Why Urban Cyclists ‘Have No Dog’ In The ‘Red Light Camera Fight’

Background Reading


Urban Cyclist "Idaho Stop" Two-Step Variation

Urban Cyclist “Idaho Stop” Two-Step Variation

Understanding The Differing Motivations of Red Light Scofflaws

Red light cameras are generally installed to prevent a certain type of accident. This is the one where a motorist is ‘amber gambling‘ to attempt to cross through an intersection before the yellow light turns to red.

Motorists who are attempting to avoid having to wait at an intersection complain that the ‘interval length of the yellow light‘ has been shortened to insure that they ‘get caught‘. Reports of 3-second yellow light intervals have surfaced in the media.

The reason that these cameras even work is because all automobiles have a ‘visual identifier‘ affixed to their bumpers. Here in Illinois we require a ‘license plate‘ on both the front and rear bumpers. States like Indiana require a plate only on the rear bumper.

If a scofflaw driver reaches the intersection and the light turns from yellow to red the camera is tripped and he can clearly be seen to be in the intersection and once the images have been processed by computer a ticket is sent out and a fine is levied.

Cycling Scofflaws And Red Lights

No Right Turn On Red At Intersection of Jackson and Des Plaines.

No Right Turn On Red At Intersection of Jackson and Des Plaines.

You can sit at Jackson and Des Plaines all day long and watch countless cyclists amber gamble. I recently witnessed a near collision between two cyclists! The thing that happens is that the cyclists on Jackson come down an overpass from the Kennedy and have a ‘head of steam‘. In some cases they can actually ‘coast‘ at 15-20 mph. Since Jackson is one-way they know that they can choose either the right or left lane without having to worry about any oncoming traffic.

The problem is that Des Plaines is also one-way heading southbound. Because there are very tall buildings on all four corners the city has decided to try and avoid collisions by banning the use of the ‘right turn on red‘ at this very intersection.

The CDOT designers saw fit to have no specific bike lanes on Jackson past Halsted. This is a fact that has confused a lot of the ‘old timers‘ who ride Jackson from as far to the west as  Damen. I labelled this a ‘typical geezer mistake‘ in a thread from the Chicago ChainLink Forum:

No doubt it is a confusing design that results from losing a lefthand bicycle lane on a one-way street and the crossing another one-way street at an intersection which ‘visually blinds‘ vehicle operators who might be ‘amber gambling‘.

But Des Plaines is a bit of an odd duck in that it has a protected bike lane along the right side of the street which means that cyclists are very close to the buildings on the west side of the street.

Cyclists who are themselves timing their approach to reach the intersection with Jackson ‘just as the light turns green‘ are often surprised by cyclists coming along Jackson from the west trying to make a yellow light before it turns red. That is what nearly caused a very violent accident between a Jackson cyclist using the left lane and a Des Plaines cyclist in the right hand Protected Bike Lane trying to correctly time the light!

The Impatient Cyclist

The cyclists who however use the ‘Idaho Two Step‘ maneuver are simply folks who do not take waiting at red lights seriously. This maneuver is difficult and yet when done by someone with good reflexes is a bit like choreographed ballet dancing.

But I have watched many a ChainLink Rider (one a notable bicycle mechanic who decided to demonstrate this during the Wright Ride) execute this maneuver when there seemed no point in doing so.

So it comes always as a surprise when folks like John Greenfield from the StreetsBlog site start voicing an opinion regarding whether or not  given candidate supports or does not support the use of Red Light Cameras.

From where I stand the most obvious move for cyclists is to remain impartial, unless of course they are willing to suffer the consequences of being included in the list of vehicles whose scofflaw behavior can be monitored at intersections where red cameras are used.


Tour De California Racing Plate

By definition this would involved having cyclists ride bikes equipped with transponders (à la iPass units) or my personal favorite actual license plates that have to be visible from both front and rear. And before you start blowing a gasket complaining that this is impossible on a bicycle, think again.

But I am guessing that because it would be difficult to position such a plate on some bikes it will probably be the case that transponders would work most reliably.

Given the proclivity of Urban Cyclists to avoid identification at all costs this is going to require that cyclists be licensed and trained in the manner of every motorcycle or motor scooter operator in the state.

The current governor should have no trouble seeing legislation come before him that provides training for bicyclists given his current fiscal plan for motorcyclists:

The fiscal plan would chop about $8.5 million for paratransit and increase funding for free motorcycle safety classes by $633000.

This could be a blessing in disguise for those who feel that it is long past time to put bicyclists on a course towards full participation in the life of a ‘transportation cyclist‘.


So what is it going to be? Are we going to continue to judge motorists by a set of standards to which we currently refuse to submit? Or are we going to willingly join the discussion on red light camera usage from the vantage point of folks who have a dog in the fight?

If we persist in being obstinate teenagers about obeying the law, then we certainly have to expect to have our detractors place obstacles in our path at every step. And frankly I would join them in doing so. But if we are going to have full participation in the transportation system we are going to have to do more than serve as freeloaders on the couch of a family member who is too polite to toss us out.

Which is it going to be?