“I argue for saner rules for bikes,” tweeted traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz yesterday, referring to a post that he and fellow former NYC DOT engineer Gerard Soffian put up on CityLand. “[F]or their own safety and for the safety of others,” bicyclists should comply with traffic laws, they wrote. In keeping with Sam’s trademark common sense and fair play, the two also said that fines for cycling through red lights and other violations should be lowered, and traffic laws changed to “permit bicyclists to make turns and other movements prohibited for motorists.”
The point, said Sam and Gerard up front, is that “Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative to substantially reduce traffic fatalities can only be achieved if all users of our roadways respect traffic rules.” No argument there. Or even with Sam’s contention that cycling violations are rife in New York City. But even so, are cycling violations a big contributor to fatal and serious-injury crashes — or, as some charge, to a culture of traffic chaos? And is clamping down on cycling violations — whether in the ham-handed way of so-called “Operation Safe Cycle” or in Sam and Gerard’s more evenhanded sketch — a way to make our streets safer?
No and No, says this city cyclist (who is also a long-time admirer of Sam’s and, these days, a partner of his in pursuing the Move NY fair-tolling plan). Notwithstanding its kinder and gentler ethos, Sam’s first cut yesterday of “saner rules for bikes” doesn’t match up well with on-street biking conditions in New York City.
To begin: Forcing cyclists to stop — and wait — at red lights runs up against some basic physical realities. In summer, to stop at lights is to be bathed in sweat, as the broiling heat swallows the breeze you’ve worked hard to manufacture; to stop in winter is to forfeit the heat you’ve built up, and feel your extremities start to burn. Moreover, dead-stopping at any time cuts directly into the efficiencies that are central to city cycling. Not only do you lose time in standing rather than moving, but you have to raise your exertion in order to power up again.
Back in 2001, two Bay-area cyclists — a U-Cal Berkeley physics professor and the editor of the transportation journal Access – documented that a route with frequent stop signs took 30 percent longer to cover on a bike, compared to one with few stops. They also found that stop signs took away less time and energy if the cyclist merely slowed rather than halted outright. Though big city conditions are somewhat different, the message is the same: Yes, blasting through red lights at speed is deeply antisocial, but slavishly stopping at them defeats the continuing motion that so much in cycling depends on.
In cities like New York, where cyclists’ place on the road can be tenuous, there’s also a safety imperative to slipping through red lights: it takes us out of the way of potentially aggro drivers and gives us a little holiday from cars that helps us manage the next close encounter. Not to mention that our safety is enhanced when there are more of us cycling — the well-known safety-in-numbers dynamic that aggressive ticketing threatens to squelch.