People love to comment on what others should or should not be doing, especially if that involves a person on a bike running red lights or breaking any other law. There’s a general sentiment out there that bikers need to be good and obedient. Any problems bikers face could be changed if they would just follow the rules. I’ve seen this argument from people who are anti-bikes and people who are pro-bikes. The anti-bikers say: “If bikers could just follow the laws I would respect them, but I see bikers breaking the law all the time so I don’t.” Whereas the pro-bikers say: “We need to show that we’re good, respectful citizens by following every law, and that way we’ll earn the respect we deserve.”
Let’s just stop this. Bikers do not need to earn the respect of motorists by following every single law. And even if the vast majority of bikers could follow every single law, it still wouldn’t matter.
What’s with respect
This discussion always comes back to respect: bikers needing to earn the respect of motorists. I think when people say this, what they’re really saying is that they will not acknowledge bikes as legitimate users of the road. In what world did someone decree that motorists get to decide who is allowed on roads? When drivers think they own the road and they don’t believe bikers have “earned the right” to be on it, they sometimes act dangerously. They may honk and yell at bikers to get off the road. They may intimidate bikers with their car. They may write letters to their city councilperson or representatives speaking out against bike infrastructure funding. They may judge people they know who ride bikes, impacting whether those people will continue riding bikes.
This is just plain wrong. The law tells us that people on bikes have a legitimate claim to the road. Nobody says that pedestrians should not be allowed on sidewalks because they jaywalk. Nobody says that drivers shouldn’t be allowed on highways because they speed. People break the law pretty often, especially when they’re trying to get somewhere. Saying that an entire group needs to follow the law to the letter before anyone in that group will be granted basic respect is just wrong.
It won’t work
In my experience, it doesn’t matter if you are or are not following the law. Some drivers will be mad if you run a red light. Others will get mad if you’re in their way because you won’t run a red light. Some people say, “to be on roads you have to act like a vehicle,” and then the driver behind you will ask you to physically lift your bike out of the way so they can turn right five seconds before they otherwise would be able to. When you don’t, because you’re trying to act like a vehicle, they’ll call you an asshole five times in a row. Whatever you do, you’re in the wrong. Whatever you do, it makes someone mad.
Even if you follow every single law every single time, that’s not going to change the fact that some people won’t. The people that actively cry out about scofflaw cyclists seem especially vulnerable to confirmation bias. They believe bikers break the laws and then only notice the bikers who confirm this belief. They won’t notice you, dear law-abider, as you conscientiously navigate the streets. Unless, that is, your law-abiding gets in their way.
That means you just have to do what’s right for you and try not to let what people say get to you. There are jerks on the street who will yell at you if you break the law and if you don’t. It’s not their business what you’re doing. You’re just doing your thing and trying to get somewhere.
It’s not your job
Sure, you should probably be a decent and respectful human being. This isn’t just because you ride a bike though. You should be decent and respectful to other humans if you’re driving a car, riding a horse, sitting around in public spaces, walking, or anything else. So like, don’t be a dick. Don’t cut people off. Don’t blow through stop signs. Try to be as conscientious as you can of other people out there. Sometimes you’ll do things that are dickish, either because you’re not paying attention or because you get confused or because you’re frustrated. We all do. We’re human. Let it go and try to do better next time.
There is, however, a difference between being respectful of others and following every law. Some laws simply do not make sense for cyclists to follow to the letter. People on bikes are much more aware of their surroundings than people in cars. They can hear better and see better. They pose much less danger to others, because they’re not piloting a machine that weighs thousands of pounds. Cracking down on bicyclists who break minor laws isn’t going to do anything to improve overall road safety.
We should design our urban environments for people, while merely accommodating cars. As is, there is not nearly enough bike infrastructure compared to what’s available for cars and pedestrians. We just throw bikes and cars together and hope it all works out fine. This causes problems because we’re just expecting people who are driving vehicles weighing thousands of pounds capable of going upwards of 200mph to be okay sharing space with people riding vehicles weighing tens of pounds going 10-15mph. There is going to be natural conflict here. In order to improve relationships between people driving cars and people riding bikes, each should have their own space. Harmonious roads come down to good design, not good behavior.
Everyone needs to stop saying that bikes ‘just need to follow the rules.’ Some people simply don’t like it that other people ride bikes and they’re going to take issue with bikes on the road no matter what. Whether bikers follow the law or not won’t change this. Instead, we need to focus on designing urban environments that are inclusive of all modes and reduce opportunities for conflict.