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In Defense of the Law-Breaking Cyclist

• October 24, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: FRANKH/FLICKR)

Until more is done to integrate bikes with auto traffic, Jake Blumgart will do whatever keeps him safe.

Last year, Randy Cohen, former Ethicist columnist for The New York Times Magazine, penned an op-ed revealing that he routinely broke traffic laws (running red lights and stop signs) on his bicycle. He argued this was not only OK, but actually an ethical choice. Bikes are healthier for the user and the world, and less dangerous to others. Making cyclists follow the exact same road laws as cars, which are as similar to bikes as a butter knife is to a meat cleaver, makes absolutely zero sense and would drain the ride of much of its pleasure and utility. This, in turn, would disincentivize biking.

The furor over the piece was heated in some circles, specifically among bike bloggers and their loyal community of trolls. The strongest response was from Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon, who regularly navigates the choked streets of Manhattan to get to work in Times Square (!). He admitted to many of the same sins as Cohen—treating red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs—but denounced the idea that such behavior is ethical. “Developing a relationship of mutual respect between drivers and cyclists is the most important thing we can do to improve cyclists’ safety, and to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on the streets,” argued Salmon. “And cyclists will find it much harder to earn that respect if they visibly flout the law every time they reach a red light.”

Salmon’s longstanding perspective is that too many people consider bikers to be pedestrians on wheels, which leads cyclists to act as if there are no traffic laws and leads drivers and pedestrians to act with no consideration for their two-wheeled compatriots. To win their respect, it’s necessary for bikes to act respectfully. Perhaps the rules should be changed, but until that happens, follow them.

Eventually, perhaps, our bike infrastructure and laws will be separated from cars, so I won’t feel the need to bike defensively.

To which I respond with a hearty: Sure (unless you fear being squished)!

I LIVE IN PHILADELPHIA, a dense, old city with lots of narrow streets, few hills, and relatively temperate weather. It is, in many ways, an ideal city for biking, and as a result, a lot of people (comparatively) choose to. Of the nation’s 10 largest cities, it holds the distinction of having the highest rate of bike commuting. The most recent data from the American Community Survey shows that bicycle commuting rates increased from 1.8 percent in 2011 to 2.3 percent in 2012, a 28 percent jump. (These statistics are probably conservative too, because they are based on questions asked during random phone calls about the previous week’s experience: If you biked two days and drove three, you were counted as an automobile commuter.)

The numbers are probably even more significant near universities, of which there are many, and the neighborhoods adjacent to them, where students often choose biking as a cheap, space-efficient alternative to cars. The current mayoral administration is very pro-bike as well, laying over 200 miles of bike lanes and planning a comprehensive bike-share system set to roll out in 2014.

But despite all of the boosterism, biking in the city can still be exceedingly hazardous. Those narrow streets and short blocks seem nice on paper: Cars shouldn’t pick up much speed since they’ll just be putting on the brakes at the end of the block, so a bicyclist isn’t really obstructing the path. (There are cars parked along both sides of the street, and biking closer to them doesn’t get you out of the way, it just invites a good, hard dooring.) But this dream scenario—of everyone cruising easily through the neighborhood—is, often, just that. It doesn’t take into account just how badly many drivers really, really need to get to that next stop sign.

A brief anecdote: Last summer I was biking to cover a story in deep South Philly, with its row homes and streets so narrow that cars often park half on the sidewalk. I’m zipping along when, suddenly, I hear a wild honking approaching from behind me. I turn around, dutifully stopped at the stop sign, to see an enraged man sticking his head out the window.

Entitled driver: “What are you doing? Get on the sidewalk!”

Myself, hot and annoyed: “That’s illegal.” (And it is.)

Entitled driver: “We built all those bike lanes for you people!”

Myself, also losing my temper: “Motherfucker, do you see a bike lane on this street?”

This is, of course, never the appropriate response to an irate individual sitting in a steel box weighing thousands of pounds and with the ability to accelerate rapidly. Immediately realizing my error, I jetted off the wrong way down a one-way cross-street.

I broke a law and one that I hold in much higher esteem than stopping at a red light when there are no cars or pedestrians around. I did it because I feared for my safety, which is very often my motivation when breaking traffic laws on my bike. Cars are scary as hell. A lot of people just see them as a given, practically an appendage. Get out of my way, I’m drivin’ here. (Studies show that drivers are at fault in the vast majority of auto/bicycle crashes.)

On the whole, I’m a pretty civilized biker. I don’t salmon down one-way streets, I don’t ride on the sidewalk, and when I arrive at a four-way intersection after a car I try to indicate that they should just treat me as another vehicle and go first. But biking in the city can be dangerous, and I’ll take the law into my own hands when I feel threatened. I even break the sacrosanct sidewalk rule when I bike up to my apartment, as the street in front of it is usually lined with cars and lacks a northward stop sign, so drivers frequently blast down it at alarming speeds. I’m not dismounting there, thanks.

Or, recently, on a busy downtown thoroughfare, another honking driver pulled up too close behind me (there was no bike lane, so I was as far to the right as I could get). As soon as the light turned green I aimed for the sidewalk and pedaled there instead, as my antagonist and numerous other vehicles sped past. I didn’t want to pay a ticket or annoy pedestrians, but I’m even more opposed to getting smeared on JFK Boulevard.

The same applies for waiting at red lights or stop signs. On those narrow streets, if there aren’t cars and pedestrians barring my way, I’ll go through the light in front of a bunch of cars, regardless of what they think about me or cyclists in general. I know that if I wait, it’ll take me a few seconds to get up to cruising speed again and lord knows, drivers can’t be expected to wait a few seconds. I prefer to leave things to my judgment, rather than the unpredictable tempers of entitled people in huge machines with combustion engines who can squash me like a bug.

I even roll out into crosswalks, when there are cars or, especially, buses waiting to turn right. Most bike lanes are situated on the right hand side, and most drivers don’t check for bikes as they blithely make their rightward turn. I want to get ahead of them, so they see me and I don’t have to risk the squashed-bug scenario outlined above. (My only crash occurred when someone took a right hand turn without looking for bikes first.)

BOTH SALMON AND COHEN agree biking is “a third thing,” distinct from driving or walking. But bikes do inarguably belong on the road and not the sidewalk, because as dangerous and fast as cars are, bikes are still much faster than pedestrians. (There is nothing more infuriating than seeing a biker flit around on a sidewalk where old people and children are trying to make their way.) Because bikes belong on the road, they have to contend with laws and infrastructure that were not made for them. Most of Philly’s bike lanes are not separated from traffic, so people park and idle in them, taxis swoop over to pick up fares, and on the big boulevards—which you have to cross to get to many neighborhoods—cars are going up to 50 miles an hour. As Salmon argues, too many people still have the attitude of my South Philly nemesis, so they don’t look for bikers or they purposefully antagonize them. In such an environment, it’s not a level playing field for bikers. I have to take my advantages where I can to avoid one of those awkward outbound hospital calls that mothers are so loathe to receive.

Yes, I still do some of the things that are a little harder to rationalize—going through red lights at empty intersections, but I’m glad there are fines for such behavior. It’s in everyone’s best interest for such activities to be discouraged, but punitive measures (for cars or bikers) will never be enough. Investment in bicycle infrastructure that allows me to feel safe on the road—especially separated bike lanes—would likely dramatically increase biking rates and encourage law abiding bike riding. As more people ride it will become harder and harder for people to justify riding through a red light, especially if they are waiting behind a bunch of law-minded cyclists. The rules of the road should be altered too, hopefully to include the much-vaunted “Idaho Stop” (named after the state where it’s legal for bikers to slow when approaching a stop sign, check for traffic, then keep going). Eventually, perhaps, our bike infrastructure and laws will be separated from cars, so I won’t feel the need to bike defensively. But for now, I do—and sometimes that means breaking the law.

Jake Blumgart
Jake Blumgart is an assistant editor at AlterNet and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart.

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