Using a flexible mode of transport to break rules designed for an inflexible mode of transport

The other week I spotted a driver attempting to drive the wrong way down a one-way street in Horsham.

It’s tempting to do this, because it represents a big shortcut.


The one-way section marked in red.

Starting from point A, driving illegally (south) down the road marked in red means that getting to point B is only a distance of 0.3 miles. Driving the legal route is over twice as long, and also involves waiting at several sets of traffic lights, which don’t exist on the ‘illegal’ route.

Here he is, setting off the wrong way down this one-way street…

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.08.30… only to meet a bus coming the other way.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.09.18With – literally – nowhere to go, the presumably chastened driver had to reverse back, all the way he had come.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.12.43This incident got me thinking about why ‘cyclists’ have a bad reputation for going the wrong way up one-way streets, and drivers don’t.

Often this is explained in terms of ‘cyclists’ being able to ‘get away with it’, because they’re apparently not identifiable, with number plates, or fluorescent jackets with their names printed on, or some other nonsense.

Of course, this ‘explanation’ fails to account for how drivers consistently break laws in vast numbers, despite having number plates.

But there is actually something to this explanation. It is hard to get away with driving a car up a one-way street – much harder than riding a bicycle up a one-way street. However, this isn’t because you’ve got a number plate on your car. It’s because it’s physically hard to drive a car up a one-way street. There’s a strong chance you’re going to meet a vehicle coming the other way, and if that happens, you’re pretty much screwed, as in the case of the driver in the example described above. It’s a big risk.

By contrast, when you cycle the wrong way up a one-way street, it’s relatively easy to negotiate your way out of difficulty. For a start, you’re only the width of a human being, so you can simply stop against the kerb. Or you can become a pedestrian.

I’d estimate that, every day, around 50-100 people cycle the wrong way down the street this driver got caught out on. However, none of them will have encountered the kind of problem he did. There are some examples (and more background explanation) at the start of this post here.

And here’s a chap on a Dutch bike, cycling the wrong way, at precisely the position the driver met the bus.

Yes, I am also cycling 'the wrong way' here.

Yes, I am also cycling ‘the wrong way’ here.

Here’s another.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 13.14.00And here’s someone cycling the wrong way, and actually meeting a bus, at this same location. No problem; he just waits out of the way, for the bus to go past.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.47.45

We’re all cycling the wrong way precisely because we can get away with it. We can stop, walk on the pavement, get out of the way, and so on. Drivers can’t do this, because they’re cocooned in a much bulkier vehicle that is much, much harder to manoeuvre out of the way.

So the apparent ‘lawlessness’ of cyclists isn’t related to a lack of a number plate, or identification, but instead to the fact they’re much more like pedestrians, than drivers are. On a bike, we’re nimble and flexible; in a car, we aren’t.

I will often take short cuts in Tube stations, down passages that are ‘one way’ for pedestrians. I would think twice about this, however, if I was carrying a very large six-foot-cubed cardboard box. Because there’s a strong chance I’m going to get into difficulty if people come the other way.

This basic human psychology also explains why ‘red light jumping’ is associated with cycling (even if drivers actually jump red lights in roughly similar proportions). Drivers tend to jump lights by ‘gambling’ – nipping through the junction after the signals have turned red, on the (often mistaken) assumption that they’ve got just enough time to do so before traffic emerges from other arms of the junction. Here’s a gamble from a lorry driver.

People cycling, however, engage in a form of jumping that you rarely see drivers engaging in; creeping into the junction, looking around, seeing if it is clear, and progressing carefully across in stages.

It’s quite obvious why drivers don’t engage in this kind of behaviour, and again, it’s not because of number plates (because, again, that fails to explain why they’re jumping lights in vast numbers already). It’s because it’s risky to get yourself into the middle of a junction in a big bulky object, leaving yourself nowhere to retreat to, if things go wrong. You’re going to end up causing an obstruction.

On a bike, however, you can move onto the pavement, or you can position yourself against an island, or simply dismount, if things start going wrong. You’re small, nimble, and flexible.

One-way streets and traffic lights only exist in our towns and cities to accommodate the flow of big, bulky objects that can’t easily negotiate past each other. By contrast, present-day streets that carry tens of thousands of people a day on bikes (with very few, or even none, in motor vehicles) do not require traffic signals, or one-way systems, to accommodate flow. They are far, far more efficient.

So should we really be surprised that people using a flexible and nimble mode of transport will often ignore rules put into place to ease the passage of bulky and inflexible modes of transport? It’s their very flexibility that allows them to bypass those rules, without getting into difficulty – rules that came about because the drivers of motor vehicles were getting into difficulty.


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47 Responses to Using a flexible mode of transport to break rules designed for an inflexible mode of transport

  1. A says:

    Well said. I am not a law breaker but on my bike I break the law everyday :-/
    I cycle to work in Durham on a daily basis btw.

    • Mark Hewitt says:

      Come along to Cestria Cycling club then 😉

    • Haha! not just me on both counts then. I also work in Durham and also break the law daily.
      The “shortcut” I use which is about 7 metres max cuts out several hundred metres of busy roads and a 180′ at a busy roundabout. It is legal one way, but not the other.
      I have heard on the grapevine that it should be coming legal to do that although not sure when.

      I also use a ped crossing an about 20m of pavement to save a right turn across a very busy A road onto an NCN route. The path also saves a very tight double hairpin maneuver around a barrier.

      I think everyone will have examples, and it easy to see where this kind of “filtered permeability” can make cycling easier and more convenient if made obvious and legal

  2. Terry says:

    Aren’t pedestrians advised to walk on the right if there is no pavement, because it’s safer to go against the flow of motor traffic?

    • congokid says:

      The Highway Code does advise this (Rules for pedestrians, No 2), but as far as I am aware, it isn’t a legal requirement.

      • fjfish says:

        They also cross to the other side when faced with blind hairpin if they’ve got any sense. But I have seen people without …

  3. It’s also easy to accidentally do this on a bike. I used to cycle through a park on my way to work and then go the wrong way down a one way street. It was weeks before I realised I was doing this as there was no one way sign on the road by the exit to the park, which could only be used by pedestrians and cyclists. It was only when I spotted people giving me funny looks that I found out I was going the wrong way.

  4. Har Davids says:

    You can only ‘break’ a law if not breaking it makes sense in some way. If a street is wide enough for one motor-vehicle and one bike to pass each other, there’s no reason at all to declare that street one-way for both means of conveyance. I live in The Netherlands and most streets are two-way for cyclists. In the few streets I know of where you can’t ride both ways, the rule makes sense: the streets are too narrow and busy, making them dangerous enough as it is. When on my bike, I don’t mind cutting a few corners, but not at the risk of life and limb, especially if there’s an alternative route just around the corner.

  5. Darrell Russell says:

    I think it’s also a case of seeing the world through the eyes of bike user vs the eyes of a car user. An image would really explain this a lot better than words but here goes. Basically a cyclist looking at a typical narrow-ish one way street sees a possible path that’s approx 5 or 6 cyclists wide. If a car driver saw a one way street that was wide enough for 5 or 6 cars .. what do you think they would do?

  6. Blaise says:

    Jumping red lights when cycling is indeed really different from jumping lights while in a car. Most of the cyclists who jump red lights stop, look and pass carefully. To me it’s closer to pedestrians jaywalking.

    There are number of illegal things that motorists do and that are harder to catch: breaking the speed limit, driving intoxicated or driving and using a phone. This is very dangerous but don’t get so much attention. I would argue that driving and using a phone is probably more dangerous, especially for others, than jumping a red light for a cyclist.

    On a side note, drop handle bars are really a bad idea in a urban environment. In the video the lorry is obviously 100% at fault, but it takes half of second to the cyclist to reach his brake lever because of the position of his hands. With a flat handle bar, he would probably have stopped at time.

    • paulc says:

      you can get dual action brake levers for use with drops where you can use them either on the drops or else on the flat part. I used to have them on my bike way, way back in the 70’s…

      you can now fit your bike with much safer “interrupter” levers than the old dual action levers I had… do a google image search for “interrupter levers brake” for an idea as to what they look like and how they work

    • Dan B says:

      It depends massively on the braking system. I have a couple of bikes with drop bars and calliper brakes, one of which is also a fixed-wheel. I have another bike with flat bars and rod brakes. I can absolutely guarantee you the flat-bar bike would take longer and further to stop than either of the others, and if it was raining it might take minutes, not seconds!.

      However, like you say – this is very much a side note though.

    • Ian says:

      I seriously doubt you’d be any slower breaking with your hands sitting on the hoods of drop bars than on flat bars

    • matthewp says:

      The lorry driver is certainly not 100% at fault. The cyclist who hits the side of the lorry has crossed the stop line well before the light went green, and thus has reached the point of conflict far sooner than the traffic light designer would have designed for. Doing that you’re far more likely to meet vehicles that have not yet cleared the junction. The green aspect of a traffic light does not mean “it’s safe to proceed” it means you’re permitted to proceed providing it is safe to do so. That includes paying attention to whether there is other traffic flouting the law.
      Sure, the lorry driver shouldn’t have gambled on getting through the junction. But the cyclist shouldn’t have proceeded across the stop line prematurely or failed to look properly to check that it was safe.

      • Tim says:

        That lorry driver flew through a red – not amber* – light at high speed, driving a heavy goods vehicle in a busy urban environment. If not 100% to blame than 99.9%. Certainly it’s wise to double check (because of reckless drivers like this), but given that we’re off topic already I fail to understand why you’re making excuses for the lorry driver.

        *We know it was red because the cyclist’s light went green as he started into the junction. And let’s not forget that the driver was supposed to stop on amber, not red.

        • Andrea says:

          As general practice, I tend to start off when lights turn to amber for the other side. This has several advantages:
          1. It makes you fully attentive to possible RLJ from the other side,
          2. In many circumstances it discourages RLJ,
          3. The early start often allows me to be safely positioned at pinch points further on.

        • Andy R says:

          To be a bit more precise. Based on a minimum intergreen of 5 seconds (3 seconds of amber after losing green, plus 2 seconds of red amber before gaining green) as the HGV driver crossed the stopline his light was going from amber to red (at exactly the same moment the cyclists light goes from red to red amber).

          Plenty of time for him to stop safely.

        • matthewp says:

          OK. Put it another way. Suppose the lorry was a cyclist who was in a hurry and thought “I can just get through the light before it turns red”. We’ve all done that sometime, surely. Then suppose the cyclist is a car driver setting off with his foot hard down, crossing the stop line before the light has gone green. Would you still say the blame should be apportioned the same way? I guess you’d probably point to the fact that the car driver is driving the heavier vehicle, and therefore should exercise a greater degree of care, and I’d agree with you.

          I wasn’t making excuses for the lorry driver, but anyone can see that the lorry is not 100% to blame: that’s all I was quibbling with. I think the video illustrates nicely the interplay of two different sorts of red light infractions. Continuing through on amber is very common among motor vehicles, whereas setting off early is almost always confined to cyclists. Unfortunately, it can be a lethal combination, and only lethal for the cyclist.

          More generally, the attitude of “insisting on your rights” is a source of danger. At the last junction before my workplace, I have to sit waiting in the middle of the road to turn right, facing a relentless stream of oncoming traffic. Cars continuing through on amber and sometimes on red leave me stuck in the middle of the crossroads and the next phase is well under way by the time I can get moving. It is not helpful if cars starting to come from the left decide they now own the road and roar up at me while I am completing the turn. Green does not mean “proceed like an idiot”, but too often that’s what you see.

          I think traffic lights tend to bring out the worst in people.

          • paulc says:

            the problem now is that the ‘penalty’ for not making it through the light is such a long wait until the next green that this actually encourages motor vehicle drivers to go through even as the light has gone red as they know there’s a couple of seconds leeway before the other arm gets a green….

            they will only fully obey the lights and try to stop with amber when there are cameras at that junction to catch those who actually cross the line after the light has gone red…

    • Pete says:

      The time delay to get to the brakes is a problem when you are going for it on the lower part of the bars, but its multiplied by the fact that on a head-down race bike you have your head down so you can’t see as well. I often find it affects my allround awareness and I see things later on my race bike even though I am concious of the problem. This is also coupled with the small tyres which mean I spend a lot of time looking more closely at the road in front of my wheels. Perhaps the chap in the video would have seen the lorry comming if he had been more upright and had a greater peripheral view. Race bikesaren’t ideal for urban work basically, bit (perhaps like this chap) it is all I have.

      • Dan B says:

        However, when you set up an environment where speed and manoeuvrability are vital to feeling safe you encourage the use of particular bikes. On a road bike I can ride in the traffic, take the lane and use speed and acceleration to get me out of trouble. In an environment where that isn’t necessary, a different choice of bike would be made.

  7. Jo says:

    I agree with the central point of the article that “law breaking” is more about opportunity that it is about some different moral code between individuals.

    However, the article doesn’t seem to acknowledge that there is also a cost to more vulnerable street users if people break common convention as defined by the law. So while it may be possible for the person on a bike riding up that one-way stretch to dismount in the face of an oncoming bus, or to nip across a junction on red, both make things more difficult for pedestrians who face a harder job of predicting behaviour of the potential “law breakers”.

    I see too much of this kind of opportunistic behaviour by road users (in cars and on bikes alike) that forces others lower down in the vulnerability hierarchy to accommodate their selfish behaviour. Obeying the law, whether we can get away with it or not, is partly a responsibility we have to protect others when our self-interests are in conflict.

    • Andrea says:

      You don’t seem to consider that one can be a considerate rule-breaker, which is a much more sociable, safe (to others) and friendly way to behave than an inconsiderate rule-follower, who will kill you if you step out of line.

    • pm says:

      I entirely agree with your point on a personal morality level, but at the same time I don’t think it in any way invalidates the points being made in the blog entry. Taking advantage of power differences to benefit oneself at the expense of some more vulnerable party is just human nature. It will always happen as long as the power-differentials exist.

      I’ve yet to meet anyone, other than the most powerless of the powerless, who doesn’t do it in one way or another (the great majority don’t even realise they are doing it – I would like to think I’m at least in that category, but sadly, I’m pretty sure I do do it).

      Its in the nature of power imbalances. Surely the important question is what we do about it and how we try to ameliorate the effects? For cyclists and one-way-streets one obvious way is more counter-flow cycle lanes. If they become normalised (and physically signposted) pedestrians will come to expect them.

      • pm says:

        …as a road-related example of people doing what they can get away with, I could cite the multiple cars currently illegally parked near me on the pavement, entirely blocking it, or the fact that the last time I cycled down a narrow one-way street (the right way) I encountered a van reversing up it the wrong way, whose driver demanded I get out of the road so he could continue on his way.

        Or there’s the way motorists were happy to fill the air we breathe first with lead, and now diesel particulates, if it saved them a few quid on engine maintenance or fuel. Or there’s political pressure for putting parking bays even on very narrow pavements. Its a long list, even just limiting it to road-transport topics.

        Road behaviour to me is a pretty good illustration of how human nature (however many wheels the human is using!) is morally flawed (and why anarchism will never work!). So we somehow need to arrange things to take that into account.

  8. Most streets that are apparently one-way in Cambridge are actually “No Entry” at one end, allowing legal two-way cycling. Sometimes cycle lanes have to be marked to stop motor vehicle drivers trying to drive them off the road. Government has now finally changed the rules (after 40 years of requests) to allow signing with “No Entry except cycles”.

    • Paul M says:

      This is increasingly the case in the City of London. Many City streets would be totally unworkable as full two-way streets, and until a handful of years ago those streets were one-way for bicycles too.

      The City Corporation was persuaded to make a pilot study, for a year I think, on about ten streets: after traffic counts etc to determine suitability, these streets permitted cycle contraflow while data was collected about effect on road incidents. Some of the crustier City councillors huffed and puffed about it, forecasting scenes of carnage and doom.

      They did not come to pass. The temporary contraflows were made permanent, and the City embarked on an expansion to other streets. I think the last year’s round comprised 52 more streets! This was of course much aided by the change in law on signage – beforehand, you either had a “No Entry” sign with a small median and a cycle lane to one side for bicycles not subject to the no-entry – expensive to construct. Or, you used the “Flying Motorcycle” sign signifying an open highway, but not open for motorised vehicles (you can use this in either direction, or both), but apparently some motorists are considered too stupid to understand the sign. I can see it now – “M’Lord, not being Evel Knievel or Eddie Kidd, I didn’t think the sign applied to me”. Now, a simple oblong panel reading “Except Cycles” is all that is required to exempt from a no-entry sign.

      This is not of course to say that the City is paradise for cyclists. All the local streets are fine for local access but few are usable as parts of through routes. The City’s dinosaurs, having admitted defeat over the contraflow proposals, emerged from proto-extinction to lobby against the two new superhighways which converge in the City by Blackfriars Bridge. That scheme, widely supported by commercial concerns in the City, including mine, looks at last like it might happen.

  9. I don’t condone red light jumping and “salmoning” by cyclists but I’m finding it harder and harder to outright condemn it.

    • Since it contains what someone might allege is a ‘nuance’, and might not be conveyed in a five second peice-to-camera, this not condoning or condemning is a tricky and politically exposed position to be left in. I’m reminded apprehensively of John Major’s popular suggestion that we ‘understand a bit less and condemn a bit more’.

      One solution is that if you can’t beat the simplifying slogans, adopt one.
      Thus, for any x:
      Be tough on x, and tough on the causes of x.

      Problem: then you have to explain that the causes of x include, in this case, designing networks for cars. is done very effectively in this above post.

  10. Mark Hewitt says:

    A good example is here near Gateshead a narrow country lane has been made one way for motor vehicles due to an almost complete absense of passing places. However bicycles are allowed to use it in the other direction.

  11. Notak says:

    I find myself becoming increasingly tolerant of red light jumping when done considerately. I read somewhere that some US states have what they call a ‘dead red’ law, allowing cyclists and motorcyclists to treat a red light as a Stop sign, subject to certain conditions (such as, I think, having waited a minimum time).

  12. congokid says:

    What’s frustrating is that the one-way/two-way rule seems to be applied in such an odd and inconsistent manner.

    For example, London’s Chancery Lane is one way northbound for all vehicles, although it’s often used by people on bikes travelling southbound against the flow of other traffic (mostly taxis and delivery vehicles).

    Running parallel to the north end of Chancery Lane is a short street – Southampton Buildings – that is one way for motor vehicles, but which also has a contraflow, marked by painted arrows and bike symbols, for people on bikes. It’s narrower than Chancery Lane, and drivers are allowed to park there (frequently on top of the arrows and symbols, which are in the door zone) but for some reason Camden Council thinks only this street, and not Chancery Lane, or any of the other one-way streets in the area, should have this feature.

    • James Grinter says:

      Actually Chancery Lane south of Southampton Buildings has a cycling contraflow marked with bike symbols too, if you look closely (often hidden underneath more parked cars)

  13. Morgongåva says:

    In Belgium most one way streets are open for cyclists in both directions, except when the width of the street is too narrow to cross a car coming from the other direction.
    It makes sense to give cyclists the shortest routes. They depend on muscular power to move.

    • paulc says:

      it appears to be completely the opposite in the UK where they make cyclists take the longer route and concentrate on getting motors moving around via the shortest/quickest routes… apparently because they see this as saving businesses fuel costs and wage costs of driver time…

  14. fIEtser says:

    This is why the Dutch just stick the “uitgezonderd (brom)fietsers” (except bikes) signs everywhere.

  15. says:

    truck may well have jumped a red (vid doesn’t show that i could see), but so did the cyclist that hit him: lights hadn’t changed when he crossed the line. poor example, fine argument, otherwise.

    in other news: as a driver… i’d bet large sums that motorists are usually guilty of being bastards, against the same being true of cyclists. who in my experience tend to be pretty damned careful & aware on the road.

  16. MysteryMachine says:

    I’d like to see the authorities in the UK prepared to do more to legitimise apparently ‘law-breaking’ behaviours by cyclists by installing the ‘Except Cycles’ sign where it is required, or allowing considerate cycling in vehicle-free ‘pedestrianised’ areas. There seems to be a marked contrast between the occasional blitzes on the ‘scoff-laws’ by the forces of law and order (probably commencing at the behest of Daily Mail reading attendees of local police liasion meetings) and the approach that local authorities take to wide-spread ignoral of measures such as 20mph zones by motorists. The local authorities in my area (Kingston and Richmond in SW London) claim that this behaviour means that such measures are ‘unenforceable’ and hence not worth implementing or expanding, regardless of demand. This defeatism in the case of motorist law-breaking, contrasted with the persecution of cyclists seeking to avoid danger in the midst of cycle-unfriendly road systems, is deeply depressing.

  17. Notak says:

    One thing that occurs to me regarding one-way streets is that many of them could be made two-way — for all traffic — if we did not allow parking in such inappropriate places.

    • pm says:

      Definitely. A bus I take sometimes has to go down a ridiculously narrow road that, absurdly, allows parking both sides with just one car-width of carriageway remaining, _and_ is two-way – with the result that vehicles are constantly coming head-to-head with each other and having to perform complicated backing-up maneuvers so traffic can move at all. Its one reason why that bus service is so bad.

      They could at least make it one-way, but I don’t see why its acceptable to use throughfares as storage spaces for people’s private property. There just isn’t room for on-street parking on many urban roads, yet its allowed anyway.

      • Notak says:

        On some of the streets near me, the marked parking bays take up half the width of the carriageway. In practice, many modern cars are too wide to fit in these bays, so park either projecting out from the bay into the ‘driving’ width or up on the kerb. Either way, cars driving down the street have to use part of the pavement. It’s ridiculous.

  18. Dermot says:

    Red-light discipline, which is often touted as a manifestation of the superior adherence to the law of motorists, is also mostly down to the inflexibility of cars. Once one car stops, the cars behind have no choice but to wait for the light to change. That doesn’t apply to cyclists at all.

  19. Pingback: Traffic lights have to make sense | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  20. Gene says:

    “Be wary then, best safety lies in fear”. ~ Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet

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