Cyclists are always running red lights….

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When the car/bicycle debate emerges, it’s almost certain that at some point there’ll be a question along the lines of  “why should cyclists be respected, when they’re always running red lights”.  One of my first encounters with the Red Light issue was when submitting on cycling at a Council meeting, and  a  Councillor (no longer on Council after October’s Mayoral elections, incidentally) asked what Cycle Aware Wellington was doing about “all these cyclists running red lights”. I managed to turn the question around with “You’ve just had a representative of the AA submitting, but you didn’t ask him what AA was doing about boy racers”.  But the issue is certainly an important one in promoting a positive image of cycling, and was addressed to some extent by CAN’s Stop at Red campaign.

But are in fact cyclists more inclined to run red lights than other road users?  I recently spent 20 minutes at what passes in Wellington for “rush hour” at the intersection of Willis, Manners, and Boulcott Streets, and counted red light runners, both bicycles and motor vehicles.  I chose this intersection because there are good numbers of bicycles and other vehicles going through it, and at rush hour there’s a bit of a temptation to keep going through the intersection on the yellow light. To avoid cognitive overload, I just counted traffic going north through the intersection on Willis Street, not turning left up Boulcott. I defined “running a red light” as “exiting the intersection after the traffic light had turned red”

21 bikes passed through the intersection. Three (14%) ran the red light. Of course it’s not quite that simple. Two cyclists slowed as the light turned red, then rode across the intersection with the pedestrians – a “Barnes Dance” follows the red light, when pedestrians can cross in all directions. So if this maneuver is counted as running a red light, we have five red light running cyclists, or 23%.

That seems to back up the accusation that cyclists are inclined to run red lights – but what about motor vehicles? During the same time period, 147 motor vehicles passed through the intersection, and 28 (19%) ran the red light.

So in fact cyclists and motor vehicle drivers, at least in this very limited sample, seem to run red lights at about the same rate. This shouldn’t be a surprise – cyclists and motor vehicle drivers are largely the same people – sometimes we’re driving a car, sometimes we’re riding our bikes. If we want safer streets, we need to be more disciplined about how we use them, whether we’re driving a car, or riding a bike.

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5 thoughts on “Cyclists are always running red lights….

  1. Simon Kennett

    Sam Winslow and I did counts at four different intersections (for similar reasons) back in 2009. We found the results varied a lot depending on the type of intersection. Ranged from something like 10% (for a busy 4-way) to 40% (for the top of a T-intersection). A significant minority of motorists ran the reds. Pedestrians were all over the show.

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  2. Thanks Simon. I was quite surprised at how high the “red light running” rate was – effectively one vehicle in 5 was crossing a pedestrian crossing just as pedestrians got the green light! But I did chose this intersection partly because I suspected I wouldn’t have to stand around too long to get a reasonable count!

    So did you also find that cyclists and motorists were running red lights at about the same rate?

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    1. Simon Kennett

      IIRR it depended on the intersection type. Cyclists were more likely to sneak across the top of a t-intersection or be on the footpath round a left-hander, but were less likely to bowl straight through a large 4-way intersection. The worrying thing about cars was the way some see an orange and then accelerate – bad news for anyone who bolts out on the green light. The answer is often to increase the lag between the red coming on from one direction and the green coming on from the side street – there’s a period when all lights are red, which slows everybody down.

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  3. Fiona M

    I try not to run red lights but a lot of the ones away from the CBD won’t turn green if only a cyclist is waiting (because the sensors are only configured to detect cars) so sometimes you have no choice.

    The first time you find one of those intersections it takes a while to notice the light is not going to turn green for you, but I guess if it’s your usual route you’d get to know it and maybe appear to be blantanty running a red light…

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    1. A tip is to look for the lines in the road surface that indicate where the detector wires are – if you place your bike over these, you’ve got a very good chance of tripping the lights.

      Unless you’ve got a carbon fibre frame, of course…

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