As a cyclist, there are few things that slow your roll more than stop signs and traffic lights. Getting back up to speed after stopping can take a lot of energy. Stopping at every light and stop sign can add minutes to your trip, and the extra exertion can leave you sweaty and tired when you get to your destination.
So, what do many cyclists do? Stop signs become yield signs, and often, traffic lights become stop signs. So called “California stops,” or rolling stops, are a common practice for both cyclists and motorists in Los Angeles, and across the country. The practice, while a boon to cyclist momentum, is unfortunately illegal. While states like Idaho, and more recently Virginia, allow cyclists to treat traffic control signals differently than cars do, California does not. In our state, bicycles are vehicles, and vehicles are bound by CVC 21462 and CVC 22450. While the first violation comes with a fine of less than $100 before administrative fees, additional violations increase the monetary cost of the infraction.
Setting aside the valuable, and very real point that bicycles are different than cars, and that bicycles are being made to adhere to a vehicle code that doesn’t totally apply to them, until statutes are changed, bicyclists should follow all traffic laws. They should do so for a number of reasons: Doing so will make cycling safer. It sets a good example for motorists, and it is the law. You might argue that treating a traffic control signal like a yield doesn’t harm anyone, and thus isn’t morally wrong, but this behavior can harm future plans for bicycle infrastructure, the lack of which can lead to real physical injury.
Running traffic lights works counter to the cause of those who want improved bicycle infrastructure because it creates community opposition to cyclists. Tom Stafford writes that what really annoys drivers about cyclists is this rule breaking behavior, even if no one is actually hurt by it, because it upsets the “moral order” of the road. Drivers get angry when they see a cyclist doing something they can’t do, whether that’s weaving between cars to move to the front of the queue or treating a stop light as a yield. There is almost a collective “Why do they get to go if I can’t?” uttered whenever a cyclist breezes through an empty intersection. To drivers, the rules of the road are the rules of the road.
As long as bicycles and cars are governed by the same sections of the Vehicle Code, drivers will think cyclists are “getting away with something” when they run red lights. This annoyance with rule breaking cyclists wouldn’t be as big of an issue for bicycle politics in Los Angeles or around the world if it was limited to the rule breakers themselves, but this isn’t the case.
Though what is known as the “affect heuristic“, a driver’s emotional response to perceived cyclist misdeeds becomes generalized to the entire cycling population. “That no-good, rude rule breaking cyclist!” becomes “Those no-good, rude rule breaking cyclists!” or worse yet, “All cyclists are no-good, rude and rule breaking!”
Politically, you can see why this would be an issue. In order for the 2010 Bicycle Plan to be fully implemented, LADOT and cyclists across the city need to rely on local community support. If community members, having seen some cyclists treating a stop light as a yield, see this needed infrastructure as a giveaway to rulebreakers, it’s going to be an even tougher sell.
So please, I know it makes a lot of sense to safely glide though red lights and stop signs. I don’t like slowing my momentum
putting my foot down for a full stop as much as the next cyclist, but fairly or unfairly, it hurts the cause of improving LA’s bicycle infrastructure every time you do. As long as bikes and cars have to follow the same rules, running red lights on two wheels just perpetuates incorrect generalizations that can make roads unsafe for cyclists in the short term, and make growing our bikeway network more difficult in the long term.