For Mad Max messengers, tattooed, wrapped in chains and merino wool, riding their $2,000 titanium alloy bicycles painted matte black to deter thieves, a red light is not a command to stop so much as a gentle hint there might be traffic whizzing ahead, so they should put on a burst of speed when threading between the cars and trucks.
I knew bike messengers did that. Turns out, most everybody else does too.
At least according to "POLICIES FOR PEDALING: Managing the Tradeoff between Speed & Safety for Biking in Chicago," a new study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.
Turns out only 1 in 50 cyclists stop at stop signs if there's no traffic coming. A quarter don't stop when there is traffic. Red lights fare a bit better.
Not only that, but the study gives the practice a big thumbs up.
Which is a relief because, to be honest, even I roll through the stop signs and sometimes the lights.
On my sky blue Divvy, huffing from Point A to Point B, I come to a red light, slow, and yes, I will jut a foot out and actually stop if there's cross traffic coming. If not, a quick glance left and right, a mental "So long, suckers!" tossed at the cars dutifully waiting, and onward across the street.
Not only a way to conserve forward momentum — so important to tired 56-year-old legs pushing a 45-pound Divvy — but also as a safer way to ride.
What might be dangerous, counterintuitively, is NOT blowing the red light.
The DePaul paper cites a 2007 London study shows women are killed by large trucks at three times the rate of men, and they offer one of those Malcolm Gladwell-type explanations:
“The Transport for London report posits that women are more vulnerable to truck collisions due to their tendency to be less likely to disobey red traffic signals than men. By going through a red traffic signal before it turns green, men are less likely to be caught in a truck driver’s blind spot. Instead, they get in front of the truck before it starts to enter the intersection.”
I knew it felt right to blast out ahead of traffic before those trucks. The study also encourages the city to make such “Idaho Stops’ legal (so called because Idaho did just that in 1982 and bike accidents went down). Though I don’t imagine Chicago police are writing many tickets on rolling through red lights — about 1,300 tickets a year are written to Chicago bicyclists, the “vast majority” for riding on the sidewalk, illegal for those older than 12.
The study also found what I already know — I love studies that do that: bikes are a better way around town. In 33 out of 45 matched trips between randomly chosen points in the city, biking is faster. And these were long trips — average seven miles. For trips of a mile or so, the bike wins hands down. Faster than a car or cab, which have to sit at lights remember.
And cheaper. A yearly Divvy membership costs 30 cents a day. It costs $3.25 just to get in a cab, which I hardly ever do. I broke down and got in a cab last week, because it was 5 p.m. and I was at the Hilton on South Michigan and figured I’d race to Union Station and catch an earlier train. Big mistake. The ride cost $10 — well, that’s what I spent when I realized I could walk faster and get out. The only reason I took the cab, I realized grimly, was it had been so long I forgot what they are like.
There is one hazard the study doesn’t mention. We are a country that, it is increasingly clear, is built on disregard for social order and on generalized envy. If bicycles are officially allowed to blow through red lights, will it be long before cars start doing the same? Leading to the kind of chaotic free-for-all that makes traffic such an ordeal in Third World countries. We do seem to be drifting in that direction, if not pedaling hard in that direction.