The Case Against Linking Bike Safety Improvements to Cyclists’ Behavior

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Opponents of bike infrastructure say some bicyclists flout traffic laws, therefore developing a legal and physical infrastructure for their safety isn’t worthwhile.

A variation on that argument is at work Alexandria, Virginia, where the city just installed its first bike signal. According to an article from the Alexandria Times, the city has decided to see whether cyclists heed the signal’s orders before they expand their usage.

Of course, experimentation is helpful and the effectiveness of new street treatments should be measured. But Rob Pitingolo at Network blog Extraordinary Observations says the city’s approach is flawed. He points out that it makes little sense to hold cyclists to a different standard than motorists, forcing them to “earn” the right to basic safety accommodations:

Officials in Alexandria, Virginia plan to install more bike signals if cyclists obey the first one they install. Alexandria Times

This is an interesting situation. For one, because ‘bicyclists’ as a group do not behave in exactly the same ways. Yes, there are people who ride through stop signs and lights. There are others that don’t. How many people have to ignore the new safety signal before it’s deemed that ‘cyclists’ aren’t behaving properly? 10%? 50%? More?

Imagine this point was made in regards to typical vehicle infrastructure. For instance, “we’ll build a new highway, but if motorists speed on it, we’re not building any more.” That doesn’t happen. Instead, speed limits are enforced (sort of, anyway).

The debate over whether bicyclists should follow street laws often boils down to a dispute over whether or not it’s actually safer to follow the rules literally. But if a bicycle-specific signal is installed, that theoretically means it’s programmed for the maximum safety of bicyclists. If some riders don’t respect that, perhaps there should be enforcement to punish them, not a refusal to install any more infrastructure – a move that would instead punish all bicyclists.

Elsewhere on the Network today, Reinventing Urban Transport discusses the potential shortcomings of shared-space design for streets. Baltimore Spokes lays out the city’s proposal for a “cyclists’ bill of rights.” And My Wheels are Turning examines design features that make roundabouts safer.