Ticketing Cyclists Is Pointless and Cruel
On the bike, laws are secondary and survival is paramount
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
On a lovely Saturday morning in June 2018, I was nearly home from a road ride when I heard the unmistakable blip of a police siren. Wait, was that for me? I wondered, as I pulled over to the side of the road. Sure enough, an officer emerged from the car and requested my identification, and after ajouring with it for about 10 minutes, he returned with a summons and a lecture about how bicyclists are supposed to stop for red lights. I scanned the schedule of fines and saw that my delightful morning jaunt might have just cost me $190.
So did I in fact run the light? Here’s the thing: I don’t know. What I do know is that I’d just fought for position among the motorists on the Broadway Bridge, which features a treacherous metal grate for a road surface, complete with potentially tire-swallowing gaps where the interlocking teeth separate when they lift the bridge for passing ships. Then, once I’d successfully crossed the Harlem River, I’d made my way across three lanes of speeding traffic in order to make a left turn onto a street with a laughably ineffective Class II bike lane—which, as usual, was full of double-parked cars. From there it was another right turn, after which I looked forward to finally letting down my guard a bit in a calmer residential neighborhood. This was the turn where I’d allegedly run the light (it would have been a right on red, probably fine where you live but illegal in New York City), though between dodging all the things that could kill me and making sure there were no pedestrians in the crosswalk, the actual color of the traffic light at that particular moment was the least of my concerns.
So yeah, the law is the law, but being ticketed for making a right on red on a bicycle just as I was emerging from that shitshow unscathed felt like being penalized for spiking the ball after scoring the game-winning touchdown.
There’s a persistent myth out there that cyclists don’t think traffic laws apply to them. In fact, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Just as the devout must reconcile man’s law with God’s law, so must the cyclist attempt to square traffic law with the laws of physics. By and large, traffic law is written for people in multi-ton metal boxes who can accelerate from 0-60 mph in a handful of seconds with just the flick of an ankle; meanwhile, a bicycle is a human-powered conveyance that weighs about as much as a full-size spare car tire. And yet, absurdly, we’re supposed to pretend we’re all on equal footing out there, and somehow buy into the notion that drivers and cyclists share “the same rights and responsibilities”—in many municipalities, a ruse that falls apart as soon as you try to take your bike to the drive-thru. (Or, you know, get hit by a driver.) The truth is that, when you’re riding a bike on a street full of impatient drivers, sometimes slipping through a red light can give you the crucial head start you need. Unfortunately, in most places the law doesn’t account for that.
Another popular myth holds that the police don’t ticket cyclists. Well, that’s certainly not true in New York City, where I got my summons. In 2018 the NYPD issued 16,254 red light tickets to cyclists (mine included, presumably), versus 56,086 to motorists. This is stunningly disproportionate given that 32 percent of New Yorkers cite the car as their primary mode choice versus just 3 percent for the bicycle, though maybe this ratio is not particularly surprising when you consider it’s much easier to stop somebody on a bike. The fine is also hefty regardless of whether you run a light in a car or on your bike, though in the latter case it’s mitigated slightly by the fact that no points are applied to your license, and you don’t have to pay the $88 motor vehicle surcharge. (Though cyclists are often duped into paying it anyway.) And none of this takes into account the NYPD’s demonstrated willingness to ticket cyclists for behavior that isn’t even illegal.
The upshot is that cycling in an urban environment involves performing a sort of mental calculus by which you weigh your odds of getting hit with a ticket against your odds of getting hit by a driver and then act accordingly. Certainly, in a city or neighborhood where the infrastructure is designed around cyclists, it’s reasonable to expect greater adherence to the law—and in fact cyclists are much more likely to follow traffic rules when that infrastructure is present. (New York City is beginning to realize this, which is why they’re experimenting with changing traffic signal timing to favor cyclists.) However, ticketing cyclists in hostile environments when they’re already in survival mode is arguably just cruel, and at the very least penalizing them for breaking the traffic law while under duress does nothing to address the underlying problem. If anything, it just gives them one more reason not to ride a bike at all.
As for me, over a year later I finally went to traffic court, which is the sort of thing you only have time to do when you don’t work in an office. Alas, despite my best courtroom histrionics the judge found me guilty, and after the hearing I joined the ranks of the dejected in the cashier line where I rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. But I did learn an important lesson: now, whenever I make that fateful right turn, I check twice for police before I roll the red.
Hey, I gotta amortize that hundred and ninety bucks.