Counterpoint to Cohen’s ethical scofflaw argument

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.

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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.


  1. Did a 1000mile bike ride from Switzerland to Amsterdam and the most difficult riding for me was actually around town in the Netherlands.  At every other point on the trip, when I was biking as a “vehicle”, I always felt I could pull over and take a picture or relax or whatever.  Biking in the Dutch towns, though, was like riding in a pelaton where I didn’t know the rules.  

  2. They’re not really on two sides of the discussion. Cohen’s point is that traffic laws in the US are designed with 4000-lb vehicles in mind, which don’t pass the common-sense test when applied to bicycles, which weigh about as much as an average pedestrian, albeit moving at a faster clip. The real point is that bicycles present no threat to pedestrians when ridden responsibly–which as Cohen points out does not require the same protective standards applied to automobiles.

    I would suggest applying an incremental relaxation of traffic laws applied to bicycles in NYC…for example require that bicycles come to a complete stop at red lights, but be allowed to proceed if there is no traffic or pedestians. Apply and enforce that law until it is accepted by pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike; over time non-cyclists will become accustomed to the idea that cyclists can proceed through red lights after stopping, and will not be frustrated that cyclists are “ignoring” the law. Assuming there is no increase in accidents (in all likelihood, enforcement would reduce the number of accidents further), a further incremental relaxation of the laws could take place, instead of Cohen’s jump right to treating red lights as “yield” signs.

  3. Whether one sees cycling as more like “slow driving” or “fast walking” it should be obvious that it’s really neither. Half the reason we have so much inter-modal conflict is that traditional street design ignores that bikes are a 3rd mode. So drivers think cyclists should be on the sidewalk and walkers think we should be in the street.

    I think the right solution is the Dutch/Danish method, which has bike-only separated cycle tracks on the higher speed roads, bike lanes on slower roads, and no lanes on the really slow one-way, one-lane streets, where the bikes and walkers share space with cars–and can travel either direction!

    And for the hot shots who complain about cycle paths being filled with slow bikes, I challenge you to race one of those tall blondes on the Dutch bikes. They move fast. If you hear a bell from behind you better move right.

  4. I’ll take the opposite view that cycling can be “any of the above”.  It can be “slow driving” (or just driving, really).  It can be “fast walking” (aka pedestrian mode).  Or it can be a middle mode on a third facility between the travel lanes and the sidewalks.

    The root of the argument is trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach, forcing cyclists into a single mode instead of allowing all three.

    And things get really tricky when cyclists are changing modes, or when intersections try to allow more than one mode through at a time.

  5. Salmon used the “if they want respect” canard.  Hey, I saw an ambulatory human behaving badly today, and Felix Salmon didn’t stop it. He needs to police his own if he wants anyone to respect him.

  6. This is one of my favorite Ethicist rants on cars in the big city. Sorry for the font size:

    Two of my neighbors are in cahoots. When one pulls his car out of a spot, the other is always parked directly in front or behind and moves his car just enough to take up two spaces, so no other car can squeeze in. When the first car returns, the other moves back, restoring parking spots for both. Is it ethical for them to save spaces for each other, instead of leaving one for another parking-deprived New Yorker? Joseph A. Moskal, New YorkIf either of them were ethical, they wouldn’t use private cars in Manhattan, a city with excellent public transportation. Why should the non-car-owning majority allow the car-owning minority to store their private property, i.e. cars, on public property at no charge? Why should my every walk to the store be akin to a stroll through a parking lot? Why should that majority be subject to the many costs and risks to health and safety attendant on the private car? I’m sorry: could you repeat the question?

  7. Nevermind about the font size; reformatting fixed that. I’m sorry it took away the paragraph break between the question and answer, but you get the point.

    Happy Trails,

  8. There’s probably something broken in my CSS style that takes away some of the formatting, so sorry about that. But yep, I got your point.

    But, umm, you’re in New York now? When did that happen?

  9. Nope, still in Oregon, but The Times gets around. I was back visiting the other coast this summer, and we enjoyed our stay, but it’s great to be back on the left coast.

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