Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Should cyclists obey the same rules as car drivers?

I have thought a little about this over the last few years and especially since a pedestrian kindly pointed out that "it's red for you too" as I glided perfectly safely though a red like. He was, as I was reminded shortly afterwards, correct.

But should cyclists and drivers be expected to follow the same rules? Henry Graber at the Atlantic Cities thinks that we should Never Fine Cyclists. I don't know if 'never' is the right way to think about it but I agree that there is no reason why bikes and cars should be treated equally.

Fines exist for cars because they put other people and property in danger. The fine is higher the more the (perceived) risk of a manoeuvre has been. The average car weighs about 1.5 tonnes in Europe. You can do a lot more damage with that than with a bike that weighs a few kilos. It also takes longer to stop in a car than on a bike and you can go faster. This makes both the likelihood of doing harm and the level of potential harm higher with a car. It is perfectly reasonable to have different standards. Just like the fines are higher for not following gun rules than for not following knife rules.

Then there are moments that happen quite regularly when it is actually safer if cyclists do not obey rules. While this can also be true for cars (speed to get away from a driver weaving all over the lane), it is likely to be less so because the rules were made for car safety, not bike safety. One nice example of this is crossing an empty junction to avoid a line of stressed rush-hour drivers waiting at the light. Getting ahead of them gets you out of their way. This is especially important on one junction on my morning commute, after which cars slip onto a lane to go right. With the bike lane on the right and cars cutting across lanes, this is an accident waiting to happen. I don't mind admitting that I am happy when I have got though that.

If rules were made for cyclists that were more appropriate then we could enforce those. In the last example, it would mean allowing cyclists to cross a junction earlier than cars. This already happens for pedestrians (in DC at least).

There are other reasons to make rules easier for cyclists. When one person chooses to drive, there is a cost for the community. If we favour cyclists, we would encourage people to cycle rather than drive, reducing the social cost. My bicycle pollutes your children's air less than your car does. It takes up less space, is more social, keeps me fitter (reducing medical costs and making me much nicer to look at :)  ), releases less carbon dioxide and looks cooler than your car (yes, seriously). Society should encourage me to ride.

So when those rules for bikes are designed, they should consider the benefits of biking and the lower risks and design the rules accordingly.