why cars are so popular?

  10. This has been an excellent series on bicycling, Bob. Whereas it’s insightful to read the blogs of cyclists out there on the roads of some of the more bike-friendly cities (Portland, DC, etc), it’s really special to have local examples, ordinances, photos, names, etc. woven together in a conversation about this area! It will definitely be a compilation of posts that I can refer back to as we keep growing bicycling in SA-BC and beyond.

    • Many thanks, Allie. The unsung work of you and your colleagues at the MPO in making San Antonio a more bike friendly and safe city, long before such work was cool, should not go unmentioned. I hope the City keeps adding bike lanes and complete streets each year and makes the MPO revise its bike map every year. –RR

  11. Cycling is awesome and I back up improving our city streets to add a safer bike lane than the ones we have. Having said that there are many cyclists who pass stop signs and lights here and around King William/Southtown/Downtown. What really matters is cyclistsd driving safety and including the cars around them. I have so many stores but here are a few examples that come to mind:
    1. My son and I are walking from Hemisphere and trying to cross S. Alamo St. @ S. Presa when there’s over 20 cyclists who drive past the red light making it impossible for a pedestrian to pass. Then as there is a break in the cyclist group I proceed to cross the street and see the rest of the cyclists coming my way passing the red light. Of course they stopped after I gave them a look… The sign clearly reads at their stop light NO RIGHT TURNS ON RED.
    2. I’m stopping at a red light on S. St. Mary’s and Pereida a cyclists just speeds past the red light causing a right way driver to slow down upon coming up to his green light.
    Please explain how this is safe driving for cyclists and are we setting the right example for our children?

    • Robert, Thank you for that link. It won’t help smooth ruffled feathers I am afraid, and the point of the article was we live in a duality of lawlessness and judgment of cyclists while we as drivers break laws. I still shared it on my Facebook page, though!

  12. “It won’t help smooth ruffled feathers I am afraid…”

    The point of CyclingSavvy is that it is possible to ride swiftly, confidently, courteously, legally and safely.

    Smoothing ruffled feathers is part of the deal. Necessary, even.

  13. I cringe at cyclists who blatantly disregard stoplights with motorists present (though sometimes I cringe and break the law to stay with less sensitive pelotons). One point of car v bike nonequivalence that I don’t think has been raised in this thread: Momentum is a key factor for cycling safety. If I’m stopped at a challenging intersection, I have no ability to escape oblivious corner-cutting motorists (and bikes are harder to detect than cars or even motorcycles). Waiting exposed in the middle of the road to make a left turn without a turn signal is a particularly dangerous situation, especially for the majority of cyclists who can’t trackstand. In some circumstances, I take my opportunity to safely exit intersections prematurely to avoid this danger.

  14. As a bike commuter traveling into downtown. I respect all traffic laws.
    for 15 of my 20 years commuting I did not.

    When I began to obey the law it was an experiment to diminish the anger and frustration I felt everyday on my commute.

    It worked.
    I was the problem.

    I do feel like a bike ambassador when I ride. Drivers do pay attention to riders they travel with. And for some reason seeing someone run a red light no matter what mode of transportation is a universal hot button.
    I hope when I am seen stopping for lights and signs it creates or replaces an impression. But I’m not hopeful when I see every road biker on the street blowing thru stop signs.

    Your road bike hobby habits make my lifestyle a bit more dangerous.
    And riding clipped in is a choice, every choice has a compromise. If you cant track stand for 2 minutes you don’t need to be clipped in on the street.

    Think about us weekday commuters the next time your blowing thru a sign or light on your saturday morning ride.

  15. What an immensely counterproductive and false position to take.

    As expected, it began with the shopworn and false two wrongs make a right claim that “everyone” driving is breaking laws all the time too, and so cyclists should be able to follow only the laws they want to. What utter malarkey.

    Running red lights and stop signs is many orders of magnitude worse and different than speeding by a few miles per hour. Note that the violation you are point to takes place on roads with speed limits deliberately set lower than the average pace of traffic, to facilitate ticket writing and taking money from drivers. Following the law in that case, rather than driving at the flow of traffic is actually something that creates danger for everyone – the same result created by a cyclist who weaves around traffic and runs through signals.

    And then let’s note that police enforce just what you are bleating about with almost all the resources of the entire police department in most communities, in order to shake people down for money.

    There isn’t any comparison at all.

    The only other point made is that by gum, it’s just too hard to stop and then have to accelerate again. Good god, man, cycling is intended as exercise to many people, and if you can’t handle stopping and starting, you need to walk or take the bus. The fact that your own laziness is satisfied by breaking laws and YES, endangering others in doing so, doesn’t justify that behavior.

    Blowing through red lights and stop signs, riding on the wrong side of the street, and on sidewalks, and riding with no lights, etc, are all actions which endanger people, the cyclist most of all, followed by pedestrians, second, and then drivers as well.

    It is absolutely unjustifiable.

  16. What a self righteous mishmash of demanding equal rights to vehicles while expecting exceptions to the responsibilities, and wanting to be treated like a pedestrian when it suits you.

    This is why motorists hate cyclists, the smug superiority complex while demanding special treatment.

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