Improving Bicyclist Compliance With Traffic Laws

Vision Zero's success relies not only on motorists but also cyclists. Image Credit: CityLand.

Vision Zero’s success relies not only on motorists but also cyclists. Image Credit: CityLand.

Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative to substantially reduce traffic fatalities can only be achieved if all users of our roadways respect traffic rules. This needs to include bicyclists for their own safety and for the safety of others. On the streets of New York City compliance by bicyclists is not the norm. They frequently do not stop for a red traffic light, and often are seen bicycling against traffic flow, riding on the sidewalk and committing other infractions. What is needed is a more rational and appropriate way to promote compliance. Past culture-changing efforts in the City such as cleaning up after your dog, banning fireworks and restricting cigarette smoking have been remarkably successful. Changing the behavior of bicyclists also can be accomplished, but only with a new approach.

We recommend getting tougher and more lenient at the same time. Here’s how.

Change the penalty structure. Right now, penalties against bicyclists who run red lights are up to $270 — identical to car driver fines, even though the consequences, in terms of injuring others, are much fewer. Make the bike fine $50, a far more reasonable amount for the offense. And take the cyclist tickets out of the Traffic Violations Bureau — a state entity from which the city gets less than half the revenue — and make them returnable to the City’s Department of Finance. Incentives matter; that’s why the city writes about 8 million parking tickets but just 1 million moving violations annually.

More enforcement. With the extra revenue generated by transferring adjudication to the city we can hire a healthy complement of NYPD traffic officers dedicated to bike-related enforcement. This includes making sure that cyclists obey laws and that drivers share the road and don’t block bike lanes.

Saner rules. Finally, start to accept that bike riders shouldn’t have to follow all of the rules established for car drivers since cyclists navigate the road more like pedestrians at times than cars. Allow for turns on red after stops and when there are no pedestrians. Through signage and special traffic lights for bikes, permit bicyclists to make turns and other movements prohibited for motorists.

Lastly, launch an education campaign to encompass the changes and let bikers, drivers and pedestrians know the new rules of the road so that we can all get along.


Sam Schwartz, the Daily News’ Gridlock Sam, is a former deputy commissioner in the city Transportation Department under Mayor Ed Koch.

Gerard Soffian, adjunct professor at NYU-Poly, is a former deputy commissioner for the Transportation Department’s division of traffic operations under Mayor Bloomberg.

6 thoughts on “Improving Bicyclist Compliance With Traffic Laws

  1. “With the extra revenue generated by transferring adjudication to the city we can hire a healthy complement of NYPD traffic officers dedicated to bike-related enforcement”

    What extra revenue? “Less than half” of $270 is presumably still more than $50.

  2. You have to wonder when and how the laws for bicyclists were written when they said cyclists have the same rules as motorists. I imagine it was written by people who had little to no experience bicycling themselves, and that they were written at a time when this country expected that eventually everyone would drive their own cars and live in the suburbs, and that sky scrapers will have half the floors converted to parking garages to accommodate cars.

    The really is that that car vision for cities never materialized. Where it did happen, those cities aren’t places where anyone wants to live. It’s time we updated our philosophy of how streets should be designed to the reality that people want to live in cities where they can get around by foot or by bike and breathe cleaner air.

    The suggestions in this article are a good start on how to change the rules for bikes to make them more practical and improve compliance.

  3. As a cyclist in this city, much of this reads like a breath of fresh air. It seems to be a common misunderstanding that we do not want better enforcement when, in fact, many of us would very much prefer to see behavior that includes speeding sidewalks crowded with pedestrians or riding the wrong way curtailed. The problem lies in how to enforce a broken set of laws that often make little sense to anyone with a handlebar view of the street. When reason is absent from the equation, it is too easily left up to individuals which laws are followed and how.

    I would add that red light enforcement for motor vehicles is mostly by camera with fines of only $50 and no points, compared to $190 (as Steve Vaccaro correctly points out) given out to cyclists every time. This is grossly unfair given the havoc that is wreaked every year by motor vehicles with a fatality rate, compared to bicycles, that is in the neighborhood of 800 to one.

    In addition, I welcome the suggestion that cyclists should be allowed to turn at red lights when the way is clear of traffic and pedestrians. To clarify, this should include left turns as well as right, particularly where busy oncoming traffic makes it nearly impossible to safely cut through on a green light. I often find that the only times I can even make such turns is to cross to the far left side going the wrong way, well before the intersection, or when the light is red. Both maneuvers are illegal.

    To go further, however, adoption of an “Idaho Stop” law, at all but the busiest intersections would be a welcome adjustment that would allow bicycles to treat red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yields. Bicycles travel at different speeds from motorized traffic, sometimes faster and at times slower. Allowing cyclists to proceed through empty intersections after a quick stop provides better separation of modes of transportation that would often be safer for cyclists while being more convenient for everyone.

  4. Bicyclist have more in common with roller bladers and long boarders than automobiles. The rules need to be throw out and re-written.

    Yield on red should be permitted. Stupid to wait a whole cycle when the risk of injury or death is LOWER than riding through green (see turning drivers).

    No lights should be a fix it ticket, sidewalk riding tickets should only be given if the rider is actually riding along the sidewalk at speed, not hopping up from the curb to lock up their bike.

  5. Great post. I do have a few quibbles with the way the “more enforcement” part is framed.

    1) It needs to be clear that the reform of the rules (“Stop” as yield for bikes) and penalties (proportional to the mass of the vehicle) is prerequisite to any emphasis on enforcement focused on cyclist. I assume that is your intent, but I could be projecting.

    2) We don’t need any more police officers. Train the ones we have and allocate them to rationally prioritized enforcement efforts. We need “smarter enforcement” not “more”. Write as many tickets for cycling infractions as it takes, if those infractions are actually dangerous. The number of tickets issued to dangerous motorists should still be an order of magnitude greater unless/until the carnage inflicted upon this city by motorist ends.

    3) Fines should not be thought of as revenue even under the laudable terms you describe; they should function as a deterrent. If the goal is a cultural shift and a major change in behavior, the system should work so that the number of infractions diminishes to such a degree that there is little to no revenue. I’m sure tickets for smoking in bars generate little revenue for the city; as it should.

    On the matter of public awareness, the ‘so that we can all get along’ ending to your post, while it comes from what I’m sure is the right place, nonetheless raises a red flag for me. We don’t need any education campaign that would be yet another that treats all users equally – “don’t jaywalk, don’t salmon, don’t drive too fast” all given the same weight. They don’t carry the same threat to others. This should be reflected in what we target for enforcement, what the fine or other consequences should be, and in any public awareness efforts. There certainly are (some times catastrophic) exceptions, but for the most part pedestrian and cyclist rule breaking amounts to rudeness, and if something goes wrong the perpetrators themselves are vulnerable. Motorists’ bad behavior kills people all to frequently in this city, and drivers are not vulnerable in conflicts with people.

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