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In defence of scofflaw cyclists

I suspect that David Suzuki and I agree on a great many things. His criticism of cyclists – OK, scofflaw cyclists – is not one of them.

I suspect that David Suzuki and I agree on a great many things.

His criticism of cyclists – OK, scofflaw cyclists – is not one of them.

A lot of criticism of the growing number of cyclists in cities is valid: too many blast through stop signs, don't give pedestrians the right-of-way, refuse to signal turns, ride against traffic, don't make themselves visible enough and use sidewalks. Many seem to have a sense of entitlement compelling them to ignore laws. It doesn't take much to learn and follow the rules, and investing in proper gear — including lights and reflectors — is absolutely necessary. You'll not only be safer; you'll also be less likely to anger motorists, pedestrians and fellow cyclists.

It's not that I think cyclists shouldn't follow the rules. I'm a mostly-law-abiding biker, myself – though I've wholeheartedly adopted the Idaho stop, treating stop signs as yield signs – and nothing sets me muttering/cursing like a bike coming toward me in the bike lane. I just think the issue has been given attention it doesn't deserve.

The “I don't have a problem with cyclists but they need to start following the rules” rant is a familiar one to any two-wheeled commuter or bike advocate. Local media got in on it a few weeks ago when CTV's Stephen Andrew decided to look into licensing.

But I don't buy the cyclists-have-to-earn-their-safety argument, and neither should Suzuki.

While some cyclists do break the rules, they're not necessarily causing problems – even for themselves.

A 2009 study commissioned by the British government found that risky cyclist behaviour – things like running intersections, not using lights and wearing dark clothing – are NOT to blame in most accidents involving bikes. As reported by the Guardian:

The study, carried out for the Department for Transport, found that in 2% of cases where cyclists were seriously injured in collisions with other road users police said that the rider disobeying a stop sign or traffic light was a likely contributing factor. Wearing dark clothing at night was seen as a potential cause in about 2.5% of cases, and failure to use lights was mentioned 2% of the time.

Even the Victoria Police Department recognizes that rule-breaking cyclists aren't the menace they're made out to be, with Sgt. Graeme LeBlanc, a supervisor with the Integrated Road Safety Unit, telling the Times Colonist:

“If I can get all the vehicles on the roadway to act in a responsible manner – like most cyclists do – we wouldn’t have nearly as many issues.”

More interesting is what prompts cyclists to break the rules in the first place.

A majority of Australian cyclists surveyed (63 per cent of 2,061) said they ran red lights. Some were making turns (that's a right for us). Some couldn't activate the lights with the intersection sensors. Others went because there were no cars (legal in Idaho, where those lucky cyclists can also treat stoplights as stop signs).

In other words, cyclists are often reacting to infrastructure design that doesn't consider bikes.

Take the example of Toronto Coun. Karen Stinz, who sparked discussion after she received a ticket for rolling through what turned out to be a non-existent stop sign.

As Lloyd Alter rightly points out, infrastructure is designed to control cars.

My favourite example is this residential street with stop signs every 266 feet, installed because residents complained that drivers were using it as a speedway. Even the cars roll through these, yet the [critics] of the world expect that every cyclist should obey the letter of the law designed to keep cars off residential streets. The street where Stintz was ticketed is exactly the same. It's a dumb, fuel-wasting way to slow down cars.

Not only that, behaving legally is often more dangerous than the alternative, says James Schwartz. He argues that infrastructure designed with motorists, not cyclists, in mind – that is, essentially, all infrastructure – encourages cyclists to break the rules. For example, in Copenhagen, where lights are timed with bikes – not cars – in mind, there is less of an incentive to run a red.

The key, of course, is that bikes aren't cars. They're slower, smaller and less likely to do damage, and don't require the same rules. Better design and infrastructure could both improve safety and encourage law-abiding behaviour.

But as Suzuki alludes, it isn't so much about safety as image, the idea being that people would be more tolerant of bikes if only cyclists weren't so bad – a silly and hypocritical argument at best.