Category Archives: riding ethics

pig latin

Take that for what you will (“No licence on bike,” the ticket read), but I’ve been reading up a little about last Saturday’s Crank Mob, first via Westside BikeSIDE, then Streetsblog, with a couple of the MR forums to boot.

I don’t have much to offer on that ride or on the specifics and particulars of Alex’s case (except to wish him well), but I do still wonder about where bike riding, writing, advocacy, partying, socializing, commuting, and just about anything else you can do on a bike is taking all of us (or even just me). See, one of the things I’ve been attracted to about biking and adding one small and intermittent voice to a world of bike advocacy is the possibility of effecting some small piece of change in a small part of a big city. Hence, maps. And more generally, writing, insisting that I’m a presence – if intermittent these recent weeks – on the road. But there’s this political dimension to riding in Los Angeles that I’ve found really appealing.

And thinking back to the handful of Critical Mass rides that I have been on, there’s something engaging about that program as well, a way of agitating and demonstrating by way of community action. I like that.

But is Crank Mob political? Should it be? That’s what I’m wondering and that’s what I’ve been thinking a little bit about these past couple of days. See, Alex’s post brings up a lot of issues about civil rights – our rights before the law – and the comments bring that out even more: That Alex’s cuffing and citing speaks to a violation of his civil rights (and that may well be the case). But the distinction I’m trying to draw out, arcane as it is, is between our rights as civilians and our rights as subjects.

By civilians, I mean we’re people who live in a civil society, with laws that guarantee us equality before the law, due process, etcetera. By subjects, though, I mean we’re people who come into a particular position of agency by acting according to certain normative codes. Meaning that I come to be a graduate student – to have the powers and responsibilities of a graduate student – by acting like a graduate student. And that’s all well and good, because being a graduate student is a mostly non-threatening activity.

At the same time, what does it mean to be a cyclist? What does it mean to be a cyclist in Los Angeles? And what does it mean to be a cyclist in Los Angeles on a Saturday night with Crank Mob? I don’t know much about group rides, and I know even less about Crank Mob, but my guess is that that ride stands so far outside the pale of most people in Los Angeles that nobody knows what to do with it (and that, I think, is part of its appeal, party on pavement), least of all the police.

Because Crank Mob is a mob, with everything that comes with that: A lack of order, a capacity to act like wild buffalo, an impossibility of containment. A bunch of unruly cars? Herd ’em to the side. But a bunch of unruly bikes? Like herding drunk kittens.

I’m not saying that Alex should have been cited. But I think it’s worth asking – as sometime people on the MR forums are doing – after the sometimes incommensurable encounters between the police and these large group rides. To be a subject – a rider in a Crank Mob affair – is to stand so far from what the police are accustomed to dealing with that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that people are going to be cited for trying to do the right thing.

I guess my question is this: What kind of responsibility does Crank Mob have to become a subject that doesn’t rock the boat too much? Can there be a Crank Mob that isn’t inherently threatening to the police and the communities CM rides through? And what would that Crank Mob look like? Would it even be a Crank Mob?

I dunno, but I think it’s worth asking after the ways in which becoming a biking subject in Los Angeles makes one a little less of an Angeleno citizen. Because to be told I don’t have a bike licence? That’s pig latin.


a break in the clouds

What am I talking about? We don’t have clouds in Los Angeles!

I’ve had my head down in school, but I had to quote something from the article that just went up in the NYT and is probably going to rip through the interwebs like cyclists in traffic. Robert Sullivan, writing about how biking has changed in New York City during the past two decades, writes:

Despite the presence of bike lanes, we see many bikes on the sidewalk, and the bikers riding the wrong way down streets, alarming cabdrivers at the light. For biking to make it to the next level, for bikes to be completely accepted as the viable form of city transportation that they are, bikers must switch sides. They must act like people and stop acting like cars.

This means doing things that we, the bikers of New York, would have laughed at just a few years ago. It means getting a little personal, though not that personal. Acting like people means that we have to do things that we frankly don’t want to do and things that we want cars to do, like slow down.

As far as bikers go, I’ve become a kind of laughingstock because I wait at traffic lights. Recently, as I waited in a bike lane at Atlantic Avenue for a light to change, a woman in her 70s, walking hunched with a cane, approached the crosswalk smiling — until she spotted me. Then she began shouting as I waited behind the crosswalk, “Well, are you going to stop?” I assured her I was waiting. She grimaced. “How do I know you’re not going to go?” she asked.

Hits kind of close to home, no? Sorry I didn’t make it out yesterday for the Bike Summit – nor out for much at all these past couple of weeks – but thanks to everybody who’s been writing and working recently.

some thoughts about stops

Stop signs seem to be one of those things that cyclists can never entirely agree about. Of course, you show me a cyclist who stops at every stop sign completely and I’ll show you either a) a cyclist who doesn’t have very far to go or b) someone with a poor memory. For my own part, I run stop signs, but only if there’s no cross traffic. If I see cross traffic, I’ll yield at the intersection only if the other car is there first. If it’s close, I’ve taken to making sure cars see me and then trying to look at the driver when I roll through – I guess, following BikinginLA’s lead (parts 1 and 2), it’s an instance of me trying to control the intersection.

But to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of stop signs – it’s one of the reasons why I much prefer Santa Monica South in Beverly Hills to Charleville (you can see that route here). Even though I have to deal with a lot more traffic, I don’t feel nearly as nervous about meeting up with the fender end of some other car’s casual interpretation of the California roll.

All of that said, I came across an interesting article the other day making the point that all of cyclists’ complaints about stop signs – usually to make the point that we should be able to treat them as yields and not full stops – actually has a firm grounding in physics. Tom Vanderbilt of How We Drive explains:

Take a simple stop sign. For a car driver, a stop sign is a minor inconvenience, merely requiring the driver to shift his foot from gas pedal to brake, perhaps change gears, and, of course, slow down. These annoyances may induce drivers to choose faster routes without stop signs, leaving the stop-signed roads emptier for cyclists. Consequently streets with many stop signs are safer for bicycle riders because they have less traffic. Indeed, formal bike routes typically include traffic-calming devices like barriers, speed bumps, and stop signs to discourage car traffic and slow down those cars that remain. However, a route lined with stop signs is not necessarily desirable for cyclists. While car drivers simply sigh at the delay, bicyclists have a whole lot more at stake when they reach a stop sign.

Noting that riding a street with a lot of stop signs drops a cyclist’s average speed by a little more than 30%, he adds:

While a drop of a few miles per hour may not seem like much to a car driver, think of it this way: the equivalent in a car would be a drop from 60 to 45 mph. Because the extra effort required on California is so frustrating, both physically and psychologically, many cyclists prefer Sacramento to California, despite safety concerns. They ride California, the official bike route, only when traffic on Sacramento gets too scary.

And he ends by just making a fantastic point:

Car drivers say they are confused by the presence of bicycles on the road, and some wish the two-wheelers would just go away. Bicyclists know that cars cause most of their safety concerns. Traffic planners need to find ways to help bikes and cars coexist safely. A good place to begin is by taking the special concerns of bicyclists seriously, and not assuming that they will be served by a system designed for cars. Reducing the number of stop signs on designated bike routes would make bicycle commuting considerably more attractive to potential and current riders. Allowing bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, as some states do, could solve the problems in a different way.

Perhaps cities should buy bikes for their traffic engineers and require that they ride them to work periodically. There’s probably no better way for them to learn what it’s like to ride a bike in traffic than actually to experience its joys and hazards.

Wouldn’t that be great? LA traffic engineers being forced to bike to work.

UPDATE: The Bicycle Librarian has a couple of really helpful links posted in the Legal Research section. Especially helpful is the link to a page of FAQ about Idaho’s Stop Sign Law thingermajigger. It explains:

This law would make it legal for bicyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs. A cyclist approaching an intersection controlled by a stop sign, would be permitted to roll through the stop sign after yielding the right of way if there are other vehicles at the intersection.

Thanks for the comments!

brushing the law

I was kind of hoping that the California Vehicle Code would be kind of vague on this count:

21453.  (a) A driver facing a steady circular red signal alone shall stop at a marked limit line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if none, then before entering the intersection, and shall remain stopped until an indication to proceed is shown, except as provided in subdivision (b).

(b) Except when a sign is in place prohibiting a turn, a driver, after stopping as required by subdivision (a), facing a steady circular red signal, may turn right, or turn left from a one-way street onto a one-way street. A driver making that turn shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk and to any vehicle that has approached or is approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard to the driver, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to that vehicle until the driver can proceed with reasonable safety.

(c) A driver facing a steady red arrow signal shall not enter the intersection to make the movement indicated by the arrow and, unless entering the intersection to make a movement permitted by another signal, shall stop at a clearly marked limit line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection, or if none, then before entering the intersection, and shall remain stopped until an indication permitting movement is shown.

(d) Unless otherwise directed by a pedestrian control signal as provided in Section 21456, a pedestrian facing a steady circular red or red arrow signal shall not enter the roadway.

Except it’s not. What I did broke the law, as it’s written. The fine public safety officer who pulled me over as I ran the light making a left from Charles Young Drive south onto Westwood had every right to write me a ticket. In no way was he outside the law. So I’m not saying that I talked him out of a ticket, because he may just have been a nice guy who wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing stupid things on the road that might get me hurt. But this, more or less, is what I told him:

  1. Yes Officer, I know why you signaled me to pull over. I ran that red arrow.
  2. Yes Officer, I know it’s illegal to roll a red arrow as a motor vehicle. But here’s why I ran that light. I’ve stopped at that intersection before, and I know how the light cycle runs. I also know that the sensors in the pavement don’t recognize the presence of bicycles. Were I unsure as to whether or not the signal would change for me, I would have happily waited. However, knowing that the sensor did not see me and that the protected green arrow would not provide me with a safe and legal means of turning south, I rolled into the intersection and made a left turn when I judged that there was no oncoming traffic.
  3. Yes Officer, you have a point: I could have taken another road out of UCLA’s campus, but it seems strange to me that UCLA would mark both Charles Young Drive (admittedly, only the south – eastbound – side of the road) and Westwood Blvd. with sharrows and yet not make any provisions for the possibility that a bicycle might want to turn left without waiting for a car to arrive or dismounting and walking the bike through a pedestrian intersection. If anything, that seems to be a failure of infrastructure and not a failure on my part.
  4. And thank you, Officer, for listening to my argument. [He still could have ticketed me, and in spite of my irritation at being pulled over, I appreciate the non-ticket the resulted; it seemed remarkably civil]

In the final accounting of things, he let me go with a warning, and I rode back to Koreatown, stopping at every red light and rolling every stop sign I could. There was a mess of things running through my head on the ride, and one other possible defense came to mind. In most situations, when a traffic light is not functioning – usually flashing in the meantime – the intersection is usually treated as a four-way stop-sign until a police officer arrives to control traffic. As the Wikipedia article on “traffic lights” explains:

Traffic light failure in most jurisdictions must be handled by drivers as a priority-to-the-right intersection in both drive-on-the-left Australia and some states of the mainly drive-on-the-right Europe, or an all-way stop elsewhere, pending the arrival of a police officer to direct traffic.

Some jurisdictions, however, have additional right-of-way signs mounted above, below or next to the traffic lights; these take effect when the lights are no longer active. (In Germany and Italy as well as some jurisdictions in the US, traffic lights inactive at nighttime emit an amber-colored flashing signal in directions owing priority while the intersecting street emit a flashing red light, requiring drivers to stop before proceeding.) In the UK and parts of North America, drivers simply treat the junction as being uncontrolled when traffic lights fail, giving way as appropriate, unless a police officer is present. In much of the United States failed traffic signals must be treated as all-way stop interesections. In 1999, concerned that some traffic lights would fail as a result of the Y2K bug, some jurisdictions installed emergency unfoldable stop signs at intersections.

My point is, in a situation where the signals in the pavement refuse to recognize a bicycle – often the case – then I think it’s reasonable (if not entirely legal) to treat the light as a non-functioning unit. After all, the sensors controlling the timing of the light seem to be key to guaranteeing the proper functioning of the light; however, when those sensors do not recognize – because of their structural (infrastructural?) limitations – a motor vehicle (like Gary, I did get the stern reminder that a ticket on a bicycle still counted as a moving violation) like myself, it stands to reason that the light is not functioning properly. Ergo, I am within my rights as a moving vehicle to treat the signal as a non-functioning one and proceed through the intersection with caution. As I did.

There’s a lot more to write about intersections of power and knowledge and the way in which the law functions in Los Angeles, but that’s enough for now. Is there anyone with more of a law background to tell me if I’m actually standing on any sort of firm legal footing? Not so much for tonight as for the future. I’m sure that many cyclists have been pulled over for running a red light that refused to acknowledge their presence (the light at Wilton and 4th comes to mind), and I wonder if it might be possible to craft some sort of legal challenge to that ticketing.

UPDATE: In the comments, BikinginLA brought up another good post that Gary wrote last year.  I don’t have the time to go back through it too carefully right now, so I’ll cop out and quote the introduction:

I’ll admit there are times when I don’t necessarily follow the law to it’s letter. If there is a stop sign, and thanks to a wider range of visibility and hearing on a bike, I can tell no one is around, I’ll roll through without coming to a full stop to conserve momentum. This is common amongst otherwise law abiding cyclists, just like ignoring posted speed limits in low traffic is common among otherwise law abiding motorists. Also if there is a traffic light at 3:00 am, and no one is around, I’ll go through because 9 times out of 10, that traffic light isn’t going to detect a bicycle. LAist did an article recently debating the legality of this in light of California Vehicle Code 21800 (d) (1) for inoperative traffic signals, in response to a post by fellow blogger Alex Thompson.

All that being said, when it comes to cycling with flowing car traffic, I follow the law, ride predictably and use hand signals to communicate intentions to drivers. Unfortunately there are quite a few cyclists out there that don’t do any of this, either because they are unaware of obligations for cycling or don’t care. Usually these same cyclists are slow enough I pass them and never see them again.

Thanks to BikinginLA for pointing that out. And while we’re on the topic of the law, Brayj Against the Machine has an idea about how bicyclists might be able to sue the MTA for a systematic bias in favor of automobiles.

ethics and aesthetics of biking

Some while back, I wrote a little bit about trying to work out an ethics of biking:

Very simply, and perhaps naively, a possible ethics of cycling might begin from admitting a shared vulnerability. Of course, as Kirsten noted, looking at some of the people who do ride near us, there’s a occasionally masculine and oftentimes aggressive image at work, an image which wouldn’t seem to be all the amenable to arguments about a common vulnerability. It is, again, a valid point, but working in the realm of the hypothetical, if you do posit a shared vulnerability (shared between cyclists, drivers, pedestrians, people), then one broad ethic might be: Don’t act in such a way that harms another. As a cyclist, this means that I expect drivers to give me space, to recognize and affirm my right to the road; but it also means that I ride in such a way that drivers can predict my actions and don’t feel pressured into making a rash decision. And when it comes to making choices about the stop lights and street signs, I can take a long moment to wait at a red light late at night, long enough to realize that the road will not recognize me nor the weight of my bike, and as such, there’s no issue with my crossing of Sunset at 1 a.m.. On the other hand, taking the time to stop at stop signs during rush hour traffic is a gesture to other cars.

I bring it up because the opposition of aesthetics to ethics has come up a couple of time in the last week, and I spent a little bit of time on the ride home mulling some things over. To make a long story short, one particular way of thinking about the difference between the ethical and the aesthetic is in terms of universals and particulars. Ethics, then, is that which should be universal to everyone. Aesthetics, in contrast, is the cultivation of an individual identity or style.

In a strange way, it might bear on the cycling world, or at the least cycling in Los Angeles: Ethics is asking whether cyclists have an obligation to yield to traffic at stop signs; aesthetics is color-coordinated bar tap and toe clips. Ethics is asserting a right to the road; aesthetics is asserting that right while riding a tall bike.

I suppose it’s possible to work through more than this, but two stories stand out as something neither about ethics nor aesthetics. The first is Will Campbell’s story about an orange soda and a Jaguar; the second is BikinginLA’s story about why truckers should never argue with cyclists while leaving their truck unlocked and idling on the side of the road. Not really sure what to say to either, but maybe this: If I read those stories and think, I wish I could have done that, the stories might be about an ethics of cycling. They may just be great reads.

an open question

not on the bike this morning, which was kind of a relief. there’s a different sort of pleasure getting out of the house on foot versus bike. to be sure, there’s little that compares to the satisfaction of feeling carmelita fall easily by the wayside on a cool angeleno morning, or the slow smile i allow myself after cranking up wyton in a single gear, but there’s something to be said for walking out of the house without worrying about helmet, tire pressure, alignment, bike lock, lights, and everything else that crosses my mind when i head to campus by bike.

all that said, that explains how i found myself in a friend’s truck this evening, pushing slowly east in friday traffic on santa monica boulevard. a break in traffic going the other way, and i saw the bullhorns that give away fixies from a distance: some dude in a yellow t-shirt, lights blinking, clipping his way west in traffic, no helmet.

and sure, there’s something to be said for no helmet: keeps the ‘do fresh, rides a little cooler, don’t have to worry about some annoying little chin strap, and stuff.

but really?