City Desk

Cyclists: How to Be a Sensible Scofflaw

In the sad aftermath of Alice Swanson's death, blogs left and right have been awash in comments about the great urban biking vs. urban driving debate, which inevitably drills down to versions of the following claim (from Megan McArdle's Atlantic blog): "if bicyclists want to be respected like other vehicles, they have to obey the same rules."

Allow me to voice the unspoken secret of urban bicycling: No, we don't. The whole fun and profit of riding your bike in the city is breaking the rules when safe and possible. That's why I can get from my office in Adams Morgan down to city hall in 10 minutes or less during even the worst times of day traffic-wise. It's what makes riding a bike around this city worthwhile.

I ride pretty much everywhere I need to go in the city, averaging about 50 miles a week, not counting any recreational/fitness rides. I also own a car, which I drive an average of twice a week. I've been in exactly one bike accident in nine years in town, when a driver made an illegal U-turn in front of me mid-block.

That said, I thought I'd share my "sensible scofflaw" strategies:

1. Running stop signs. My usual MO is this: As I approach a four-way stop, I assess traffic and slow down so that I take my turn while still rolling. If I can piggyback on a car moving through the intersection, I do. Actually stopping would mean wasting a considerable amount of energy getting back up to speed, especially seeing as I rarely downshift as I approach. Pet peeve: Fairly often, drivers will stop and wave me through at four-way stops. I can't tell you how much I hate this: Do not make exceptions for me. When drivers make exceptions to the rules of the road, that's when accidents happen. Take your turn, I'll take mine.

2. Running traffic lights. I generally don't do it when there's heavy traffic or at complicated intersections with multiple protected left turns. But, when traffic is light, I'll jump the gun after looking left-right-left and watching closely to see if any cars stopped with me are signaling or contemplating turns. Another thing I tend to do is wait to cross in the middle of the lane, edged almost into the intersection, where I can be easily seen.

3. Going the wrong way down one-way streets. Try to avoid it, with one big exception. I live on the 1400 block of W Street NW, which is one way heading east. Every day I have to head west to work, so I generally ride west on the sidewalk to the intersection with 15th Street and Florida Avenue, ride through the intersection (after going through it four or more times a day for more than a year, I've got the signal timing down), then continue across the 1500 block of W/Florida, still going the wrong way. If I didn't do this, I'd have to detour east and south to V Street NW, which would just be stupid.

4. Sliding past cars stopped at intersections. Don't know if this is even illegal, but this is the whole reason why you ride your bike around town! In fact, I dare a driver to cite a time they saw a cyclist actually wait in line with traffic. The secret to doing this safely and successfully is to be defensive. Generally, as I approach the intersection, I'll slide to the inside of the waiting cars to avoid the right hook, then while waiting for the light, ride in front of the right-most lane to the outside, making eye contact with the driver. If the light changes while I approach the intersection, I slow down, allow a car to pass and slip in just behind.

Any other cyclists out there care to share their own sensible-scofflaw strategies?

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  1. Jan Willem van der Vossen

    The strategy you describe is right: make no assumptions, be watchful, ride defensively. This is actually safer than relying on the rules. Even ik bikers follow the rules, cars will assume they don't, or not even notice them. And even if the car is in the wrong, you could be in the hospital nevertheless, or worse. Very important also: make sure your brakes are in prime condition. Always be ready to stop on a dime.

    When on the sidewalk, pedestrians are another issue: about half of them do not respond to a signal, or unexpectedly get in your way. One half of that half is listening to their MP3 so can't hear you coming, signal or no signal. The rule about the brakes applies. Don't zoom past them, either. Take it slow.

    When biking it is not about who is in the right, but how to avoid scrapes.

  2. #2

    Good post. Instead of fighting to have cyclists follow the law, they should be fighting for everyone on the street just to be considerate. In fact, I think sometimes it is to everybody's advantage when cyclists (sensibly) break the traffic laws. A lot of times, running through stop signs and red lights is partly just an effort to keep out of congested traffic.

    In particular, cautious red-light running makes a lot of sense when there is a long line of traffic waiting at a red light, and no traffic going through the intersection. You can run the red light (watching out for right-on-red cars) and often get half a block or more lead on the cars, which is much better than trying to share the lanes while cars are accelerating faster than you can, a few inches to your left.

    There are also a lot of circumstances where I break the no-riding-on-the-sidewalk downtown rule, especially when the streets are all congested and have narrow lanes, but there aren't too many pedestrians. Pedestrians wander on the streets; I don't think it's a problem when bikes wander onto the sidewalks if they do it respectfully. In fact I think there ought to be a little more bike-car solidarity versus annoying pedestrians.

    And I agree about drivers waving you on (not only at 4-way stop signs). It always makes things worse.

  3. #3

    Wrong way on one-way streets? You crazy.

  4. #4

    After doing a bit more reading, I came across what known as "Effective Cycling." From what little I've read, I think that describes my approach pretty well. I will try to get my hands on the book.

  5. #5

    Very good posts. I think most drivers really just want me out of the way, which is often accomplished by crossing against the light when no cars are coming, etc.

    Two other tips. Don't rush. Don't brood - over work,romance, politics, or any other issue; you really need to be into the moment.

    And, of course, if you forego a helmet for headphones, you really are just an idiot.

  6. #6

    I rode a 10-speed through the streets of NYC back in the last century, before bike lanes, and attempted to follow traffic laws. Taxi drivers told me to get on the sidewalk, and cops waved me through red lights.

    Cops have waved me through red lights in Buffalo NY and even Austin TX (where there are bike lanes), but not in DC, where officers look right through me.

  7. #7

    The bikes... Oh how I used to fly around. It had to cease because of a deflated tire though. A scooter or a moped is another option, if you got one.

  8. #8

    Sensible strategies or not, this post side steps (and diminishes) the fact that Alice had the right of way when she was killed. She was obeying the law. The truck, innocently, accidentally, carelessly, wasn't. I can't help but think you could have found a more appropriate, if less dramatic/convenient soapbox, Mike.

  9. #9

    Alice was the safest biker I knew and she probably only violated traffic rules on rare occasions. She wasn't like the rest of us, who would agree with the above post because that's how we (used to) bike. Now we'll think of Alice as we peddle around town.

    Alice was always cautious, always tried to find the bike lanes and always wore a helmet. The fact that she was killed doing something that she took more seriously than the rest of her friends and other bikers makes her death even more tragic and harder to understand.

    Please be careful.

  10. #10

    If you need a whole manifesto to explain how your breaking of the rules is actually okay, then your rationale is b.s.

  11. #11

    Good post - I agree 100% and that's how I've ridden in general. Those who demand cyclists stop at all stop signs and lights, even if the way is totally clear, must be operating under some kind of alternative physics than the one with laws such as conservation of momentum, and going uphill is a struggle against gravity with only 1/4 horsepower, at best.

  12. #12

    thanks, mike, this is a great post. i'm going to refer people back to it whenever there is an argument/discussion of what bikers should be doing in town.

  13. #13

    I don't understand why ALL the discussion around this terrible crash has been focused around what cyclists do or don't do correctly. Why is there not more outcry as to why "profesional" drivers of large trucks and busses are not held more accountable for their actions, and additional equipment and roadway usage restrictions put in place?

    Also, your approach is nothing like that of Effective Cycling author John Forester. Forester's main premise is that cyclists fair best when acted and are treated as users of vehicles. EC offers a good bit of information that is useful to fit cyclists able to move quickly and assertively on roadways without special accommodations to cyclists. Since EC, Forester has built a career arguing that all cyclists who have not undergone rigorous training should not be on the road, bike lanes and other accommodations to promote bicycle usage and safety instead relegate the cyclist as inferior road users and that cycling and cycling promotion should not cause delay to motor vehicles. This while every other cyclist has worked for or wanted decreased car use to improve quality of life, facilities that provide space for cyclists in the roadway or seperated from traffic and the ability for any and all users (8 to 80) to be able to safely cycle where they want to go.

  14. #14

    I don’t understand why ALL the discussion around this terrible crash has been focused around what cyclists do or don’t do correctly.

    Sure, I'll field this one: it's because *most* people are drivers, far fewer are cyclists, and empathy is even rarer.

  15. #15

    So, what does the official accident report say(...)?

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