Proud Hardworking American Bicyclist Disrespected by Own Government

Yesterday the Bikes Belong folks sent me an email urging me to write to my congress people. Apparently a Representative Mica and a Senator Inhofe are attempting to “eliminate dedicated funding for biking and walking programs” because they feel these programs are “frivolous” and “do not serve a federal purpose”. Instead of sending the message suggested by Bike Belong, I wrote the following:

Dear Congresspersons Maurice Hinchey, Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer:

I am keenly aware of the connection between my car use and America’s shameful oil dependence. So two years ago I made a personal commitment to reduce my car use. I’ve been using an electric cargo bike to run most errands around town and even make long trips. Last month I made 30 bike trips adding up to 254 miles. Many of those trips were carrying a passenger or hundreds of pounds of cargo; all of them used a hundredth the energy of a car; almost all of them were immensely enjoyable. In contrast I made 10 car trips adding up to 181 miles.

My point is this: my bike use is not recreational. It is not “frivolous”. It is a valid solution to very real problems America faces. For Representative Mica and Senator Inhofe to reduce funding for bike programs is short-sighted and intolerable. It is a slap in the face to my efforts. Please see to it that bike funding is not cut. And please encourage Americans to bike not just for recreation but to replace their car; not just for their own health but for the health of the nation.

I Flooded the Mississippi

Thankfully the news media is keeping quiet about this or I could be in big trouble: I flooded the Mississippi earlier this month. I’m also responsible in some small part for the Arkansas killer tornados last month. I may even be implicated in the Japanese earthquakes earlier this year, though the evidence for that is not so clear. But certainly without a doubt (as I confessed in a previous post) I share with BP responsibility for the gulf oil spill last year. How did I manage to cause such massive death and destruction? Simply by living my life as usual, getting around by car. I feel a little bit guilty about it actually. But what can I do?

Continue reading I Flooded the Mississippi

The Motorist Mentality: Get Out of My Way

Last week once again a left-turning motorist almost ran me down in the crosswalk at the intersection of State and Aurora near my house. And once again rather than apologize this person yelled something inaudible but probably not nice at me, shook their fist at me, and sped off after passing inches from where I was standing. Why was this person so incredibly angry with me? What had I done? And then it hit me: motorists are not concerned with safety, they are concerned with fairness. This person was upset because I had stepped into an area he felt was his. His light was green, so from his perspective it was unfair of me to enter the crosswalk. (He neglected to account for the fact that left-turning vehicles don’t have the right-of-way.) He was willing to risk my life to show me that I was being unfair. What can we make of an otherwise rational person giving more importance to the temporary ownership of a patch of asphalt than to the safety of a fellow citizen? How did we come to this motorist mentality infecting our population, and what can we do to reverse it?

The typical motorist wants to go as fast as they can at all times and they don’t like it when someone or something prevents them from doing that. Do you have the motorist mentality? Ask yourself how many of the following statements apply to you:

  • I am usually in a hurry when I drive.
  • When I drive in the city I have a constant feeling that I’m not going fast enough.
  • I don’t like having to wait for pedestrians and bicyclists.
  • If the vehicle in front of me is going slower than I am I tailgate them, flash my lights at them, and honk my horn at them.
  • I regularly pass other cars in no-passing zones.
  • I regularly travel faster than the speed limit.
  • I often get upset by other vehicles when I drive in the city.
  • I feel safe in my car so I rarely think about safety.

Or do you have the bicyclist mentality:

  • I am not in a hurry most of the time.
  • I feel vulnerable so I think about safety a lot.
  • If a vehicle is in my way I go around them.
  • I don’t mind going slowly because other vehicles can pass me.
  • I like to say “hi” to other bicyclists.

The motorist mentality is one result of the space constraints caused by the introduction of massive numbers of wide fast vehicles onto our streets. Here’s an analogy. Picture a train station of the future with thousands of people getting their tickets and boarding their trains. Imagine now that all of those people are given rocket-powered roller skates. As a consequence, everyone must wear big hoop skirts for protection, and the hoop skirts cause each person to take up nine times as much area as before. Furthermore, suppose everyone must also wear ear protection which makes it impossible for them to hear each other. (Hollywood take note: this would make a great scene in your next science fiction movie.)

Everyone finds it difficult to get through the doors. They can no longer negotiate with each other who goes first. Lines form. Everyone must wait in line. Everyone must follow the rules. Everyone wants to go as fast as they can (“We’re wearing rocket skates for crying out loud!”). Some people get impatient and don’t follow the rules. Tempers flare. And the motorist mentality sets in. This is what happened to our streets 100 years ago when people started driving cars instead of walking. Now imagine the rocket skates becoming smaller and less powerful. The hoops skirts shrink and people slow down. The rocket skates are quieter now too, so that people can once again talk with each other. There is more room for everyone. People greet each other. Everyone is happy. No one has the motorist mentality any more.

This is certainly a pretty picture: all we need to do to return to our blissful origins is to make our vehicles slower and smaller. And I believe it could happen if enough of us want to make it happen. However, in the meantime, we must deal with what we’ve got. What does this motorist mentality, this “get out of my way” thinking, mean to bicyclists and motorists? How does knowing about it affect our behavior? First some tips for bicyclists:

  • Don’t follow the rules (you can read more about this idea in a previous post). The motorist mentality means traffic laws were not designed with your welfare in mind. They were designed to make traffic fair for motorists. Following all of the laws is likely to get you killed. (There are certain laws you should follow in order to ensure that motorists are fair to you, as described below.) For example the typical traffic light can be considered a device mainly intended to make intersections fair for motorists. Motorists are willing to wait at traffic lights because they know that they will get their turn. But traffic lights also make intersections dangerous for bicyclists. This is because a traffic light causes a large number of cars to congregate around the bicyclist. When the light changes those cars will explode from the starting line and jockey for position as they speed to the next light, without regard for your safety. (Right-turning cars are particularly dangerous.) You as a bicyclist will be safer if you run the red light. First check for cross traffic, and then cross if it’s clear. And it’s fine for you as a bicyclist to turn right on red, in spite of what the signs may say, because your vehicle is narrow. Nearby motorists sometimes howl with rage when they see me make these “illegal” maneuvers. They think I am doing something unfair, because  they are not allowed to run the red light or turn right on red. I wish there were some way to tell them that I am merely giving my own safety a higher priority than being fair within a system meant for them.
  • Be courteous. Motorists are a generally crabby lot, and your good cheer will help them. This tip may appear to contradict the previous paragraph; the difference is that “don’t follow the rules” is about your relationship with an oblivious transportation system while “be courteous” is about your relationship with people. Since motorists can’t hear you, you must communicate with them by hand gestures. As a bicyclist there are certain hand gestures you will be tempted to use after a motorist has unthinkingly threatened your life, but you must refrain. Instead, wave hello to people. Politely signal for them to go around you if you are taking the lane. Say thank you with a smile when they give you your right of way.
  • Assert yourself. The motorist mentality makes motorists very careful to be fair to their fellow motorists. But ironically motorists think nothing of being unfair to bicyclists, so much so that many bicyclists are intimidated into riding long distances on the sidewalk and riding the wrong way down the street. Both of these behaviors are extremely dangerous. Ride in the street. It belongs to you and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. Take up the full lane if necessary. Get in the left lane to turn left. These are all rules you do need to follow if you want to gain the respect of motorists and ensure that they treat you fairly.

How can you motorists overcome the motorist mentality? Here are my tips:

  • Relax. You made a transportation choice that has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you have a nice big cozy box to sit in. The disadvantage is that so many other people have also chosen to ride in big cozy boxes that you all must wait in line to get across town. If someone cuts in front of you don’t blame that person, blame your collective choice of vehicle. Accept the trade-off you made. Better than that, enjoy the trade-off you made. Bring a book or some knitting to work on while you wait in line in your big cozy box.
  • Make the journey as important as the destination. Budget enough time to go slowly on purpose. Listen to the radio. Look out the window. (But put down the cell phone.) Enjoy.
  • Get your priorities straight. Your car easily weighs enough to crush a person to death. It goes fast enough to kill a person on impact. It is wide enough that it leaves little room for error on city streets. That is a big responsibility. Consider how unimportant it is to be concerned about “that person is in my way” when there is the larger concern of “am I being safe with this large machine entrusted to me?”

I hold out hope that the motorist mentality can be eradicated in my children’s lifetime. Today I read about an electric vehicle for sale in my town that has a top speed of 25mph. I think most people’s reaction will be that that speed is too big a sacrifice, that we need to make a better electric car. I think the car is fine, and that we need to change our assumptions about speed. For me driving a low-speed car would be a step up from my electric cargo bike (especially in winter!). And driving it around at a paltry 25mph would be an opportunity to cure myself of my motorist mentality.

The Case of the Rude Bicyclists

A family shopping trip by bike.

To a Friend:

I’ve been thinking more about our conversation this morning, about how when you were driving you encountered two rude bicyclists who were biking side-by-side and wouldn’t get out of your way. A few more points occurred to me. One is that when you said this I instantly imagined two lycra-clad men very purposefully getting in your way. I think this is what most people would imagine. And what I imagined does seem rude.

But upon further reflection I thought what if the bikers were a family coming home from the grocery store, as maybe you were that day? What if this family wanted to talk with each other on the way home without another vehicle disrupting their conversation? Does the family in the car have more of a right to a pleasant conversation on the road than the family on the bikes?

Note that the “lycra-clad” cyclists I imagined were recreational cyclists. Our culture has come to see bicycling as a sport rather than as transportation. This helps gives us the feeling that bicyclists are “in the way” rather than fellow travelers on city streets. People think “Bicyclists are just out there for fun and they should get out of the way because we motorists have important things to do”. (I’ve actually had motorists tell me this.) So this view may help explain why a motorist will wait patiently behind a left-turning car but they become enraged when they have to wait to pass a bicyclist.

And notice a third assumption I made: the cyclists were men. I think because most American cyclists are men, cycling here has come to be seen as an aggressive pursuit. I think as more women and children bike we’ll see that attitude change. If I had to pass two women or two kids biking side-by-side I don’t think I’d assume they were making a statement and being purposefully rude.

So this whole issue is kinda schizophrenic. You are a cyclist yourself. And I am a driver sometimes. Heck, some of my best friends are motorists :-). So unlike the civil rights movement in which a black person could never be a white person or vice versa, we can see each others’ points of view on a daily basis. I am hopeful that this ability will lead to a transportation system that works for everyone.

If you want to read a hardcore cyclist’s point of view in a traffic situation similar to your own, check out this  blog post. I think I might pick up Fighting Traffic, the book he mentions. He writes about the book:

Automobile interest groups and drivers wrestled the purpose of streets from everyone else, often by bloody force (200,000 Americans were killed on roads in the 1920’s, a majority were pedestrians back then). It was not uncommon in the early decades of automobiles on the streets for newspapers to depict the typical driver as Satan, and mass memorial services for slain children were common in urban places. Safety campaigns eventually brought down the proportion of pedestrian fatalities, but in the process began to highly limit what had been previously very liberal rights to those who walked in cities.

Don’t Blame BP. Blame me.

I haven’t yet heard anyone say what needs to be said about the gulf oil spill: I drive a petroleum-powered vehicle  so I am to blame. There I said it. Let me say it again: I drive a petroleum-powered vehicle so I am to blame for the gulf oil spill. You must spank me.

I cannot blame BP. BP is just one more corporate scape goat diverting my attention from my own failings. There will be many more BPs attracted to environmental risk-taking as the price of oil raises the stakes, like a rising jackpot attracts gamblers.

I am addicted to oil. How then can I blame BP? Can the drug addict blame the pusher for the social woes of illicit drug use? BP is simply a tool that society has manifested in order to fulfill my desires. I shouldn’t question BP, I should question my desires.

I ask myself if I really need to run my errands at speeds above 20mph. I ask myself if I really need to live farther than ten miles from my workplace or school. I ask myself if I really need to drive thousands of miles a year. My answers to these questions lead me to conclude, sadly, that I must take the green bumper stickers off my car.

This may seem like a harsh analysis. I hope you can understand the epic denial I have about the true source of blame for the gulf oil spill. And yet there is an even more epic denial I admit to: the spill has only damaged one ocean; global climate change, caused by me personally, is damaging the entire planet. It’s hard for me to face guilt that large. I try not to despair. I look into my heart and imagine a better place. And I try to make it happen.

Does Driving Cause Cancer?

Internationally acclaimed environmental activist Sandra Steingraber spoke with my First Day School class this morning. (“First Day School” is Quakerese for Sunday School; I teach the 6th to 8th graders.) Sandra’s specialty is researching and writing about the links between the environment and cancer. It’s truly sobering stuff, which you can read about in her books or see about in the movie Living Downstream to be released next month. I invited Sandra to speak with us because I admire her as an activist, and I hope to emulate her approach in my work as a bicycling activist. She describes herself as a “shy activist” who would rather do the science side of things and support brasher activists rather than be a brash activist herself. And maybe people would rather listen to the science than the rhetoric any maybe people would rather hear it from a shy person than a brash person.

Because of my quest to Blame the Cars for All Badness I was pleased to find the following paragraphs in Sandra’s book Living Downstream:

The even better news [better because environmental causes of cancer are fixable whereas genetic causes are not] is that the synthetic chemicals linked to cancer largely derive from the same two sources as those responsible for climate change: petroleum and coal. Finding substitutes for these two substances is already on the collective to-do list. The U.S. petroleum industry alone accounts for one-quarter of toxic pollutants released each year in North America. This does not include the air pollutants generated from cars and trucks burning the products that the petroleum industry makes…vehicle emissions are linked to lung, breast, and bladder cancers…Investments in green energy are therefore also investments in cancer prevention. In this, it feels to me that we are standing at a historic confluence, a place where two rivers meet: a stream of emerging knowledge about what the combustion of fossil fuels is doing to our planet is joining a stream of emerging knowledge about what synthetic chemicals derived from fossil fuels are doing to our bodies.

…By-products from the burning of fossil fuels are under particular suspicion. Breast cancer, as we have seen, was first linked to potential sources of air pollution in Long Island. Subsequently, associations have been found between exposure to traffic exhaust during puberty and risk of early-onset breast cancer. Perhaps not coincidentally, a growing body of evidence suggests that tailpipe emissions have estrogenic activity. Air pollutants may alter breast density in ways that raise the risk for breast cancer. A 2007 review of the literature concluded that the risk of breast cancer associated with exposure to engine exhaust and other aromatic hydrocarbons is roughly equivalent in magnitude to some of the well-established risks for breast cancer, such as late age at first childbirth and sedentary lifestyle. Corroborating evidence comes from the laboratory: members of a family of combustion by-products called aromatic hydrocarbons—of which benzo[a]pyrene is one—cause breast cancer in animals. According to researchers at Albert Einstein College in New York, aromatic hydrocarbons inhaled by the lungs can become stored, concentrated, and metabolized in the breast, where the ductal cells become targets for carcinogens.

Bladder cancer, too, has been linked in several studies to air pollution. The strongest evidence comes from Taiwan, where researchers found positive associations between air pollution, especially from petrochemical plants, and the risk of dying from bladder cancer. An investigation of bladder cancer deaths among children and adolescents in Taiwan found that almost all those afflicted lived within a few miles of three large petroleum and petrochemical plants.

That caught my attention.

That’s a cool bike but is it practical?

What do people think when they see me biking around town? When they see me on my electric cargo bike, panniers full of groceries and Thea riding on top? I imagine they are thinking “That’s a cool bike but is it practical?” This is the very question I’m trying to answer with “my experiments with transportation” (which is my new tag line by the way—how do you like it?) So what makes a vehicle practical? Safety, cost, comfort, carrying capacity, and range come to mind. My preliminary results are in: an electric cargo bike is much more practical than people think in a number of ways:

  • People tend to overestimate how dangerous biking is. Over time you develop safer and safer routes to your destinations. You learn how to avoid dangerous intersections and you discover scenic back routes. So get over your fears and get on your bike—studies show that the more bikes there are on the road, the safer the roads become for everyone.
  • People tend to think biking isn’t practical for the very old or even the very female. The elderly are actually leading the way in the use of electric vehicles. There are whole retirement communities exclusively for the use of under-20mph electric vehicles. And the cultural bias against women biking is an American phenomena: in Europe the percentage of women biking matches men.
  • People underestimate how much a bike can carry. I remember the moment in my undergraduate physics class when my professor told us that a frictionless cart rolling on a level road uses no energy, no matter how much weight it’s carrying. This is almost true of a bike. The only limit is the strength of the bike frame. There have been improvements in chromoly steel such that my forty-pound bike can easily carry over 400 pounds. (For some extreme examples of carrying capacity see these photos of Cambodians carrying an outrageous amount of stuff on their motorcycles.) “What about hills?” you say. Read on.
  • People overestimate how hard it is to bike up hills and how sweaty they will be when they get to work. This is a big issue for many people, but they probably haven’t heard the good news about two key developments in the past decade. Now that we have relatively light-weight brushless electric motors and lightweight but powerful LiFePo batteries, people no longer have the “sweaty” excuse. An electric motor assisted bike lets you get as sweaty or remain as dry as you want to be.
  • People underestimate how far a bike can go. Again an electric motor makes it possible to run several 10-mile errands in a day. You’ve probably heard statistics like this: “Americans use their cars for two-thirds of all trips that are less than 1 mile.” Is that practical? Is it practical to hammer a nail with a sledge hammer?
  • People tend to underestimate how fast it is to run errands with a bike. Of course a bike can’t go as fast as a car on the highway. But in stop-and-go city driving I find I am not too far behind my compatriots in cars. And motorists neglect to factor in how much time they spend waiting in traffic, parking and walking from the parking lot.
  • However, people are currently realistic that rain and snow and cold can make biking very uncomfortable. I am confident we can develop a technological fix for this problem.

In this analysis we have to ask the converse question: how practical is the auto-centric transportation system that we have?

  • How practical is a vehicle that costs 50% of the average family’s income (and goes fast enough to be totaled by a wayward deer?)
  • How practical is a vehicle that is so dangerous an average of 114 people die each day in car crashes in the U.S.?  It’s appalling to me that otherwise good people think nothing of stepping into a vehicle that has such possibility of killing or injuring someone else.
  • How practical is a transportation system that limits our bodies’ mobility so much that it leads to unprecedented obesity?
  • I won’t even get into the bigger question of “Is a transportation system practical if it destroys the planet it’s on?”

It perplexes me that bikes with both an electric motor and cargo capacity are not on people’s radar yet. There was a great piece on NPR about cargo bikes. And there was recently an informative article in the New York times about electric bikes. But the mainstream hasn’t seemed to put those two together. Even the cargo bike people and the electric bike people do not seem to have met each other yet (with the Clever Cycles Stoke Monkey being the exception). I am looking forward to an explosion of interest when people discover how practical electric cargo bikes are.

An Appeal to My Sister

Yesterday my sister described how she was driving down a country road, came upon a car parked in her lane, braked suddenly, swerved, and went into the ditch. She went to a nearby farmhouse to ask for help and found that the driver of the parked car was there also. She was livid. She chewed out the other driver. But was the other driver at fault or was my sister?

This question interests me of course because as a bicyclist I am often on the receiving end of anger such as my sister’s. What usually happens is that (1) I am biking in the center of a lane either to turn left, to bike alongside a friend, or to block a car from passing unsafely (all of which are legal); (2) a motorist comes upon me quickly; (3) the motorist stops suddenly and honks and yells at me. Am I endangering myself or is the motorist endangering me? Before you answer note that I am doing something ordinary and legal. From the motorists’ perspective they have been forced to stop suddenly by another vehicle in the road. The correct answer is of course that the motorist is at fault. Their honking and yelling at me is a classic case of “adding insult to injury”.

You might say “but the motorist was forced to stop suddenly! Surely they shouldn’t have to endure such an insult from you”.  Let me be clear: if you are driving so fast that you can’t stop for a stationary object in your path, be it a double-parked car, a left-turning car, a tree, or a bicyclist, you are driving too fast. It doesn’t matter where the stationary object is or why it is there. If you can’t see over a rise or around a curve, you need to slow down. If you hit the object you are not driving at an appropriate speed for the current road conditions. You are at fault, period. Sorry sis.

I might concede extenuating circumstances if the person or object that you struck suddenly moved into your path, or if it’s something difficult to see (such as a deer at night). Even so, I think people succumb to peer pressure and routinely drive above a safe speed. And people don’t think twice about driving their usual speed even if it is dark or snowy.

My son Jasper made the comment that drivers choose efficiency over safety: getting to work on time is more important than concerning yourself with the safety of others. From my perspective I don’t care if you’re late. I do care if your hurry threatens me and my kids. I ask you motorists: what if some sort of divine intervention made sure that it was you who died rather than the person you hit? Would you still drive unsafely? Would you still drive? I have a lot of friends who, when they hear that I’m committed to biking, tell me that they’d like to join me. But they are too afraid of motorists—motorists that include their friends and family. Is this the world we want to live in, where people are afraid of biking in their own neighborhoods? What can we do to change this?

I appeal to my sister and to you to relax, take your time, plan accordingly, and drive more slowly. That could be me on my bike around the next bend. And sis, I think you owe that other driver an apology.

Motorists Are Homicidal Maniacs

Cars are comfortable. Cars are practical. But this comes at a cost. Worldwide it was estimated in 2004 that 1.2 million people were killed (2.2% of all deaths) and 50 million more were injured by motorists. That’s a lot of carnage. Why does this happen?

A lot of accidents are caused by frustrated people in a hurry who forget that they are operating heavy machinery. People who would use the utmost caution operating a table saw will think nothing of flinging their massive tools of transportation at babies in strollers crossing the street. And they generally add insult to injury by honking at the parents.

The other day I was studying how people interact at the grocery store. The store was pretty crowded and some people were growing frustrated with their ability to get their shopping done on schedule. Occasionally I would see one of them tailgate a slower-moving patron and then zoom ahead in a huff. At first I thought it was funny seeing their little dramas, but then I realized that this is the same behavior I’ve seen on the streets, and it’s behavior that has seriously threatened my life. It’s one thing to bump into someone with your 30 pound grocery cart. You can apologize and move on. But it’s a different matter to roll over them with your 3000 pound grocery cart. And yet people approach these two situations with the same inconsiderate behavior. Scary.

You motorists might argue “Well I’ve never killed or maimed anyone personally. Don’t get all in a snit about it!” Even if you haven’t killed anyone with your car lately, you are perpetuating a system that is continuously threatening to kill. And this threat of death keeps people off the streets and diminishes our communities. Before cars you could walk around pretty much anywhere and stand around pretty much wherever you pleased. Now we have what I like to call Zones of Terror. You may have seen these zones—they are paved areas that surround our houses. Whoever lingers too long in one of these zones is facing severe consequences from their fellow citizens. Pets and children must be fenced in to prevent them from wandering into one of these zones. Is that how we want to live?

When you enter your metal box, you lose some of your humanity. You can no longer fully interact with me. I can barely hear you. I can barely see you. To me you look like a big hulking menacing robot. I invite you to exit the box to join me and the other humans.

Why Bicyclists Should Run Red Lights

I remember once at a party a group of people was making disparaging remarks about bike couriers, how they run red lights with abandon endangering themselves and others. I consider bike couriers to be graceful and heroic, a spark of joy and a symbol of freedom in a mass of dumb lumbering vehicles. So I couldn’t help myself from blurting out a response to their baseless accusation. I explained how cars in a big city form into packs at red lights, and bicyclists need to keep ahead of those packs. One way they do this is to run red lights. After running a red a cyclist is not in the way of the motorists, the motorists are not in the way of the cyclist, and everyone is happy. Everyone except for the bystanders who think the cyclists are doing something unsafe, when in fact they have found the best way to be safe. Needless to say the group at the party did not agree with my explanation, even though they themselves did not have any actual experience biking in a big city.

I am not the only one to come to this conclusion about running reds, though among bicyclists I think the idea that “bicyclists should run reds” is something we whisper amongst ourselves lest the children should hear and misinterpret what we’re saying. But ten seconds of web searching brings up this on the second page:

While we’re not advocating running red lights, notice it is in fact safer to run the red light if there’s no cross traffic, than it is to wait legally at the red light directly to the right of a car, only to have it make a right turn right into you when the light turns green. The moral here is not that you should break the law, but that you can easily get hurt even if you follow the law.

Running a red light can be dangerous—and I am concerned that if I advocate it to inexperienced cyclists they won’t use good judgment about crossing intersections. But on the other hand, I think if motorists know that bicyclists are running reds a last resort to make the streets safer for themselves, the good people inside the cars will begin to appreciate the dangerous situation they are creating for the rest of us. A bicyclist running a red light is a very visible symbol of a transportation system gone wrong. A normally law-abiding citizen reduced to breaking the law says more about the law than the person.

If anyone thinks that running a red on a bicycle is dangerous, how about running a red on foot? I mean, at least a bicycle has some speed to get through an intersection. What chance does a pedestrian have for getting across? Any yet most people don’t think twice about looking both ways and then walking across an intersection if there are no cars coming. Many of those same people would be outraged if they were waiting at a red light in their car and a bicyclist pulled up beside them and then shot across the intersection.

Pedestrians should run reds. My son has been trained by my wife to wait at red lights even when on foot. He makes me wait too. This makes me nervous. This morning while we waited at a red, three other pedestrians crossed in front of us. Then when the light changed and we stepped into a crosswalk, the cars that had been waiting to turn zoomed through the crosswalk we were in. I don’t see how anyone can argue that waiting for the red is safer. Don’t take my word for it! Go out there! See for yourself!

Why do people think running a red is always unsafe? Motorists apply their own understanding of their vehicles’ performance to that of the bicyclist. They may be thinking, that bicyclist might hit someone! That bicyclist might get hit! The fact is, bicyclists can swerve and stop much faster than cars. And they are narrow. What’s more, if there is a pedestrian in front of them they can say “excuse me” and do the little dance we all do when we have to go around each other. Try that in a car.

And even if a bicyclist does hit a pedestrian, if the bicyclist is going a sensible speed it’s not a big deal. All that’s needed are apologies, not a trip to the hospital. (I do think it’s poor etiquette for a bicyclist to ride in the vicinity of pedestrians if the bicyclist is going faster than 10mph or so.) I am ashamed to admit that I did once hit a pedestrian when I was a bike courier. A man and a woman were crossing against the red in front of me. Not that I minded. Heck I do it myself all the time. I simply marked their position and trajectory and made adjustments to my own trajectory as I had done a dozen times per minute all day long. However the confluence of three factors resulted in my running into the man. One is that because they were crossing against the red my speed was greater than it would normally be around pedestrians. The second is that when the man saw me coming he jumped back into my trajectory. I still would normally have been able to stop. But the third factor was that there was a thin layer of sand on the road so that I had absolutely no traction. I slammed into him. He looked surprised. We both had maybe a few bruises but no broken bones. We apologized to each other and left. No hospital. No insurance. No problem.

In the previous paragraph I detailed how the confluence of three factors led to an accident. We can generalize this concept to help us answer the question “When should a bicyclist not run a red light?”. My friend Jeff has a theory that the bicyclist brain can only assimilate and adjust for at most two safety factors; if there is a third factor present an accident is waiting to happen. Safety factors include such things as:

  • it’s dark out
  • it’s raining
  • it’s dark out and you don’t have a light (counts for two)
  • there is ice on the road (this one also counts for two)
  • you are going above 25mph
  • your bike has mechanical problems
  • you are lost and not paying attention
  • traffic is fast
  • the streets are congested
  • there is an aggressive driver in your vicinity
  • there is no shoulder
  • a car is pulling out of a driveway in front of you
  • you are running a red light
  • you forgot your luck rabbit’s foot

A smart bicyclist notes which factors are in play when they begin a trip, and then as they ride they scan their immediate area for other factors. So for example if it is dark out and you forgot your light, DO NOT run a red light. Or if your bike has mechanical problems and traffic is fast, ride your bike slowly on the sidewalk. Or if it’s dark out and you forgot your light and there is ice on the road (that’s *four* safety factors), call your wife to come pick you up in the car (I did that once actually). So you can see there are many instances where the safety factors add up to the conclusion that a bicyclist should definitely not run a red light. What do you think I am, crazy?

I’m not advocating that bicyclists be allowed to zip through red lights with abandon. That’s not safe. But certainly it *is* safer to allow bicyclists to cross an intersection ahead of car traffic. Why aren’t there laws that allow this? Why isn’t there transportation infrastructure that allows bikes to go first? We already have special traffic light modes that allow turning traffic to go first. How about an iPhone app that allows bicyclists to activate a special traffic light that allows only them to cross 🙂 ?

Bikes are different than cars. They need different laws to be safe. Just because you, in your car, aren’t allowed to cross doesn’t mean a bicyclist shouldn’t be allowed to cross. The main reason people don’t bike is because of safety concerns. And the main reason they have safety concerns is because there aren’t enough people biking to justify making the streets safe for bicyclists. Help! We’re stuck in a vicious circle! In the meantime those of us who do bike will continue to run red lights in order to remain safe.