Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Laws as Motorists?

As a bicyclist who has an aggressive biking style I sometimes hear people tell me (or shout at me) “bikes should follow the same laws as cars”. From my perspective this is a ridiculous statement. And yet even bicyclists say this. I don’t understand how anyone who regularly rides on city streets can believe this. I’m not advocating recklessness. Of course a bicyclist should look both ways before crossing. Of course a bicyclist should never endanger a pedestrian. Of course a bicyclist shouldn’t put responsible motorists in awkward positions.

Certainly there are reckless bicyclists who wear hoodies and endanger themselves and others. I am just as outraged as any motorist (though I am secretly glad that they are reckless with a bike rather than reckless with a car). But more often I see safety-minded bicyclists breaking the law in order to improve safety. I routinely come across situations where following the same laws as cars is absurdly inconvenient, unsafe, or even impossible. Here are some examples:

  • Near my house there is a stop light that can only be triggered magnetically by a car. Whose bright idea was that? Pedestrians and bicyclists have to choose between waiting for a car or breaking the law (by humbly looking both ways and crossing if it’s safe).
  • In Ithaca West State Street has many stop lights as a traffic calming measure so that cars don’t zoom down the street (as they are allowed to do on flanking Seneca and Green streets). Side traffic is minimal at all times of the day. Pedestrians routinely cross against red lights. I suspect the city wants to encourage pedestrians here, and having pedestrians illegally crossing the street is another method of traffic calming. Why should bicyclists be subject to the same traffic calming designed for cars? Compared to cars, bikes are inherently calm!
  • One of the leading causes of death of bicyclists is motorists turning right and cutting off (and crushing to death) the bicyclist. When I come up to a stop light I like to pull ahead of the column of cars so that I am in front of them and visible to them. Sometimes (if there is no cross traffic) this entails pulling ahead just as or before the light changes. Also, turning right on red (even if it’s posted as illegal) is the safest way to get out of the danger zone. I haven’t been crushed yet!
  • In Ithaca there is a confluence of three busy highways so dangerous it is given the sinister name of “The Octopus”. Even though biking on the sidewalk can get you a $150 fine in Ithaca, bicyclists prefer that possibility to navigating The Octopus. I once saw a bicyclist here venture off the sidewalk. He was struck by a motorist as he crossed in a crosswalk. The motorist scolded the bicyclist and the bicyclist (whose bike was ruined) apologized to the motorist.
  • Another common situation I encounter is coming up to an intersection where there is an oncoming stream of cars turning left in front of me. If I try to assert my right-of-way the oncoming motorists sometimes honk and shake their fist at me. That’s if I’m lucky and they actually see me. When they don’t see me I have to use my momentum to swerve out of the way. I’ve had some close calls this way. This situation is caused by motorists blindly following the car in front of them while turning left (and often exacerbated by them talking on a cell phone). My solution at these problem intersections is simply to run the red light if I have the opportunity. That way I’m not in their way, they’re not in my way, and we can all go on our way, no harm done.
  • Country roads have their own issues. I recently had to turn left on a busy highway. My turn was at the top of a hill, so instead of turning while biking uphill I turned before reaching the hill and illegally rode a short bit on the wrong side of the highway. I did this so that I could get across the highway while I was still going fast enough to merge with traffic and cross. I did not want to get stuck straddling my bike in the middle of a busy highway.

These last two examples exemplify a general rule of bicycle safety that they don’t teach you in school: there is safety in speed. It may seem counter-intuitive, but as a bicyclist you should avoid coming to a standstill. It is a sad fact that motorists routinely don’t yield the right of way to bicyclists. As long as you are moving you can swerve out of danger. If you are at a standstill in front of a car you are deadmeat.  Unlike a motorist, you can’t simply step on the gas if you need to. You have to use your wits, your agility and your momentum. And you may have to break some laws to maintain your momentum

This kind of focused and fast riding requires skill. As a bike courier in Washington D.C. and later as a bike commuter in Chicago, I learned this skill to survive, not to irritate motorists or satisfy some sort of death wish. In the book Pedaling Revolution I was pleased to read about other bicyclists who have also concluded that speed equals safety. It takes a certain leap of faith to go faster to be safer. It’s a leap that aspiring cyclists will have to make on their own since the prevailing bike safety philosophy is to wear lots of protective equipment and wait for cars to run into you.

Another lesson here: never trust a motorist to yield the right of way. Always have a backup plan, whether legal or not. Be prepared to ride on the sidewalk to go around a car that looks like it might cut you off. Be prepared to pull into another lane if it looks like someone might pull in front of you. Do whatever is necessary to keep a swerve space ready. Look around you, thing about where everything is headed, and “try not be where an accident is about to happen”. Motorists don’t have to be this careful in city driving since the stakes are perhaps at most a fender-bender. For you the stakes are your life. If you’re off the bike path, take out your earbuds, pay attention, and and bike paranoid dude.

Pop quiz: you are biking. You come to an intersection where you want to turn right but the intersection is marked “no right turn on red”. A car pulls up next to you and it appears they also want to turn right. Do you a) remain beside the car and wait for the light to turn red, trusting that they will yield the right of way to you? Do you b) pull in front of the car where it’s safe and wait? Or do you c) illegally turn right on red? If you read paragraph five above you will know the correct answer to this. If you answered a), it was nice knowing you and my condolences to your family. If you answered b), be prepared to take some abuse from the motorist behind you. But if you answered c), enjoy the freedom that only comes from riding sensible human-scale transportation.

Sometimes bicyclists break laws because our streets in general are designed as if bicyclists don’t exist. Here’s an example:

  • Across the street from my house my neighbor Nancy used to yell at bicyclists riding on the sidewalk in front of her house. I told her that there was a lot of bike traffic on our street because our street leads to a pedestrian bridge. This bridge can save a bicyclist a mile of uphill biking. (Ironically one of the best assets for bicyclists in Ithaca is poorly accessible to bicyclists!) I told Nancy that because of the fast car traffic on our narrow street bicyclists preferred to bike on the sidewalk. Nancy discontinued haranguing the bikers and instead got the city to install a stop sign and speed limit that slowed traffic on our street. Now more bicyclists bike on the street instead of the sidewalk. (However another problem is that it’s a one-way street and they have to bike the wrong way to get to the bridge. Also bicyclists must ride on the sidewalk to get onto the bridge—technically a $150 fine.)

This last example can I think be generalized: if many fine upstanding bicyclist citizens are consistently breaking the law, there is something wrong with the law or the road design, not the people. Don’t take it out on the bicyclists!

Let’s face it, traffic laws exist because cars are lethal things in need of regulation; bicycles are not. When people say “bikes should follow the same laws as cars” I hear “once again we are too lazy to consider how bikes are different than cars and design our roads accordingly”. I hear “once again we are going to leave bicyclists to fend for themselves and then make them wear lots of safety equipment because we can’t be bothered to make room for them on our roads”. And “once again we are going to spend gadzillions of money on automobile infrastructure but for bicyclists we’ll paint a little line on the road and tell them good luck.” Bicyclists don’t have the same rights as motorists. Why should we have the same responsibilities? Don’t get me started.

The bottom line is that bicyclists should follow law—laws that meet the needs of bicyclists. This kind of law is still rare, but I’ve seen some examples lately: the sign at the top of South Hill that says “bikes can use full lane”; the sharrows on North Cayuga Street; the “bike boxes” in Portland Oregon that encourage bicyclists to wait in front of a line of cars at red lights. However, it may be a while before we have more of these laws made for bicyclists rather than hand-me-down laws made for motorists. The best we bicyclists can do in the meantime is to be respectful of pedestrians and do what’s safest, be it legal or not.