HALIFAX – Every morning I put on my helmet, get on my bike, and enter a world of legal anarchy.
Trying to follow the rules is sometimes scarier than some of the riskier things I got dared to do in high school. Consider intersections where cyclists are supposed to merge into the centre lane just to bike straight, despite the 3,000 pound, fast-moving objects on all sides. Like many, I continue straight through on the right-turning lane, keeping that curb close.
Drivers often complain about people on bikes breaking the rules. It also sucks for cyclists. We would like to be able to follow a consistent set of guidelines that would keep us safe and maintain positive interactions with others on the road. Nobody likes uncertainty.
A recent survey of some 18,000 people found that pedestrians and drivers primarily break the law to save time. It found cyclists, however, do so first and foremost to feel safe. For lack of dedicated infrastructure, cyclists are forced to adapt as best they can to streets and intersections that were designed without them in mind, and so they feel the need to break or bend the rules.
Cyclists are also governed by laws that only vaguely acknowledge their existence. (For goodness sakes, it’s called the Motor Vehicle Act .) While drivers are told precisely what to do in all variety of situations, cyclists are given a handful of simple prescriptions to apply in all cases. People on bikes are supposed to stay on the right even when it would be precisely the wrong thing to do, such as when biking alongside parked cars whose doors could open at any moment and cause severe injury.
For lack of bike-specific rules, the prevailing thinking for how bikes should act is “Vehicular cycling.” Essentially, cyclists should pretend they are slow cars.
The problem is that bikes are not cars. They are not armoured and do not go as fast. If the number of people brave enough to bike in Halifax without a proper bike-lane network is only 1.1%, the number who are willing to bike roundabouts just like a car is much less. And we expect everyone to adopt this philosophy?
Moreover, some things make sense on bikes that don’t in cars. Bikes take physical energy to start and stop, they have a much tighter turning radius, they fit between cars, and they don’t have a blindspot. Rules cyclists will follow—both intuitively and for safety—must take these differences seriously.
Remember, people on bikes are other times people in cars. They are not a different species. Rules are broken because they fail to reflect the realities that people experience from the perspective of the bike seat—just as drivers speed when a road looks safe to drive fast on.
So let’s develop rules that reflect the reality of cycling.
Legalize and Regulate
One reason to develop such rules would benefit all road users: if normal cycling behaviour is legal, we can regulate it.
When all un-car-like behaviour is banned, we lose the ability to encourage good, reasonable behaviour, and to specifically prohibit the worst. Consider the following proposals for more nuanced regulations. (Whether they are laws or just guidelines matters less than that they are official and in driver’s handbooks.
- Cyclists may only skip their spot in queue at red lights when they are moving faster than traffic. Is it legal for cyclists to pass cars that are waiting for a red light? The Motor Vehicle Act says it is, but many don’t know that, and it is frustrating for drivers to have to pass the same cyclist multiple times. There is a simple solution: cyclists should judge whether they are going slower or faster than traffic. If slower, they should wait their turn in queue. If they are going faster, then it helps everyone for them to keep going and get out of traffic. One of the principal benefits of having more cyclists is, after all, less people waiting in traffic taking up the road.
- Cyclists may pass pedestrians in crosswalks but must leave a 2-meter buffer and must cross at a safe speed. Except in driving tests, drivers rarely wait for pedestrians to completely exit the crosswalk before proceeding. While the enforcement of this rule is lax when it comes to cars, there are good reasons it should not apply to cyclists at all: they have a wider field of view, no blind-spot, the ability to stop quickly if needed, do not weigh 3,000+ pounds, and do not kill over 300 pedestrians yearly in Canada. However, going slowly, leaving a wide buffer, and always ceding the right-of-way are crucial to ensuring pedestrians feel safe. When the rules simply tell cyclists not to pass through the crosswalk at all, cyclists continue doing so nonetheless, and the rules forfeit the opportunity to express how pedestrians should be protected.
- Cyclists may treat stop signs as yield signs. We know people on bikes can safely yield instead of stopping because it is what they nearly always do. When cyclists can see no one is coming, and they have to use their own energy to stop and start, telling them to make a complete stop is a bit like telling all teenagers not to have sex: would we prefer to manage an unenforceable rule or the reality? Allowing stops to be treated as yields is common in Western Europe and is found in a handful of districts in North America.
- Cyclists may bike straight on right-turning lanes, but they must occupy the centre of the lane while doing so. As described above, merging into a left-lane just to go straight is an unnecessarily terrifying experience for many cyclists. To go straight on a right-turning lane, however, cyclists must take the whole lane, or else they may be run over by a car turning right. Halifax has recently given some endorsement to this approach by painting straight arrows for bikes on a right-turning lane at Quinpool and Vernon.
Vague Rules and Culture War
I believe cyclists would be happy to follow rules that showed recognition for the reality of their mode of transportation, even if these rules placed limits on behaviours now common. We all want certainty.
Without rules that recognize that bikes are not cars, police have the choice to either slap every cyclist they see with fines (including police cyclists themselves), or apply rules selectively, which creates uncertainty not only for cyclists but for everyone on the road.
Clarity would help repair the relationship between cyclists and drivers. Different ideas about the legitimacy of cyclist behaviour creates tension. If we could establish a set of rules that all cyclists could subscribe to—and that otherwise could be reasonably enforced—then we would have a single set of norms to reference. There would still be plenty of education left to do—I’m often yelled at for not biking on the sidewalk—but at least there would be one clear set of rules to teach.
If you build it, they will behave
Part of the solution will, necessarily, not only be a change in rules, but a change infrastructure. Some places in Halifax, I do not know how to proceed legally (entering Bell Road from the Commons), and in others, it is impossible. Bike lanes can make safe and law-abiding choices the obvious thing to do. Engineers aim for creating roads in which only 85 percent of drivers will choose to follow the speed limit. In the same way, we can build streets in which more than 85 percent of cyclists will follow the rules because it is the easy, safe, self-evident thing to do.
Someday, I would like to bike to work in the morning knowing every rule I should follow and knowing I followed those rules. Even better, I’d like to know others on the road understand those rules too. Then I could feel I belong there.
Feature Image by Dean Bouchard from the Spacing Atlantic Flickr Group
Author update: December 4th, 2015
Editor’s Note – a PSA from our friends at Halifax Cycling Coalition: It’s time to make the rules of the road better for all road users. Could we re-name it the Traffic Safety Act? Should we make it illegal to turn right in front of a person on a bicycle? Should we make the penalties tougher for not letting a bus in to traffic? The Halifax Cycling Coalition and our partners have made a list of ideas and we want your feedback. Join us on January 21st, 2016, from 6-9pm at the Halifax Central Library’s BMO Room to help us rank the ideas, and add your own to the list. Note that this is a drop-in event, you can come and go at any time through the evening. The draft amendments include feedback from Bicycle Nova Scotia, It’s More Than Buses, and Walk n Roll Halifax. We hope to present the final list to the Minister of Transportation in early February. RSVP here to be kept up-to-date and receive a draft of the ideas in advance: https://cyclehalifax.ca/civi/?page=CiviCRM&q=civicrm/event/info&reset=1&id=35
” Is it legal for cyclists to pass cars that are waiting for a red light? I don’t know, and neither does the Motor Vehicle Act,”
I’ve always understood 114(2) as permitting filtering, or passing to the right of stopped cars. A cyclist operating on the far right side or the right-hand shoulder of the roadway may pass to the
right of the overtaken vehicle if it is safe to do so. Some jurisdictions specifically prohibit filtering, but not the MVA – it seems to clearly permit it.
The NS MVA clearly states bicycles may pass cars on the right. The only equivocation is that it is ‘at your own risk’. I think that equivocation should change. It gives drivers who right-hook a cyclist a legal out.
The suggestion that bikes should use right turn lanes to proceed straight makes no sense to me, as it leads to unnecessary obstruction of traffic in general and, more importantly, it’s dangerous. Proceeding straight in a right turn lane is a recipe for getting right hooked. Although I sympathize with cyclists who might finding merging ‘terrifying'(I don’t , I’ll admit) , I suggest that laws should be based on actual risk, not perceived risk, and a better solution is a) reduction of urban speed limits, 2) education for road users (we do almost none!). Finally, for cyclists who remain fearful of merging, there is the already legal alternative of navigating the intersection as a pedestrian.
An MVA change I would like to see is a right hook law, similar to Massachusetts, which clearly holds drivers responsible for mirror and shoulder checking before turning right. Such a law would, of course, require education campaign during rollout.
Thanks for this article.
I’m a fairly experienced and confident commuter cyclist, so I probably don’t represent the average person who we as a society are trying to recruit to begin cycling, but I feel most safe on the road when I follow the rules of the road. I see the writer’s points, and agree there are fundamental and obvious differences between cars and bikes. But so many drivers are so nervous around cyclists already, I fear that the public education campaign needed to explain the differences in rules between drivers and cyclists is too massive a hurdle. A modified set of cyclist rules might make sense in theory, but in reality I’d feel less safe given the potential additional confusion for most drivers.
In my experience (generally, aside from the odd incident with the odd very anti-cyclist driver), when I ride predictably, I ride safely. “Predictably” means behaving like a car–following the rules of the current majority on the road. I keep to the curb, but take the lane when I need to (like when I’m going straight at an intersection without a dedicated right turn lane, or to avoid parked cars’ doors), and I change lanes when I’m “supposed” to (if I’m going straight when there is a right turn lane, or if I’m turning left and there’s a left turn lane). And yes, I stop at all stops–because there’s almost always a vehicle at the same intersection at the same time as me, and it’s simply the only safe choice, even if it does take more energy to start from a stop.
I’ve cycled the roads in Halifax, Vancouver, Toronto, Hamilton, and Amsterdam (an admittedly unique situation!), and confidently behaving like a car has never done me wrong. But admittedly, confidence is the key.
Why should we have ANY confidence cyclists will obey whatever rules might ultimately be implemented? They certainly do not as it is now. Case in point from this morning: I was heading south on Agricola. I was in the right lane wanting to turn right onto Young St. A cyclist was ahead of me so I adjusted to his speed and moved in behind him. We both turned onto Young and immediately became part of a long line of traffic since that is a single lane and there are usually people turning left onto Robie holding things up.
What did Mr. Cyclist do? No longer satisfied with being a vehicle, he moved into the oncoming traffic lane – thankfully empty of oncoming traffic – until he could get to a curb cut. He then jumped onto the sidewalk to get him to Robie – forcing a pedestrian onto the grass, BTW – then proceeded along the sidewalk until he got to the corner at Robie where he made the sharp left at that blind corner to proceed along that sidewalk. If anyone had been walking towards the corner on Robie it would have been a very close call to avoid a collision. Presumably at some point he jumped back into traffic on Robie when it suited him and became a vehicle again.
You can say “oh, that is just a bad cyclist, the kind we should educate” but the fact remains that you can see this kind of clown cyclist behavior every single day around here without too much difficulty. If you wonder why cyclists have such a bad reputation here, this sort of thing is why. Clean up your own act first before lobbying to change laws.
I wish you, and others, would learn what “anarchy” means. It means to be without hierarchy, not chaos or disorder as so many seem to believe and thus continue to use words improperly for sheer dramatic effect.
Red, jerks are jerks whether they are driving or biking. Sounds like that guy was a real jerk.
I’ll let Wired respond to the idea that cyclists break the law more. They say it well:
“Cyclists neglect to follow some rules, mostly rolling though stop signs and going through red lights if there’s no cross traffic. Drivers tend to forget the following things are illegal (at least in California): Speeding, tailgating, not signaling, not stopping before a right turn, getting behind the wheel while drunk, texting or using a cell phone without the hands-free option, double parking, throwing trash (including cigarette butts) out the window, failing to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, making a U-turn when there’s a ‘No U-turn’ sign, honking your horn just because you’re angry, and yes, running red lights and rolling through stop signs.”
Tristan, one could make an even longer list of rules cyclists break. In any event, this kind of “my dad can beat your dad” stuff is not helpful and does nothing to advance the discussion. We can agree that nobody is perfect. The issue of cyclists being blatant in their contempt for traffic laws stands unresolved.
It seems to me that the majority of urban cyclists in HRM have very poor cycling skills. And I say this, not as a troll bike hater, but as a 40-year cyclist who’s cycled 300,000 lifetime kilometers and didn’t get his first automobile until age 38. Yes, many cyclists exhibit very poor judgement in their cycling – a small percentage because they are “jerks” but the vast majority, I feel, due to their “ignorance” in the true meaning of the word – they just don’t know how to ride well and safely. I would love it if our politico’s could pass a law such that our police force could ticket scofflaw cyclists – we all know who I mean – to be sentenced to attend an Effective Cycling course run by certified Can-Bike instructors, their “fine” being the cost of the course – where they’re shown videos to scare the heck out of them and to tell them what they’re doing wrong and why it is wrong, then to be taught the proper and safe and effective way to ride a bike in traffic. We’d all be a lot better for it as a society.
I get more fired up by bad cyclists than angry drivers. I suspect most drivers who are angry and disrespectful of cyclists are this way because of the 10% or 20% of cyclists that stand out for acting like the rules of the road don’t apply to them.
I’ve cycled on various cities’ roads for 20 years, and I’m the first person to yell at a cyclist on the sidewalk, blowing through a stop sign, or weaving through stopped traffic. I believe that if we as a cycling community want to be treated as equals on the road we need to earn that respect by acting like we belong there.
I don’t want to discourage new cyclists from hitting the road, and I want our ranks to grow. But I also can’t help but think there should be some sort of mandatory training course or licensing program. Or, as Mark says, more enforcement of the law, with training programs being the punishment.
Sure–there are bad drivers who ignore the law, there are bad cyclists who ignore the law. But I’ve yet to see a driver swerve up onto the sidewalk to avoid an inconvenient light. We need to respect the position we’re in on the roads–we’re the minority who needs to assert our right to be there. You don’t assert your right to something by acting like an ass. You do it by respectfully proving that you have a right to it.
I try my best to follow the rules of the road while cycling, but even when do motorists refuse to respect my right to be there. Ive had people try to run me off the road, follow me yelling profanities, and honking. It’s horrible. One of the times I’m not sure if I’m following the rules is when I have my children sitting in a bike trailer I use the sidewalk because I refuse to risk the road with them. I know that children aged 16 and under are permitted to use the sidewalk, does this mean when I have children attached to my bike that I’m also permitted?