Transport Officials Call for Reforming Laws That Criminalize Bicyclists

We can't change the cops, so let's change the laws.

cyclists on Keele Street
Cyclists ready to rally on Keele Street in Toronto.

Emma Alter

For the past few weeks, the Toronto police have been called out or arbitrarily ticketing bicyclists for rolling through stop signs or going 26 kmph (16.1 mph) in a 20 kmph (12.42 mph) zone. It's a dicey matter, considering cars are regularly clocked doing double the speed limit, and resulted in a big protest by people who ride bikes. They gathered in High Park, where many of these tickets were being issued, in a protest ride organized by David Shellnutt, The Biking Lawyer, whom I interviewed earlier.

All of this could have been avoided if the Toronto authorities followed the advice of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which coincidentally released a working paper on the same day o the protests. Titled "Breaking the Cycle: Reevaluating Bike Laws," it discusses rules that don't make sense or are enforced unfairly.

"Many of the rules that regulate what people riding bikes can do, where they can be, and what equipment they need to have are justified as a tool to keep people safe. But rules that appear to be focused on safety are often attempts to plug holes in a transportation network that is insufficiently designed to keep all road users safe, especially those walking, biking, and rolling. In addition, these rules are too often enforced unevenly, with marginalized people, especially low-income, unhoused, Black, and Latine/x groups, paying with their liberties or their lives."

Why This Matters to Treehugger

Safe streets and walkable communities are key to reducing our carbon emissions from driving. While not everyone can adopt bicycles and e-bikes in their day-to-day life, Treehugger advocates for a society that empowers people to safely and equitably embrace car alternatives.

NACTO notes riding bikes on the sidewalk is illegal in many cities, but the traffic can often be so bad that people are afraid to ride their bikes on the road and use the sidewalk instead. I have done this and been criticized for it, but sometimes you feel like you just don't want to die today.

Proper bike lanes are the answer, but bike lanes are not usually installed in low-income neighborhoods. As such, a disproportionate number of people who are killed while riding bikes are indigenous or Black, and they are also disproportionately targeted for enforcement.

Cycling tickets by race

Streetsblog / NACTO

In New York City, according to Streetsblog, Black and Latinx people on bikes got between 76% and 82% of the tickets for "reckless operation" or "biking on the sidewalk." In comparison, white people, comprising 40% of the cyclists, got 9% of the tickets.

In Los Angeles, 70% of the stops involved Latinx bicyclists.

NACTO says the answer is to "eliminate any and all laws that can be used to criminalize people on bikes," which sounds extreme on the face of it. But there is a strong rationale for this. NACTO notes here are three broad categories of laws on the books:

I. Those that regulate equipment, such as helmet laws, light or bell laws, bike registration requirements, or laws related to a bike’s physical condition.

These laws are theoretically there to improve safety, particularly the helmet laws. But NACTO says, "Repeated research from around the world shows that mandatory universal helmet laws actually increase risk for cyclists overall. Not only did a mandatory helmet law in Australia produce no notable safety gains, but it also actively discouraged people from riding a bike."

Not only that, but enforcement is arbitrary. "These kinds of equipment laws are good candidates to modify or eliminate since they are not improving safety, are often not heavily enforced to begin with, and when enforced are done so prejudicially."

II. Those that regulate behaviors, such as running red lights or stop signs, or failing to yield to pedestrians.

These sound reasonable and are used every day by people who say that "cyclists have to obey the rules of the road" even though, as I have tried to explain unsuccessfully before, rules that were written to regulate cars often do not make much sense for bikes.

NACTO says much the same thing:

"On their face, behavior-focused laws appear more closely aligned with safety outcomes, mostly because—by treating bikes like motor vehicles—the laws try to ensure that bicyclist behavior is predictable. On closer inspection, though, these laws are unlikely to provide meaningful safety gains because they ignore the ways in which bikes are different from cars. These differences include maximum attainable speed, average weight, visibility from the driver/operator’s seat and opportunities for awareness of surrounding conditions, and the protection that the vehicle itself offers to riders/occupants."
Palmerstion Avenue
Palmerstion Avenue in Toronto, with stop signs every 266 feet.

Lloyd Alter

I have often told the parable of Palmerston Avenue, which was being used as a rat-run by drivers trying to avoid the arterial road a block away. So they put the first 4-way stop signs in Toronto to slow drivers and reduce its attractiveness for drivers of cars. They were not installed to slow cyclists, who are simply not going to stop every 266 feet on a quiet residential street.

NACTO calls for "Idaho Stops" where people on bikes are allowed to roll through stop signs, and even suggests people on bikes should be able to go through red lights after stopping and checking. This was too much even for me, but they note that "traffic lights are often actuated only when a motor vehicle is present, leaving someone on a bike at the mercy of a car or truck to trigger a green light." This has absolutely happened to me.

III. Those that regulate location on the street, such as biking on the sidewalk or biking the wrong way in a bike lane or other travel lane.

NATCO explains:

"This category of regulation is most frequently enforced in the name of pedestrian safety. However, frequency of location-based violations is almost always an indication that existing bike, and pedestrian, infrastructure is insufficient, inadequate, or non-existent, and that infrastructure improvements, not enforcement, will be a more effective solution. A long history of underinvestment in infrastructure in lower-income neighborhoods as well as Black and Indigenous neighborhoods make location-based enforcement particularly inequitable: people on bikes are punished for making rational safety decisions in light of systemic government underfunding and deprioritization."

NACTO says when there is safe bike infrastructure, people use it, and in its absence "very few people wake up each morning wanting to break bike laws; they do so because it is safer."

This is not a holier-than-thou Lloyd Alter and a bunch of self-important cyclists demanding special treatment. This is the National Association of City Transportation Officials, experts in their field, saying these pointless rules are being used to harass people. Instead, they call for fixing our cities so there are safe places for everyone to ride bikes.

“America’s over-use of policing in an attempt to correct for systemic safety issues leads to devastating outcomes, especially in Black and Latine/x communities," said Corinne Kisner, executive director of NACTO, in a statement. "To truly curb the epidemic of traffic deaths in the U.S., we need to focus on what we know works: equitably redesigning streets and public spaces to make them safe and inclusive for everybody who uses them."

Even police departments agree. At least Terrence Miller, planner at the professional standards division of the Orlando Police Department, does. “Policies that are not equitable and that punish people unfairly on bikes make it more difficult for law enforcement officers to effectively do their jobs," said Miller. "By rethinking our bike laws, we create cities that are healthier, stronger, and safer for everybody.”

cyclists at rally

Emma Alter

Back in Toronto, the police said in a statement that really, they aren't picking on cyclists. "While we will always prioritize traffic safety, including cyclists’ safety, the Service is not engaged in an enforcement blitz specifically targeting cyclists," a spokesperson said. "Our focus has largely been on public safety, education and cautions to both cyclists and motorists. That said, we take community complaints seriously and where officers see cycling behaviour that risks public safety, they have the discretion to lay charges and have done so, when necessary."

But, as NACTO notes, these are not issues of public safety. These are issues of silly rules being enforced arbitrarily. It's time to change them.