Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why I Run Red Lights

I run red lights.  Stop signs too.  Not just sometimes, but often.  When I do it, it is because I view it as the safest way to approach traffic conditions.  I do not do it to simply thumb my nose at the law; and let me be clear, in Illinois running red lights and stop signs on a bicycle is against the law.  Bicyclists in Chicago can and do get ticketed for doing so.  (So far, I've be lucky in that regard.)  I do not do it to be cool.  I'm a 40-something year old, dad and lawyer.  I ain't cool.  I do it because I love to ride in the city and surviving Chicago's congested streets in my opinion sometimes requires disobeying the rules of the road.

Any city cyclist will tell you that the name of the game is staying alive; to not get poleaxed by the much faster, much heavier, fully mechanized vehicles with which we must share our streets.  That means doing whatever possible to just stay away from cars, trucks, buses.    Controlled city intersections often provide the bicyclist with a good opportunity to break away from traffic, to acquire that little cocoon of space so prized in the urban street scape.  For example, when I commute to my office in the Loop I travel in the southbound bike lane along Milwaukee Avenue, make a left on West Kinzie Street , then turn right into the bike lane at North Wells.  The route is reasonably comfortable, until Wells crosses Wacker Drive.  At that point the bike lane ends and I, and many other commuting cyclists must share the one-way street with motor vehicles underneath the "El" tracks.

View Larger Map

At that point riding anywhere but in the main lane for traffic is undesirable to say the least.  Both shoulders are guarded by "El" track support columns, parked cars and rough, uneven pavement.  Between Wacker Drive and the alleyway that accesses my building's bike room I cross three controlled intersections, West Lake Street, West Randolph Street and West Washington Street.  I slow or stop at each, but take any opportunity -- within the bounds of reason and sanity -- to traverse these cross streets when the light is red.  Doing so allows me to get away from motor vehicle traffic behind and adjacent to me.  Illegal?  Yes.  But reasonable and safe in my opinion.  The goal is to say away from motorized traffic whenever and where ever possible.

Here is what the intersection of Wells and Washington looks like:

View Larger Map

My approach is certainly open to valid criticism.  Some may argue that if I, and other bicyclists, want to be treated like traffic we should act like it by obeying the rules to which other roadway users must submit.  I have been a proponent of the "We Are Traffic" slogan often used by bicycle advocates.  Indeed bicyclists are entitled to use the road, equally entitled as a matter of fact to use it just as are cars and trucks.  This is what I think the slogan was originally meant to emphasize.  However, the angry enemies of bicycles have attempted to turn the "We Are Traffic" slogan on its head, to pick nits with every occasion a bicyclist fails to act as a motor vehicle in a given situation as an excuse for railing against cyclists.  To these would-be strict constructionists of decal slogans I would say, we are traffic, but we are not cars.  To require people on bikes to lumber around the city like a 2,000 lbs vehicle is to ignore reality, and, as I've attempted to demonstrate, to prohibit them from exercising a safe and reasonable approach to congested conditions, to selectively contravene traffic signals.


  1. First off, I'm commuting to work as often as not by bike these days. I am someone who stops fully at stop signs when in the car but not so much so on a bike, and I'm not convinced by your logic. Traffic controls are designed to enforce predictable behavior on otherwise chaotic situations (intersections). Selective adherence for any vehicle creates or reinforces uncertainty in the minds of other roadway users.

    As a pedestrian, a cyclist, a motorcyclist, or as a driver, I want others to have a reasonable idea about how I'm going to behave, so they can in turn behave accordingly. Conversely, I want to know how everyone else around me is going to act, so I can navigate complex "conflict" areas without anxiety or injury.

    I know that it's largely acceptable behavior in practice for vehicles to roll stop signs, so when there's no opposing traffic I also do this on my bike. (I choose not to in my car or on my motorcycle, as they're heavy and fast, and I don't take my responsibilities lightly.) I do not run red lights, since I would never expect another vehicle to do so.

    ...When the power is out there's little more alarming to me than crossing a normally stoplight-controlled intersection that has gone dark. I can't trust the behavior of any traffic, so I wait my turn and then in a mix of recklessness and timidness I goose the gas while totally prepared to panic stop with the slightest provocation.

    I feel similarly when encountering cyclists in the city while driving (and walking!). The general unpredictability makes me overly cautious, and that leads to resentment toward their actions. It's my feeling that this is at the root of the more enlightened branch of cyclist antipathy, when drivers become enraged at the solely self-interested behavior of those on bikes.

  2. STW: Thanks for commenting. You certainly raise some valid points. In my estimation, bicyclists are special for two reasons: (1) They are the most vulnerable users of roadways; and (2) the present infrastructure in Chicago inadequately protects them. Among those vehicles that must operate in the street (cycling on sidewalks in illegal in Chicago unless you're a young child), bikes face the greatest risk. They, of course, do not have the heavy metal protection of a car or truck, or even a much heavier motorcycle. They also cannot always "out run" a motorized threat to their safety. The risk cyclists face is great and their ability to avoid that risk is relatively limited. Therefore, they should be permitted an additional means for avoiding the risks presented by motorized traffic, a means not permitted for other kinds of traffic: the right to treat stop lights and signs as yields.

    Bikes are arguably more vulnerable than pedestrians. Walkers and joggers generally have the sidewalk. Their ability to avoid risk is greater than it is for bicyclists. Bikes usually have no truly safe path to take them from point A to B. If they're lucky they have a painted line designating a bike lane, but often even that doesn't exist. In short, bikes must use the same road as motor vehicles and doing so is almost always very dangerous. Therefore, bicyclists should be granted the extra protection of being permitted to disobey traffic control devices when, of course, it is reasonably safe to do so.

  3. Is anyone advocating in Springfield (or Chicago) to pass a law saying we can run reds like they have in some states?

    I have to go down wells, I used to turn on Lake too but under the L is crazy, now I ride down Wacker for a couple blocks which is equally crazy but at least they see me. I take the full lane on Wacker.

    I agree running the red is often the safest option. When the light first turns green is one of the most dangrous times to be in the intersection, people are flooring it trying to get through as fast as possible, often going straight in turn only lanes. But when it's red and there's no cross traffic it's a lot safer.

  4. I don't believe anyone is actively lobbying Springfield, but I wish someone would.

  5. I would stop and stay at a light like that if and only if I had reasonable expectation that when I took the lane on Wells St. that some a-hole wouldn't ride my tail blowing his horn in disgust.

    That's not the case. So I say go ahead and cross the light.

  6. Hi. I came here via - really well-written post. Can I keep your info on file in case my friends or I ever need a lawyer here in DC?

  7. I just started biking and I do the very same thing. It seems a safe way to keep ahead of traffic - provided you don't get mowed down by cross traffic.

  8. Bah, I call Bullshit. Sort of.

    Yes, getting a jump on traffic makes for a more pleasant ride. True, there are often times that running stop signs and signals can be safer even.

    But the primary reason both you and I (cautiously) disobey these traffic controls is that we get where we are going faster, without any danger to ourselves or others.

    And, in practice, we are allowed. Any cyclist waiting needlessly has something to prove.

    Omitting the base reason makes you look disingenuous.

  9. A well-thought-out post, but a dangerous practice. Every week a biker blowing a light comes close to running into me, a biker obeying all the traffic signals.

    Scofflaw bikers endanger other bikers. End of story.

  10. T.C.: Fair. There are I suppose lots of reasons to run stop lights and signs. Getting from point A to B faster is one of them. But it isn't a good one. There is in my view one damn good reason to disobey a traffic control device, to get away from motorized traffic, and that is the case I wished to make. Some bicyclists are being asses when they run a light, but not all of them. In fact many, as I've pointed out, do it for a legitimate reason.

  11. I do the same thing.

    For one thing, a bicyclist coming to a full stop is a pain, especially on an uphill and/or if you have clipless pedals. But, more importantly, bicyclists have much better visibility than drivers. A driver's eye is always going to be further back from the stop bar than a bicyclist's. Also, cyclists do, and probably even should, pull further ahead of the stop bar. This increases their visibility and ensures that they get a head start as soon as the light turns green.

    I would also add that, just as the rules should be changed to acknowledge that bikes are not exactly the same thing as cars and it is thus OK for them to roll through stop signs, it is also OK for bicyclists to ride on sidewalks and the laws should be changed to reflect that.

    I do ride on a sidewalk on occasion even though I am not a small child. Sometimes it's just safer when the road is too busy. BUT, if I ride on the sidewalk I will ride much slower, 10 mph tops, and will ALWAYS yield to pedestrians. And I wouldn't do it on a busy downtown street where pedestrians are thronged.

    I do think that riding on the sidewalk CAN be unsafe. In Philly I know there have been at least two instances in the last year where peds actually died after being struck by bicyclists (though that's still awfully rare; I would think that most ped/bike collisions would result in nothing more than bruises). I just don't think it HAS to be unsafe. As long as you follow the rules I mentioned above I fail to see anything wrong with what I'm doing.

  12. Thanks for this post, Brendan. I completely agree with you. I run red lights in two scenarios. The first is when the light is at a T intersection where turning traffic does not cross the bike lane. The second is the same as the scenario you described above.

    I'd add just one thing to your argument. I like to jump out ahead of traffic not just for the extra buffer but for the extra visibility, especially downtown. If you need to take the lane for any reason, it's nice to know that the driver behind you has plenty of time to make a decision about how to react to your presence in the lane. Riding amongst the core of dense, unpredictable Loop traffic is risky because there's so much going on that you can't count on drivers seeing you among the mess of traffic, especially when all they're focused on is squeezing into the left lane before the next intersection.

    We actually work in the same building and I take a slightly slower but, in my estimation, a much safer and calmer route. I go Milwaukee - DesPlaines - Fulton - Clinton - Washington. I almost never encounter a traffic situation that makes me nervous on that route. It's just a little slower, which is fine with me. Leaving I take Madison to Canal. The worst part of that route is going past the Metra station. I've nearly been taken out by frantic pedestrians many times.

  13. Thanks Dan. I'll keep your route into the Loop in mind. I could really do without the "excitement" of Wells St in the morning.

  14. i've ridden in chicago for more than three years, but am currently on hiatus due to an injury. i have been known to slow at stops and lights instead of stopping. it takes a lot of energy to start from stopped. also, i like being away from the cars, it makes all of us feel better.

    i am also a pedestrian in the city. cars need to watch out for bikers and pedestrians. bikers need to watch out for pedestrians and act defensively towards cars. blowing through a red light or stop sign might mean hitting a pedestrian who is trying to cross with a walk signal. pedestrians who don't cross with the lights and cross walks are another matter.

    i frequently crossed chicago ave at franklin, south to north on the east corners. often times i encountered a bike flying through the cross walk. they were trying to get ahead of the busses and this is a great place because franklin has hardly any traffic here. unfortunately, these bikers didn't take into consideration the many pedestrians trying to cross with the walk signal. i often times had t jump out of the way for fear of getting hit by a biker who should have been stopping with the light.

    i see both the benefits and hazards of riding outside the traffic laws. even though i don't always stop, i always slow down and pay attention to what everyone else at the intersection is doing, including pedestrians. if i feel like i am getting too reckless on a certain route then i change my route up or try to become hyperaware again. as of right now, the law says we are like cars and have to follow the same laws as them. if someone gets injured and we weren't following the law, then it is our fault, no matter what you think the law should be.

  15. advocating running a red light or stop sign is the silliest thing I've heard in a long time.

    Your example of southbound on wells is even more troubling... at that point you're in the loop.

    Your argument of "the goal is to get as far away from other cars as possible" just doesn't hold any credence when you're in a crowded urban environment. What happens when someone takes a right turn from Lake St onto Wells, but doesn't--or more importantly--doesn't expect you in the middle of the lane there? After all, there's no logical reason anyone would expect you to be there if the motorist turning had a green light and saw no cars turning in front of him.

    Also, following that same logic, you could argue that ALL traffic devices for are null and void. Cars don't need them, because people can self regulate, right? You can pick and choose... hey nobody is coming, right? Unfortunately for reality, there's a reason we have stop lights and stop signs for cars... and that has a lot to do with unpredictable conditions.

  16. "Illegal? Yes. But reasonable and safe in my opinion."

    Your opinion does not matter. You are an attorney who publicly displays their contempt for the law. I won't be hiring you if I ever need defending for running a red light.

  17. You may consider your reasons for doing all of this to be well thought out, but I can promise you that other people, (cars, pedestrians, other cyclists) will not give your outwardly visible actions anywhere near the same level of consideration. What they will see instead, is someone intentionally breaking the law.

    I've been a constant bike commuter for many years and quite literally, we are getting killed out here - public sentiment is not swaying anywhere near our direction. Just have a look at the wonderful direct feedback that online publication comments have afforded us when these conflicts happen. Members of the 'general public' are more than willing to discount the lives of cyclists killed by negligent or worse actions - merely because there is currently a perception that cyclists constantly 'run red lights' and are scofflaws. Your personal campaign of self-preservation might get you through the day, but it is certainly not going to win them over.

    The unsafe conditions that exist in many American cities require large-scale infrastructure renovation and serious policy re-examination. Right now, allies in this struggle are difficult to come by and resources are very tight. I would suggest that 'advocating' this kind of behavior is not pointing us in the right direction.

  18. Don:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. What I am advocating for, in a small way, is that the law reflect the way people really ride. It is interesting that the vast majority of people who have commented negatively on this post (here and elsewhere, i.e. The Chainlink and Yelp) admit to the same behavior. The controversy seems mostly to be over whether I, as an attorney, should have aired this little secret in public. Well, I should. A good attorney should advocate for a change in the law when he or she was a good faith reason for doing so. Since our infrastructure is woefully inadequate when it comes to protecting bicyclists, as you quite correctly note, SOMETIMES disregarding a traffic control device in order to get in a safe position away from motorized traffic is the best approach.

  19. I completely agree that the law should reflect the way people ride. My contention is that it's awfully difficult to affect change to a particular law by ignoring and/or breaking it. Realistically, there are often situations where a cyclist has to 'break the rules' in the name of self-preservation. For many, this becomes habit, and I just want everyone to understand that there are serious repercussions for these actions in terms of our general perception.

    There is a very vocal presence today that would have you believe that cyclists getting nailed by cars are just 'getting what's coming to them' for not playing by the rules. Obviously this line of reasoning is pretty flawed, if not disturbing...but likewise, I am tired of defending the actions of a small minority of 'scofflaw' cyclists that prefer to operate in bubbles of self-absorption. This civil disobedience has a toll of it's own.

  20. I'm an avid cycler/commuter. I too selectively run stop signs/red lights. It's all about what is reasonable. If there is NO other traffic or if there are cars behind me I will slow, look both ways, and proceed. On more than one occasion an inattentive driver has almost driven up my ass when I was slowing for a stop sign. If another car is at the intersection, I will slow down and let them go unless they wave me through.

    I was pulled over by an Illinois State Policeman for running two stop signs. He said I was a vehicle (Incorrect - see below) and I said the overriding law of necessity, that being my safety, superceded. He asked for ID and a drivers license (uh, I'm on a bike) and said he would mail me a citatin (not lawful notice).

    Point being, the majority of drivers are not cognizant of cyclists and if we adhere to a strict application of the Rules of the Road, we are subject to greater harm. That is not the fault of the cyclists, but the fault of people failing to recognize our right to use the road.

    If I had to release the handlebars every time I changed lanes or motioned for a stop (riding with one hand) over uneven terrain or pot-hole-ridden streets, I would crash every day. The definition of "vehicle" in the Vehicle Code contradicts what many apply to bicycles. The statutes state it is "unlawful", but fails to cite a penalty provision for a violation.

    I'll use common sense and responsibility, but absent any interraction with other vehicles or traffic, I will exercause caution and disregard those traffic control devices. I am not a mala prohibita driven animal.

    Sec. 1-217. Vehicle. Every device, in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway or requiring a certificate of title under Section 3-101(d) of this Code, except devices moved by human power, devices used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks and snowmobiles as defined in the Snowmobile Registration and Safety Act.


Search This Blog