Refereeing the Raging Debate Over the “Specialness” of Cyclists

There’s a tussle going on right now about how cyclists should ride on city streets. Yesterday’s Streetsblog Network post took a snapshot of this debate, excerpting the WashCycle’s response to a Sarah Goodyear piece in Atlantic Cities.

Wrong-way cycling isn't the way to assert cyclists' rightful place on the streets. Photo: ## Shot Bikes##

Sarah wrote that cycling is no longer a mode for daredevils and mavericks weaving through traffic. Some cities now have street infrastructure that accommodates cyclists and guards their safety. Bicycling is increasingly incorporated into the transportation system in these cities, and as such, cyclists need to follow the rules.

Few people would contest the idea that for the transportation system to function well and safely, drivers need to abide by the rules of the road. It’s obvious that when drivers break the rules, the consequences are dire, since they’re operating a heavy vehicle capable of high speeds.

But safety isn’t the only issue. The orderly functioning of our streets is also a priority of planners, and should be a priority for all of us. When the signal says walk, we ought to know that we can walk without being hit by a motorist — or a cyclist — who’s decided that the rules don’t apply to him.

“I am truly sick, at this late date, of people wanting to have it both ways: calling for protected bike lanes and a bike-share system, demanding that cops step up enforcement when it comes to cars, and then blithely salmoning up a major thoroughfare and expecting everyone look the other way,” Sarah writes. “It makes all of us look terrible and it’s a real hazard.”

She also claims that cyclists aren’t special and don’t deserve their own rules. I part ways with her there. Riding a bike doesn’t make you special because it’s badass or good for the environment. It’s special because roads designed exclusively for automobiles don’t work well for cycling. And we should advocate for rules and infrastructure that safely accommodate sustainable and efficient modes of transportation at least as much as destructive and polluting ones.

Just as cities increasingly have infrastructure tailored to bicycling, we also need rules that make more sense for the way people ride bikes, rather than just applying all automotive rules to bicycles. The Idaho stop, allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, is a good example of a way that road rules can safely be tailored for cyclists.

But when people complain about “scofflaw” cyclists, a lot of the time they aren’t referring to people who approach stop signs slowly and defer to others who have the right of way. They’re referring to people who blow through intersections without yielding. That’s not an Idaho Stop. That’s recklessness.

If we want the transportation system to respect us when we’re biking, we have to respect the system. On the road, the system is enforced with tickets. I agree with Sarah that it’s fair for cyclists to be subject to that enforcement.

I disagree with her when she says, “Is it fair if bikers get tickets when motorists don’t? Nope. You know what else isn’t fair? Everything. Deal with it.” The entire point here is that we’re striving to build a system that is fair, and above all, safe. Enforcing cyclist behavior more than motorist behavior is ludicrous. I don’t think people should “deal with it” when reckless drivers get off scott-free. I think they should clamor for justice when people put others at risk and turn our transportation system into a danger zone.

But neither can cyclists claim to be completely outside the reach of enforcement.

In his piece on WashCycle (which also appeared on Greater Greater Washington), David C writes that cyclists need to ride safely and courteously “whether or not cycling is mainstream.” But he also says the “great cycling cities in Europe” don’t have ticketing blitzes to enforce good behavior. And he makes the somewhat convoluted argument that “increased enforcement is [not] needed to keep growth going.”

Well, that’s true. No one’s saying that biking tickets will spur more growth in bicycling rates. But as more people bike, cycling has a greater impact on everyone else on the road, and we need that impact to be perceived in a positive way. Higher rates of bicycling can reduce congestion and pollution, lower health care costs for everybody, encourage human interaction, benefit local businesses, and free up public space for better uses than car storage. But if people associate cycling with wrong-way riding and blowing through reds, they won’t perceive the positives.

It’s not about holding cyclists to a higher “squeaky-clean” standard of behavior than everyone else, as David C alleges. It’s simply about acknowledging that we’ve fought for our seat at the table, and now that we’re there, we have to stop throwing food.

125 thoughts on Refereeing the Raging Debate Over the “Specialness” of Cyclists

  1. In the good old days, I would never be yelled at by motorists (as I was this morning) to “Get on the bike path”.

    Quality of life, for those of us who do not want to use narrow and unmaintained play paths on our commute, has shot downward since the advent of segregated infrastructure.

  2. I’m pretty much in the same camp here in that 95% of my riding is on roads without bike lanes (and the other 5% is door zone bike lanes). However, if the city tries to remove any bike infrastructure, I’ll gladly go and protest, even if said infrastructure is useless to me personally, or substandard (and I agree with you that a lot of it is). Why? For the simple reason bike infrastructure gives legitimacy to the idea that bicycles are more than just child’s toys. Can the the city do better as far as bike infrastructure goes? Yes, by a mile. Had I been in charge, I would be advocating for grade-separated paths which can accommodate both novice riders and people like us riding at speed. And who knows, if cycling gets to a higher mode share, such a proposal may well be implemented. In the meantime though, I’m with Ferdinand for keeping the gains we’ve made, even if for now nothing has been built which is terribly useful to me personally.

  3. And it’s a major issue even in the outer boroughs. I too feel it’ll never be properly resolved at the street level, which is why I’ve been advocating on this site for a comprehensive network of grade-separated paths. In my opinion, that’s the only thing which can make cycling in a city as crowded as New York both safe and efficient.

  4. I find it interesting that someone simply sharing their experiences as a pedestrian is argued with, and voted down 7 times. It’s absurd.

  5. Read what they wrote again. It’s filled with the same kind of anecdotal nonsense you read in the tabloids about cyclists. If so many cyclists are running over so many pets and people, then why don’t police accident statistics show this? Anyone who wants to deal in facts here won’t be voted down. If you want to post hyperbole then that’s another story.

  6. With all due respect, you appear to be ignoring at least some of the existing rules of the road.

    In most states, there are already different rules for cyclists and drivers in some circumstances. A cyclist can legally ride on the sidewalk (here in Washington state) or in bike lanes whereas a driver cannot. However, there are sections of I-5 plus certain tunnels and bridges that a cyclist cannot ride on, but it’s perfectly legal for cars. If one compares and contrasts pedestrians and cyclists, once again there are times when the rules are different.

    Those of us who press for an Idaho Rule are attempting to codify an area of the law where it makes sense, for a number of reasons, to impose different rules for both cyclists and drivers.

    Washington state is once again #1 in bike friendliness according to the League of American Bicyclists. The City of Olympia is a Silver rated city, but we have a long way to go. Angry drivers who don’t understand the rules as they apply to cyclists, and probably anyone else, feel free to cut across a cyclist’s path and scream profanity and threats as they pass.

    Slate covered affect heuristic last year. It should be required reading for all. Cyclists are less aggressive than the out of control road raging lunatics, who anecdotally are men driving SUVs and trucks, perhaps attempting to compensate for something.

  7. “…It’s not about holding cyclists to a higher “squeaky-clean” standard of
    behavior than everyone else, as David C alleges. It’s simply about
    acknowledging that we’ve fought for our seat at the table, and now that
    we’re there, we have to stop throwing food…”

    Bravo, Tanya!

  8. That’s a funny stereotype, Ken. When I am driving a pickup truck, it means I’ve borrowed my neighbor’s old Ford F150 to take a load of yard debris to the county mulching center. Didn’t know that made me a “road raging lunatic”, but then again, maybe you have a professional degree in psychiatry. Right? Or should we spend a little less time stereotyping each other?

  9. It’s going to be a LONG time before I can truly respect the Los Angeles transportation grid as a cyclist. Its a rare moment on our street when I dont feel like I am Indiana Jones escaping a giant rolling bolder.

  10. Years ago at the height of my “scofflaw” behavior as a cyclist, I took a trip to the Netherlands and immediately became the most docile cyclist I had ever been. I didn’t run a single light, didn’t ride the wrong way on a single street. The Netherlands instantly tamed me because it instantly provided everything I needed to simply enjoy a safe ride.

  11. And, perhaps, seeing so many ‘normally dressed’ folk sans helmets, cycling with kids, baggage and at a relaxed pace. I long for the day that happens in NY where I live, and all those spandexed sppeders are the minority. I’d obey every red light and one-way street then.

  12. And in NYC if you obey every red light you’ll be on Social Security by the time you get where you’re going. Hopefully by the time a lot of “normal” folks are riding we’ll have something resembling sanity with regards to infrastructure (i.e. either bike highways or bike routes on streets which have few or no traffic signals/stop signs).

  13. If what I read on David Hembrow’s excellent site is any indication, you probably rarely hit red lights to begin with. He mentions doing 20+ mile trips and encountering one red light. Most people will stop for red lights if they’re very infrequent. If you hit one every two blocks, all bets are off.

  14. Repeating that stuff about stopping doesn’t make it so. I have told you several times already that I stop at every red light in my rides, and I have no problem taking rides of 60, 70, even 100 miles.

    Additionally, when I am in New Jersey, I stop not only at every red light, but also at every intersection where a pedestrian is standing at the crosswalk, because that’s the law in New Jersey. Obeying the law is mandatory, not optional; and it’s what we owe to our fellow users of the road (and to ourselves as creators of the public face of bicycling to the general public).

    You have to understand that the nature of urban riding is that it has a lot of stops. More important: no matter what you insist on repeating, stopping often is *not* a problem, not even a little one. It may sometimes be annoying; but often it’s not even that, because just being in the bustling city is so pleasant.

    While it’s nice to have some roads that have few stops, such as the Hudson River Greenway or the Shore Parkway, those roads can be frustrating in their own way, in that they’re located out in nowheresville, so far from anything that is recognisably urban.

    I take those roads a few times a year, but I can’t say that I really enjoy them very much. On any given day, I’d much rather be on 8th Ave./CPW and Columbus/9th Ave. than on the Hudson River Greenway, and I’d rather be on Flatlands Ave. than on the Shore Parkway, so that I can actually feel that I’m in the City.

    Please know that I defer to no one in my hatred for the auto-domination of the streets. It’s one of the basic sicknesses of society. I grew up out in eastern Queens where you live; and the auto-domination and quasi-suburban feel out there disgusted me and made me desperate to escape that area, especially once I experienced the urban bustle of Jamaica at about age 15 or 16. That was also when I began riding on Queens Blvd. and to Manhattan; that was when I began experiencing what real urban riding was all about.

    It’s fine to fantasise about a network of grade-separated bike lanes. But such a reengineering is absolutely implausible; furthermore, an overpass at every intersection would be a severe eyesore. The bike lanes that we have on 1st, 2nd, 6th, 8th, and 9th Avenues are the ideal solution in the current reality — indeed, they are radical.

    Our City is in its last year as a bike haven; and Manhattan in particular is has been transformed into a wonderland. Just enjoy it. You certainly don’t need to average 20 miles per hour in order to get a good workout and to see our City. My average rate is about 10 miles per hour, and biking is the centre of my activities, and has been so for years.

  15. I used to stop for every light about 30 years ago here in Eastern Queens. That was when there were about 25% of the lights as now, and yet I was still hard pressed to average more than 11 or 12 mph, despite cruising at 20+ mph. Either you’re lying about stopping at every light, or most of your long rides are on roads with few traffic signals. I’ve done my share of experiments stopping and waiting out every light. Even here in Eastern Queens, it would be hard to average over about 6 mph doing that. 10 mph in Manhattan stopping at every light? I doubt it. I couldn’t even manage that in downtown Brooklyn last December, and I was going through quite a few lights whenever I had the chance.

    If you feel stopping every other block isn’t unduly burdensome, great. But don’t think everyone feels that way, or can physically stop that often. There’s a reason the bike paths in places like the Netherlands are laid out with a minimum of stopping, and it’s because few cyclists can deal with repeatedly starting and stopping. If I stop one time too many, I’m done and I have little prior warning. In fact, it nearly happened last December when I visited a friend in Coney Island. I had to stop maybe 15 times going there due to traffic. Coming back wasn’t as bad, but I was hurting badly from the trip in. I had to briefly rest halfway up the climb after Hillside Avenue. After that, I had a hard time just getting the bike going again. Fortunately, I was only a mile from home. Now if I had stopped at all the red lights on the trip home, I probably would have been stranded at Liberty Avenue at 1:30 AM.

    When you keep arguing that we have to be on our best behavior to keep the infrastructure we have, you’re playing right to the other side. If you look at history, most of the time when people radically changed things, it wasn’t through perfect behavior and hoping those in charge would notice and grant them their due. Most of the time change was bought about by either civil disobedience or naked, merciless force.

    I’ll propose something here to prove you wrong. How about all of us here at Streetsblog organize a “rule-book cycling” day? I’ll even participate. On that day, all cyclists not only follow every law to a T, but also avail ourselves of every privilege the law grants us, including taking the lane. When the roads are clogged with cyclists in the lane, starting up when the light changes, and cruising at 10 mph, motorists and the NYPD will all be begging us to go back to our “normal” riding habits. As much as cyclists bending rules annoy motorists, they’ll be the first to complain if they have a cyclist starting out in front of them when the light changes. So are you in, or not?

  16. First of all, I am most certainly not lying! And my long rides are chiefly on Manhattan avenues, and on other normal streets in the boroughs. My 10-mile commute to work takes an hour; a 50-mile ride takes about 5 hours; a 70-mile ride takes about 7 hours; and so forth.

    Secondly, I am not playing to the other side, but defending our side. I will repeat that disobedience as a strategy for change works when a huge portion of the general public is either engaging in the illegal behaviour in question or else is already sympathetic to those engaging in that behaviour. If neither of those conditions is met, then disobedience only causes backlash, thereby making favourable changes in the law much less likely.

    (Specific example: we’ll never get a two-way bike lane in the centre of Delancey St. at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge by ignoring the fact that the current bike lane is one-way eastbound. But, by going the wrong way on the lane as it is, and at irresponsibly high speeds to boot, and by concluding with a foolhardy daredevil merge into the left side of westbound Delancey, we might well succeed in getting the lane taken away altogether.)

    And I’m in with following the law on all days; I invite everyone to join me. If, somehow, my fellow bicyclists decided to remember that the law applies to them, there would never be any roads “clogged” with bicyclists; at best there might be three or four of us at any given light.

    Finally, I sure do take the lane at times, and encourage all bicyclists to do so when necessary. I ride on Myrtle Ave. in Queens and Johnson Ave. in Brooklyn every day; and it is often necessary to ride mid-lane on those streets. I try to avoid Metropolitan Ave. from the cross with Grand St. out to Middle Village; but, when I’m on that road, I often take the lane there as well.

  17. Ferdinand,

    We’ll only lose infrastructure if we let that happen. As critical as I am of a lot of the cycling infrastructure in the city, I plan to go down and protest should the next mayor think of removing it. If we mobilize our ranks, we can easily bring the city to halt each and every time someone makes noise about removing cycling infrastructure. If you ever read Charles Komanoff’s excellent series on the history of cycling activism in NYC, you’ll see that we managed to make inroads decades ago, even when the numbers of cyclists were much smaller. At least half a million people in this city ride a bike fairly regularly. Think if we even get 100,000 mobilized to stop removal of infrastructure. That’s the idea here. Mobilize a few times, and the city will see what they’re up against. That’s also the idea behind my “rule-book cycling” day. Fill the lanes with cyclists going 8 or 10 mph to basically bring the city to halt. Do that a few times, and maybe we’ll get the laws changed to something more sensible.

    I’ll tell you a story about myself. Back when I was in grade school, I was bullied. At first I tried reasoning with the bullies to leave me alone. I even tried being respectful and doing things on their terms. Of course, that didn’t work. It never does with unreasonable people who pick on others for petty reasons (or no reasons at all). And then one day, I snuck up behind one of the bullies and hit him hard with a piece of rebar. He survived, but he was in the hospital for a week or so. Nobody saw me hit him. It didn’t matter. Everyone in the school knew I did it, including the pair of bullies, because they knew who those bullies targeted. I was never bothered again by anyone. And now my attitude to these jackasses who find petty faults with cyclists is the same. I’ll call out their bs, and if things get nasty I’m going in the trenches. I’m in this to win. We’ll keep our infrastructure and then some. Now that bike share is nearly here, I think the last piece of the puzzle is in place. No matter what the NIMBYs say, if we remove bicycle infrastructure after bike share starts, and a bike share user gets hurt, the city is looking at a major lawsuit. That’s one reason I think you have nothing to worry about.

    And by the way, I ride after 10 PM, and on roads which are nearly empty. Just about nobody sees me running red lights, and honestly, in this neighborhood, nobody really cares. Bikes were never a source of complaints here, probably because there’s enough space for everyone to coexist.

  18. Regarding the situation at the Williamsburg Bridge, I wholeheartedly agree that jackass dangerous moves aren’t helping anyone. Nevertheless, the city might do well to send some DOT personnel there, and maybe even question a few of these cyclists. I don’t condone what they’re doing, but from the standpoint of physics and cycling efficiency I understand it. That’s really where I would like to see more dialogue. Engineers can only design things properly if they understand the problem. How many of these DOT personnel actually ride bikes through that area? Ask cyclists what they want, and then if possible design for that. Good infrastructure invariably elicits better behavior than bad infrastructure.

  19. Uh, he’s right. And you’re a pretentious ass. I’ve been hit by cyclists 3 different times, and my labrador was hit once as well. I called the cops once after I was hit and was told that they’d “Never be able to identify the guilty party”… maybe THAT’S why police statistics don’t reflect reality? Hope you get to experience being hit by someone in a vehicle like I have, so that when you tell me about it I can ‘fix your experience to reflect reality.’ Case in point why so many pedestrians hate cyclists so much more than motorists.

  20. Hope you get to experience being hit by someone in a vehicle like I have.

    What are you a sociopath? Wishing someone to be hit by a car or bike?

    I have been hit by a car while in the bike lane. And it hurt. Why you would wish that on someone is just awful. Almost as awful as hitting someone’s dog.

    I’ve also been bit by a dog while on a bike. I don’t hate all dog owners.

    By the way, it was an asshole on a bike that hit you.

    I’ll try to make this clear for you:

    Some assholes ride bikes. It doesn’t mean that all bike riders are assholes. Some nice people ride bikes.

    Case in point why so many pedestrians hate cyclists so much more than motorists.

    I think the families of the over 200 people killed annually by cars and trucks in NYC would disagree.

  21. Obeying the law is not mandatory and is definitely optional. There are potential penalties for disobeying the law, but that’s not quite the same.

  22. Sarah Goodyear uses the word “squeaky-clean” in her article. So, in her opinion it is about being squeaky-clean. As for throwing food, I’m not sure which behavior you’re talking about. What exactly are cyclists doing that’s equivalent to throwing food.

  23. By that definition, at the table we got a seat at, everyone is throwing food (because everyone breaks traffic laws). I’m not saying that’s right, but asking cyclists to be the one group that doesn’t is holding them to the higher standard I was talking about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Cyclists Are Special, and They Should Have Their Own Rules

There’s a line of reasoning advanced by the media, angry motorists and, sometimes, cyclists, that goes something like: Since some cyclists don’t follow the rules, cyclists don’t deserve respect. A version of this axiom was repeated yesterday by Sarah Goodyear at Atlantic Cities, in an article titled “Cyclists Aren’t ‘Special,’ and They Shouldn’t Play by Their […]

Wooing the Hesitant Cyclist

There’s an old debate in the bicycling community. Do bike lanes marginalize cyclists and de-legitimize them as road users, as the vehicular cycling camp claims? Or, as advocates of separate bike infrastructure argue, are they essential for mainstreaming cycling as transportation? As more places install dedicated bike infrastructure and see big increases in cycling, the […]

The Problem With “Same Road, Same Rules”

A recent post on Vox went viral with the argument that cyclists shouldn’t have to make full stops at stop signs and should be allowed to proceed through red lights “Idaho stop”-style. The author, Joseph Stromberg, gave a lot of compelling reasons why cyclists shouldn’t be forced to strictly adhere to rules that were designed for […]