The new red light district - more thoughts on the scarlet letter of the law

The new red light district – more thoughts on the scarlet letter of the law

Which is more controversial these days? Legalised prostitution or cyclists running red lights/stop signs?

The new red light district can be found anywhere where there is a controlled intersection and people don’t feel the need to stop. I think this topic might even approach the helmet debate in terms of frequency and tone.

I’m fresh off of reading this article from As Easy As Riding A Bike, and if you read yesterday’s post, you’ll know that I have mixed feelings about the topic. I do believe that roads (and by roads I am assuming the inclusion of foot and cycle paths – it’s easier than saying “transportation arteries) exist to facilitate the movement of as many people as possible, as easily as possible. It is quite obvious that over the last century roads have become engineered to facilitate the movement of as many automobiles as possible. I can’t imagine you would find too many people who would argue against that, but that’s not the debate. The debate is whether or not it should be the case. That debate has been happening for the last few years, and there is evidence of its effect on our streets with more cycling infrastructure and pedestrian zones being added to cities around the world. The debate continues because many people feel that it is not happening to the extent it should be, nor as fast. The article above begins with, “if people cycling are breaking the law, there is a problem with the street.” As a blanket statement and taken at face value, my reaction to this is to completely disagree with it. I mean, what good is a law if as soon as people don’t feel like obeying it, it crumbles? However, the article doesn’t continue to make such a sweeping generalization, and I actually think it can be a valid argument. Consider the following from this paper (the subject matter is limited to speed limits for cars, but the content applies to traffic laws in general):

“…traffic laws that are based upon behavior of reasonable motorist are found to be
successful. Laws that arbitrarily restrict the majority of motorist encourage wholesale
violations, lack of public support, and usually fail to bring about desirable changes in driving
behavior.” (page 11)

“1. Driving behavior is an extension of our social attitude, and the majority of drivers respond in a safe and reasonable manner, as demonstrated by their good driving records.

2. The careful and competent actions of a reasonable person should be considered legal.
3. Laws are established for the protection of the public and the regulation of unreasonable
behavior of an individual.
4. Laws cannot be effectively enforced without the consent and voluntary compliance of the
public majority.”
So, I’ll put this forward: roads should facilitate all users to the maximum ability; cycling is a more economically, environmentally, socially, and physically sound way to get around in many cases; and therefore, roads should particularly seek to accommodate cycling to their maximum ability. For many people it is not practical or even possible to cycle to work, so motorists will always need to be accommodated for. Considering the line of reasoning from the paper above, it might just mean that cyclists should be able to use stop signs as yields and turn left (or right, depending on where you are) on red lights, or maybe even proceed through them when practical to do so.

On the other hand, I am reminded of George Costanza, who uttered the immortal words (wait for it…)

So where I am a bit torn on the subject is in balancing the following: pushing for laws to be reformed in favour of sound reasoning and representing the entire population fairly (not just motorists), and, in the meantime, living by the laws of the land.

If the current laws are outdated, serve no purpose, and actually obstruct progress, then is it ok to disobey them? That’s a big question (but I’d say yes, depending on where the law sits on the particular spectrum). Is it relevant? Of course, but not to this article. For what it’s worth, I think that civil disobedience should be reserved for things that are more along the lines of, say, war, corrupt governments, or unequal rights based on gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. Having to wait at a red light? Let me see here… mmmm… nnnno… I don’t see that one on my list. Go ahead and run the red light, but it’s a pretty insignificant act as far as making a political demonstration, and until that act isn’t seen as a flagrant disregard of order by the majority of road users, perhaps it is only doing cyclists a disservice by engendering the hatred of motorists and providing ammunition for politicians bent on beating back progress (Mark Hamilton). If you feel strongly about it, work at getting it changed, but don’t think that simply breaking the law will get it changed and lead to progress and enlightenment.

The difficulty is that roads accommodate different kinds of traffic in the same space, and laws that deal with traffic tend to try to equalize users (with varying degrees of success). Everyone needs to obey speed limits. Everyone needs to yield to emergency vehicles. Everyone needs to stop at stop signs and red lights. Consistency and therefore predictability is the name of the game. The obvious solution is to create segregated arteries for cyclists so that only the laws that apply to them can be enforced. Until then, traffic laws are one of those things that can be prone to any one group taking a mile if you give them an inch. As a species we tend to get away with as much as we can. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it inspires creativity and evolution. On the other hand, it can also be a bit of a slippery slope.

People already roll through stop signs, proceed through roundabouts without slowing down, speed, make illegal turns, and generally bend, stretch and break nearly any law they come across. So what happens if you relax the laws? Normal gets reset, and the limits get pushed just as they had been before. Then, with cyclists turning into the flow of traffic at intersections and proceeding through red lights, you will likely have a larger percentage of them taking risks and making poor judgement calls. Or, if you don’t get more people doing it, the people who already do will do it more. The reason you have to stop at red lights is because it maximizes safety at junctions by keeping the flow of traffic directional. It’s not as efficient as it could be, but the judgement is to make people safer rather than faster. As an interesting aside, there is a common guideline used around many parts of the world in reference to setting speed limits, called the 85th percentile (see here, under the section “Maximum speed limits”), and it would be interesting to apply this to other traffic regulations, such as, if enough people (safely) ignore stop signs, should they be removed or the road layout changed? Freeways are more efficient because there are no intersections, so there is little danger presented. This would be impossible and impractical to arrange across an entire city, but we can, and in some places we do, make use of the idea in urban settings – even for cyclists.

Stevenage cycleway

I could use an example from Amsterdam, but this one was done in the UK in the 50’s. Source

“But they do it in the Netherlands!” By all means, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not comparing apples with apples. The infrastructure is already in place so that this is possible without a significant disruption to the flow of traffic. Turning on a red is possible because the cycle lane continues around (and through) the intersection outside of the roadway, and therefore outside of the jurisdiction of the red light. Signal phases are timed to that there is almost no waiting at lights to get through the intersection across traffic.

So, basically, what I am trying to say is that here in Australia, or any other nation that isn’t quite up to the standard of Copenhagen or Amsterdam, if you want to see laws change in favour of cyclists, your energy should be focused on changing the law, not just breaking it. Then you won’t have to.

Header Image: Mike Linksvayer/Flickr