Let's Talk About The Colour Red

In The Eye Of The Storm

Two weeks ago (and mid way through promotions for his new range of bikes) Sir Chris Hoy participated in an interview with the Telegraph in which he berated the actions of a fellow cyclist as being those of an ‘idiot’. That article kicked off something of a social media storm. The eye of the storm focused on the behavior of cyclists and especially the age old subject of our jumping red lights. 

A rather comical article in road.cc went on to suggest that out of the many things cyclists should not mention when attending a dinner party ‘red lights’ are high on the list. 

Add this to the comments of notorious Top Gear presented Jeremy Clarkson 


and it’s clear that the entire subject of cyclists jumping red lights is both explosive and divisive. 

At this point the common course of action is for cyclists to hold a rather large mirror up to drivers reminding them of exactly who is responsible for the 1700 killed on British roads each year and what indeed are the exact facts regarding red lights. I was however keen not simply to offer a knee jerk defensive reaction and so I turned my introverted self towards observing cyclists real behaviour (mine and others) in Britains second city over a two week period. 


Let’s get the confessions out of the way. 

Q: Have I jumped a red light in the last two weeks?

A: Sort of! 

Unhelpful I know but much more accurate than a straight forward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and that brings me onto my first observation. 

Complexity v Simplicity

Every single day hundreds of thousands of people travel by bike as their primary means of transport. The majority of those people cycle on shared roads. That is not only where the law permits them to be but is, in the overwhelming majority of cases the only viable option. The law therefore demands that cyclist travel in what is often experienced as a threatening hostile environment in which the car’s dominance is accepted as normative (NB: I would consider Hoy’s own level of cycling confidence to be in an extremely small minority). The road is not a neutral space it is a contested space in which every inch can often feel like a battle to survive. 

So while you have a group of people whose behavior reduces the burden to the NHS by several tens of millions per anum, whose mode of mobility creates no negative carbon impact, whose daily regime increases their productivity and thus boosts the economy, these same people are routinely expected to put themselves in harms way. 

And this is where Hoy and Clarkson share a fundamental missing of the point. 

In the last two weeks I paused and carefully observed the commuting patterns of hundreds of cyclists in a city built on its explicit support of the automobile industry (where else would you put an eight lane carriageway through the centre of a city?). In particular I observed how cyclists acted at a variety of red light junctions. The overwhelming majority of cyclists clearly would not even consider jumping a red light under any circumstances yet there were others who did, and some who did persistently. The times I observed a red light being jumped the implication of doing so was that said cyclist created a protective space between them and other road users which otherwise would not have existed. While the red light held traffic back the green light pointing in the other direction was not in fact filtering any traffic through because no traffic existed in that direction at that time. Thus when I observed cyclist jumping red lights they were nearly always entering into a less contested and thus less dangerous space than they would otherwise be in.

While I am sure it happens, I did not observe a single cyclist jump a red light into the increased danger of oncoming traffic.

When I use the term ‘cyclists’ let me be clear. I am describing the commuting behavior of, lawyers, doctors and university professors amongst others. This is not an act of stupidity it is most often an act calculated to reduce risk. It is the complex response to a complex problem the simplification of which is unhelpful. 

The thing is Mr Clarkson. We cyclists have learnt the difference between red and green and that’s exactly why we do the things we do. The color green often keeps us cyclists trapped within a dangerous flow of hostile traffic;  the colour red often enables us to move within a less contested space. Nor right, not ideal, not admirable but just the reality of some situations. We’d hate to scratch your car! 

If we really want to see a reduction in the number of people jumping red lights; and to be absolutely clear I think that would be a very good thing, here’s five things we need to do first. 

Segregated Lanes

Segregated cycle lanes are ‘the’ thing which will make cyclists feel an increased sense of safety and when the perception of safety increases the need to jump red lights decreases. Will it happen? Not unless both cyclists and motorist make it an electoral issue. It is interestingly advantageous to both parties. 

Enforced Filter and Delay Systems

Some city’s already have filter systems enabling cyclists to proceed while holding cars back or diverting cars altogether. Such systems are few and far between with equally ambivalent enforcement. I use one every day and have experienced it’s violation three times in the past week (by which I mean cars going where cars are not allowed). That said, when they work they make a measured difference and reduce a potential perception of  the need to jump the red light simply to make space. 

reen for cyclists with a delayed green for cars, buses and lorries would further help manage conditions at busy pedestrain crossings. 

Real Training

It’s a hobby horse of ours but a critical issue. The government supported Bikeability scheme is frequently delivered in an artificially protected environment and in no way equips young people or adults for the reality of cycling within the urban environment. If you doubt this argument try this exercise. 

1: Find a random twelve year old who lives within an urban environment and completed Bikeability within the last two years. 

2: Ask the aforementioned individual how often they ride their bike on roads within their own urban environment. 

Given the massive expense of the Bikeability program you may be horrified by what you hear.  It’s a system in need of massive shake up, increased accountability and a fundamental need to address the issue of ‘nurturing confident capable cyclists’. 

Enforcement of Harassment Laws

Intimidation of vulnerable road users is against the law yet try reporting it to your local police officer and watch their expression of bewilderment grow. Good luck if you expect them to do anything about it. This needs to change. Unacceptable driver behavior needs to be reported and acted upon. 

Legislation to Protect the Vulnerable

There is one very simple piece of legislation which would hugely address the red light issue by transforming the culture of all road users, 

Always and everywhere give way to the most vulnerable road user present”

Such legislation creates the protective environment we have outlined in this blog as being  the pursuit of many cyclists. It also and quite interestingly protects pedestrians from cyclists, requires no alterations in infrastructure and could be implemented immediately were politicians to give a damn! 

And So

Am I condoning the jumping of red lights? Absolutely not! 

Am I condemning those who on occasion feel they have no choice but to jump red lights? Absolutely not!

Do I consider such a description contradictory? mmmmm maybe but that's the nature of a complicated world and I don't see that changing any time soon!

Simple caricatures of complex situations are in no way useful; what is useful is the only thing that matters.  

Call To Action

Much of what is outlined above may appear out of our control and thus leave us feeling very helpless; yet as I write I'm very aware of the huge difference a possitive experience of other road users makes to my journey and my own behavior. Next time a driver holds back and gives you plenty of room be sure to mark your appreciation, not because you have to (in that painful 5 year old manner) but because you can participate in building a better road culture for us all. 

What ever you do, take care, be careful and make sure your elected councillors know exactly how you feel. In my Top Tips for Urban Cyclists I have outlined a few suggestion you might find useful enough to mitigate the percieved need to jump red lights. 

Keep riding, keep smiling.