Walsh: Ride at your own risk in New Haven

While riding my bike through the heavy rains of early summer I was pulled over at the intersection of Elm and Church. I had run a red light. Both directions of traffic were stopped and the crosswalks held for pedestrians. The cop was gruff and intimidating, but informative. I never knew that bicyclists are considered automotive traffic, and that we cannot use the crosswalk in our favor, and that we might be fined $112 for circumspectly running a red light. I am thankful that he let me go with a warning.

He noted, in his chastening, that actions like mine are “the reason so many of you bikers get hit by cars.” This cast of blame is entirely unproductive. I have lived in New York; Portland, Ore.; Chicago; and now New Haven. Nowhere else have I seen automotive traffic so dangerous to the growing population of cyclists. And nowhere else have I seen a police force so hostile to bikers. If prevailing opinion runs that the recklessness of bikers accounts for the high rate of car-bike collisions, and if ticketing is how policy hopes to address the concern, then the problem will not diminish.

The problem is twofold:

1) Police enforce the law as if bikes are cars. Thus other cars must respect bikes as if they are cars.

2) It is incumbent upon the New Haven Police Department to monitor and uphold this parity.

Consistency would help lead to resolution.

Symptomatic of the problem is a host of issues that endanger cyclists: cars frequently run (stale) red lights; cars fail to signal; cars drive aggressively and recklessly on roads with no shoulders; road rage (unnecessary honking and yelling) is regularly exhibited toward cyclists. If bicyclists are punished for minor automotive traffic infractions, then cars must be held to equal standards. Similarly, and of greater importance, bicycles must be as welcome and respected on the road as any automobile. Effective accident prevention stems from the legal recognition and enforcement of these facts.

I admit freely that some in the bike community maintain a self-righteous dudgeon toward automobiles. For most of us, however, the impulse to bike grows out of the desire for improvement. We’re not all anarchists. Very few of us are, in fact, anarchists. We bike for cleaner and healthier air, for less congested streets, for the safety of New Haven residents (children especially), for our personal health and for aesthetic enjoyment. Biking is a positive and essential facet of progressive city development. It is a practice that should be encouraged and cultivated through more creative approaches than legal antagonism.

Eventually, I believe cars and bicycles should be classified separately. Cars move easily (hence auto-motive) and encourage complacency; bicycles do not. Cars command the road in a way bicycles do not. Cars are extremely dangerous in a way bicycles are not. Cars move at speeds bicycles cannot. The discrepancies are clear and manifold. Presently, however, both bicycles and cars stand on even footing. So let us be treated — persecuted and protected — equally.

Dylan Walsh is a first-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.


  • Bruce

    “I never knew that bicyclists are considered automotive traffic…”

    This is the problem in a nutshell — people don’t know the law. The officer did exactly what he should have by informing you of your legal responsibility. If he gave you a ticket (I think police should always issue tickets for traffic violations) you would be much less likely to do this again. Every time a bikes runs a red light or rides on the sidewalk, an automobile driver reinforces his mistaken impression that bicycles are not traffic. I am not sure what you are proposing for a special traffic classification, but I can’t see that working. Either you’re a vehicle or you’re not. If you want to cross in the crosswalk, get off your bike and become a pedestrian for a few seconds.

    (BTW, “automotive” means a self-propelled, which a bicycle is not)

  • Bill

    Bicycles and cars are not equal. Rolling stops at stop signs make sense on a bicycle due to the low speed and ability to stop. Crossing at walk lights makes sense because bicycles don’t kill pedestrians, getting of the bike and walking is a dumb suggestion. Bicycles are an easy target for the police because they are easy to stop unlike cars. How many cars does this police officer stop who he sees talking on a cell phone. I would guess none. ECC and it’s members are doing the cycling public a disservice by insisting in these being enforced instead of getting the laws for bicycles changed.

  • Annon

    How could you possibly not know that bikes considered automotive traffic?

  • student

    I agree with Bill. Will ECC or groups like it please stand up for cyclists and stop discriminating against them by supporting ticketing campaigns when there is literally no infrastructure.

  • Anonymous

    I agree whole heartedly with Bill. Bikes are very, very similar to a pedestrian. They are slightly more dangerous, but, on the whole, they cannot harm pedestrians, move at low speeds, and can stop quickly. Furthermore, as a bicycle commuter, I must say that riding “legally” is far more likely to get one killed here than pretty much any other activity. I’ll pay the $112 for the privilege of living another day.

    I have had drivers open their car doors without looking, forcing me to swerve into traffic to avoid colliding with their door. Multiple times I have had drivers pass me at great speed with very little clearance.

    Enforcing pedestrian and bicycle regulations while completely ignoring New Haven’s reckless vehicle traffic is just another subtle hint from New Haven that it sees us (students in general and bicyclists) as little more than a nuisance and a potential revenue stream.

  • a grad student

    Sorry, but either you are a vehicle, in which case you belong with the cars and should follow their rules, or you are a pedestrian, in which case you belong with the pedestrians and should follow their rules.
    Personally, I think most bikers, except the most extreme ones who do go fast enough to belong with cars, belong on the sidewalk where it’s their responsibility not to hit walkers.
    But if you are going to go on the road, behave like a vehicle. I have nearly missed accidents many times caused by bikers going the wrong way down one-way streets or breezing through intersections.
    I am actually quite happy to hear that police are ticketing or at least warning offenders.
    I am not anti-bike, but I do think that they need to follow the rules too.

  • Frank

    The cop was mistaken. The fine for a red light is $124 not $112.

  • Eric Wyatt

    Once a policeman forced a friend and me to exit Interstate 70 about 10 miles downhill, east of Loveland Pass, Colorado. We had to drag our bikes through two miles of woods, just across a river and down an embankment from I-70, where we had been safely inhabiting the breakdown lane at about 40 MPH, heading down the Rockies. Trekking our bikes through the woods, my friend got a flat tire from running over brambles. We fixed the puncture and finally reached a road that was ‘legal’ for bikes.

    When another police car came up behind us and told us to pull over (into gravel) so that he could pass, I pulled into the middle of the lane and slowed down to 5 MPH, which was the speed some of the loaded trucks heading up I-70 could manage. He turned on his siren and gave me a ticket.

    Lessons, perhaps:

    Don’t get angry.

    Cops win.

    The conversion to a bicycle friendly environment is haltingly slow and stuttering.

    I now live in Portland, which is light years ahead o New Haven. Don’t give up.