Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Why I Run Red Lights

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Hunter College released a study last week of the habits of about 4000 New York City bicyclists at about 100 intersections which pointed out that, among other things, bicyclists in general have become incrementally more considerate than they were in 2009 – which was the last time Hunter College released a study – on account of an influx of casual bicyclists. This makes a fair amount of basic sense: If you have to be crazy to bike in New York City, only crazy people will bike in New York City. However, even our kinder and gentler pro-CitiBike crowd runs red lights as a matter of course. According to the study, here’s the rundown:

  • Bicyclists who stop fully at red lights: 30.4%
  • Bicyclists who stop and then run red lights: 35.6%
  • Bicyclists who do not stop at red lights: 34.0%

With numbers like that, it appears to be a scourge of scofflaw bicyclists: Fully two-thirds break the law, and one third doesn’t even bother to stop at all. Why would bicyclists habitually do such a thing?

I contend that bicyclists do because without such it’s pointless to ride a bicycle for any considerable distance: All other forms of motorized transportation would be faster. Of course, I can’t speak for all bicyclists, but I can at least explain my own motives. Here are my numbers:

My cruising speed is about 15 miles per hour, which works out to a 4 minute mile. 20 city blocks in Manhattan on the north/south axis basically make up a mile, so to go from Dyckman Street to Houston Street, for instance, would be basically 200 blocks or 10 miles. The A train, going from Dyckman-200th St to West 4th St, takes about 45 minutes. No bus runs that route, but the M4 and the M7 run the closest: The former takes 80 minutes, running skip-stop service, to go from 190th St to 34th St, and the latter takes 80 minutes to go from 145th St to 14th St. A car, going on local roads, would take about 30 minutes.

Most avenues time their lights so that vehicles can run a string of lights: Going between 20 and 30 miles per hour, and depending on traffic conditions, motorists can usually go between 3 and 7 blocks before stopping. Bicyclists, however, do not go the same speed as motorists, and so can take lesser advantage. But, from experience, as a bicyclist I can on average run 3 blocks before hitting the next light.

As the crow flies, I should be able to make 100 blocks, 5 miles, in 20 minutes. Say, 30 considering the vagaries of traffic. Let’s add lights: Each light is a minute long, and in 100 blocks I would hit 33 of them. Thus, 30 minutes becomes 63 minutes. Of course, that also means I’m not cruising, but instead am starting and stopping. This would more or less halve my average speed (and significantly increase physical effort), so it turns into 93 minutes.

I live far uptown, so those numbers are all doubled. I would hit 66 (!) lights, the waiting for which alone would be over an hour. It would be as bad as taking a city bus the length of Manhattan – something nobody does if they’re looking to get somewhere – except I’d be sweaty at the end of it. I would might as well leave the bicycle home.

Most of those intersections, especially uptown, are empty, so it not only makes temporal sense but also feels natural to run the lights. In my twelve years of bicycling in this city, and indeed up until last year, no policeman has looked twice at my actions: Just as pedestrians are not prosecuted for jaywalking mid-block on local cross streets, it doesn’t seem seemly to prosecute bicyclists for similar infraction. I’ve had cops wave me through intersections specifically because it was ridiculous to wait at an empty one (and my slower acceleration rate would, ironically, block traffic). This means, among other things, that the police recognized that bicyclists are not the same as motorists.

This is not to say there aren’t alternatives, of course: There is the Riverside Park and West Side bicycle path, which is entirely separated from motorized traffic and spans practically the length of Manhattan. It was designed and designated as the bicyclist highway and largely exists in that role. There are three problems, however, with the path.

First, there is the problem of getting to it. It exists in Midtown on the far end of a highway that is one of the worst spots in the city for bicyclist deaths and has limited entry points uptown that require navigating the topography of the city. The path exists at sea level, but Morningside Heights, Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights do not.

Second, there is the problem of sharing that space with pedestrians, especially in the Upper West Side, where there are large numbers of strollers and pets.

Third, there is the problem of navigating at night: Most of the path, through the Upper West Side and further uptown, is unlit and unpatrolled, and is thus favored by muggers who beset bicyclists from the dark. A few cases are especially gruesome, in that assailants would trip the cyclist by running a line across the path, causing grievous injury.

In all, I’d take my chances local streets, and indeed so do most bicyclists. Despite this flagrant, communal display of contempt for the law, however, pedestrian injuries caused by motorists compared to injuries caused by bicyclists are still on a 140:1 ratio, and deaths can’t be compared as there hasn’t been a pedestrian death at the hands of a bicyclist since 2009. In short, bicyclists may be an annoyance, but they are not a threat, no matter how many times they run the light.

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