The Cultural Construction of the Bicycle
Before automobiles first appeared in urban spaces, parents regularly sent children outside to play in the street. Today, noone would hesitate to label any parent who did that as reckless. The cultural distance between then and now is substantial. Readers interested in its course should check out Peter Norton’s excellent, and consistently surprising, Fighting Traffic.
I am regular bike commuter in New York City, along with an increasing number of other people. Bikes, under the law, are supposed to follow the same rules of the road as motor vehicles. But many cyclists, here in New York at any rate, don’t. They slow rather than stop at red lights and stop signs. They weave around pedestrians in crosswalks. They go the wrong way on one way streets. It’s a great case study of why people obey the law: we cyclists break these rules because they seem so manifestly unsuited to our circumstances. I yield rather than stop for some red lights and some pedestrians, when it seems clearly safe to do so (although I draw my personal line at salmoning upstream in a one-way zone). But I would never in a million years blow through a red light when driving a car. Even in the middle of the night, even if nobody is coming and I know nobody is coming, I sit there patiently in the empty intersection until the light turns green.
Can the law take the lead in developing rules that make enough sense for biking for transport that cyclists would obey them? Or must we await, as we did in the case of automobiles, a new cultural construction of bicycling? (As Norton demonstrates, a lot of people died in “accidents” while the new construction of the car was emerging.) Is the wait worth it if that new construction would be optimized by what my colleagues Sonia Katyal and Eduardo Peñalver might call bicyclists’ productive disobedience? Notwithstanding my wish for a more top-down approach, it seems that lawyers and regulators have given more thought how to optimize traffic rules for driverless cars than for bicycles.
I was in London two weeks ago giving a paper, where the bike share system has made urban cycling even more ubiquitous than it is in New York. A few days’ observation found, just as in New York, cyclists ignoring red lights and going the wrong way on one way streets. But I didn’t see one instance in London of two cyclist behaviors I see regularly here: failing to stop for pedestrians and riding on the sidewalk. London cyclists’ disobedience seems more productive than New Yorkers’.