I'm a Cyclist, and I Run Red Lights

I just ran a bunch of red lights. First, I ran the light at Olympic & 4th St, directly in front of the Santa Monica Police Department.

Then I ran a light crossing Lincoln Blvd, in the middle of the on and off ramp traffic for the 10 Freeway.

Then one more a few streets later, and one more near my house.

Why? Because it was good for me. It helped me out. It made my life better. It was a selfish act.

Also, because the decrepit signals wouldn’t change for me. Every time I visit Santa Monica City Council I run the light in front of the Police Department. I wait and wait and wait before I realize that the signal is not going to change for me. Then I look around, make sure there aren’t any police about, and I run it.

Supposedly there is an element in the California Vehicle Code which allows one to run a light if it is not changing for them, after waiting a reasonable period. Me – I’m not looking to have that conversation with a cop.

Next time someone remarks on how green Santa Monica is, or how West LA is more bike friendly than some other place, you can do the polite thing and laugh in their face. But I suggest doing something aggressively non-sequitur – like spitting in your hand and then wiping it on your pants, or pulling out some papers and ripping them up. Maybe just step into traffic or try to eat your shoe. Perhaps your bizarre act will dissuade them from regurgitating regional mythology in the future.

Alex Thompson

Bikerowave co-founder, Cyclists' Bill of Rights co-author, President of Bikeside, and Math Phd. HULK SMASH straight from Michigan!

0 thoughts on “I'm a Cyclist, and I Run Red Lights

  1. i really try to avoid this… but feel less bad about it if there are no cars around. if no cars are waiting “with you”… then it’s probable that the sensor won’t get triggered. in which case, i’ve been told that the designated time is “three minutes” before you can legally cross through.

    if no one is around, i say… it’s harmless.

    but when people run red lights with cars waiting, it really makes me mad as a cyclists. i think we a have responsibility to ourselves, other cyclists, and motorists to show them that we are rational users of the road who obey the rules and expect others to obey the rules. to avoid hypocrisies… etc.

  2. David,

    I wouldn’t say I get mad when other people run reds with cars waiting and the light cycle. I almost never do it myself.

    All the lights I ran there in this case there was no car to stimulate the sensor and not likely to be one for a long time. For example, if memory serves, Michigan & 14th at 11pm.

    I wrote this to be inflammatory, in order to throw a mixture of cognitive dissonance and ambiguity into the whole “cyclists always run red lights” stereotype.

  3. To the red light runner: Are you saying the signals don’t work, or could it be that you aren’t taking full advantage of the signal loops? I don’t know you or how much you know about the physics of traffic signal loops, so I’ll pass along a presentation we have on the Cyclist View website that shows cyclists how to best position themselves to be detected by signal loops.

    Granted that a few loops do have their sensitivities set so low that bicycles, sometimes even motorcycles will not be detected, or some have paved over loops in non-standard locations, but in general the majority of signals can detect bicycles when bicycles are placed in the best locations for detection:


    It makes us cyclists look like they aren’t legitimate road users when we violate traffic controls, so I would encourage cyclists to learn about signal detection before making red light running a regular practice.

  4. Dan,

    I’m basically familiar with the physics behind the loops, but I’m not familiar enough to know the optimum bike placement. They’re all loops of the type “E” (circular) variety. Still, these are loops that have never worked for me, no matter how much I danced in them. Awesome resource, I’ll have to read it through later.

  5. I’ll admit, I didn’t know that dead center of the loop is a weak location. So, in other words, we have to educate a whole society on inductance, or municipalities can install more user friendly detection loops with communicative markings.

  6. Alex,
    I didn’t create the system now in place; I’m just the messenger, so I’m taking a two pronged approach:
    1) Make cyclists aware of what is in the ground right now, and how it works, so they can best take advantage of the loops.
    2) Persuade the engineers to better mark the loops so the task in 1) will be easier for new loop installations.

    As a satellite systems engineer myself, I am appalled that traffic engineers do not do much more to ensure that signal detection works for bicyclists.

  7. i run lights _all_ the time. in civilized countries, there are buttons for bikers to push on the outside of the traffic signal, just like the ones for pedestrians. no one can seriously suggest that the best alternative is for all bike riders to become educated in the inner workings of the “loops”, for christ sake.

    i run lights when there are cars waiting too. when i’m in a car and i see a biker doing that i think “jesus, i wish i were on a bike” and not “what an uncivilized creature, i wish he would get a car”

  8. I thought -i- might like this post! I think Dan is focusing on educating planning engineers so that they use loop detectors that work for those of us who don’t think about magnetic fields all that often.

  9. To i-,
    Running lights is uncivilized behavior, and having to push a button requires that a cyclist to use an unsafe lane position (at the road edge) at intersections is also uncivilized. We refer to push buttons at intersections as “coffin corner” buttons because such facilities encourage motorist to make right hook turns across the cyclist’s path.
    As a systems engineer I expect traffic signals to detect either me (video) or detect my bicycle (inductors) when I control lanes. Failing this, I feel an obligation, as a civilized person to do the best I can to obey traffic laws, and if this means learning where to position myself on detectors so they will detect me or my bike, then yes I will do this.
    Since I don’t expect most people to understand the physics of signal loops, how difficult is it to place one, or both of your wheels along the wires, like we show in the diagrams, provided you can see them? This isn’t difficult. Better still is for cities to use stencils to mark the high detection areas of the loops.

  10. To i-
    When I see a cyclist running lights, simply because they “don’t want to wait”, I lament the poor traffic enforcement we have in LA county. As a cyclist I’ve had a lot of near collisions with opportunist miscreants that run lights and signals, and feel precious little sympathy for those that engage in this irresponsible practice.

    Scofflaw behavior of all varieties, signal non-compliance being just one instance, perpetuates public perception that bicyclists are irresponsible hypocrites who want motorists to follow laws for safety and don’t want to follow those same safety rules themselves. The worst hypocrites are those that lament the hostility and rage of motorists, yet terrorize pedestrians by invading crosswalks and sidewalks at speed, and treat peds as slalom cones. We can’t have it both ways. If we want to be respected as responsible road users, then we first have to act responsibly.

    Every time you run lights, you undo the work of advocates (like me) trying to enhance the public perception of cyclists as responsible road users.

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