Memo to Bikers: Follow the Law

“Bikers need to follow the law.”

I often think about the cultural acceptance of bike-rider-bashing. Then Melody wrote her piece here about how the media presents crash victims.

These thoughts have come and gone for me the years I’ve been a Cyclist Ambassador to Minneapolis, an informal appointment given to anyone who carries a bike helmet around.

I most recently got refocused on it when I had to spend a morning in the Social Security Administration offices. As I was leaving, I got permission to put my winter riding gear back on before heading out into the 2-degree weather. (No face masks allowed in federal offices, you know.) I was standing at the security guard’s desk (contractors, not federal employees), putting on my face mask, goggles, helmet and mittens.

Out of nowhere, one of the guards says, “Bikers need to follow the law.” … [pulling on mittens] … “I hate bikers, they should get off the road. Bikers always run stop signs and lights.”

I’m thinking, “And, what, cars never roll through stop signs? Blow red lights? Fail to yield to pedestrians when making a right on a green? And, it’s really dangerous to have a bike hit the side of your car — you might die or something. Yeah, right.” I try to keep my mouth shut, and mostly succeed, and head out to get back to work.

As I pedaled home, my blood was boiling. Why is it OK to vent your irrational stereotypes to a random stranger? In this case, to a stranger who quietly spent the last two hours in your waiting room. A stranger who asked permission to put on goggles before freezing her butt off. Is it actually OK, just because she travels by bike?

To test my anti-bike-bias-theory, I try a substituting example. Standing at a bus stop with a random person carrying a pile of text books would it be OK to start talking: “College students are drunk 24 hours a day. I hate college students. They should be kicked out of school if they drink.”

Try your own favorite disliked group.

“________s are always doing _____________. I hate ___________s. _____________s should be forced to _________.”

Were this a one-off, I’d let it slide as a crazy security dude. But, it happens all the time that people vent to ME about ill-behaved riders. Apparently, people riding bikes are so hated by the general public that it’s socially acceptable to state it out loud to any random bike-riding person, subtly threatening them. (Not so subtly when you’re a security guard.)

I’ve got plenty of examples. The most extreme is the time a colleague threatened to hit me with his SUV if he ever saw me riding my bike down Hennepin Avenue – while at dinner with a bunch of other colleagues. No one called him on it.

One of the most surprising “conversations” about my bike-riding behavior came a few Friday evenings ago. I was riding home from downtown, well after rush hour had ended, on a street that had a bike lane. But it was February, and the lane was filled with sporadic parked cars, ice slabs, and the detritus of winter. Traffic wasn’t heavy, and I didn’t want to be swerving between the driving lane and the bike lane, so I was riding in the right-hand lane. Suddenly, from close on my left, a police megaphone blared at me, “Ride in the bike lane!” and the marked car zoomed by.

I keep seeing more bike cops, more suit-wearing Nice Ride-ers, more parents riding kids to school. I also keep hoping that as more “normal people happen to ride bikes” there will be a shift to assuming that “people who ride bikes are normal people.”

This week, my most optimistic hope is that your comments will give me reason to hope. Where do you see attitudes shifting? How do you respond when you get these questions?

Cross-posted at

About Janne Flisrand

Janne Flisrand spends her time thinking about how people interact with the space around them. Why do they (or don't they) walk or bike or shop somewhere? How do spaces feel? Why do people sit here and not there? Why bus instead of bike, bike instead of drive? What sorts of spaces build community, and what sorts kill it? Can spaces build civic trust and engagement?

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47 thoughts on “Memo to Bikers: Follow the Law

  1. Jeff Klein

    The idea that it’s just as bad for a person on a 20-lb bicycle to break the law — something sometimes necessary to so much as exist in a world made for cars — as a person operating a 4000-lb chuck of steel capable of 90mph is one of the more spectacular false equivalences I’m aware of.

    1. Julie K

      Instead of focusing on false equivalencies, let’s look at the true equivalency:


      In a car? Respect that “No Right Turn on Red” sign. Yield to pedestrians. Don’t do 40 in a 25mph residential.
      On a bike? Know your stopping distance and don’t skid in front of me off a side street to University Avenue after the light has changed.
      Pedestrian? Don’t try to run across an ice-rutted street against the light in stilettos.

      I’ve seen all of these occur, and not a one of them is a good behavior from the street user.

      When everyone behaves predictably according the law/the social contract of roadways, we’re all a lot safer and we accommodate more users regardless of mode.

      1. Jeff Klein

        This is an oversimplification that ignores how our roads were not designed for bikers and pedestrians. Consider for just one what a low priority the pedestrian cycle has at stop lights. And we’re never supposed to “jaywalk”? Please.

        1. Cedar

          The light by my work (29th and University in Prospect Park) is a good example of this; the wait to cross University has got to be one of the longest in the city. There’s a button — but I’m never sure if it does anything (other than say “wait, wait”), although all winter there was such a huge snowdrift next to it that actually REACHING the button was impossible without a difficult crawl up the side of a steep snow mountain. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed a bus waiting for that light to turn. The result? The vast majority of people just wait for traffic to clear and cross without any regard to the light. After all, you can’t even reach the button to get it to change, and even if you do manage to push it, the wait can be so incredibly long — and sometimes you start to wonder if it ever really did change, or if the cycle just skipped over the walk. I tend to wait (more so out of some fear of slipping while crossing and then being hit rather than any sense of civic duty), but really, who can blame those who cross against the light? Yes, it’s breaking the rules of the road — but these are rule that are incredibly unfair to anyone not traveling in a car. (as an aside, this is is also by the Prospect Park light rail stop; I hope that they can get the timing fixed prior to opening, otherwise that is going to be a serious safety issue as pedestrians cross the street and tracks against the light)..

      2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Julie, I agree, but also agree with Jeff.

        There is one suburban intersection that I ride through numerous times each week. Coming south on the bike path I make a left turn, usually by crossing to the SW corner on a white walk signal and then crossing to the SE corner on a white walk signal. The button for the first has been broken for about a year with no number of calls to Ramsey county seeming to help. Then winter comes and the button on the SW corner that does work is no longer accessible due to snow that no number of calls to Ramsey county will get cleared. For some time now, even just accessing that SW corner is dangerous due to snow piles. The result is that I make my way through this intersection when I feel it’s safe, regardless of lights.

        On this same ride there are three places where the bike path crosses minor roads that rarely have traffic but at intersections with lights that default to green for the heavier north-south road (Hodgson) but not for people crossing using the path. Technically I should stop, press the button, and wait at each for a white crossing signal (all while there are no cars anywhere in sight on the minor road I desire to cross). Really?

  2. Matty LangMatty Lang

    This phenomenon is a lingering effect of the massive PR campaign to create the Other–anyone who’s not driving a car–that was necessary for motorists to gain access to public streets in the first place. People need to be called out on it, especially when they threaten to kill someone with their SUV.

  3. Jenny

    I’m a bike commuter and have to admit it makes me nuts when I see bikers, whether commuting or riding for fun, breaking road laws. I obey laws when I drive my car and my bike, they are LAWS for a reason. I have also noticed, however, that drivers are more courteous to me when I’m in my street/work clothes headed to the office than when I’m in Spandex on a long weekend ride. The “Spandex Brigade” packs of bikers have, unfortunately, been seen by enough people breaking enough laws that they are giving all bikers a bad name. If people bring up the topic with me I always state that I think everyone who uses the road should obey the laws of the road – that way we can all get home safe.

    All that being said, I do think that awareness is rising and being a good example of biking can only further our cause. Education is needed – a lot of people still don’t realize bikes have the RIGHT to be on the roads and should NOT be riding on sidewalks (think coming off the south end of the Wabasha bridge from a nice wide bike lane to a skimpy 4-lane/2-way with a ragged, potholed right lane, forcing you to take the lane whether you want to or not – I’ve experienced more road rage on that one long block to Water Street then everywhere else I’ve ever biked combined!).

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Jenny, good points. Sadly, I think that The Twin Cities Bicycle Club and similar have done a huge disservice in this area. Some ride leaders are very good about making sure that riders obey laws and are courteous to motorists, some are the worst violators. At least a half dozen times each summer I see a long line of TCBC riders going south on Centerville blow through the stop sign at Edgerton and at least a few times each year when I’m at the stop sign and have the right of way.

      I’ve seen large groups of TCBC riders taking up the road and making it difficult and unsafe for following cars to pass. Even when they try to single up (far from guaranteed) it’s difficult with large groups. In many cases if one of these groups does succeed in singling up, a driver would then be required to pass a 60′ long line of riders which is often impossible, especially if they driver would like to maintain a 3′ clearance.

      I don’t doubt why drivers dislike cyclists. I’m glad I’m just a bicycle rider.

    2. Judy

      Jenny is right on! I drive and bike both, and i generally get treated well for obeying the rules.

    3. Jeremy

      I don’t think it’s solely the fault of so-called spandex brigades that motorists’ opinion of cyclists is so abysmally, irrationally low. How about hipsters on bikes with no brakes, flying around with reckless abandon, with no lights and wearing black clothes? I also see this demographic willfully flouting the law in the face of car-drivers. Now that’s some bad pr.

  4. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

    Janne, you’re the best.

    Besides being illogical, the political problem with the “________s are always doing _____________. I hate ___________s. _____________s should be forced to _________.” mad-lib is that it’s usually aimed at vulnerable and less-powerful people. Like you mention, people on bikes and students.

    I rarely see the mad-lib used like this:

    “Luxury-SUV drivers are always texting and running red lights on their way to Burch and getting lost/driving erratically on their way home. I hate luxury-SUV drivers. Luxury-SUV drivers should be forced to take the bus to Burch.”

    That’s still a hasty generalization (not quite 100% of luxury-SUV drivers break traffic laws), but at least it’s not aimed at making life worse for vulnerable people.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      Well, you might here me saying things like that when there is something like the Auto Show going on and all of the sudden the south end of downtown is filled with cars driven by people who do not know how to drive in the city on a random Saturday morning.

  5. Al DavisonAl Davison

    I feel that both groups need to coexist better. Whether it’s inattentive drivers or pretentious cyclists, some need to come to the realization that neither of them own the entire road, and both need to follow street laws. Drivers are definitely more dangerous, but both groups can be just as equally annoying.

    I feel we need more segregated bike lanes though so then cyclists don’t have to worry about riding so close to speeding hunks of metal, along with lower speed limits on local roads because when there are stop signs every few blocks, there is no point going 40 mph if you are continuously stopping that often anyways.

    1. Jeff Klein

      But it’s still such a cop-out to say that “if only everyone just followed the laws everything would be fine”. That’s easy to say if you’re a driver and the roads were made for you.

      Consider: if roads had been designed even slightly with cyclists in mind, would we have stop lights at every intersection for miles on end? They’re fine for cars; the driver moves their foot half an inch and they’re going 40mph again. Or they can bypass them by getting on the freeway, built at great expense for their convenience.

      The act of a biker stopping at a red, looking both ways, and proceeding if there’s no traffic causes no risk to anyone but the biker other than in silly, fanciful fictions about a driver dramatically swerving to avoid a stupid cyclist and running down a little old lady. It’s silly to be angry with cyclists for treating red lights as stop signs until our infrastructure catches up with bikes.

      1. Al DavisonAl Davison

        I didn’t say that everything would be fine if everyone followed the laws, nor that I was angry at cyclists for treating red lights like stop signs. When I am talking about abusing traffic laws is when cyclists run stop signs without slowing down at all when there are clearly other people at the intersection (both pedestrians and vehicles). It does happen, and it’s quite annoying.

        Yes we do need to vastly improve bike infrastructure, but regardless we all are just going to have to coexist and stop being douchebags to each other when sharing the road.

        1. Jeff Klein

          Sorry, I was replying partly to your comment but also to general sentiment and in the process changed what you were saying.

          I don’t mean just bike infrastructure, I mean better streets for bikes. For example, road diets, round-abouts instead of and/or fewer stop lights.

          1. Al DavisonAl Davison

            I agree with you on better streets, the narrow 4-lane stretches especially near where I live could be easily downgraded to 3-lanes with wide shoulders for bikes.

      2. Holly Weik

        Actually, most state laws, including I think MN, permit “stopping at a red, looking both ways, and proceeding if there’s no traffic” for cyclists.

        1. Ron

          Yes but only if…..
          Complete stop.
          Unreasonable time.
          Malfunctioning light.
          Nobody approaching intersection.

          You can’t just slow and roll.

          Subd. 9.Affirmative defense relating to unchanging traffic-control signal.

          (a) A person operating a bicycle or motorcycle who violates subdivision 4 by entering or crossing an intersection controlled by a traffic-control signal against a red light has an affirmative defense to that charge if the person establishes all of the following conditions:

          (1) the bicycle or motorcycle has been brought to a complete stop;

          (2) the traffic-control signal continues to show a red light for an unreasonable time;

          (3) the traffic-control signal is apparently malfunctioning or, if programmed or engineered to change to a green light only after detecting the approach of a motor vehicle, the signal has apparently failed to detect the arrival of the bicycle or motorcycle; and

          (4) no motor vehicle or person is approaching on the street or highway to be crossed or entered or is so far away from the intersection that it does not constitute an immediate hazard.

          (b) The affirmative defense in this subdivision applies only to a violation for entering or crossing an intersection controlled by a traffic-control signal against a red light and does not provide a defense to any other civil or criminal action.

          1. Holly Weik

            Ron, all true, but 2 and 3 are subjective, and if the other conditions are met then you are *probably fine, because unreasonable wait time is in the eye of the beholder, and the light does NOT have to be malfunctioning, only that “the signal has apparently failed to detect the arrival of the bicycle or motorcycle”. Some lights simply don’t recognize things that aren’t a car. That’s why the wording is in there, right?

            *I’m not a lawyer so don’t attempt to quote me if debating this in real-time with a cop…

            1. Ron

              Typical cyclist interpretation of the law. 🙂
              Plus if you don’t stop in the first place what difference does it make how long you’re supposed to wait?

              1. Holly Weik

                Hah, I guess that’s one way to view it, Ron! Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong, because I actually do stop, check for traffic, and see if the light shows any signs of reacting to me before I pedal across. Viewed from another direction, maybe this loophole isn’t really an issue anyways? Because if there’s absolutely no-one else at the intersection, then no one is there to disagree with you about whether you waited a “reasonable” time. And if there is someone else, then either they are oncoming traffic and I assume you would wait to proceed until they are gone, or they are also waiting for the same light to change and therefore their vehicular presence will cause the light to change anyways.

      1. Al DavisonAl Davison

        I agree with you on better streets, the narrow 4-lane stretches especially near where I live could be easily downgraded to 3-lanes with wide shoulders for bikes.

      2. Al DavisonAl Davison

        Some of the cyclists that I have encountered in real-life get pretentious when it comes to discussing drivers vs bikes, treating cycling as the supreme mode of transportation, and being very obnoxious and smug about it.

        Obviously not every cyclist is pretentious (nor is every driver always inattentive), but they are out there.

        1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

          Distracted drivers kill and maim other people. Pretentious cyclists are annoying to talk to. Do you think these two groups of people are equivalent in any way?

          1. Al DavisonAl Davison

            All I was saying is that they both have to realize that they both have to share the road. I wasn’t comparing them by the amounts of danger they pose to people. I acknowledged immediately after that statement that drivers are way more dangerous.

            1. Al DavisonAl Davison

              And to better clarify my “Drivers are definitely more dangerous, but both groups can be just as equally annoying” statement: When either of them are being blowing through stop signs, it is annoying for everyone else in the vicinity. I wasn’t denying that cars are more dangerous, just comparing them in levels of annoyance. While I admit I do live in the suburbs in a very car-centric zone, I still see cyclists often, and there are quite a few who zone out everyone else around them. Sharing the road and respecting other travelers regardless of their mode of transportation is essential (but of course it is not going to solve anything like what Jeff Klein said).

              And I do think the same goes for drivers, they need to give cyclists enough space to safely ride. and inattentive and/or aggressive drivers should be ticketed for their actions. All I was doing is that both have their flaws, and they have to work with them to make the streets better for everyone, especially pedestrians.

              1. Ron

                It was clear what you were saying. You shouldn’t have been slammed like that. Your 3rd sentence stated the incredibly obvious, cars are more dangerous.

                1. Al DavisonAl Davison

                  I just figured I would try to be more clear since everyone probably reads things through different perspectives. After reviewing my original post, I could see how it could be viewed in a different way.

                  1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

                    I don’t want to “slam” you or anything. I just think it’s really curious that you describe distracted drivers as “annoying.” When someone commits a crime that threatens the lives of others, that rises way past “annoying” for me.

                    And it’s not because I hate people who drive. I drive! It’s just the inherent physics of the act means that a person driving has a higher obligation than a person walking, skating, cycling, or rollerblading.

                    A drunk bus-rider is annoying. A drunk construction worker is deadly. A distracted pedestrian is annoying. A distracted air-traffic controller is deadly. A multitasking waiter is annoying. A multitasking surgeon is deadly.

                    It’s totally OK to be annoyed with some cyclists. But I think calling distracted drivers “annoying” is holding them to too low of a standard.

  6. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Janne, great post. I think that a big part of the solution is better bicycle infrastructure that removes the encouragement to break the law and removes the conflicts between bicycles, pedestrians, and motorists.

    Second is continuing to get more and more people riding and in particular for daily transportation. EG, normalizing bicycling instead of it being just something for the spandex crowd hogging lanes.

    I think we’re making progress on both?

  7. Ron

    Even as an avid cyclist of all forms, it’s really frustrating to watch riders blow through reds. Riders will do this even if they got to an intersection after the car or ped did.
    Obviously it’s not nearly as dangerous as breaking a law in an automobile but it drives everybody crazy to watch and contributes to the hostility every rider faces on the road.
    I’m not for stopping and putting your foot on the ground at every intersection but a good rule of thumb is to never let anyone see you run a stop.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      I’m with Jeff above. We can’t really expect cyclists to stop and wait at an empty intersection at every block. Heck, we don’t expect it of pedestrians, and no one gets worked up about that.

      We really should be questioning why we accept it for cars, which reminds me of a post on here awhile back that questioned why we have so many traffic signals when most of the time a four way stop would be more efficient.

      1. Jeff Klein

        The reason that people get worked about about it when it’s cyclists and not when it’s pedestrians is that cyclists are seen as political extremists who represent a threat to the status quo.

  8. minneapolisite

    I’m not sure why some motorists are annoyed when I stop at a light and go on through if it’s clear. If they are, I can tell you they’re even more annoyed when you lawfully wait at the light, a queue of cars form behind you, and then they’re annoyed that they have to pass you because you didn’t go through the red light when you had a chance to do so long ago. I never hear or read about motorists getting annoyed that they always blow through red lights, but oh wait, it’s legal if it’s done within 5 seconds. At least, that’s what virtually every motorist seems to think anyway.

    The bottom line is that there is no earning motorists’ respect if they aren’t the kind that already respects cyclists. These are people who have a bottomless barrel of, “I’d treat cyclists as equals when they all (fill in the blank)”. It’s an unattainable standard since there’ll never be %100 that will comply and at the same time is a double standard conveniently not applicable for motorists. I find it offensive anytime a self-hating cyclist takes the bait and reinforces anti-cyclist dogma.

      1. Jeff Klein

        I don’t think so. I’ve had the same experiences. Many things cyclists do that aren’t strictly law-abiding benefit cars as much as they do the bikers. A decent cyclist would never take anyone’s right-of-way. And if you’re not doing that, you’re just getting *out* of the way. For example, by proceeding through a red light when there’s no traffic, you can be out of the way of a right-turning car that would otherwise have to wait.

        1. Ron

          I’m all for Red being Stops and Stops being Yields for bikes but until it’s the law it’s going to piss ppl off. That matters to some cyclists more than others.
          I usually have room for a car to pass on my right while I’m sitting at a light because I’m in the middle of the lane, ideally.

      2. minneapolisite

        Well, if it’s any consolation I never drive the way I bike (and I never just blow through a red), but I’m thinking that’s because current traffic laws make sense for cars,but little for bikes. Why, it’s almost like they never thought about anyone riding a bike on the roads let alone consider the very large differences in how they function from a driver’s/rider’s perspective. And when it’s raining or -10 out you can bet I’ll be treating every stop sign/red light as a yield sign: no way I’m sitting around in that, but I do slow down a good deal when approaching.these intersections like I always do.

        1. Ron

          I hear you and it’s tough out there. These are Ron’s rules of thumb accumulated from living car-less in a far bigger and much less welcoming city for cycling than the twin cities.
          1) Always be able to stop at an intersection.
          2) Do whatever you have to to be safe.
          3) Try to not let motorists see you blow a light.
          4) Never pass a car on the right.
          5) Assume the car doesn’t see you.
          6) Take the lane at intersections.
          7) Rear flashy light on left seat stay.
          8) Group or solo training/recreational rides should be concluded by 11:00 AM on weekends for your own safety and enjoyment (actually sooner if possible)
          9) Weekday evening group size should be limited in size. Tough call here, it depends. 24 is getting big.

  9. Jeremy

    Janne, if it makes you feel any better, I have to admit that I’ve rarely come across this sentiment in my 17 years of commuting. Why more rent-a-cops haven’t accosted me is unclear, and while I have of course been told that bikes need to stay on the sidewalks or some such cockamamie rubbish, it really happens rarely. To me, that is.

    That being said, I have had some shocking conversations with people whom one would expect to be favorably disposed to cyclists. They seemed to highlight right away any malfeasance on the part of cyclists, as if that is foremost in their minds when they think of people on bikes. I chalk it up to the relative scarcity of cyclists out on the roads, our proportions are still way down there, so being around cyclists is an abnormal thing for most motorists. Compound this with the fact that driving a car brings out one’s baser instincts, and you’ve got a prevailing sentiment like the one that your security guard saw fit to share with you.

    The solution? More cyclists out there obeying the laws. I know it’s not entirely incumbent upon us as cyclists to take the high ground – these motorists are just as obligated (obviously!) – but it’ll put more arrows in our quiver. Getting more help from the City of Minneapolis would be beneficial too. Why do I have to tell cars driving down Marquette that the lane I’m in is bikes & bus only? Where’s the signage?! Why doesn’t the MPD ticket cars driving like maniacs on Bryant, where bikes supposedly have right-of-way?

    I don’t know if it assuages the irritation to know that I’ve only rarely been told asinine things about cyclists by, ahem, car-drivers. But I too feel intense frustration with the discourse, and I’d like to think that, slowly but surely, things are trending upwards.

  10. Joe

    I am sorry but hearing people who take on the role of car apologists is frustrating. I make a concerted effort to never break rules of the road when biking. I don’t even own spandex. I wear bright colored clothes and always have lights at night. I always signal when switching lanes. If a bike lane is available I always use it. I only take the lane when there is no bike lane or the bike lane is covered by snow. I do not flick people off and genuinely try to get out of the way of cars if it is a narrow street and they are behind me. Believe me, that does not protect me from aggression on the part of a large minority of drivers. There are many nice people that clearly appreciate my effort, but many that do not. Yes, streets are designed for cars and not bicycles. It is difficult for me to make a complete stop when I am in full gear in the winter with groceries that I am bringing home to my family, and then start up again. Drivers only need to transfer a little weight to the accelerator. There is a general belief that the roads are the purview of cars and that bicyclists are a needless nuisance that exist to interfere with hard working responsible individuals who drive cars like normal adults ought to do. There is a reason why car drivers should be held to a much higher standard than bicyclists. This is because cars kill ten of thousands of Americans every year. The number of people killed by bicyclists every year is about ZERO. The few countries in the world that have normal infrastructure actually designed around bicyclists and cars and not just one, are countries where people follow the rules of the road much more often. In these countries as a bicyclist, you do not have to make a complete stop at every block. Unless someone is physically incapable of moving their body on a bicycle, through walking, or public transit, there is really no reason to use 2,000-4,000 pounds of steel/glass/plastic to move around a 200 pound person. This is incredibly inefficient, pollutes our environment, and helps drive the obesity/cardiovascular disease/ Type II Diabetes epidemic we have in this country. Please, stop making excuses for a ridiculous system. We need transit, we need wider sidewalks, and we need real bicycle infrastructure, and we need it now! Once the road is designed for everyone, then we should expect everyone to follow the rules. Considering that I have nearly ended up in 3 potentially fatal accidents this winter despite following “all the rules,” trying to be a good soldier is simply not enough.

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