In Paris, it will soon be legal for cyclists to go through red lights.
Instead of forcing cyclists to huddle between curb and car until the lights change, until everybody speeds off together, special rules will apply at some road junctions. Cyclists will be able to turn right on red lights at crossroads and continue forward when they hit a light across the top of a T-junction–in short, two things that cyclists already do instinctively.
The announcement represents a change that is gaining momentum in bike-friendly places globally. In the U.S and many other countries, bikes are forced to conform to laws designed for cars and bigger traffic, and these laws are usually designed to keep traffic flowing, not to keep more vulnerable road users safe. “The tired old mantra ‘Same roads, same rights, same rules’ is a major hindrance to bicycling’s growth in America,” says Jonathan Maus, editor of Bike Portland. “Our road laws were created with only cars and trucks in mind. Bicycles are a completely different animal and they need to be treated as such.”
The Paris mayor’s office announced that participating intersections will have new signs mounted on the stop lights to direct cyclists and notify drivers. The announcement makes clear that bikes do not get priority status in these cases—they must yield right-of-way to pedestrians or cars.
Some similar laws exist in parts of the U.S, but usually only because red lights don’t detect waiting bikes. Without them, law-abiding cyclists would be (and often are) stuck at lights forever.
In the Netherlands, a utopia for bikes, the law makes drivers responsible for the safety of cyclists. One law, known as 185 WVW, is often translated as saying that drivers are always at fault in a collision between car and bike. While that’s not strictly true (it governs liability for financial damage in bike/car collisions), the law’s effect is similar: The driver will be liable unless he or she can prove the incident was caused by circumstances beyond their control.
And according to the Bicycle Dutch blog, bikes weaving through traffic and jumping red lights is not unexpected behavior, so the driver can’t use it as an excuse. Thus, the driver is to blame for just about anything that might happen.
That might be extreme, but more sensible, bike-focused laws would lead to cyclist obeying them more often. “When road design and traffic laws don’t respect bicycle riders, bicycle riders don’t respect them,” says Maus. “Our car-centric system radicalizes bicycle riders because a survival mentality kicks in. It’s pretty basic human psychology.”
In Germany, there are plenty of rules (as you might expect) regarding bikes. For instance, you can lose your (car) driver license if the cops find you drunk on your bike. But in many cities there are special sections at stop lights where bikes can stop ahead of cars, and cyclists can ride the “wrong” way down many one-way streets.
When I asked Maus what other law changes he’d like to see, he came up with two great suggestions I haven’t heard before. “I’d like to see much lower speed limits in urban areas. Fifteen miles per hour would be great. And on certain streets–like narrow residential ones–we should not allow people in cars to pass people on bikes.”