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Bicycles and Traffic Laws

Today I ran across an essay I wrote nearly three years ago, which exhorted cyclists to apply peer pressure to get each other to obey traffic laws.  Upon reading it, I had two realizations.  First, I realized that I still agree with every word.  Second, I realize that the problem has (if anything) gotten worse in the past three years.

Let me say it one more time, for the record:  Cyclists, every single traffic law that applies to cars also applies to you!

But I’m afraid I’m in the minority.  The other day I was walking across a cross walk and was nearly taken out by a kid on a bicycle who blew through the four-way intersection without stopping for the sign.  This is typical.  Later that day I posted on Facebook, “Am I the only cyclist who respects traffic laws?”.  One of my long time riding buddies responded succinctly:  “Yes.”

Obviously, peer pressure isn’t working.  It hurts my libertarian soul to say what I am about to say, but I think the only answer is increased enforcement.  Anyone on a bike who fails to stop at a stop sign or give proper turn signals, needs to be ticketed and pay a big fine.  They are a public safety hazard and they give us few law-abiding cycle commuters a bad name.  Anyone who can’t obey traffic laws doesn’t belong on a public road.

If you feel the way I do, feel free to write a letter to your local police department asking them to enforce traffic laws for cyclist the same way they do for cars.  If possible, send a paper letter.  E-mail is too easy to delete; paper usually stays on file for a while.

Traffic Laws: Cyclists Need to Educate Each Other

City traffic is full of annoyances for a bicycle commuter. Running the gauntlet of gridlocked intersections, double parked cars, angry drivers, and noxious exhaust fumes is enough to dampen anyone’s mood. One of the most irritating sights a cyclist can see, however, is another cyclist breaking the law. It is far too common to see cyclists riding on the sidewalk, cutting off cars, wearing headphones, or running stop lights. A law abiding cyclist sees this behavior and flinches, knowing that angry motorists will judge the entire cycling community by the actions of a few. Cyclists who disregard traffic laws damage community relations and provoke violence. To regain the respect of the community and protect themselves from road rage, cyclists need to educate each other to be more law abiding.

By law, bicyclists have “the same rights and responsibilities as automobile drivers.” (California Department of Motor Vehicles [CDMV], 2009, p. 47). A cyclist has the right to occupy the road, use turning lanes, and move within their lane to avoid hazards such as parked cars and debris (CDMV, 2009, p. 48). However, the cyclist also has the responsibilities of signaling turns and lane changes, riding in the same direction as traffic, and obeying all traffic lights and stop signs. In cities such as Los Angeles that allow cyclists to ride on sidewalks, bicycles are usually required to move at a walking speed and yield to pedestrians (Pool, 2008). Unfortunately, while most cyclists are quick to demand their rights under the law, they are slow to remember their responsibilities. Cyclists clamor for the public to take bicycles seriously, but the public has difficulty seeing bicycles as a serious adult form of transportation when the riders’ actions are so juvenile. Until cyclists begin obeying traffic laws and showing courtesy and common sense, their relations with the motoring community will continue to degrade.

Many motorists see bicycles as a nuisance. Packs of bicycles two and three abreast block whole lanes. Other bicycles fly on and off sidewalks in front of cars, causing near misses. Bicycles on the wrong side of the road cut off left turns. Too many cyclists ignore traffic laws, courtesy, and common sense. One man, quoted in a Los Angeles Times editorial, summarizes motorists’ view of cyclists: “Adults on bikes ride with an attitude and commonly perform endless illegal actions… I see them as accidents looking for a place to happen.“ (O’Dell, 2001).

A growing number of motorists feel that bicycles have no place on the street at all. Anger between motorists and cyclists can flare into road rage. Some incidents are almost surreal in their violence. In Denver in 2000 a man named James Hall drew a handgun and shot a cyclist to death for cutting him off at an intersection (Pankatz, 2000). Last year in Los Angeles, a man named Christopher Thomson became infuriated because the cyclists in front of him were not riding single file (Groves & Winton, 2008). He deliberately swerved the his car in from of them and slammed on the brakes. Cyclist Ron Peterson, hit the car at 30 miles per hour and flew through the rear window. His companion Chris Stoer attempted to avoid the car but caught a wheel and crashed, sustaining a separated shoulder. Both men, while seriously injured, survived the attack. Other assaults stop short of attempted murder yet still injure or humiliate cyclists. It is common for bicycle commuters to be abused with profanity, pelted with garbage, and forced into the gutter (Stein, 2007).

The best way for cyclists to avoid such violent scenes is to educate their irresponsible fellows. A cyclist is much more likely to listen to common sense advice when it comes from another cyclist. The good cyclists need to be proactive. They need to not only set an example, but to engage in an active dialog about safety, courtesy, and traffic law. In Los Angeles, one of the more dangerous bicycling cities, a non-profit group called Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange (CICLE) is doing just that (Stein, 2007). CICLE uses group rides, free repair clinics, and other events as venues to educate new cyclists. Their official Internet site is full of tips on how to ride safely and avoid confrontations with drivers (Cyclists Inciting Change Through Live Exchange, n.d.). CICLE, and similar groups in other cities, provide hope for bicycle education.

By educating each other cyclists can protect themselves and their lifestyle. Cyclists who habitually break traffic laws infuriate motorists and create a backlash against the entire bicycling community. Law abiding cyclists need to educate the scofflaws by setting an example, joining cycling education groups, or even just offering friendly advice. Better cyclist behavior will make the streets safer for everyone.

California Department of Motor Vehicles. (2009). California Driver Handbook. Sacramento,
CA: Department of Motor Vehicles Customer Communications Section.
Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange. (n.d.).  Riding Tips that Can Save Your Tail.  Retrieved September 22, 2009 from
Groves, Martha & Winton, Richard. (2008, July 9). Narrow road is a zone of conflict; Frustration boils over after two bicyclists are hurt in ‘road rage’ in Mandeville Canyon. Los Angeles Times, p. B1. Retrieved September 20, 2009, from Proquest database
O’Dell, John. (2001, July 25). Carmentary; Motorists, bicycle Riders collide over misbehavior on the roadway. Los Angeles Times (Home Edition), p. G1. Retrieved September 20, 2009, from Proquest database.
Pankratz, Howard. (2000, June 21). Shooter “consumed” by road rage. Denver Post, p. B2.   Retrieved September 18, 2009 from
Pool, Bob. (2008, July 8). Cyclists, walkers to share space; Backpedaling on a ban, pedestrian friendly West Hollywood prepares to legalize sidewalk bike riding. Los Angeles Times, p. B1. Retrieved September 20, 2009 from Proquest database.
Stein, Jeannine . (2007, August 13). On the mean streets of L.A.; Insults, hurled bottles — it’s ugly out there for cyclists and runners in an everyone-drives city. Los Angeles Times [Home Edition], p. F1. Retrieved September 20, 2009 from Proquest database.


Why Won’t the Working Class Go Green?

Here in LA traffic jams have become a sort of a tradition on the first week in May. That is, worse traffic jams than usual. Immigrants and laborers stream on the streets to demonstrate for their “rights”, blocking downtown traffic for hours. It poses no problem, of course, for people like me who travel by bicycle, but all of those crowds lead one to start thinking about immigrants and the working class in general .

I can sympathize with immigrants rights. My own people were poor Irish farmers who worked like dogs for the first hundred years they were here before finally breaking into the middle class. I am not sure how much help they should get from the government; we did not get any help at all and we did alright. That is a civil rights issue, however, and this blog is about transportation policy.

There is one observation I can make about working class immigrants which is apropos to my topic: they tend to be completely apathetic about the environment. I need to make a disclaimer. All of the statements I am about to make are based on completely anecdotal evidence. I have a feeling, however, that the statistics would bear me out.

During the week I usually spend the night in the town of La Habra, California. It is not a place I would ever have chosen to live, except that it happens to be where my office is located. It is a solidly working class town with a majority Hispanic population. Most of the town was designed in the 1950’s which means that the whole town is functionally obsolete. In other words, it is almost an exact carbon copy of every other working class neighborhood in Southern California.

The inhabitants of La Habra are completely and totally oblivious to environmental concerns. Every restaurant serves drinks in Styrofoam cups. No business has bike racks: most of them have “No Bicycles” signs prominently displayed. Everyone drives the biggest SUVs they can afford. Bringing your own bags to the grocery store is likely to get you stared at blankly. Riding in the slow lane of any of the major streets causes people to scream profanity at you and tell you to “get on the sidewalk where you belong.”

As bad as the situation is, the really sad thing is that none of the population sees anything wrong. Its as if they just have not been paying attention to the news for the last twenty years. In La Habra (and all of the other towns like it) it is still 1989.

The middle class in North America is already changing their lifestyles, but the working class is not with the program at all. Considering that there is now more of them than their is of us, it is becoming imperative that we get through to them. How do we do this? Environmental ads on ESPN? Spanish language flyers? Maybe critical mass bike rides down La Habra boulevard? I have no idea.

Big SUV? Get a Commercial License

Our goal is to get all cars out of private hands. In the beginning, however, it might be worthwhile to target the most dangerous, the most environmentally damaging, and the most outright obnoxious cars. In other words: the biggest cars.

As I travel the streets of Southern California, I have noticed an interesting correlation: the least competent drivers always want to drive the biggest SUVs and vans. This makes them feel a lot safer, but puts the rest of us in a state of constant risk. How many times have we all nearly been forced off the road by some ultra wide vehicle whose driver can not keep it in their own lane? How man questionable right turns have we made on red lights because (tall and opaque) SUV in the left turn lane has pulled it all the way into the cross walk, blocking our view?

When these vehicles get in a collision, the results are devastating. Kinetic energy is directly proportional to mass. At a given speed, a vehicle that weighs twice as much will transmit twice as much energy to the object with which it collides.

I will not even address the driving habits of red-neck jack asses in jacked-up pickup trucks.

My point is, bigger vehicles are harder to control and more hazardous for other road users. The people who want them most are usually the ones who should not have them.

Environmentally, it is clear that larger vehicles are more damaging. The use a lot more material, all of which will eventually need to be recycled or otherwise disposed up. I would direct you to Katie Alvord’s excellent book Divorce Your Car (New Society Publishers, 2000) for a discussion of the direct and indirect costs of manufacturing, maintaining, and disposing of cars. It is likely that most of these costs are proportional to weight.

Obviously, larger vehicles waste much more fossil fuel, which should be a concern to everybody. Likewise, they release many more pollutants into the atmosphere. In the US they are required to meet much laxer emissions standards than normal cars.

There is a simple way to attack the drivers of thees dangerous and wasteful vehicles. Most states currently require commercial drivers licenses for vehicles above a certain gross vehicle weight (GVW). In most states this kicks in around 10,000 lb GVW. A rather simple change in the motor vehicle code would redefine commercial vehicles as being any vehicle over 6,000 GVW. This would include most large SUVs, full sized vans, and pickup trucks.

The change would require that anyone owning one of these vehicles would need to register them as commercial vehicles (which typically costs more and requires more paperwork than private vehicles). Their insurance rates would probably increase. Most importantly, they would be forced to obtain commercial licenses.

Most people who actually need to drive these vehicles for work probably already have a CDL, or could get one fairly easily. It could provide a useful barrier, however, for the sort of driver we have been speaking about.

The federal Department of Transportation (DOT) has guidelines for the issuance of a commercial drivers license. In general applicants must pay extra fees, take an additional multiple choice test, pass a road test in a commercial vehicle (which usually requires a special appointment), pass a comprehensive physical (which they must repeat every two years), and undergo a federal background check.

All of these requirements are perfectly reasonable for someone who wants to operate a vehicle heavier than 6000 lbs. Indeed, they are rather modest considering how dangerous, dirty, and environmentally damaging they are. Hopefully some day we can outlaw them altogether. For now, we can change the laws to make them harder to operate.

The War Against The Car (Introduction)

In 2006 I was a casualty of war. The war I refer to is the struggle of ordinary people like me against the forces of big oil and the automotive companies and the car culture they have created to enslave humanity. I dared to walk along an American road and was run down and crippled by the enemy, a car. Ironically I, who have been car light or car free since I was 15, was forced to use a car extensively for the next two years because of my injuries. Only recently have I returned to the bicycle as my primary means of transportation (supplemented by trains and the bus). The war goes on. I am back on active duty. I still think we can win.

I am not speaking metaphorically. This is a real war. Many people on both sides have been killed by one of mans deadliest weapons—the automobile. Real violence erupts all the time. In the last two weeks two drivers have screamed threats of bodily harm at me because they resented the fact that I was driving in traffic. Even though my left arm is still crippled, I realized that it was my duty to stand and fight. Luckily, they proved less willing than me to suffer physical injury for their beliefs. Had they had superiority of numbers I’m sure I would have suffered a severe beating.

In the last few weeks I have been trying to assess the direction of transportation activism in this country. I’m pleased to see that the ranks of bicycle activists, transportation reformers, and mass transit advocates have swollen in the wake of the latest gas crises. Terrific! They are my brothers in arms and I salute them. Unfortunately, their strategies are critically flawed.

The usual argument goes like this: “If we improve mass transit, build bike paths, improve the bikes themselves, and educate people about fitness then they will all abandon their cars and flock to our side.” This will not work. Here in Los Angeles we have one of the largest and biggest bus and subway systems in the country, yet LA is the very heartland of the evil car culture. Bike paths are great for a nice Sunday morning ride, but they don’t tend to go to any of the places we work or shop or live. Bikes are already awesome. People are lazy. As long as cars are cheap and assessable they are going to drive them. The fact that they are destroying the planet and endangering the lives of themselves and their neighbors will always be secondary to their own comfort and convenience.

The the only way to fight the car culture is a head-on attack. The only way to eliminate cars from the road is to make them hard to acquire, expensive to drive, and eventually illegal to own or produce. In my next few entries I will explore ways to attack the car culture. Few of them will be easy. In fact, most of them will take a lot of time, money, and courage. This is a real war, remember?

I also reserve the right to slip in a few useful bicycle or woodworking shop tips and perhaps an amusing fire sprinkler anecdote or two—just to lighten the mood.