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Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

How to Make Bikers Stop at Red Lights

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Bicyclists who barrel through red lights without even slowing down are the worst, right? As urban cycling has grown in popularity, this reckless behavior has become a major traffic hazard, exasperating drivers and endangering pedestrians and cyclists.

Bicyclists who slow to a crawl at red lights but then roll on through if there are no pedestrians or cars nearby aren't so bad though, are they? Or I should say "are we?" because I do that on occasion. Not in, you know, midtown Manhattan, but in other, less trafficked parts of town. I did get a ticket for this once in New Jersey, but it if I remember correctly it only cost me $95. It hasn't stopped me from continuing to roll through red lights when I deem it appropriate.

In Sydney, Australia, and the rest of the state of New South Wales, this kind of behavior will get a lot more expensive next month. The fine for running a red light on a bike is going up from 71 Australian dollars to 425. And while the commodity-bust-induced decline of the Australian dollar means that that's only $306 (it would have been $468 in July 2011), it's still a pretty hefty fine. It's also the same as the fine for running a red light in a car. 

From Angus Whitley's Bloomberg story on the new cycling rules:

“Fines should reflect the consequence of the offence,” said Ray Rice, chief executive officer of Bicycle New South Wales, the Sydney-based lobby group with about 15,000 members. “There’s no logic in this automatic equivalence. You can hardly say these measures are an incentive to ride.”

New York City actually treats bikes the same as cars, too. The fine for running a red light varies depending on the circumstances but seems to usually be around $200. This guy got hit with a $278 fine, but a judge let him off.

Potential fines don't seem to have discouraged people from riding bikes in New York, though. By one measure (cyclist counts at a few key locations), ridership has almost tripled in the city over the past decade. Other factors -- more bike paths, more bike lanes, a critical mass of other cyclists -- seem to matter more than penalties.

A New York City councilman from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, did recently propose that the state relax the red-light and stop-sign rules for cyclists. The model is Idaho, where bikers are allowed to treat red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs. In a 2014 Vox piece on the "Idaho stop," Joseph Stromberg laid out a pretty good set of arguments for why the stop-sign part of this arrangement makes sense. He only glancingly addressed traffic lights, though.

A key difference between stop signs and lights is this: If a city deems an intersection busy enough to merit a traffic light, it's saying it doesn't trust drivers to make their own decisions about when to go. So why should it trust bikers?

One reason might be that bikers are less likely to cause harm to others than drivers are. Pedestrians can't really harm anybody just by walking, so I buy the argument made by Dante Ramos in the Boston Globe last week that enforcing jaywalking rules is a waste of the police's time (the risk of injury and death more effectively shapes pedestrian behavior than jaywalking fines do). But bikers can cause harm to others. They're also usually allowed to share the roadway with cars, which pedestrians aren't. So I'm having trouble articulating a strong case for why they (meaning I) should be allowed to selectively ignore red lights. I do think we have too many traffic lights in general, but that's another argument entirely.

And bikers who think that traffic rules don't apply to them really are a problem, in New York City and lots of other places. In part because they've been ignored and embattled for so long, many bikers in the U.S. have an outlaw attitude that you don't really encounter in bike-friendly countries such as the Netherlands. That's understandable, but it's also dangerous, and a terrible way to sell the rest of the population on the idea that getting more bikes on the streets is a good thing.

So OK, police: Definitely keep giving tickets to reckless bikers who blast through red lights. Maybe try allowing cyclists to proceed cautiously on red at certain T-intersections and right turns, as Paris is doing. And while I really hope that you don't give me a ticket the next time I roll through a red light on a quiet Saturday morning, I'm afraid I can't come up with an entirely convincing argument for why you shouldn't.

  1. Yes, I realize there is something weird about this snippet from the 2012 Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie "Premium Rush." It looks like Gordon-Levitt was actually riding through a green light, and that the cab that appears to almost hit him was added digitally after the scene was shot. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net