Monday, 27 September 2010

Respecting the Red Light

I have a very wise friend who always waits at red lights. Even on foot, he'll stand patiently until he sees the green man flash, whether there is a gap in the traffic or not. When I am walking with him I hop foot to foot in impatience, used to darting out at the smallest opportunity, seizing my chances without waiting for authorisation. I asked him about it today, waiting sulkily like a small child for the light, and he said "I like choosing to be calm", and pointed to the stressed faces of those dodging the cars to get across. And I realised that waiting until the light is quite a powerful thing to do.

I have no great ideological objection to cyclists running red lights. I know this divides people, but my policy has always been that if there is nothing coming and (importantly) you are not going to scare or squash a pedestrian, go for it. I have run many, many red lights in my time. I hold my hands up. If you've been an infuriated motorist watching Trusty's back disappear and seething at our lack of respect for the road rules, well, I'm sorry. But only a bit.

However. My friend's words really resonated with some things I've been thinking about. Like many people, one of my favourite psalms is Psalm 23, 'The Lord is my Shepherd'. It speaks of having a relationship with God which is unhurried, led in rhythm "beside still waters", with time for rest "in green pastures". Perhaps waiting at a red light is about claiming back some rhythm at a micro level, taking just a few seconds to breathe, to look at the people we share the road with and this great sideshow of a city. After all, I'm not sure if the time I save breaking the rules adds up to anything significant . Aren't I just buying into a ridiculous culture of false rushedness, letting myself be a slave to the tyranny of the clock, living like I'm driven because that is what we do in London?

I also think that waiting at the light is probably a good guard against becoming a obnoxious road user. Although we all like to retreat into tribalism, deep down we know that these come on both two wheels and four. And these fellow road users (yes, on bikes as well in BMWs and buses) all have one thing in common; they think they are King of the Road. They refuse to wait their turn, to share nicely, to allow for the rhythm of the city. Whether it is running down pedestrians at their crossings or cutting up cyclists, t**ty road behaviour comes down to an innate selfishness. And I know there are days when I am so caught up in my destination, my deadline, myself, that I probably come close to behaving like that. And for that, I am sorry.

So tomorrow (at least) I'm going to try and respect the red. I can't promise to be perfect, but I'm going to give it a go. Because I have a hunch that it is the small stuff that makes a difference.

Image by TAB2003


  1. I like that idea - lights helping us to chill a bit. I recorded a funny bit of video a while back showing just how few people take notice of lights. Ironically, at the same lights a few days later, everyone stopped nicely! But I agree with your principle. Let's all try it!

  2. Your blog is fast becoming my go-to place for excellent writing on subjects near to my heart.

    Oddly enough, just this morning, before I saw this post, I came to a red light near a fire station. It's a long red at the best of times, and five times longer when a fire engine is coming or going. In this instance, the firefighters were just backing their truck into the bay--not rushing out on a call--and the two cyclists ahead of me at the light soon rode right on through.

    Me, I have a policy of stopping at reds, even that one, so I waited the extra 90 seconds, along with the cars. Did I get to work 90 seconds later? I don't know--it's a silly question, really. But I feel sure I did my bit for cyclist-motorist relations, and it helped me take it easy all the way downtown.

    Easy is safer than in a hurry, and nicer, too.

  3. Thank you Anne, that means a lot. And I will try and follow your example, I have to confess to an epic fail in waiting at the reds today. I think I managed two. The habit is so deeply ingrained I'd be halfway across before I remembered I was supposed to be waiting. I guess practice makes perfect...but can it change a personality?!

  4. Nice piece. Enjoyed that.

    Sometimes I run red lights and at other times I don't. I use my own judgement...and this partly depends on my mood...I try not to run people over and I try not to get run over myself.

    Sometimes a red light is a good time to stop and hum a little tune to yourself, wipe the snot dribbling down towards your lips (which is an issue now that the cold is setting in) and catch your breath.

    However, in all honesty...what exactly is the point at waiting at a red light when it's a pedestrian crossing and there are no pedestrians in sight...
    So many zebra crossings in my area were replaced with lights.
    I like to think that they are still zebra crossings...If I see a person...I stop. And if I don't see a person...I continue on my way.

    But being calm is a good thing...
    Tranquillity and patience. :)

  5. Running a red light as a cyclist is very different to a pedestrian choosing whether or not to wait for the green man. The biggest difference is that traffic lights are a legal obligation for vehicles (i.e cycles included), whereas pedestrian lights are advisory for pedestrians. They are informing the pedestrian when the traffic should be stopped.

  6. I do always stop at red lights. Not sure why - maybe because I was a driver before I was a cyclist. But now, having read your blog, I will use my time at red lights to take a breath - rather than cursing the cyclists around me whizzing through them!

    As The Woollen Typist said - Tranquility & Patience!

  7. GirlandSteed:

    I guess practice makes perfect...but can it change a personality?!

    No. Age will do that for you. :D

  8. I was hit by a cyclist once. I was crossing outside Vauxhall station crossing on green man carry my Brompton towards the tube. The female rider was going wrong way up a one way street which is also buses only, so would not have even seen the red light against her as they face the other way.

    Fortunately only slightly bruised and pride hurt, but if I'd been a non-cyclist, I'd probably by now be rabidly anti-cycling.

    Please stop and chill as suggested. It gives the anti cycling lobby less ammunition.



  9. The bottom line is that we save so little time by running red lights, and can have such an adverse effect on other people's opinion of cyclists, that it's just not worth it.

    Do you think motorists should use their own discretion rather than obey traffic signals? If not, us cyclists shouldn't either.

  10. I think it can be difficult to resist the urge ,when it feels like it does no real harm, a bit like doing 75 on the motorway.

    But yes it is wrong, can be dangerous and gives the impression to everybody else that cyclists bring trouble on themselves.

  11. Cyclists should be regarded as rightful road users, and in order to expect that kind of treatment, we need to act like other road users. We don't get to choose the rules of the road we want to obey, and ignore the others.

    I always stop at red lights, although it sometimes frustrates me to do so - especially when I've watched other cyclists sail through them in front of me! Next time I'll practise a little calm.

  12. I usually ride through reds as I feel it’s the safest option: getting that little head start over the motors can make all the difference.

    Yes, I carefully watch out no-one is inconvenienced or disadvantaged. I do stop for pedestrian folks!

    In other countries cyclists are actually given a head start by an early green light, or are permitted to go through car reds.