NYT ethicist: It’s ethical for bicyclists to break the law

But which one runs on fossil fuels and causes hit-and-run deaths?

Here is the new world order, as told by the most authoritatively ethical person in the country: If you are riding a bike, you don’t have to follow the same rules as cars. BOOM! That means you can do things like treat stop lights as yield signs and even occasionally ride on the sidewalk, all without fear that you are violating some damnable code of morality. This is according to this Sunday’s op-ed piece by Randy Cohen, the Times’ original Ethicist columnist (and, let’s face it, Chuck Klosterman, far and away the best, because what are you even doing with this job, Chuck??). Cohen is an avid cyclist, and says of his flaunting of traffic laws, “although it is illegal, I believe it is ethical. … I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.”

Cohen invokes Kant’s categorial imperative in saying his riding style should be emulated by everyone because, simply, his actions do not have an effect on others. His logic is a basic one that has somehow been completely disregarded by big-genitalia-swinging arrogance of drivers in New York City: it’s a false analogy to lump bikes and cars into the same category. Cars drive four times faster, weight 200 times as much and almost always injure people on contact.

We, of course, wholeheartedly agree, as there have been many a night when your Team Brokelyn has loudly berated fellow cyclists for caving to such silly things as stopping at red lights when no other cars are around. As Cohen alludes to, the main problem is that forcing bikes to obey by traffic laws presupposes that driving is the default standard, when in fact driving should be made as inconvenient as possible in this overcrowded, overly loud city.

For example, when this reporter was a Brooklyn newb and foolishly salmoning down Court Street on my bike (aka going against traffic), I hit a girl who wearing headphones full-on and we both tumbled to the ground. My sunglasses broke, but we both walked away, slightly pissed at each other, but nothing more.

Dave, on the other hand, got lightly clipped by a car last summer and spent two days in the hospital, two months in a wheelchair and had to go through extensive physical therapy. Last week I was awaiting a green light at the intersection of Atlantic and Third. When the “walk” signal illuminated, I got on my bike and crossed the street, only to elicit an angry yell from a lady in a car who was pissed that I went in front of her. “I am IN THE INTERSECTION!” she yelled at me. My response, “Well, don’t be in the fucking intersection then!” Should we allow drivers who don’t know how to cross the street properly dictate the traffic patterns for the rest of us who wait patiently at the crosswalk? Of course not!

So, here’s our new standard, via the Ethicist: Bike as safely as possible to your fellow humans on the road, but don’t act like the rules that affect cars should be the same ones that apply to you. And if you have a car and insist on driving around this perfectly public transitly accesible city, please stop acting like everyone should cater to you.

12 Comment

  • Yes, in the ideal world bicycles would rule the streets. But even then we’d still need stoplights. There’s a very good reason why they exist; the streets would be utter chaos if 9 million+ people rode bicycles and all blew through intersections.

    A good short-term strategy would be to turn most side street stoplights into flashing stop signs after, say, 9 p.m. Then motorist and bicyclist alike won’t be stuck in the stupid situation of waiting at an empty intersection for 5 minutes, at every intersection.

    In addition, tax cars in high-traffic city areas (midtown) a la London. And, finally, have safe, affordable bike parking available everywhere.

    Of course, none of this will happen until gas goes to $10/gallon.

  • Is this guy serious? First of all, I too am a cyclist. As we all know, just because we don’t agree with rules, doesn’t mean they don’t apply to us. I’m not saying I’ve never run a red light when there has been no one in sight, but in general, I don’t think traffic laws are stupid or that bicycles should be exempt. Should they be altered? Perhaps, but until they are, they are as they are.

    A recent incident I experienced: waiting for the green light on busy Driggs Ave. Finally the light turns green, I get started and immediately a cyclist zooms across my path, endangering me, a fellow cyclist, other cyclists in my vicinity, and himself. Sure, bikes in themselves are not as dangerous as cars, but in that kind of scenario (where the other cyclist felt that he could just blow by a red light, just because), we could have collided and it would have been much more serious, moreover, one of us could have very easily gotten thrown into the car-traffic nearby.

    I also don’t bike the wrong way on one way streets because drivers turn onto those one way streets without anticipating oncoming traffic from that direction, so you’re just endangering yourself further.

    • I can’t agree more. I absolutely hate when cyclists (or skateboarders) go the wrong way on a one-way street, and Bedford Avenue is the worst. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed, looking for the bus, and nearly got hit by a douchebag who ignores the rules.

  • There are 7 or 8 states that do allow yielding at stop signs and red lights..so it is done in the US.

  • Wow, I had no idea that Klosterman was the new ethicist.

  • Having just moved to Brooklyn from Amsterdam, NL, official bike capital of the world where you can get into serious bike traffic jams (believe it or not) and by far more bikes crowd the streets than cars, I am shocked by the daredevil attitude of Brooklyn bikers. Don’t you know that your life is precious?! Don’t ride your bike Kamikaze style through red lights and against and criss cross through traffic. The system in Amsterdam works because bikers DO give a damn about the rules. Yes, Dutch people in general do not believe that dying while riding your bike is a serious possibility and they text away while riding their bikes, and yes, accidents do happen. But in general cars and bikes and pedestrians get along because they do respect each other and the rules (exceptions confirm the general statement). I would say more serious fining of cars who do not obey the rules and behave like the streets belong to them would make way more sense than giving already ruthless bike riders carte blanche.

  • As someone who occasional has to use their car for work and bikes around just for fun, let me tell you that cyclists who feel that traffic laws don’t apply to them might be as annoying as tourists who stop in the middle of the street to look up and take pictures. Scratch that, they’re worse.

    When I bike around my neighborhood, I stop at every stop sign and red light. Why? Because if I don’t I could possibly get hit by a car that has the legal right of way. They will be physically fine while I might be, ya know, dead. And as a driver, nothing is worse then thinking “cool, I got a green light” then having to slam my brakes when a cyclist out of nowhere blasts forward. That damages my car, puts their life at risk, and possibly a huge lawsuit for me since even though I have the right of way – my vehicle is more dangerous. It’s not a fair rule but I accept that. I’m a good driver, nay a great driver but that has a small part because I drive knowing that most people behind the wheel are much much worse at it. So I take into account that a dude might blast through a light that just turned red, doesn’t fully stop at a stop sign, makes abrupt stops, etc. Paranoia saves lives. It’s also the way I bike.

    Plus, by not following the traffic rules that we as as a society have agreed upon – cyclists put themselves on a higher pedestal. That won’t breed a healthy mindset towards cyclists, just resentment and fantasies of opening doors.

    Bottom line – if you are on something with wheels, on the street, and traveling faster than a walk – you have to follow traffic laws. It puts lives at risk and financial ruin at the forefront otherwise.

  • “Oh, ha ha … it appears you scraped your knee. So sorry about bumping into you!”

    That seems to be the attitude of cyclists when it comes to bicycle/pedestrian collisions. I’m a big supporter of cycling over cars, but you need a serious wake up call. A bicycle hitting a pedestrian can cause serious, life-altering, and in some cases life-ending injuries. I think some of the traffic controls placed on cars do not apply to bicycles, but blowing through red lights is NOT one of them.

  • Cohen is definitely not advocating blowing through stop lights here, as that is a 100 percent way to ensure death. He’s saying you shouldn’t have to sit there and wait out the extended red light when the road is clear to cross. The idea is that pedestrians and cyclists should be sharing the roads and look out for each other — it’s when big lousy cars get involved that it gets really dangerous.

    • “…it’s when big lousy cars get involved that it gets really dangerous.”

      Uh… no. Most cycle/ped collisions happen when there are no cars around. This is because cyclists look for CARS, not people. And where there are no cars, they/we feel safer and often ride more recklessly.

      Look, I know most cyclists are responsible; just as most motorists are also responsible. But I have met and spoken to many, many (very young and inexperienced) cyclists who tell funny stories about almost “hitting some dude” this morning on my way to work. Ha Ha!

      So very not funny. No one would laugh if it had been a car.

  • this is interesting- there’s the kantian part to this, where you can universalize the maxim “i will myself to run red lights when no cars are coming.” i think he’s got that part right, but he makes more of a utilitarian case for riding this way- “I choose my riding style mindful of my own safety and that of my neighbors, but also in pursuit of happiness. ”

    that’s cool, and i agree, but he’s evoking more of john stuart mill instead of kant.