The question comes up frequently, and whenever there is some article about commuter cycling in the papers most of the comments are anti-cycling and often quite vitriolic. One of the reasons that car drivers trot out is the rule breaking by people riding bicycles – the riding through red lights.
It is interesting to consider the arguments put forward in the New York Times by their resident ethicist. A few quotes from his article:
“THE rule-breaking cyclist that people decry: that’s me. I routinely run red lights, and so do you. I flout the law when I’m on my bike; you do it when you are on foot… But although it is illegal, I believe it is ethical.”
“A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.”
“But most of the resentment of rule-breaking riders like me, I suspect, derives from a false analogy: conceiving of bicycles as akin to cars. In this view, bikes must be regulated like cars, and vilified when riders flout those regulations, as if we were cunningly getting away with something. But bikes are not cars. Cars drive three or four times as fast and weigh 200 times as much. Drive dangerously, you’re apt to injure others; ride dangerously, I’m apt to injure myself. I have skin in the game. And blood. And bones.”
“Laws work best when they are voluntarily heeded by people who regard them as reasonable… If cycling laws were a wise response to actual cycling rather than a clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws, I suspect that compliance … would rise.”
There is Australian research from 2010 that looks at the reasons why cyclists run red lights. A survey of more than 2000 cyclists found that they would run red lights when it was safe.
“Dr Johnson said the study results implied that many cyclists felt it was safe to turn left against a red light.”The most obvious safety benefit for cyclists if they turn left during the red light phase is that they then don’t have to negotiate the corner with the vehicles,” Dr Johnson said.”
“The most obvious safety benefit for cyclists if they turn left during the red light phase is that they then don’t have to negotiate the corner with the vehicles,” Dr Johnson said.”
My conclusion is that people riding bicycles are just like you and me – citizens living in a society where we learn to share public space responsibly.