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.