Left on red
Guardian article: Guardian article: Should cyclists be allowed to run red lights?
Cyclists in Paris are now allowed to ride through red lights, and San Francisco is mulling a similar move. With the four main candidates for mayor considering just such a radical rewriting of the rulebook, could London be next?
The lights turn red but the cyclist behind me shoots straight through. Two police officers radio to a colleague up the road who pulls him over and writes out a £50 on-the-spot fine. The Metropolitan Police hand out around 3,000 of these fixed penalty notices a year to cyclists for running red lights: many motorists would like to see them issue more – but could the offence instead be scrapped altogether?
When Paris changed the rules this summer to allow cyclists to ride through 1,800 red lights, the French capital joined Brussels and cities in Germany and the Netherlands which have been doing just that for years. There’s a row over proposals to introduce similar changes in San Francisco – cyclists protested against a police crackdown by rigidly obeying traffic laws and brought traffic to a halt. Now, the four main candidates to replace Boris Johnson as mayor have said they will consider such a move in London.
Johnson and Transport for London requested permission for a trial back in 2009, but it never took place. TfL has concentrated instead on remodelling junctions to allow “early release” (where cyclists get a green light before cars) and “hold the left-turning traffic” (keeping cyclists and cars apart on left turns).
Last month, Johnson explained that the idea of allowing cyclists to run red lights had been considered but “it was recognised that there are many legal and practical barriers, as well as justifiable concerns about the impact on road safety for all users. While TfL and the Department for Transport have not ruled out testing this concept in the future, they currently remain committed to the proven concept of using appropriate traffic signals to control the movement of different road users.”
But the rule change – often referred to as the Idaho Law after the US state where cyclists can stop and roll through a red light if the way is clear – is back on the agenda. Campaign group Stop Killing Cyclists asked the main candidates in May’s mayoral election to support its 10 by 2020 safety challenge, which includes a call to increase spending on cycle infrastructure, the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street and “the introduction of the Idaho law, allowing cyclists to turn left when traffic is free at junctions, with full legal priority for pedestrians”.
The group’s co-founder Donnachadh McCarthy was surprised by the positive replies. Labour candidate Sadiq Khan said he was “strongly in favour of adopting a variant of the Idaho Law”, while his Conservative opponent Zac Goldsmith said he was “interested in the idea … [which is] worth exploring”. Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon said she would back a trial, and the Green party’s Sian Berry said she would consider it as an emergency measure. Their full responses can be read here.
While McCarthy welcomes TfL’s moves to improve signalling, he says remodelling 20 or 30 intersections is taking years and costs millions of pounds each time. Changing the rules on red lights could be implemented almost instantly and could affect all of the city’s 10,000 junctions. “It’s a problem which needs dealing with now,” he said. “If a cyclist waits for green, and a bus or HGV wants to turn left, then they are in real danger – that’s how most cyclists in London are being killed. If someone on a bike can turn left before the light turns green – watching out for pedestrians of course, and we’re very clear that pedestrians have priority – then you can be away before the bus or HGV starts moving and you can avoid getting squashed.”
Variations on the Idaho Law are already in place in a number of cities across Europe, where most countries drive on the right. The European Cycling Federation says there are more than 5,000 right-turn-on-red intersections in Germany, while the Netherlands allows cyclists to turn right where they see a sign. Brussels started a trial in 2012 and, after a study by the Belgian Road Safety Institute found no increased danger, is expanding the scheme to more than 250 junctions. Trials in French cities including Strasbourg and Nantes have yielded similar results.
The changes in Paris are part an attempt to triple the amount of journeys by bike by 2020, which has seen the city introduce its free Vélib’ hire scheme, install more than 400 miles of segregated bike lanes and ban articulated HGVs from the centre during rush hour. A three-year pilot scheme established that allowing cyclists to run red lights improved the flow of traffic and cut the number of collisions, especially those involving a vehicle’s blind spot. So, this summer, signs were fixed to 1,800 traffic lights telling cyclists that when the signal is red, they can – if the way is clear – jump the lights. The change only affects right turns or going straight on at a T-junction – where the rider can stay close to the pavement.
Kiki Lambert of the campaign group Mieux Se Déplacer à Bicyclette (Better By Bike) says the scheme has been working well and hopes it will soon be extended to cover left turns on red too. As well as being safer, she says it saves cyclists time and energy, and helps the city work better. “If you say to people, ‘don’t do that – just obey’, then they don’t think about what they’re doing. If you give people more responsibility, it works better. Traffic lights are there to slow cars down and allow pedestrians to cross. Bikes are much lighter and much slower so, when there are no pedestrians and the way is clear, it is stupid that a cyclist should have to stop.”
In the US, the Idaho Law, which came into effect in that state in 1982, allows cyclists to treat a red light as a stop sign, and a stop sign as a yield sign. Variations have been adopted in a few small cities in Colorado but, until now, no big American cities have followed suit. What works well in Boise or Aspen, the thinking goes, wouldn’t be practical in a larger metropolis.
That may soon be put to the test. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors looks likely to pass a rule-change making the enforcement of stop signs for cyclists the lowest priority for the city’s police – in effect introducing the “stop as yield” part of the Idaho Law. The change is supported by the majority of the board, but may yet get vetoed by Mayor Ed Lee.
The issue came to a head this summer after one police captain ordered his officers to crackdown on cyclists who rolled through stop signs on the Wiggle – a popular zig-zagging bike route which avoids the city’s biggest hills. A group of cyclists protested by strictly obeying traffic laws – coming to a complete halt at every intersection and only moving on once they had clear right of way. Traffic was gridlocked in minutes. “The thing you say you want – every cyclist to stop at every stop sign – you really don’t want that,” one of the organisers told SF Weekly.
Washington may get in on the act too after city councillor Mary Cheh introduced a bill last month which would bring a version of the Idaho Law to DC.
Running reds is a controversial issue even among cyclists, with some arguing it is bound to anger motorists and pedestrians, and set back the cause of cycling. If it continues to work for other cities around the world, though, could a trial in London, or another British city, one day get the green light?