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.