Cyclists: Traffic Scofflaws

Cities are asking bikers to obey the rules.
October 2009
Christopher Swope
By Christopher Swope  |  Former Editor
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.

This summer, I started bicycling to work a couple of times a week. On my 40-minute rides, I've made a couple of observations. First, there really are a lot of people who bike to work, at least here in Washington, D.C. I often find myself riding in tow with other cycling commuters, some wearing spandex outfits and others pedaling in their office clothes. Second, almost none of these people seems to obey any traffic law whatsoever. Red lights, stop signs--most bicyclists treat them as if they don't even exist.

I'm guilty of this behavior myself. Although I find that I do stop at two kinds of intersections: the busy ones where I might get killed, and the quiet ones where one or two drivers sit waiting, patiently, for a red light to turn. In the latter situation, I figure the drivers will eventually pass me and yell at me. Most bicyclists I talk to have their own idiosyncratic, and usually self-centered, opinions of when or whether traffic laws apply to them.

Where does this pugnacious attitude come from? The physical demands of cycling are partly responsible. Stopping for a red light means losing momentum and then huffing to get back up to speed again. There's also a little self-righteousness at play. Some bicyclists are so enamored with the carbon neutrality of their commutes that they figure society owes them a few breaks.

A big factor is that in most American cities, urban cycling remains a fight for respect--and survival. Biking in traffic requires winning a safe slice of road to ride on--I'm one of those riders you see taking up a whole lane for himself. The hazards of distracted drivers yammering on their cell phones, or having your bike hit by the opening door of a parked car, are huge. Lately, a lot of cities, D.C. included, have been striping roads with bike lanes, but these networks are nowhere near as comprehensive as they need to be. They also fall way short of the kind of off-the-road treatment bikers get in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. I often wonder whether bikers would behave better in traffic if American cities gave them the infrastructure they need to ride in peace.

Still, I doubt that's enough to get bikers to abide by road rules. That won't happen without more enforcement--cops, perhaps the ones who are on bicycles themselves, ticketing bicyclists. I know one bicycle commuter who claims to stop at red lights, at least most of the time. Once, long ago, she got stopped by a cop for running a light on her bike. She never forgot it.