Ethicist Randy Cohen’s essay on the ethics of running red lights has gone viral over the weekend. Cohen argues that cyclists who run red lights (after ensuring the intersection is clear) cause no harm, so there’s no ethical breach when they do so. Financial journalist and New York cyclist Felix Salmon argues that cyclists who run red lights are, in fact, causing harm to others.
Cohen says cyclists “are a third thing, a distinct mode of transportation, requiring different practices and different rules”. I wrote as much myself, in my unified theory of New York biking. But that theory was based on the idea that the tragedy of New York cycling is that everybody — pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists — treat cyclists too much like pedestrians. Cohen, by contrast, says that “most of the resentment of rule-breaking riders like me, I suspect, derives from a false analogy: conceiving of bicycles as akin to cars”.
I wish that New Yorkers would conceive of bicycles as akin to cars: pedestrians would look first before stepping out in front of us; cars would respect our right to be on the road; and fellow cyclists wouldn’t endanger everybody by riding the wrong way down the street.
Cohen and Salmon seem to represent the divide of cycling as a kind of fast walking (the Dutch and Danish model, if you will) vs cycling as a form of slow driving (the American and British model, more or less). This difference in the world view of cycling often informs the arguments of the “vehicular” vs “folk cycling” camps, and I have a feeling many people arguing for or against various bike facilities and riding practices aren’t aware of this fundamental difference in how they view cycling.
More of this at Felix’s Reuters Blog: Why it’s not OK for cyclists to run red lights.