A familiar Citi Bike advocate for New York's new bike share program. Photo courtesy of Citi Bike.
Robert Rivard

Should cyclists obey the same traffic laws as vehicle operators?

For people whose only mode of transportation is their car, the answer is an emphatic “yes,” quickly followed by the claim that cyclists are notorious lawbreakers based on personal anecdotal observations.

For cyclists, the issue is far more nuanced. Some cyclists obey traffic laws all the time. Some ignore them. Most of us who cycle regularly (and who also own and drive vehicles) obey traffic laws in traffic and tend to ignore them in the absence of traffic.

This is the last in a series of recent stories I’ve written looking at everything from the Great Helmet Divide (The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety, and Hell Yes and Hell No to Bike Helmets) to making San Antonio’s streets safer for cyclists sharing the road with vehicles (San Antonio’s Drive Toward Safe Cycling).

First, let me make a point with drivers enraged by cyclists who only pause at a stop sign, or worse, run a red light once they confirm there is no traffic coming in either direction on the crossing street. Don’t you routinely break speed limits on both surface roads and highways? No? Really? You always go the exact speed limit or less? You must travel other roads and highways than those I travel, where traffic routinely moves en masse at speeds above the posted limit.

How many of you change lanes or make turns without using turn signals? How many of you maintain one car length’s distance for each 10 mph of speed between your vehicle and the one you follow? How many of you end a cell phone call when you enter a school zone, or use Google Maps on your cell phone while driving to an unfamiliar address?

Police would have time for nothing else if they started pulling over the great mass of motorists ignoring traffic laws. If everyone drove the legal speed limit on highways, the average urban commute for the suburban driver would probably grow by at least 10%.

Bike to Work Day in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Bike to Work Day in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

So please redirect your unfounded rage at cyclists. We have the same right to the road that you in your car do. And yes, we own cars so we pay the same taxes you do. Let’s restart the conversation by acknowledging that most of us — behind the wheels of vehicles, or at the handlebars of a bicycle — self-identify as law-abiding citizens who also use common sense in our commuting, and that often means breaking traffic laws.

A San Antonio police officer once pulled me over for running a stop sign on my commuter bike one block from the newspaper offices where I worked. I saw him sitting in his parked patrol car, but it was a Saturday morning, there was zero traffic, and I didn’t expect him to pay any attention.

He issued me a warning, but didn’t appreciate my efforts to engage him on the best use of his time parked in front of an empty church and stopping a lone cyclist when there must be more important work elsewhere. I still wonder: If police realize moderate speeding is essential to traffic flow, and if they realize it’s counter-productive to stop everyone who fails to use a turn signal, why stop a cyclist crossing a deserted intersection? In my opinion, I posed no more danger than a pedestrian crossing in the middle of the same deserted block. When was the last time a San Antonio cop stopped a pedestrian on an empty street?

A driver who doesn’t ride a bike might ask: What’s the problem with stopping? Cyclists power themselves, and they do it by pedaling. If they are on a road bike, chances are their shoes are clipped in to the pedals, making their pedaling more efficient, powering the upstroke as well as the downstroke. Stopping the bike, clipping out to put a foot on the ground for balance, then reversing the process is a waste of time and energy with no obvious purpose when there is no other traffic.

Even though I believe cyclists should be allowed some leeway to use common sense and judgment, I also realize cyclists probably will have to agree to obey traffic laws in order to win concessions from city planners and law enforcement, necessary allies in the conversion of dangerous urban grids into complete streets that include protected bike lanes.

I consider a protected bike lane to be a cycle track completely separated from the vehicle lanes by a curb or other barrier, or at least a well-defined bike lane with signage and enforced no vehicle parking.

Cyclists, if we want to assert our rights to the road and be able to safely commute, likely will have to obey traffic laws with the same regularity as the guy next to you in a pickup truck. It will really start to matter if bicycling reaches critical mass in San Antonio’s urban core, which is increasingly possible as residential density builds and many of the new residents prefer cycling to driving a car short distances.

Chicago now reports 20,000 people commute to work downtown daily. New York’s bike share program recently launched with 6,000 bikes and 300 stations, and after two weeks had 36,000 paid members. Daily bike commuters doubled in San Francisco between 2007 and 2011.

A familiar Citi Bike advocate for New York's new bike share program. Photo courtesy of Citi Bike.
A familiar Citi Bike advocate for New York’s new bike share program. Photo courtesy of Citi Bike.

Henry Grabar, a cyclist and journalist, recently made the case in an Atlantic Cities article that cyclists should hold out and not agree to be treated like motorized vehicles just to win their fair share of the road. With complete streets, he argues, roadways become streets with two sidewalks, one for pedestrians and one for cyclists. With the exception of the occasional stupid cyclist (think vehicle driver recklessly weaving in and out of highway traffic) most cyclists are restrained by common sense, and will not violate a traffic law if it might result in an accident. We ignore the law only when it doesn’t matter.

One day earlier, Sarah Goodyear, a journalist who lives and cycles in Brooklyn, took the other position in another article on the topic for Atlantic Cities. While admitting that she’s run her fair share of stop signs and red lights, Goodyear also sees herself as a cycling ambassador, someone who believes cyclists most conform in order to gain better cycling conditions. The image of a cyclist as an outlaw, she writes, needs to give way to a new image of cycling as a mainstream transportation mode. That will take some doing in New York, a city famous for its hostile bike messengers and others speeding the wrong way on streets, intimidating pedestrians and even grabbing hold of moving vehicles for a free ride.

The state of Idaho allows cyclists to pause at red lights and stop signs, and if conditions merit, to proceed with caution without stopping. I don’t know of any other states that make the same allowance, but I like it. I’m also a realist, and can’t imagine the Texas Legislature doing anything that favors cycling, or anything else that a rationale person would deem progressive.

The City of San Antonio, on the other hand, could pass an ordinance allowing cyclists outside the busy downtown grid to exercise similar judgement in the absence of cross-traffic. It would be a worthy experiment and demonstrate the city’s determination to attract more young professionals to the urban core by understanding they don’t subscribe to the one person-one car ethos practiced by so many others.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories:

San Antonio’s Drive Toward Safe Cycling

Hell Yes and Hell No to Bike Helmets

The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety

SicloVerde: Riding Bikes, Visiting Gardens For a Cause

Building a Bicycle-Friendly San Antonio, One Committee Meeting at a Time

Share the Road: SAPD Launches New Program to Catch Unsafe Drivers

The Feed: National Bike Month Rides into San Antonio, Just in Time

The Feed: B–Roll on the Mission Reach

The Feed: Show Down + Síclovía = Fit City, USA

The Feed: Get Outside the Box for an Outdoor Workout

Avatar photo

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.