Why cyclists break the law

A common complaint of those that have never ridden a bike in an urban environment is that cyclists simply seem to not follow the law. What people miss is that any “illegal” or “erratic” behavior that drivers may witness is, the vast majority of the time, a survival mechanism.

Our streets in Los Angeles are not designed with cyclists or pedestrians in mind — they are mostly designed to maximize car throughput, with every other mode of transportation downgraded to a second class citizen. The laws, too, are designed with that effect, and so sometimes to survive, cyclists need to break the law.

A typical statement about cyclists at stop signs. Credit: Kyryn Hayes, Twitter

1. Cyclists don’t stop at stop signs. This is probably the biggest complaint I usually hear about cyclists: “if cyclists want to be treated like cars they should act like cars.” Here’s what everyone knows if they’ve actually biked around Los Angeles — at stop signs, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you make a full stop at every stop sign, cars often honk at you and/or do unsafe maneuvers to pass you. It’s also much more physically demanding to stop and start over and over, making your trip far longer and increasing the bar for physical fitness to use a bike for transportation. If you don’t do a full stop at stop signs, you risk getting a ticket and/or scorn from drivers. But studies have shown it’s safer to let cyclists treat stop signs like yield signs, which is why many states have passed the Idaho Stop Law. In California, an attempt to create an Idaho Stop Law has failed two years in a row, but is likely to eventually pass.

A leading pedestrian interval gives pedestrians a 3–7 second head start. Credit: City of Long Beach

2. Cyclists use the crosswalk or leading pedestrian interval. Another common complaint is that cyclists will use a crosswalk to cross an intersection, sometimes taking advantage of a leading pedestrian interval. Yes, crosswalks are primarily for pedestrians, and technically cyclists need to dismount and walk their bike in a crosswalk. However, when cyclists use a crosswalk — especially in the context of taking advantage of a leading pedestrian interval — they’re just trying to stay alive. Usually, behind the cyclist also waiting for the light to change is a distracted impatient driver, and once the light turns green, they often gun it and act in a way that jeopardizes the cyclists’ safety. It’s safer for the cyclist to get a head start. And thanks to a new state bill this year, it will be legal for cyclists to use leading pedestrian intervals starting next year.

A cyclist “taking the lane” Credit: Boston Biker

3. Cyclists take the lane and block vehicular traffic. This is a common complaint from drivers, that a cyclist will “take the lane” and therefore slow them down. However, contrary to popular belief, it’s not illegal. The reason cyclists take a lane is to avoid being passed unsafely — often with only inches to spare. Cyclists will usually choose to use a bike lane — where they exist, which is not often in L.A. This is another reason why drivers should support creating more bike lanes, it will stop them from being slowed down by a cyclist trying to stay alive.

Cyclists riding on the sidewalk in Downtown L.A. Credit: LADOT Bike Blog

4. Cyclists ride on the sidewalk and endanger pedestrians. This too, isn’t illegal (unless you’re riding an e-bike), in the City of Los Angeles (and there is an effort at the County level to make it legal in all of Unincorporated L.A. County). Cyclists will tell you that the only reason they would ever ride on a sidewalk is if they don’t feel safe in the street — which, unfortunately, is often given our lack of safe bike infrastructure. In a perfect world, every street would have dedicated, safe bike infrastructure, and that would make sidewalk riding a thing of the past.

The bottom line is that cyclists do whatever they need to, to arrive at their destination alive. Often navigating hostile, car-centric infrastructure, if it’s between breaking a law or protecting your own life, it’s an easy choice. We need dramatically safer and more bike infrastructure in L.A., and laws that prioritize people over car convenience.

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Michael Schneider

Michael Schneider

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Tali, Mika & Sofi’s dad, Katerina's husband, LA native. Founder, Service. Founder, Streets For All. Board Member, Mid City West Neighborhood Council.