BIcycle Traffic

I got a ticket about 5 weeks ago for running a red light northbound on Valencia at 14th, one of the safest and most obvious place to maintain one’s momentum and go through an empty intersection. I stopped a half block later to talk to a friend, and lo and behold a squad car pulled over and treated me like I’d done something wrong, wrote me a ticket after lecturing me and refusing to let me say anything about the ethic of cycling, traffic patterns, etc. It’s a whopping $370 ticket!

So of course I’m going to court on July 1 to contest it. I’ll let you know what happens.

But it’s an interesting question, one that I’ve addressed before in print, but it’s coming up again. I’m speaking at the Grizzly Peaks Cycling Club on May 18 about Critical Mass and I’m sure the law-abiding riders of that group will be very disapproving of my ideas on this. I run red lights and stop signs all day every day. It’s quite safe. I mentally have to stop at every intersection whether the light is green or red. Cars often run intersections and if I’m not paying attention I will be killed. That’s a huge motivation to preserve one’s safety. Additionally, I have a personal standard that I won’t run a light or cut through traffic if it forces an oncoming motorist to swerve or brake suddenly. That’s just basic safety and courtesy.

I was pondering this the other night as I barreled down Shotwell, a small residential street full of 4-way stops. I rolled through one after another, timing each one so the cross traffic would experience me as if I were just taking my turn. This is very easy to do on such a street, and it’s why Shotwell is the preferred northerly route through the Mission for a lot of cyclists these days. People called out to me about my cool handlebars (big ape-hangers) and it was a beautiful dusk as I rush to make my Film Festival movie. At 21st cars and bicyclists went through on three of four directions in a beautiful self-choreographed ballet. All of us had to calculate and hesitate to make it work for each other and we all did it organically and effortlessly.

One of my main motivations for running red lights when I do is to get into that clear, open road on the other side of the light before cars do so I can get ahead of the smog and potential right-turning traffic and make myself more visible. In other words, running red lights is OFTEN a safety move for me. And of course we all know the roads are not engineered for bicycling but for throughput of cars. The recent addition of painted stripes for bike lanes is a slight improvement over what came before, but still a long way from a real infrastructural transformation that would make cycling an equal user on the road. Nevertheless we are treated by the law as vehicles and are expected to act like a car, coming to full stops at stop signs and lights regardless of conditions. Luckily this is rarely enforced, so of course it’s particularly galling when some bored cops decide to slap a $370 fine on you for doing what comes natural and is generally understood as an acceptable and perfectly safe way to use the city’s thoroughfares.

Maybe this is the Golden Era of scofflaw bicycling. That’s what one guy wrote in response to a 1996 survey we did at Critical Mass here. As bicycling traffic increases, traffic laws and signage and lights will likely become more of a safety issue for us, regardless of cars. Case in point is an article Bill Doub sent me from Boulder Colorado’s Daily Camera, in which Beth Bennett talks about sustaining a terrible injury on Boulder’s famous bike paths when another cyclist swerved carelessly into her. Turns out there is no law enforcement of traffic rules on the Boulder bike paths. Ms. Bennett cannot get any help from the courts or police in her attempt to hold the offending cyclist culpable.

Now I’m not particularly sympathetic to using the courts or police in this way. But I can imagine pretty easily my frustration at getting badly hurt by another cyclist who drunkenly or stupidly runs into me by not paying adequate attention. Laws and traffic rules seem unimportant compared to the simple necessity of behaving thoughtfully and courteously. Which inadvertantly loops us back to the previous post on the April Critical Mass here wherein a scuffle broke out due to absurd and pointless belligerance by cyclists and stopped motorists.

People, people, people… can’t we all just get along? Obviously not. But when it comes to traffic and road rage and courtesy and empathy, it seems like our problems can only be solved by working harder at creating and spreading an ethical community, a way of behaving and respecting each other, watching out for all of our safety and comfort. The law is a silly and arbitrary mechanism, largely irrelevant to this. The culture we make together on the streets takes a real effort, and it’s one well worth making. We oughtn’t ignore stupid behavior, whether in daily life or at CM or wherever it erupts. Call it when you see it. Conversely, bicyclists should not be penalized for ignoring irrelevant laws meant to curb dangerous behavior in 2000-lb. metal boxes.

Amend the laws to conform to behavior: stop signs and red lights are yield signs to bicyclists (this was done in Montana, I believe). No one will be made less safe by such an amendment and it will properly reward cycling in the city for its greater efficiency, safety and pleasure.

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