A Matter Of Worth: Red Lights, Your Life, And Several Short Moments

Written by Boston Biker on Sep 21

I propose a theory, and it is thus: “Running red lights does not significantly make you faster, and often slows you down.” One day very soon I hope to have some data to prove this (anyone got a stop watch I can borrow?), but for now, a present the following tale for your perusal.

Red Light,Green Light

I was riding today (as I am wont to do), and witnessed a man on a mountain bike/hybrid about a 100 feet in front of me. I like to look down the street a couple hundred feet just to keep a mental snapshot of what is going to be dashing out in front of me in a couple seconds. Repeatedly I witnessed this gentleman do the following: he comes to a red light, slows way down, looks both ways, darts over into the cross walk, crosses the intersection and then continues down the street. In no way is it legal to run a red light on a bicycle, there is no legal loop hole that allows you to cross against the red if you ride into the cross walk. I have no idea why this guy felt the need to ride into the crosswalk if he was interested in going fast, he should have run the red light in a nice straight line…but I digress.

I, on the other hand, stopped at the red light, waited several seconds, and then took off. He never got away from me, his crazy “slow, look, slide, cross” technique took almost as long as simply waiting for the red light. While he didn’t go significantly faster (I estimate he might have shaved 4 or 5 seconds off each red light by running it), what he did do is almost get hit by several cars, piss off several pedestrians who were legally using the cross walk, and almost hit a rather large pot hole that was over near the curb (a place he would have never been had he been stopping in the bike lane and waiting for the red light). I even witnessed him bend way over to the side in order to ride under (!!) a large cherry picker/crane thing that some workers were using to fix something(I guess the fact that all other traffic had come to a halt didn’t phase him).

So I propose the question, what is a life worth? What is the goodwill and harmony of other road users worth? 30 seconds? 5 minutes? Because this gentleman gained no more than several seconds at each red light intersection, and in the process endangered himself, others, and pissed off a fair number of people who were in fact obeying the law. He could have easily “saved” the same amount of time by simply pedaling slightly faster, and still stopping at all the red’s. He would have also gained the good will of motorists (not that that’s worth much in this town) and more importantly not endangered several law abiding pedestrians (a rare animal indeed).

Anyone who rides a bike and uses the mental justification that running red lights gets you where you are going faster is using the same mental justification that motorists use when the pass too closely, or squeeze you over as they pass, or honk at you because you are going “too slow.” In essence saying “I can break this law because it slows me down” is the same as motorists endangering cyclists because they are in such a hurry (often to get to the next red light). If you have ever found yourself complaining that motorists just need to chill out, slow down, or not be in such a hurry, yet still run red lights cause they slow you down….well lets just say your mental jigsaw puzzle might not be fitting together properly. Put simply, running red lights doesn’t make you faster, being faster makes you faster.

(I really am going to try and get some data to show that you are not significantly slowed down by red lights. I will address the “I run red lights because it is safer” argument in a future post)


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Posted in advocacy, education | 24 Comments »


24 Responses to “A Matter Of Worth: Red Lights, Your Life, And Several Short Moments”

  1. By Jazzcycle on Sep 21, 2009 | Reply

    Bravo again, I was actually mulling about writing a piece about the same subject of the time vs. life and how much each is worth. Once I have time this week I will sit down and write it. Same theory as you, slow down and relax,that 5 min is not worht it. And if you need an extra 5 min, get more organized, wake up 5 min earlier. Do anything but get the 5 min in a dangerous situation. Also this morning was BEAUTIFUL! Anyone rushing to get to work is just plain crazy to miss a sunrise like today!

  2. By Andres Salomon on Sep 21, 2009 | Reply

    Looking forward to the safety post. I’m personally of the opinion that it’s safer to run lights (in a straight line, when no pedestrians are crossing and no cars are coming from the cross streets). I’ve come to that conclusion after a series of near right-hooks where I _did_ stop for the light.

    I certainly agree that it’s not a useful time-saving technique, though

  3. By Ron Newman on Sep 21, 2009 | Reply

    I can see the argument for stopping initially at a red light. But once you’ve determined that there is no conflicting cross traffic (which includes pedestrians), I don’t see much harm in cautiously proceeding after the stop.

  4. By Boston Biker on Sep 21, 2009 | Reply

    Ron: are you ok with cars going through the red lights as well? (once they have stopped and determined no one is coming)

    are you saying that you don’t feel the need to follow any kind of rule structure?

    Will you be upset if someone runs a red light and hits you? I mean perhaps they determined no one was coming and then someone was coming?

    Why bother to have red lights at all if you are saying that they are not needed?

  5. By Ron Newman on Sep 21, 2009 | Reply

    A bicyclist can see far better than a driver (encased in glass and steel, and stopped much further back in the intersection) whether or not there is conflicting traffic. It is reasonable for a bicyclist to treat a red light as a stop sign.

  6. By Paul Schimek on Sep 21, 2009 | Reply

    Thank you for supporting lawful cycling. I would also add that learning to instinctively downshift before stopping makes restarting faster and easier. This is particularly important at a stop sign, when you must wait for a gap in traffic and need to accelerate quickly.

    That said, the Boston practice of exclusive WALK phases (all vehicles have a red light, pedestrians get a WALK) delays everyone excessively, and is not be used in most of the USA. It is very tempting for bicyclists to go through these lights (after yielding to pedestrians), especially now that the time remaining is typically counted down. I support WalkBoston in its efforts to change the signals instead to have a Leading Pedestrian Interval — pedestrians get 3 seconds of exclusive WALK, then the parallel solid green is illuminated, thereby letting walkers establish their right of way in the crosswalk over turning vehicles.

    Cambridge has made this change at many intersections, but the Boston Transportation Department is stuck in its old ways.

  7. By Aswad Uhuru Murphy on Sep 22, 2009 | Reply

    Hmmmm………an interesting and well thought out rationale. I respect the reasoning. Certainly, we need to have smarter cyclists on the road. At the very least, if you are gonna run red lights, do it responsibly. Pardon the irony.
    An alternative view to your question “What is a life worth?”. It’s cheap at $35. Thats the cost of an entry level helmet. Nobody wants to be flapping around like a trout. At the end of the day, as in life and biking in this city, there are no guarantees.
    I would suggest to anyone who is new to riding in the city or contemplating it, you will do yourself no harm by reading “The Art of Urban Cycling” by Robert Hurst, published 2004 with, I believe, Globe Pequot Press.
    Filtering, who knew……I did’nt. Thanks for the outlet. I never knew what I was doing all along. We have a long ways to go.
    Get home safe

  8. By Marianna on Sep 22, 2009 | Reply

    I was stopped at a red light on Prospect just outside of Central, and this mom carrying a baby crossed in the crosswalk in front of me – she was talking to the baby like “and that’s a doggie, and there’s the fruit stand,” and she points at me and goes “and that lady on her bike is waiting for the light to change.” It was awesome.

    Also, naysayers, as long as you either a) take the lane approaching the light, or b) filter far enough forward to be ahead of the first car (and visible), stopping at the lights is not more dangerous.

  9. By grimlocke on Sep 22, 2009 | Reply

    A resounding ‘Aye Aye’ from Dread Pirate Grimlocke!

  10. By m2mayer on Sep 22, 2009 | Reply

    With the increased vision riding a bicycle affords, I enjoy looking ahead, anticipating stoplight cycles, and accordingly adjusting my speed so that I never have to stop. But in order to do this I have to ignore the racer inside me that wants to sprint at all times while cycling.

  11. By Peter Smith on Sep 23, 2009 | Reply

    it doesn’t make any sense for bikers to have to stop at red lights and stop signs when there are no pedestrians or oncoming traffic. they are unjust laws, and we need to change them, not ‘behave properly’ like slaves were told to do back in the day.

    the research is already out — see the UC Berkeley prof’s stuff. he also showed the extra energy required to do the stop sign dance.

  12. By 3.14159 on Sep 23, 2009 | Reply

    Waiting for green lights is an excellent way to be perpetually playing leapfrog with slow people on walmart hybrids who don’t have thr particular variety of Asperger’s Syndrome that makes some people think you can only proceed when a light is green.

  13. By SJ-special on Sep 23, 2009 | Reply

    I commute by bike, and I drive. On a bike, it DOES make sense to follow the traffic laws that cars do. The attitude that bikes shouldn’t have to stop at red lights, ride the wrong way down a one way street or against traffic unnecessarily just perpetuates the problem. If you’re hit while going through a red/stop, sign etc. you loose, and have little grounds to take action against the motorist. Why, because you did NOT have the right-of-way.
    Do I think that better enforcement of traffic laws needs to happen? Absolutely.
    Do I think that drivers on the whole are ignorant of the laws that do protect cyclists? Absolutely.
    But it doesn’t change the fact that you give drivers more fuel for their idiocy/aggression/rage/bad attitude when you don’t hold-up your end of the bargain on a bike.

  14. By J on Sep 24, 2009 | Reply

    I do NOT use the mental justification that running red lights gets me where I are going faster.

    I DO use the mental justification that running red lights gets me in FRONT of cars, where they can see me, and not next to or slightly behind them, where they cant, and then make a right turn.

    And by running red lights, I mean stopping, looking both ways and continuing…just like every single pedestrian in the city.

  15. By Tom Brown on Oct 31, 2009 | Reply

    When a sequence of lights is timed at a bike speed waiting for a green wave is generally faster. For example, on Valencia in SF I wait because it won’t get me there any faster.

    On the other hand going west on Fell, if I just make the Masonic light I don’t wait for the lights at the following intersections because I can get home before the next roaring mob of cars catches me. I need to be careful and look both ways, even though these are T intersections, because sometimes a bike comes flying out of the Panhandle Park into Fell.

  16. By Ffolz on Apr 10, 2010 | Reply

    Anyone who can make the claim with a straight face that motor vehicles in Boston do not run red lights (after coming to a complete stop and cautiously–or incautiously–proceeding) has not driven a motor vehicle in Boston for very long.

    I’m surprised no-one has brought up in-ground sensors (for sensor-controlled traffic signals). In much of Boston they were calibrated to ignore bicycles, in other words ASSUMING the bicyclist is going to use the sidewalk/crosswalk or run the light. I know there was a push to change that but you know how they crawl at BTD.

    I think it’s hypocritical to call bicyclists who treat red lights like stop signs “scofflaws” when the civil authorities designed the traffic control devices contingent on that very pattern of behavior. Traffic enforcement is not something that starts with cops and judges. Traffic enforcement begins with civil engineers and flows down to cops. Convince the civil engineers to do things differently (which is difficult, and not necessarily for the right reasons) and you’ll see a change in behavior and in law enforcement attitudes.

    For those new to Boston, the bike lanes in Cambridge represent a sea change in what was once a highly bike-unfriendly region. (It wasn’t so long ago that the T passed on racking the entire bus fleet. By contrast, most major transit agencies in the US are years ahead of Boston in bike accommodation. Even NYC.)

  17. By DBlack on Apr 23, 2010 | Reply

    Here in Fort Worth, TX I have to use a hybrid street crossing system. There are major thoroughfares I have to cross which absolutely don’t recognize the cyclist at the stop light, and won’t change without being triggered. I stop, look and proceed only when all 4-6 lanes are clear. Yes, sometimes I feel bad for doing this, particularly when other cars are still stuck (even when they act as my sensor, the light can take several minutes to change), but not really. When I get into the city, I always stop on red. Mainly it’s to show the motorists that there is at least one responsible cyclist in this town. Come to think of it, unlike Boston, I’m one of the few cyclists in downtown FW. Shame really, because it’s so easy to bike around this city.

  18. By E* on Oct 13, 2012 | Reply

    Ah, the joy of waiting in the freezing cold at 5:30 in the morning, waiting for a motorist to pull up beside me to trigger the sensor so that I can legally cross the street. Sometimes it’s a five minute wait, because there’s little traffic in the burbs at that time of day, but I would NEVER EVER break the law under any circumstances.

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  2. Sep 21, 2009: An epidemic of aggressive roadway entitlement « BikingInLA
  3. Oct 29, 2009: Streetsblog New York City » In Other Road Users We Trust (Because We Have To)
  4. Nov 16, 2009: Boston Biker » Blog Archive » Running Red Lights: Not Safe

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