Why It's Ethical for Bikers to Run Red Lights

bike red lightTraffic light image via Shutterstock.


As a bicyclist, I’ve long been troubled by other bikers running red lights. It’s certainly illegal, but so is jaywalking. (And jaywalking is a God-given right in Massachusetts—the ticket is only $1).

But really, is it that bad? Bikes are pretty small, not very heavy, and can’t go very fast, which makes them not very dangerous, unlike cars. They’re also so small that they can’t get stoplights to trigger and turn from red to green; other lights are timed so badly, it seems like they’re discriminating against bicycles. Bikes, really, are kind of like cars and kind of like pedestrians. So, is it wrong if they sometimes behave like pedestrians and bike-jaywalk?

Not so, says Randy Cohen, the former ethicist for the New York Times Magazine:

I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.

OK, fair enough. But how, Mr. Cohen, ought we to treat bikes then?

We are a third thing, a distinct mode of transportation, requiring different practices and different rules. This is understood in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where nearly everyone of every age cycles. These cities treat bikes like bikes. Extensive networks of protected bike lanes provide the infrastructure for safe cycling. Some traffic lights are timed to the speed of bikes rather than cars. Some laws presume that in a bike-car collision, the heavier and more deadly vehicle is at fault … Laws work best when they are voluntarily heeded by people who regard them as reasonable. There aren’t enough cops to coerce everyone into obeying every law all the time. If cycling laws were a wise response to actual cycling rather than a clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws, I suspect that compliance, even by me, would rise.

That seems like a wise distinction for me: Bikes aren’t pedestrians, and they aren’t cars. They ought to have a third and distinct set of rules. A third way, if you will, for bikes.