How do cyclists get along with laws outside of the US?
March 14, 2011 9:05 PM   Subscribe

I recently found myself in the midst of some bike politics in NYC, and one of the adjunct arguments of the anti-bike crew goes something like "people on bikes are assholes who never follow laws." What's the relationship between cyclists and road laws in countries that aren't the US (or bike-ly-unusual parts of the US)?

In NYC, it's pretty much a given that cyclists will (illegally) go through red lights, have a tendency to go down one-way streets the wrong way, ride on the sidewalks, and just generally not go along with the legal end of things. Before it was pretty laissez faire, but recently police have started to be pretty aggressive with enforcement.

I'm curious what 'bike culture' might exist in other places, and whether cyclists are at odds with the laws in the same way? Maybe in some places bike laws aren't so cut-and-pasted from vehicle laws, so you can go through a red light or some such, or maybe the rules are all the same but cyclists just follow them. Are we such law-bucking cowboys the world over?
posted by soma lkzx to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have experienced the same thing in Montreal, Canada. It's not totally generalised, but lots of people do all the things you listed. There was some more attention from the police in the last years but it doesn't seems to have made a big difference (I used to bike and now drive a car in the city regularly).
posted by ddaavviidd at 9:13 PM on March 14, 2011

Cyclists are very, very timid in Phoenix. But, they're up against SUVS that act like lords of the roads. Cyclists tend not to ride on the street when they can get away with it; though it's not legal, cyclists tend to ride on sidewalks. It's rarely ticketed.

Cyclists on the Tempe campus of Arizona State, however, are a different matter. They will zip through and around thick crowds of pedestrians and generally act as though *they* are the lords of the campus mall. fuckers. I think it's an Arizona/Southwest thing. Whoever is bigger is king.

I've seen the behavior you're describing in Chicago, though.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:13 PM on March 14, 2011

One example that springs to mind is the (extremely reasonable, IMO) "Idaho" rolling stop law.

In Amsterdam, bikes are absolutely everywhere, and the roads are built for it. (American roads aren't.) Bike lanes are buffered from car traffic and have their own signals. I can't remember how those signals are timed, though, in comparison to car traffic.
posted by supercres at 9:15 PM on March 14, 2011

Before this devolves further, though, can we please agree that neither cars nor bikes nor pedestrians are the problem, whether they're law-abiding or opportunistic. Assholes are the problem, and it's possible to be an asshole in any mode of transportation, even if you're following the letter of the law.

I think areas that have had bikes as a common occurrence (I'm thinking Europe here) have figured this out. It's a mentality thing.
posted by supercres at 9:19 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Yes! Preemptive agreement: assholes are always the problem, not any particular mode of transportation.

I think areas that have had bikes as a common occurrence (I'm thinking Europe here) have figured this out. It's a mentality thing.

This is actually one of the reasons I asked the question: I was googling around assuming this was the case, and found a lot of people complaining about cyclists in X European city the exact same way that people complain about them in NYC.

Maybe an auxiliary question is what is the Public At Large's attitude towards bikes?
posted by soma lkzx at 9:26 PM on March 14, 2011

Growing up in one of the flat, bike-friendly countries of Europe back in the 70s, I remember being thoroughly indoctrinated that cyclists must follow all traffic laws. And, generally, they did. It was a social expectation.

No idea if that's still true.
posted by Dimpy at 9:36 PM on March 14, 2011

I know you asked about outside the U.S. but we have the same issues in Chicago and a lot of people have bad images of bicyclists in general. I think it's a case of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch.

Just today I took my bike on the Metra (commuter) train and made sure to check the website to make sure there were no restrictions, made sure I left after rush hour black out etc. The train was almost empty but the conductor started up an argument when I brought my bike out near the doors just before my stop. He starting going on about how what I'm doing is illegal and I'm not following the rules and if someone gets hurt they can sue me because I have a bike even if I'm not at fault. I asked if it's just because I have a bike and the other conductor said "that bad attitude is why we don't want to deal with people like you."

I was being very nice and respectful but they were obviously already decided that all bikers were trouble. I had to comment because this happened today and it really bothered me because I go to lengths to read up on the rules but this particular rule (that you have to wait until other passengers leave before moving your bike at all) was not on the website or any other materials I've ever seen. He told me that although it's not posted on the train or on the website he still has power to throw me out whenever he chooses for any reason then went off about how this summer will stink because of the increase in bikers in Chicago.
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:39 PM on March 14, 2011

So I went to college at UC Davis, supposedly the most bike friendly town in the US. Everyone bikes. everyone. And yes, the traffic laws are very strictly enforced and they have bike traffic cops and they will ticket the shit out of you if you say, don't have the proper bike light or run a stop sign. The bike cops are notoriously hard ass and also a lot fitter than they look and will chase your ass down, as many a Lance Armstrong want to be has discovered. There are tons of bike lanes in Davis but also tons of places where you must ride on the road with the cars. People and cars live in peace and harmony for the most part. Left turns are made from the left turn lane, hand signals are used, drivers look for bikes, everyone knows what the expectations are.

Nowadays I live in a city where bikers are trying to make it more bike friendly, mostly yuppie commuters but there is a sizable contingent of young people who bike here too. Every time I see someone riding at night with some weak ass LED headlamp designed for hiking for a bike light* or using the pedestrian crossing lane to zip through an intersection on the wrong side of the road all I can think is "Asshole!" shortly followed by "that is not helping your cause my friend". Because nearly hitting them all the time is wearying and scary. And if ti comes to me getting t-boned or me running over a bike because they passed on the right on a red light? I will run over the bike.

*assuming they even have one which they don't 75% of the time. Buy a halogen light with a 200' radius already! I don't think I've seen a legal bike light, properly affixed to a bike in 2 years of living her.
posted by fshgrl at 9:41 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Before this devolves further, though, can we please agree that neither cars nor bikes nor pedestrians are the problem, whether they're law-abiding or opportunistic. Assholes are the problem, and it's possible to be an asshole in any mode of transportation, even if you're following the letter of the law.

No, we cannot agree on that. I've lived in NYC and Madison, WI and Austin, TX — all cities with a lot of biking. In every one, the bikers consistently break the law in a way that cars don't. Sure cars occasionally run red lights, but this is always catching the first split-second of the red light, not darting through in the middle of a red light just because they can. And cars rarely drive on the sidewalk. Evidently, the mode of transportation is the problem.
posted by John Cohen at 9:43 PM on March 14, 2011

Also I was in SF one time and critical mass came through. Roller Blade critical mass. Those guys were a lot funnier and more good natured than the bikers (albeit drunker). Also a lot of them wore capes. I am now a strong supporter of roller blade friendly cities. Attitude does count.
posted by fshgrl at 9:44 PM on March 14, 2011

In Australia the general rule is that bikes on the road have the same rules as cars.

See Wheels of Justice for links on various Australian states and links to US and UK rules.

In Melbourne they do ticket cyclists and blitz cyclists on a regular basis.

Most bikers are fairly good about it but some flagrantly breach road rules. While biking I've seen a biker run 3 consecutive red lights flagrantly.
posted by sien at 9:51 PM on March 14, 2011

Cyclists run red lights in London, but not nearly so frequently as in NYC.

I think a big part of the issue in NYC is the grid system: it creates many, many situations in which a cyclist is being held at a red light even though they can have a very high degree of confidence that if they were to proceed there'd be no harm to anyone. That doesn't excuse light-running, but I think it does explain much of it. In central London, in the daytime, there are very few occasions when a red light is holding you "pointlessly" in this way.

No, we cannot agree on that... the bikers consistently break the law in a way that cars don't.

This is a silly argument for as long as the no-cellphone-use law is no longer so widely and flagrantly disregarded. With all the Prospect Park West tussle here in Brooklyn, I'm making an extra-special effort as a cyclist to obey all traffic laws, and I don't object to the cops cracking down on that, but I'd be so much happier if they ever lifted a finger to punish cellphone users.
posted by oliverburkeman at 9:59 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to see a certain person in the bike lane on Lafayette (yes I'm thinking of you, David Bryne) going the wrong way, like, twice a week.

I routinely joked that having my bike stolen in Manhattan saved my life. I used to talk about how riding a bike in Manhattan was a truly a death sport!

Riding around San Diego was fine. I will note that pedestrian laws there are strictly enforced. I rode there adhering to the traffic laws, as did everyone else.

I would NEVER ride a bike on the street in LA. Ever.
posted by jbenben at 10:11 PM on March 14, 2011

[please do not turn this into another cycling argument of any stripe -- question is about cycling culture in other countries. thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:32 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Evidently, the mode of transportation is the problem.

I live in Madison and, to answer the original question, lots of cyclists run red lights and violate one-way streets here. On the other hand, lots of cyclists (like me) obey the laws. So it's evidently not the mode of transportation. It's a set of norms that could easily change -- and would change, if cops handed out more tickets.
posted by escabeche at 10:33 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm in the Netherlands.
One important part is that in the case of a car-bicyclist collision the car driver is generally at fault. No matter what happened.
That has the effect that in town bicyclists drive around in the half dark without lights and often cut across you when you're driving a car. So in that sense bicyclists are not very law abiding.
Getting a car drivers licence is rather more involved than in the US. One aspect of that is that you will only get your licence when you've shown that you're aware of bicyclists when driving.
On the other hand we have a lot of infrastructure that's totally dedicated to bikes; totally separate lanes, special traffic lights. Combined with sometimes high numbers of bicyclists at a time that can lead to a natural effect for bicyclists to follow general traffic principles amongst themselves (indicate a turn before you make it, position yourself before you make a turn, wait for the bike traffic light to turn green).
posted by joost de vries at 10:35 PM on March 14, 2011

I remember an interview a few years back with a guy from either Denmark or the Netherlands, who was being asked about the state of transportation in his country. At one point, the (American) interviewer asked what the 'cycling culture' was like.

At first, the interviewee didn't understand the question. Eventually, when he realized that he did indeed parse the question correctly, he responded "I imagine that it's very much like the 'toaster culture' in your country."

To him, the bicycle was a tool — like a somewhat-more-complicated vegetable peeler. The conflict didn't exist over there, and cycling was ubiquitous enough that not much of a "community" revolved around it. Advocacy was unnecessary, as the governments gave reasonably fair and equitable treatment to cyclist's needs.

I also imagine that no other country has the abominable record that the US does for failing to prosecute cycling-related deaths. You can literally get away with murder here, as long as your victim happens to be straddling a two-wheeled object at the time.
posted by schmod at 10:35 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm (also) in Melbourne, and I have found that the expression "people on bikes are assholes who never follow laws" would need to be amended for local conditions to: "people on bikes are arseholes who never follow laws."

I say this as a committed pedestrian, who is regularly hit by cyclists because they couldn't be bothered riding on the roads where they belong.

I note with disgust the recent amendments to the no-cycling signs at the Exhibition and Carlton Gardens..
posted by pompomtom at 10:39 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Everyone rides a bike in Japan, practically. Around where I live, riding on the sidewalk is extremely common and generally legal. Helmets are only required for riders 13 or under. People on sidewalks (and sometimes streets) generally go at low speeds (maybe a fast jogging speed or slightly faster). Cyclists who are going at high speeds (20/30mph) tend to ride in the street and wear helmets, but they are rare. Most people seem to follow traffic laws. Since most riders are on sidewalks, going through red lights seems less common.

Drivers also tend to be significantly more conscientious of cyclists on the sidewalk. When I am riding on the sidewalk approaching a minor intersection (side street onto a main street with no signage), a driver turning onto the side street will usually give me right-of-way. The main place that cyclists annoy me here are in the covered arcades/shopping streets. They try to careen around (at jogging speed or less) a bunch of strolling people and don't get anywhere because of the crowds. I always wonder why they don't just use common sense and ride one street over where there is less pedestrian traffic.

Japanese people might just be more law-abiding on the whole, though.

I remember being amused by an article about the lack of popularity of fixed gear bikes in Japan, written with a bit of a confused air (Why wouldn't they adore them?!?!). I think Japanese people think of bikes like schmod's Dane/Dutchman, and that fixies would be way too much work if you're used to just coasting around at low speeds.
posted by that girl at 10:58 PM on March 14, 2011

While I don't dispute that there are cyclists who are assholes/don't follow laws, etc, there's also a feedback loop of bad traffic design that encourages bad cyclist behavior. I bike on sidewalks, for example, when I need to cover two or three blocks on one of the dangerous streets (any more and I bike on a parallel street) because I can't get down the street safely (although I do walk my bike if there are pedestrians). I make "left" turns by crossing in the pedestrian lane because cars will not let me make left turns from either the regular lane or (should it exist) the left turn lane. This isn't the cars' fault, really, since there is no car culture that explains how to treat left-turning bikes--but still, I have to make the turn!

The thing is, for every car situation where a bike runs a red light or comes to a rolling stop, there's a bike situation where you're cut off abruptly, honked at for doing normal, legal things (like being at a corner stopped at a light when someone behind you wants to make a right turn but feels like they can't pull out in front of you), etc. I've also had cars drive reallyreallyreally close to me on purpose to "scare" me--when I was biking in a perfectly ordinary, close to the curb manner--because the driver (usually a young/middle aged white guy) doesn't like bikes. And yes, that does scare me.

But most of this is a traffic/street design problem--cars wouldn't be so frustrated if bike traffic were more consistent and there were better designed streets, etc. I don't even think it's an "assholes are assholes" problem; it's a "lots of kind of unpredictable stuff happening at irregular intervals creating a feedback loop in which basically okay people look like assholes" problem.
posted by Frowner at 11:15 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

That is a big problem Frowner. Where I live now people bike very fast on the sidewalks all the time and they tend to ride straight through intersections without slowing down. I always look for bikes when I'm turning right or left but they travel so fast I literally may not be able to see them in the time it takes me to look, look the other way back into traffic, then make the turn. Because of the way the sidewalks are constructed and the speed at which they are moving they can appear basically out of nowhere. It is NOT legal for them to go through intersections this way but I bet 95% of them don't even know its not legal because no one knows the laws.

Also after 10pm or so a lot of them are very drunk. I live in an area with lots of popular bars and there are no local consequence for drunk-biking so people will get hammered and ride home, thinking they are being responsible because they are not driving a car! I nearly hit a guy last week who was going the wrong way down the street at night, dressed all in black with no lights wearing DJ headphones with his arms spread out like Jesus. It was 30 degrees and he was wearing a t-shirt. This was so usual I didn't even bother mentioning it to anyone! I live on a steep hill with a 90 degree bend at the bottom and have seen spectacular wrecks on my street when people bike or skateboard down it drunk. No one is ever cited, even when they have to send an ambulance to scrape them off the guardrail.

Everywhere I've lived with enforced bike laws, bike riders have been better, more responsible, more traffic savvy riders.
posted by fshgrl at 11:30 PM on March 14, 2011

When I was in China (Beijing and Shanghai) several years ago, it seemed very much like "toaster culture" was the general attitude there as well. Bicyclists didn't really self-identify as such because it was too common to maintain the kind of persecuted-minority feeling I see in the U.S.

Bicyclists did stay on the roads, and did obey the traffic laws about as well as cars did, which is to say not very well when the police were around and worse when they weren't. It was very common for bicycles to form these swarms that acted like miniature Critical Mass pelotons, except without the organized corking and such.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:45 PM on March 14, 2011

I can confirm schmod's sentiment that in Copenhagen there is not really a "bike culture" - like in Amsterdam, we just bike. The bike infrastructure is better and there are many, many more bikes than cars, at least in the inner parts of the cities, and everyone bikes themselves. Growing up, we learn bike safety and traffic rules in school, biking around as kids with police officers, and most kids start biking to school and other places with their parents around age 5. And when you get a driver's license (which is a lot more time consuming than in the US), you are constantly trained to look for bikes. So it's really ingrained in our culture - I guess it's like walking or taking the subway for a person from NYC.

That said, of course it is not uncommon for cyclists to run red lights, ride without lights at night, ride the wrong direction down a one-way street (these things can all get you fines and do occasionally), ride two people next to each other (also on roads without bike lanes), ride two people on one bike, and ride on the sidewalks. But it's not really something drivers get angry about (unless they are generally really angry people, I guess). In my experience, when I've been driving in a car around in the city, you understand the biker's mentality and just shrug and go "it could have been me doing that."

I think the most dangerous part of Copenhagen "bike culture" is the fact that it is completely normal to bike home drunk - and I don't mean just buzzed, often black-out, "wow, I can't remember how I got home" drunk. I have personally and know many people who have crashed, seriously, on their bikes this way (usually, they just get back up on the bike again and keep riding). This is helped a little bit by good street lighting and the fact that there are not many cars driving at night - but of course, it's still bad. Friends very rarely discourage this behavior and "drunk bike driving" can't get you fined by the police. I think the only reason why people don't get much more seriously hurt more often is, again, that biking is almost as ingrained in us as walking, and therefore it is easier to do on auto-pilot.
posted by coraline at 12:07 AM on March 15, 2011

When riding in Berlin, everyone followed the law of the land. Cycle-only pavement is specially colored and pedestrians stay off it. Cars, pedestrians and cyclists all followed traffic signals, in my experience.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:11 AM on March 15, 2011

In Poland, I was once stopped by police for riding on the road and asked to continue my journey on the pavement.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:44 AM on March 15, 2011

I moved from LA to Copenhagen and definitely had some Breaking Away attitude that I had to knock off real quick. It took many months for me to fully understand that there was a special place for me to bike, and that meant I didn't have to keep trying to invent one for myself! The rules of the 'bike space' are as rational and ingrained as those of the 'car space': don't unload your shopping in it, don't leave your cardoor open, don't stand in it. The driving test here involves heavy bike awareness as a normal part of the environment.

I'm not aware of LA having a bike culture per se, but my experience there was a lot like Frowner's, where I felt as if I had to fend for myself as a biker, while trying not to be an ass. In places where there's no sane, integrated infrastructure for different types of travelers, someone is bound to get banged up: I was once knocked off my bike by a car, while riding on the sidewalk, trying to avoid pedestrians/cars/construction in the street in Pasadena.

I'm generalizing here but I think the difference in Copenhagen has to do with a much less anarchic road culture overall, and not just a lack of bikes vs cars dichotomy. Here, even pedestrians don't walk against the light, not even when drunk. It's pretty comical as a foreigner to see how deeply ingrained this rule-abiding is, but having lived here two years I now also stand dumbly at the light waiting for it to change, instead of looking to see for myself if I can walk.

And I can attest that one of the sublime pleasures of living here is biking home half drunk.
posted by hereticfig at 3:23 AM on March 15, 2011

In New Zealand there is a certain amount of "I'm on a bike so I can run reds" thinking. It's not by any means universal but it's there. I'm told there was a time when a lot of lights relied on a magnetic loop set into the road to know when traffic was waiting. The loop was not activated by the low mass of a bike - hence you would wait for ever (or at least until a car turned up) for the light to change. Not sure if was ever true but I've heard it used as a justification for this behaviour.

There are, of course, laws around the use of lights at night - most people follow them to some degree. However you do encounter cyclists who either have a death wish or a different understanding of low light vision than I do.

Bicycle helmet usage is mandatory (still no sign of the 'Car Drivers Must Wear Helmets' legislation ... surprise !) - not quite sure why but people who wish to not follow this rule almost always have their helmet hanging from the handlebars. Maybe you get a lesser penalty if you're stopped ? Genuine puzzle.

Various laws around cycling on pavements but I've never heard of anyone being done for it.

A couple of winters back I encountered a police/local council operated 'bicycle road block' in which cyclists had their lighting inspected. Tickets weren't being issued (in fact discount vouchers for lights were being given out) but vague threats were being made.
posted by southof40 at 3:32 AM on March 15, 2011

Thanks for the responses so far, everyone! It's especially great to see multiple points of view on the same places.

Riding around San Diego was fine. I will note that pedestrian laws there are strictly enforced. I rode there adhering to the traffic laws, as did everyone else.

Anyone else have biking experience in San Diego? According to this it seems to be the one and only American city with law-abiding cyclists.

Everyone rides a bike in Japan, practically. Around where I live, riding on the sidewalk is extremely common and generally legal. [...] When I am riding on the sidewalk approaching a minor intersection (side street onto a main street with no signage), a driver turning onto the side street will usually give me right-of-way.

I've biked in Japan and we were told to stay on the sidewalks - it's interesting that in the US one of the major issues with sidewalk-riding is visibility to cars at intersections, but if they know you're there it's not a big deal.
posted by soma lkzx at 4:32 AM on March 15, 2011

Actually, you don't need to go outside of New York to find a cyclist who obeys all traffic laws. Because (waves) I'm right here.

It is not "pretty much a given" that New York cyclists break traffic laws. You notice the ones who do, because their idiocy calls attention to itself. But while you're shouting at them, there are plenty of law-abiding cyclists like me patiently waiting at traffic lights and feeling just as pissed off as you are, because those idiots are making us look bad.

The bike community in New York is also starting to unofficially self-police as well - I took part in the "Tour De Brooklyn" last year, and there were a lot of reminders to follow all traffic laws and not ride on sidewalks and give pedestrians the right of way and what have you. And we were reminded to follow those laws all the time, not just during the tour.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:51 AM on March 15, 2011

I got two tickets for traffic violations on a bike, in NYC. In 1990. I was working as a messenger at the time (fucking horrible work) and so spent a lot of time, obviously, riding around. The cops were obnoxious as shit, they'd pull you over not just for flagrant traffic violations but piddling shit as well (too close to a pedestrian (! who was likely jay-walking!) or not signaling a right turn (!). We weren't a whole lot better, honestly, but the majority were trying to keep things reasonably cool.
The other drivers were the worst part, tremendous amount of grief from taxis, busses and fed-ex/UPS guys. Those tickets stayed on my record about ten years - until I went to transfer my license from another state to NY. That was a nasty surprise.

Here in Berlin, there is an expectation that you will not drive like a jerk, whether you are in a car or on a bike, and the Police might have a little talk with you if don't drive (bike or car) considerately enough. If you break the law on your bike the points go on your car license, (just like NYC). The infrastructure for riding a bike here is about a thousand times better than NYC though and so it's less offensive to be held to the same standard as cars knowing you're also protected to the same degree. Of course there are, still, jerks.

The biggest difference here vs the US is often in the US if you can't afford/drive a car your life can be really really difficult, whereas here if you can't drive you can just take your bike or the bus/train (because the infrastructure is there for it). I've known a bunch of people who have had cars and then let them go, others who have thought long and hard about getting one only to decide against it. All this influences the way people think about bicyclists - people on bikes aren't jerks/freaks who XYZ, but people who don't happen to be in a car.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:18 AM on March 15, 2011

Anyone else have biking experience in San Diego? According to this it seems to be the one and only American city with law-abiding cyclists.

I've pointed out time and time again that the "law abiding" argument is a stupid one to make, given that American cities and states generally do not figure bicycle traffic into their traffic laws. Bikes are not cars, and it's not crazy for them to have their own set of rules (although they rarely actually do).

Have you ever been to an American city where the pedestrians are law-abiding on even a broad, general level? There are only a handful of cities that actually ticket or reprimand for jaywalking, and even that is only done sporadically. The argument that bicycles must obey all of the same rules as cars is a fairly egregious double-standard, unless you also want to crack down on illegal pedestrian traffic too.

Of course, by officially "recognizing" bicycles and pedestrians, the state sets itself up on a mildly-slippery slope for a small amount of legal liability, as it's now expected to provide safe environments for cyclists and pedestrians (by virtue of the fact that it is responsible for maintaining the roads). The State of Maryland was recently found liable for the death of a pedestrian who was struck and killed while trying to cross an arterial road. This road contained several housing developments, no sidewalks, and a 2-mile stretch with no crosswalks or other safe pedestrian crossings.
posted by schmod at 7:38 AM on March 15, 2011

First of all, I think you have to challenge the idea of bikers as "asshole law breakers." The fact is, pedestrians and cars ROUTINELY break the law, yet nobody stereotypes them as "assholes." Pedestrians jaywalk constantly in New York, and in DC, where I am, cars constantly go above the speed limit, turn right on red, or roll through stop signs. For some reason, there's this current movement to stereotype bikers as "law breakers," despite the fact that other forms of transit break the rules all the time. In the same way that it makes sense for a pedestrian to jaywalk, sometimes it makes sense for a biker to run a red (mainly, in order to get ahead of traffic).

That said, my sense here in DC is that bikers are not so much "law breakers" as bad bike riders. They just kind of obliviously zip through red lights, dodge around parking cars, shoot off the sidewalk into intersections, and ride up into truck blind spots at intersections. I think they just don't realize that they're in a different atmosphere; they're not riding around the suburbs on a Sunday.
posted by yarly at 8:26 AM on March 15, 2011

I've pointed out time and time again that the "law abiding" argument is a stupid one to make

Yes, I pointed out in the initial question that it isn't realistic, but I feel like one of the major obstacles to bike-friendly laws is perception of cyclists. Even among people who don't have cars here in NYC (so they don't compete with bikes for space), the idea that cyclists are reckless and inconsiderate is widespread, and laws being flouted with regularity is one of the reasons. It's hard to get laws passed in your favor if no one likes you.

And just in case I sound like I'm not sounding pro-bike enough, I promise I'm one of the good guys.
posted by soma lkzx at 8:27 AM on March 15, 2011

At least in Boston it seems to be a fairly common thing that bicyclists will either act as pedestrians or vehicles depending on what suits them at the moment - that is to say, they tend to ride in the street but when they come to a four-way red light with a walk signal they'll ride through on or next to the crosswalk.

Based only on my own observation I've found that this tends to happen less on roads with clearly marked bike lanes (again, this is only in Boston as it's the only city I've ridden around in very much recently). But these are just data points from one MONSTER. Nevertheless I hope the answer has been helpful.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:24 AM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

but I feel like one of the major obstacles to bike-friendly laws is perception of cyclists. Even among people who don't have cars here in NYC (so they don't compete with bikes for space), the idea that cyclists are reckless and inconsiderate is widespread, and laws being flouted with regularity is one of the reasons. It's hard to get laws passed in your favor if no one likes you.

Well, it's not that laws are being flouted with regularity by bikes, not any more than by peds. and cars. It's just that drivers aren't used to sharing the road with bikers at all, so any examples of lawbreaking by bikes have greater salience for them. I think there are three reasons for this.

- One, cars know they HAVE to stop for red lights and stop signs; so they feel angry and resentful that bikes get to go through the red lights, and cars don't. This has nothing to do with the actual safety or lawfulness of the bikers. Drivers fixate on this one, highly visible breakage of a social norm by others, and ignore the fact that they routinely break the law themselves by speeding, etc.

- Two, many drivers who aren't used to sharing the road with bicycles (as in most of the US) are scared of bikers and find them unpredictable. These are the drivers who will tail a biker reallly slowly instead of passing. To these drivers, watching a bike go through a red light makes them seem scarily unpredictable and they don't know how to drive around them. Again, this has nothing to do with bikers being more lawless than others, but just that drivers in general don't know how to deal with bikers and tag them as "lawless" instead of accepting that they, as drivers, need to learn skills to share the road with bikers.

- Three, many drivers are assholes who don't want to be inconvenienced for one second, and they see bikes as interlopers on the road rather than as vehicles with a right to be in the road. These drivers reserve their ire for bike-caused delays in an irrational way. For example, they may get angry at having to drive slowly behind a bike taking a lane and decide that "bikes don't belong on the road," ... but they tolerate taxi cabs double parked and waiting behind somebody trying to double park. Since the don't think bikes have a right to be on the road, any bike-related delay is considered intolerable. This leads to stereotyping bikers as lawbreakers, etc., but the underlying truth is that they just don't think bikes have a right to be on the road.
posted by yarly at 10:05 AM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I bike and drive in Edmonton, Alberta, which is a fairly small city in comparison to NYC, and due to it's development in the 20th century, is designed in a very car friendly way, particularly outside of the central neighbourhoods. Most of us follow the rules, most of the time, and I'd say that cyclists and motorists do so in equal amounts. When the roads are good, I typically speed a touch (within 10 km/h of the speed limit). A couple weeks ago, I was about to enter a major highway because I missed a turn, and after observing that there was no other traffic at all, I made an illegal u-turn to avoid having to go several km down the highway before there was an exit I could take to turn around. Why, because the convenience benefit is high and my perception of the risk is low. From what I observe, I am typical.

It's the same on the bike. There's a pedestrian crossing I take in my summer commute that's a transition from the mixed-use bike trail to the street. Technically, I should dismount and walk my bike when crossing, but if there are no pedestrians, I don't. Same as in the car, I do this because it's incredibly convenient and I see virtually no risk in it. From what I observe around me with other cyclists, I'm also typical in this respect. Yes, there are a few (assholes) who bike on the sidewalk, even when there are pedestrians around, and when I've challenged a few, they protest that it's too frightening to bike on the street. I explain that they have a right to be there, and it's not dangerous if they have helmets and lights/reflectors/etc. (The people who ride on the sidewalk seem to shun safety gear, which makes me rather suspicious of their claims to be afraid of danger.)

The main difference is that I've had motorists yell at me for existing on any street, often at seemingly random occasions, when I'm obeying all laws, staying to the side of the street, signalling every turn, etc. In contrast, when I'm in my car, I have to *really* speed to attract any attention (which I only do on the highway, when a long drive and lack of cruise control have sometimes conspired with a short attention span to create higher than lawful speeds), and then it's from a uniformed and authorized officer who calmly and unemotionally informs me of my infraction before issuing a ticket.
posted by Kurichina at 10:42 AM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Every area has its own road use culture. Pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists all pick and choose the rules they follow balancing the odds of getting caught, the odds of getting in an accident, and the inconvenience factor. At most it only bears a loose resemblance to what is "legal". That's life.

Here in Toronto I expect cyclists use the roads about the same way they do in New York. Lots of cyclists stop for red lights, but many don't. Many who do stop proceed as soon as the opposing direction stops moving, long before green. Stopping for 4 way stops is pretty unusual. Riding the wrong way is common, but generally limited to places where space and traffic levels allow it to work. Cyclists never stop before making a right turn on red if they can help it, and never obey no right turn on red signs. Most cyclists don't do much sidewalk riding downtown, and when they do it is very slow. As you get out of the downtown core sidewalk riding goes up a lot, and it gets faster. Oh ya, and cyclists have no qualms about passing on the right under any circumstances.

To the best of my knowledge all of these things are formally breaking the rules of the road. However, there are a few places around town where "bicycles excepted" signs are posted, and where contra flow bike lanes are painted on one way streets. The Toronto police go on safe cycling blitzes once or twice a year. At those times they will stop and ticket cyclists for the above infractions. Even then, they generally only ticket the egregious offences, like weaving through a line of pedestrians while running a red light. When blitzes aren't in action, there is virtually no enforcement.

Now, let's talk about what Toronto driving culture is like, and how drivers break the law? No, okay, I won't bother.. Not part of the question, and anyway it would be nice if we could all grow up a little.
posted by Chuckles at 12:55 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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