Why We Should Never Fine Cyclists

Forget the penalties—bike riders shouldn't have to obey laws designed for 4,000-pound automobiles.

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Flickr/Magnificent Octopus

Major traffic tickets for cyclists are coming soon to an American city near you.

This is in part the result of pressure from automobile advocates, who seethe at new bike lanes on crowded streets and shake their fists at scofflaw cyclists, asking when they will be held to the same—or indeed, any—standard of behavior.

But this is part of the endgame for many cycling advocates as well, who concede that equality in infrastructure provision should be met by a commitment to obey traffic laws. Much of this country's burgeoning urban bike lane network has trickled down from the model in Copenhagen—New York City, for example, hired Danish consultants—where there are bicycle lights at every corner, cyclists obey the law to the letter, and fines for misbehavior well exceed $100.

Are U.S. cities there yet? My colleague Sarah Goodyear argues that we are, and cyclists ought to start keeping their end of the bargain sooner rather than later:

What’s happening in Chicago is the same thing that’s happening in cities all over the country: Bicycling is becoming mainstream. According to the city’s figures, 20,000 people now ride their bikes to work in downtown Chicago on a regular basis. That’s up 200 percent since 2005.

In New York, it’s the same story. Bicycles are now a routine form of transportation for tens of thousands of people. The bike commuting rate doubled between 2007 and 2011. In San Francisco, bikes made up 66 percent of inbound traffic on Market Street in a recent count – and it wasn’t "bike to work day," when the share rode to 76 percent....

The flip side is that in places like Chicago, they have also been ticketing bicyclists for violating laws. In New York, the Department of Transportation has deployed safety officers on busy bike routes to remind people of the right way to ride. Ticketing blitzes seem to be happening more regularly.

This is what has to happen for things to get to the next level.

As a bicycle commuter—and past recipient of one $124 ticket for biking through an empty intersection at a red light, in New Haven, Connecticut—I've been dreading this moment for a long time.

I don't glide through stoplights to declare my independence from society; it's simply a central pleasure of riding a bike. It can be hard work going long distances under my own power, and these small conveniences make a big difference. I'm no proponent of riding on sidewalks or "salmoning" up a one-way street, but I've done both from time to time to avoid long detours or dangerous streets. We bike riders lose ground to cars on straightaways and hills, but we make it up at red lights and in traffic, nosing through lines of stalled cars.

Like pedestrians, we find ways to exploit the holes in a traffic system that is, even in the best-provisioned U.S. cities, designed at a foundational level for the convenience of automobiles. That's the game, and has been for a while.

But there are more people on bikes now, and the irresponsible actions of our more reckless peers do frighten, anger and yes, sometimes injure pedestrians. It's not hard to understand why bike-friendly city governments and transportation advocacy groups might peddle enforcement as a trade-off for safer streets. For many cycling advocates, the big question is not if but when people on bicycles ought to begin accruing attention from traffic cops. Goodyear says right away; others say that cities need first to provide better infrastructure and/or get serious about ticketing and prosecuting motorists. Opinion varies widely: readers have already posted over a hundred different responses to her piece.

Here's mine: I hope it never happens. On balance, cyclists' illegal behavior—like that of pedestrians—adds much, much more convenience to life than danger. Aggressive enforcement of traffic laws could upend the fragile system of incentives that leads thousands of people to undertake a long and sweaty commute each day.

Why should people riding 20-pound bicycles obey laws designed to regulate the conduct of 4,000-pound cars, to say nothing of accepting the same penalties? In terms of the damage we can cause and sustain in an accident, cyclists have more in common with pedestrians than cars and should be treated accordingly. (I'm surprised anyone even argues that cyclists ought to be treated more like cars.) The removal of cyclists from the traffic mainstream underlines this fact: the best new infrastructure is isolating bikes from vehicular traffic. The "complete street" is really an automobile street with two sidewalks, one for walkers and one for similarly vulnerable people moving slightly faster—bike riders, but often joggers and roller-bladers, too. As Randy Cohen has pointed out, people riding bicycles "have skin in the game. And blood. And bones." We don't have, or feel, the invulnerability of drivers.

As with pedestrians, our conduct crossing the street should be regulated first by a concern for our own and others' safety, and failing that basic judgment, by the same mutually enforced moral code that governs jaywalking and so many other pseudo-legal elements of city life. (More on this in a minute.) (I admit: jaywalkers, like cyclists, sometimes get fined, but it is seldom announced as a municipal priority, and is a silly use of resources in any case.)

There are, of course, people on bicycles who make bad decisions, putting pedestrians and drivers at risk. But will quota-hungry police departments prove able (or willing) to isolate the worst offenders and leave the rest of us alone? (Have they ever proved able to do so in any other aspect of life where shades of gray are involved?) When it comes to judgment calls, I'd rather take my chances with cyclists deciding how to behave than with police deciding when to ticket.

Why? Because a fix for injurious, frightening, disruptive bicycle behavior—the only two-wheeled law-breaking that matters, and itself a phenomenon fueled in the public mind by anecdotes rather than statistics—is already on the way. And not through the stepped-up enforcement actions of traffic police.

It will be separated bike lanes, not the threat of fines, that reduce our incentive to jump ahead of fast-moving traffic, hop up onto sidewalks, and pedal up one-way streets. That infrastructure will also provide structural enforcement of group behavior (the first people in line decide how the rest will act) and the social pressure of group riding, which veers towards the sensible and the safe. Among the cyclists I join each morning on my way to work, there is a palpable sense of group-regulated conduct. We all make the same decisions at each light. Some of them are illegal, but all of them are safe.

Bike-haters are hankering for concessions, for cities to get serious about ticketing cyclists, but people who like riding bicycles should do their best to argue against them. Once we are stuck at red lights, we will never get through again.

Top image: Flickr user the Magnificent Octopus.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.