The psychology of riding on the pavement, and jumping red lights

Posted on August 6, 2013

Source: As Easy As Riding A Bike

Plenty of excellent stuff has already been written about the woefulness of the material that has finally emerged today from the Nice Way Code. I’m not going to add to that, because there’s really no need! What I would like to do instead is take a look at the real reasons people cycle through red lights, or cycle on the pavement, because as far as I can tell, those behind the Nice Way Code campaign have dismally failed to grasp what motivates this kind of behaviour.

A clue to where they’re coming from lies in their ‘Don’t Give Cyclists a Bad Name!’ video that appeared yesterday.

As was pointed out yesterday, the red light jumping behaviour being re-enacted in the video doesn’t really correspond to the way red lights are jumped by those motivated to do so while cycling.

We see the actress approaching the lights, and as they go to amber, she gives a ‘determined’ expression, and accelerates –

Running A Red Light On A Bicycle in the UK

Running A Red Light On A Bicycle in the UK

Passing into the junction just as the lights turn from red to amber.

To give this behaviour its official term, this is amber gambling – something motorists do with extraordinary regularity. Stand on any junction where there are significant queues, and you’ll see it happen repeatedly. Indeed, it’s how motorists generally jump red lights; by chancing their way through the junction just after the lights have changed.

However, this is not the way people on bikes generally jump red lights. They do so by inching their way across the junction in stages, using islands in the middle if they are available. (There is an example in the masthead at the top of this blog.) Or, they may choose to pedal through what they know is a pedestrian phase on the lights, when all the lights on a junction are green for pedestrians, and they know no motorists will be driving through the junction.

Obviously this kind of behaviour can be anti-social, and indeed dangerous if carried out with little regard for the safety of pedestrians. But in general it takes the form of ‘creeping’, a slow and progressive trundle through the junction, looking and watching to see where traffic is coming from. There’s a good reason for this slow and careful behaviour; if you’re on a bike, you really don’t want to get hit by a motor vehicle.

So why do it? Clearly a minority of people are doing it because they are impatient. But a much more important reason is, I think, an eagerness to get away from the motor traffic stacked up behind you. This is part of the reason I and many other people dislike Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs). They put you right in front of a revving array of motor vehicles that will be faster at accelerating than you, and eager to get back past you. It’s like being a small mammal placed in front of some fast and angry bears.

Once I’d left the tranquility of the closed roads of the FreeCycle circuit in central London last Saturday, I found myself heading along Horseferry Road, cycling towards a pub for a post-ride meeting with friends. Just before I got to the pub, I caught a red light at this junction –

Parked cars, right beside a central island.

Parked cars, right beside a central island.

It’s a little hard to see, but on the other side of the junction – where I was headed – there are parked cars, right beside a central island.

A Fairly Typical 'Pinch Point'

A Fairly Typical ‘Pinch Point’

A fairly typical ‘pinch point’. So as the lights turned green, I pedalled off as fast as I could, a small mammal pursued by a horde of angry bears, all heading into this narrowing gap. Of course they all wanted to get ahead of me before this gap, so I had to fight my out into the stream of bears coming past me.

It was unpleasant. To avoid it, I could (and probably should) have trundled my way across the junction, through a red light (gasp!), while the lights were green for pedestrians. I would have escaped from the junction, and been far away, a good distance down the road at the moment the lights turned green and all the hard acceleration and revving occurred.

This is why so many people jump red lights; a desire for subjective safety, to be away from the fast angry bears, rather than stuck right in front of them waiting for the signal that will release them from captivity behind you.

I’ve chatted with friends about the delicious feeling of cycling through a junction just as the lights turn to amber, because doing so comes with the knowledge that you will have momentary respite from motor traffic being behind you. Rather than ASLs, I’ve often thought that I would probably prefer a box that places me at the rear of a queue of traffic, so that I am the last thing to go through the junction on a given green phase. Why would anyone ordinary person want to place themselves back in front of fast heavy traffic, that has just barrelled past them on the way to the traffic lights?

But it doesn’t seem that the Nice Way Code have paid a moment’s thought to the reasons why people jump red lights. Not only does their video show a cyclist jumping a red light like a driver would, instead of the way cyclists typically jump red lights (as described here), but they seem to have framed red light jumping by cyclists as some kind of ‘cheekiness’, the behaviour of a miscreant child who should really know better. ‘Respect the rules’, says the campaign, as if this was merely a matter of naughtiness.

In other words, the campaign is being presented to those cycle directly from the viewpoint of people who drive, not from the perspective of people who are currently tempted to jump lights while cycling.

The same failure of understanding appears in the Nice Way Code’s treatment of pavement cycling, presenting it as childish, and something you should ‘grow out of’.

A sign from the 'grow out of' campaign.

A sign from the ‘grow out of’ campaign.

Will people too terrified to cycle on the road chose to stop using the pavement now they’ve been told it’s ‘mature’ to use the road? I doubt it. The message here is basically ‘man up’; but that’s not going to work on the people who aren’t willing to ride on the road in the first place.

Pavement cycling is fairly common on this bit of road in Horsham.

Pavement cycling is fairly common on this bit of road in Horsham.

Pavement cycling is fairly common on this bit of road in Horsham.

It’s the principal route in and out of the town from the north, and one of the few routes over the railway line that divides the town. How many people currently cycling on the pavement here might be persuaded to ride on the road by a campaign that tells them they are immature? None at all.

It would have been more useful to ask people who do cycle on the pavement to dismount and walk when they are around pedestrians; but that would have involved thinking about this issue from the perspective of the people this campaign is trying to target, instead of one that simply assumes people who ride on the pavement are fully-grown children who need to be shamed into being more ‘mature’. This attitude is quite prevalent among cycling groups, who think people on the pavement need to ‘grow up’ and get on the road – I hope this aspect of the campaign hasn’t emanated from the groups lending their support to the Nice Way Code.

So, in summary, the two kinds of cycling misbehaviour that the Nice Way Code is trying to change haven’t been understood in any sensible or meaningful way. It leads me to believe that they have only been included in the interests of ‘balance’ – and indeed presented from the perspective of  motorists – purely in order to create the impression that ‘all users’ are being targeted by the campaign. Pretty miserable stuff.