How My City’s Traffic Lights Require Cyclists to Break the Law

Your humble blogger in May 2008

Unless it’s brutally hot or there’s lightning in the air, I ride my bicycle to and from work.  I’ve been regularly doing this for the past few years in an effort to save money.  We’re a frugal family.  You’ll notice I’m half dressed for work in the picture to the left.  I bring my shirt and pants in a bag.

I enjoy the rides very much, but unfortunately my city, one of the fastest growing suburban areas of the country, is less than friendly to cyclists.  Despite having the (redundant) motto of “Progress in Motion,” the city streets feature no bicycle lanes, and the sidewalks, though plentiful, are reserved for pedestrians.

Let me tell you: some residents are very touchy about no bicycles being on the sidewalks.  Back in February, I wrote an article for our city magazine about my perceptive as a cyclist on the city’s rapid development.  The next month’s issue published a letter from a fellow resident complaining that I was on a sidewalk in one of the photographs that accompanied the story.  The particular street was a perfect location for a photo shoot, but the road itself was much too narrow and busy for us to use.  So I rode on the sidewalk.  Admittedly, I do that sometimes.  I value my life and limbs.  North Texas drivers are particularly insane and uncaring about what’s right in their path.

Here’s what gets me, though.  By law I’m supposed to stay on the street and off the sidewalk.  I get the logic in this.  Don’t want pedestrians run down by a reckless bicyclist.   However, the traffic lights, despite having cameras, don’t notice me.  If there’s no car behind me or in front of me, then I wait indefinitely.  The only way to make my presence known to the signal is to hit the crosswalk button.  To get to that button, I have to get onto the sidewalk.  While on my bike.  In violation of the law.

Color me irritated.  I really do understand why cities  make laws for riding bicycles, but it’s also clear to me that those in charge of writing these laws don’t think about those who will be affected by them.  A common tale, that.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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46 Responses

  1. I’m just tickled to learn what you look like.

    Oh, and also I would be irritated too, if I biked to work under the circumstances you describe.

    But mainly I’m just tickled to learn what you look like.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      My hair is much shorter now, but I look no less geeky for that. Funny story: when my wife cut my hair in 2009, removing over 10 inches, my son, then nearing three years of age, gasped, “Daddy! You’re a boy now!”

    • Kazzy says:

      This is where me assuming that everyone looks EXACTLY like their gravatar gets me into trouble! I’m still rocking the long hair, though no where near long enough to cut off 10″.

    • Miss Mary says:

      Your new gravatar must be a photo of you, but the gravatar and the picture featured above can’t be the same person!

  2. Mike Schilling says:

    To get to that button, I have to get onto the sidewalk. While on my bike. In violation of the law.

    It’s illegal for you to walk the bike onto the sidewalk?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Such is implied by what I’ve read. Or at least not clarified. I should note that this doesn’t seem to be a much enforced law. I’ve never been stopped by police, who’ve seen me on the sidewalk. However, my sister-in-law has been told by a city police officer that bicycles are not permitted, so there’s a risk.

      • Mike Schilling says:

        Very weird. The only sensible reason not to allow bikes on a sidewalk is the hazard created because they go faster than pedestrians.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Agreed. I rarely see pedestrians, especially when temperatures top 100 degrees, but as someone who does go for walks, I appreciate not being crashed into. On the other hand, if there are no pedestrians, then cyclists should be able to use the sidewalk at a reasonable speed.

          • Kimmi says:

            this. i’ve had cyclists expect me to get out of their way, which is inappropriate on a sidewalk. pass me at a human walking speed (I’m walking, you see). But it should never be wrong to take a wheeled vehicle onto the sidewalk at the speed of pedestrians.

            Can you tell I know folks in wheelchairs?

      • DensityDuck says:

        Kyle: Just to be clear, here, what we mean is “is it illegal for you to get off your bike, walk along the sidewalk to the switch while pushing the bike, walk back to the street while still pushing the bike, get back on the bike and ride away?”

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Unless I missed it, the law doesn’t clarify between riding a bike and walking a bike. It uses the word “operate,” if I recall. I would still be operating the bike while walking it, using my arms to steer, and so forth. Technically, I would be in violation of the law, even if I would never be busted for it.

          I suppose I could carry it.

          • Perhaps precedent and statutory use assign to “operate a bike” the meaning “ride the bike.”

            Without having read the law, I think it’s an almost willful misreading to claim that the law forbids you to walk your bike while on the sidewalk. You hint as much in your original post when you say (emphasis mine) “The only way to make my presence known to the signal is to hit the crosswalk button. To get to that button, I have to get onto the sidewalk. While on my bike. In violation of the law.” If it’s a violation to walk your bike as well as ride it on a sidewalk, then why not do the lesser of the two violations?

            Like Kazzy and like you, I dislike it when bicyclists ride with no disregard to pedestrians. But I am probably inclined to have little sympathy for bike riders, who at least in Chicago, seem to regularly run red lights and stop signs regardless of whether a pedestrian is in the way. (For some reason, they have more respect for cars….maybe it’s because crashing into a pedestrian won’t hurt their bike all that much, but a car, well, that’s another matter.) Of course, it’s fallacious for me to assume that all my examples can be generalized. But I generalize.

          • DensityDuck says:

            “the law doesn’t clarify between riding a bike and walking a bike. It uses the word “operate,” if I recall.”

            I suppose it also fails to determine what the meaning of “is” is, but I agree with Pierre that it requires an intentional misreading to interpret the law as “it is illegal for a bicycle to ever be on a sidewalk”.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            I am being an itsy-bitsy bit facetious, gentlemen. 😉

          • Kyle, I guess one of the reasons I jumped on the assertion is that it resonated pretty closely with the “a police officer gave a ticket to a seven year old for operating a lemonade stand without a license so therefore all government regulations are bad” meme.

            That’s apparently not what you intended. So I guess I over-read.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            Well, I was only being a tiny bit facetious. I am mostly serious. I don’t reasonably expect to get a ticket for walking my bike to hit the crosswalk button. I could get a ticket for riding on the sidewalk, though. But if I need to and can go onto the sidewalk in order to cross the street, then we’ve established that there are reasonable grounds for bicycles to be on the sidewalk, at which point an absolute prohibition of “operating” a bike on the sidewalk doesn’t make sense. The basis for the law begins to fall apart.

            Besides, it’s stupid that cyclists should have to get off the road and on to the sidewalk to cross an intersection. It’s an inconvenience and potentially more unsafe. And what about making a left turn? How’s that supposed to work without causing a commotion?

            My central point is this: if the law is going to require cyclists to ride on the road, the instruments of the road, like traffic lights, should work for cyclists.

          • Kyle,

            I suppose I agree. And where you live is apparently a very car-centric city, and I hate it when people insist that you simply “vote with your feet” when you don’t like the local laws. So, I guess I’ll leave it at that, except to add that in other cities the dynamic appears to me quite different and not always so sympathetic to the claims of bicyclists that the laws are stacked against them.

          • DensityDuck says:

            “if I need to and can go onto the sidewalk in order to cross the street, then we’ve established that there are reasonable grounds for bicycles to be on the sidewalk, at which point an absolute prohibition of “operating” a bike on the sidewalk doesn’t make sense. ”

            er…you’re doing it again, insisting that walking a bicycle is “operating” it.

            “if the law is going to require cyclists to ride on the road, the instruments of the road, like traffic lights, should work for cyclists.”


            Although I’m not sure why we’re having this discussion, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bicyclist stop for a traffic control when there were not actual cars driving through the intersection.

          • DD:

            I’m not sure I would say “ever,” but it’s very rare in my experience.

    • James Hanley says:


      I don”t ok now if you’re much into cycling, but fora serious cyclists, having to get off the bike and wak it is equivalent to making a driver get out of his car. I used to never touch my feet down at red lights, unless I happened to be particularly tired that day. Cyclists should not have to walk their bike over to the push button.

      • I respectfully, if only partially, disagree, although I’ll admit that I haven’t ridden regularly for years, and I’ve never ridden in a big city. But if it’s a question of potentially running into pedestrians or stopping at a stop sign, I think the cyclist should stop (instead of, as I saw one cyclist do a couple days ago, threaten to slap a pedestrian who was trying to cross an intersection).

        As for pushing the button, it sucks, but how often is it a matter of simply waiting longer for the light to turn and how often is it a matter of the light won’t turn until someone presses a button? If it truly is the latter, and if such lights are so common or along routes that are otherwise ideal (i.e., safe) for cyclists, then I can understand the complaint.

  3. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Most traffic lights operate on the same principle as the magnetic mine of WWII.

    There’s an induction coil under the surface of the road, and when a big enough piece of metal is above the coil, you get a trigger and the light knows something is there. They’re not pressure-sensitive. They’re metal sensitive. Or, to be precise, they’re sensitive to changes in the magnetic field in the coil.

    The problem with the bike is that it doesn’t have enough metal. However, I have it on anecdotal reports that this approach actually works:

    I have not tested it, myself. I don’t know enough about the different types of coils used to know if the theory is sound, but it seems reasonable.

    Give it a shot.

    • Miss Mary says:

      If this really works I’m so doing it with my motorcycle. I don’t ride because I love sitting at lights forever.

      • Patrick Cahalan says:

        I have reports from two people who ride that they work even better on a motorcycle.

        Again, I haven’t done much actual science to have a real informed opinion about efficacy, but shoot, it’s a couple of magnets. I should ride to work myself…

      • aaron david says:

        There are motorcycle specific red light triggers, and they work OK. Should be able to find them quite quickly with the google.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Interesting. Thanks, Patrick. If I’ve been told correctly, though, my city uses cameras at the lights to detect traffic.

  4. Kolohe says:

    Idaho stops. Hopefully coming to a community near you.

  5. Kyle Cupp says:

    An aside: in high school I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle. And I was on the sidewalk, crossing over a parking lot entrance. To this day I never assume a driver sees me. I’ve had drivers look me square in the eye while not registering that a) I have the right of way and b) they’ll smack right into me if we both continue on our course.

    Another aside: almost no drivers in this area who are making a right turn look to the right to see if there is anyone there, pedestrian or otherwise, who they may hit.

    • James Hanley says:

      This happened to me, too, when I was a bike messenger. Except I was on the street–perfectly legal–passing an alleyway between two buildings. The driver of the truck looked down at me, lying dazed on the ground, said, “you look OK,” and began to drive off. He stopped when I began shouting out his license plate number.

      Another time I had a car pull out of a parallel parking space right in front of me, causing me to run into him and flip over his hood. He disclaimed responsibility and didn’t want to pay for my pretzaled front wheel.

      And then there was the time I had some guys in a pickup swerve over three empty lanes in a purposeful attempt to hit me, then chase me down Third Street in San Francisco, by the Moscone Convention Center….that was real fun.

      Bikes rule; drivers suck.

      • Kyle Cupp says:

        Wow. My stories are not nearly so interesting. I did have some passenger in a big black pickup truck yell at me to use the sidewalk. Apparently the driver didn’t like having to switch lanes to pass me.

        • James Hanley says:

          I originally just meant to write about the one that was like yours. Then I remembered the others. But as a bike messenger I probably rode more miles in more serious traffic than most people–there aren’t many “side” streets in downtown San Fran. But really, yours was just as bad–you could have been killed or disabled just as easily as I could have been. We’re both lucky to be able to still ride (even if don’t very often these days).

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            Oh, no worries James. I didn’t take you to be trying to one-up me. I’m glad you shared!

          • James Hanley says:

            By the way, where’s your damn helmet?! (I never wore one as a bike messenger, but since I had kids I never ride without one.)

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            In my right hand.

          • Mike Schilling says:

            You were a bike messenger in The City? I knew you were crazy, but I didn’t know you were crazy.

          • James Hanley says:

            Kyle–Oh, now I see it. Good man. But I get pedantic only because you mentioned a kid.

            Mike–Much less crazy now, more than 20 years on. But I did do some really crazy stuff back then, rides that suggest something of a death wish. Also stuff that looked crazy, but that really was in control because I had reached such a high level of performance that all the traffic felt like a choreographed dance, where I knew where holes in traffic were going to open up before they did. It was an amazing feeling, like being perfectly in tune with the whole world. Of course there was the occasional day when I didn’t manage to get in that groove, but tried to ride that way, and that could be really unpleasant. Not predicting that the car you’re following two inches off its bumper is going to suddenly brake isn’t hugely dangerous, but it’s certainly unpleasant.

          • James Hanley says:

            By the way, Mike, if you ever see the Western Messenger guys, that’s who I worked for.

  6. Kazzy says:

    Or you could just live in cities like NORMAL people where there is enough regular traffic that all the lights are on regular timers anyway.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      We have lots of traffic, being the fastest growing city in the country. Usually the cars will get me through.

      Another thing I’ve noticed: the timing of the lights is not set with cyclists in mind. 30 mph gusts are not uncommon here; nor is it uncommon for me to be half way into an intersection, going up hill into this wind, when the light is red again. I’m not terribly slow, but I need more than two seconds to cross a major intersection.

  7. I know this is an emotional issue and I’ve let my emotionalism get the better of me in my comments above, but I do want to point out that Chicago is probably a more bike-friendly city than wherever Kyle lives. Add to that bike-friendliness the aggressive car vs. bike vs. pedestrian culture and my own status as a pedestrian, I hope you can see where I’m coming from.

    It’s not that I don’t think bicyclists might deserve a break or be better treated by the law; rather, it’s that I am part of an interest that has to deal with these people who shout “share the rode!” on a regular basis and am therefore less inclined to be sympathetic.

    None of this excuses my position, but I hope it’s easier to understand where I’m coming from.

  8. b-psycho says:

    This reminded me that here we have a pair of intersections that actually require motorists to break the law. On-ramp for a freeway & an outer access road each have lights & turn-only lanes, but they’re so close that to get in the lane for the access road requires you to switch lanes smack in the middle of the intersection prior to it — which you’re not supposed to do. Follow the law & you miss your turn.

    As for sidewalks: the town I lived in before this one had no sidewalks. At all. Even weirder, when someone was walking on the grass by the side of the road on busier streets, people would honk at them, as if to say “get a car, hippie!”.

  9. Stillwater says:

    Nice post. I don’t have anything to add beyond sympathy except agreement that North Texas drivers are … unsympathetic … to cyclists. In fact, I think the motto embraced their is the bigger vehicle always has the right of way.

    • aaron david says:

      My son is an avid cyclist, and the one thing that I can teach him from my years of motorcycling, is that in reality, right of way always goes to the greatest mass. Having the legal right of way is cool, but does not protect you from 2 tons of steel.