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This week's question comes from a New Yorker who's got a big problem with scofflaw cyclists.
My wife is a native (born in the Bronx!) and we have opposing views on an issue, so you will be the tie breaker.
Now that Citi Bike is expanding and there are additional bike lanes, there are more cyclists on the streets. I do not dislike bicycles. It is a healthy and environmentally friendly form of transportation and we should have more people doing it.
My problem is when they run red lights. Not when they run red lights when no one else is crossing, it is when they travel at 20+ mph and zip past you like they are Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. I have seen several close calls including one cyclist almost colliding into a little boy crossing at the cross-walk and another nearly hitting a mother with a baby stroller.
So the question is this: should I yell at the cyclists that blow through red lights and nearly hit me? I say yes, my wife says no, because she believes I might get beat up or knifed. I say I'll choose my battles. Although I am starting to suspect that yelling at a cyclists will never fix anything. I might as well be yelling at the sun being too bright or thinking Donald Trump actually has a human soul.
What are your thoughts Jake?
Yelling Angry Pedestrian
A native New Yorker responds:
It's your God-given right as a New Yorker to yell at anyone threatening the public comity. Nay, I say it is more than a right—it is a requirement. If nobody yells at the scofflaws, red-light-runners, litterbugs, and other selfish ilk, they'll only proliferate. Soon you'll have half-naked women blocking your way in Times Square, and WHAT THEN?
Running a red light is a particularly dangerous dick move; it endangers pedestrians in the crosswalk and other bicyclists and drivers who might have to swerve out of the way and hit something or someone. And it's Russian roulette for the bicyclist—a lot of times drivers don't even notice bikes, and in a collision between a bike and a car, the bicyclist is much more likely to be the one going to the hospital or morgue.
Why do bicyclists do it? Simple fact: it takes a lot of energy for them to come to a complete stop at every light, and start back up from zero miles an hour—far more human effort than it takes to stop a car, or to pause at a light as a pedestrian. That's simple physics; you have to move the weight of the bike, plus the weight of the bicyclist, and anyone who's ever ridden a bike knows the first few pushes of the pedal take the most work. Human nature being what it is, bikers prefer not to exert themselves, and so, if there's any way of avoiding coming to a complete stop, they take it.
This will not change, unless someone invents a cheap, light-weight electric bicycle, and New York City changes the law to make such a vehicle legal. That doesn't mean yelling at dangerous bicyclists is pointless—I think people don't like to be screamed at, and will avoid doing the stuff and frequenting the locations where they get screamed at a lot. However! You should only exert yourself when the bicyclists are actually endangering people: this means on crowded streets, when there is a lot of traffic.
Outside of Manhattan, there are many streets with very little traffic, where I'd argue that no one is inconvenienced or endangered by bicyclists treating red lights as stop signs, and stop signs as yield signs. In bicyclist lingo, this is called an "Idaho Stop," and it has many benefits, including allowing the bikes to get in front of traffic (as opposed to riding with it), which leads to fewer accidents.
I'd go even further, and say that in quiet parts of the city, bicyclists could even treat red lights as yield signs. Let's call this the Paris Stop, after the French capital which adopted it a few years ago. They saw no increase in traffic accidents, probably because they were simply legalizing a behavior that was already being widely practiced.
Authoritarian conservative types will argue that even at 7 a.m. on a Sunday at a completely empty intersection in Red Hook, a cyclist should come to a complete stop at the light and wait for it to change, because anything else shows a lack of proper respect for the law, and it's a slippery slope to everyone on foot, bike, and car ignoring red lights completely. I disagree. New Yorkers are a sophisticated crowd, and I think that we're mature enough to recognize that safe traffic behavior depends on the situation, and there's a lot of variation around the city.
Speaking only for myself, when biking in Manhattan, I stop at the lights. This is for two reasons: I've got kids, so I don't want to get smushed by a bus, and because I've noticed the cops have been on some insane ticket blitzes on the avenues the last couple of months. I've seen a bunch of people catch $270 tickets for running red lights.
I don't support that level of fine—a bike is much lighter and less dangerous than a car, and the fine should reflect that—but I don't want to have to pay it, either, and it's no skin off my back to wait a minute for the light. It's a good zen opportunity to meditate on the little things that cause resentment: all the tourists on Citi Bikes just zipping right through the intersection, the cabs gunning straight at the elderly pedestrians trying to shuffle out of the way, the oppressive heat of the New York summer. Breathe!
Anyway, once we eliminate private cars completely, and replace them with a cloud of robotUbers, this won't be a problem. The space we free up by removing the parked car lanes can be used for copious protected bike lanes, and we can rejigger the intersections to make them friendlier to bikers without slowing down the robot cars. That's probably 10 years away now. Until then, prepare to keep screaming!
N.B.: I can think of two locations in Brooklyn where it's legal to turn right on a red light: 20th and Prospect Park West, and Columbia Street and Degraw. There are probably plenty of others marked with signs. These are quiet intersections with little cross-traffic, and seem to work fine. We are, as a city, capable of varying our traffic rules when the situation makes sense.
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