Big Debate: Is it time to follow Paris and permit cyclists to run red lights?

Many cyclists argue their lives are at risk from lorries under current traffic rules

Many cyclists argue their lives are at risk from lorries under current traffic rules Photo: Tim Ireland/PA - Credit: PA WIRE

This week’s Big Debate asks if cyclists should be free to run red lights.

Stephen Smith, left, and Ian Taylor

Stephen Smith, left, and Ian Taylor - Credit: Archant

In the summer, Paris made it legal for cyclists to run red lights. Boris Johnson and many of his potential successors have mulled the possibility of such a move in London, where the Metropolitan Police issue around 3,000 fixed penalty notices a year to cyclists riding through reds. Many cyclists argue that replicating Paris’s arrangement will save lives and make traffic move more smoothly. Many motorists, meanwhile, warn of chaos. So we asked: Should London allow cyclists to run red lights?

Ian Taylor, Alliance of British Drivers

When I first saw this proposal I remembered that in some states of the USA, right (our left) turning traffic has always been able to pass on red if the way was clear, and it seems to work. It applies to all traffic, not just cyclists.

If things could be done that way, it begs the question: Are all the traffic lights necessary? What we have here is different, dangerous and favours one road user over others.


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Cyclists are rightly scared of some junctions because they might get wedged the wrong side of traffic. The answer: don’t put themselves in that situation. They even have the option of dismounting and walking across the road.

Remember: Many motorists also cycle and take public transport – and every one of us is a pedestrian at some point. As a practical transport mode, cycling has limitations of distance and weather. As a healthy leisure activity it’s fine. Accidents involving them could be slashed if they were banned from roads unsuited to them. I’ll not call for that – my libertarian instincts are against banning anything you needn’t, but consider this: you don’t allow bikes on motorways – with good reason.

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What we have here is cyclists demanding preferential treatment over the rest – sorry, no. Cyclists choose an activity that might render them vulnerable. Even with their increased numbers they remain a tiny minority of road users. Cycling does nothing to keep life and the economy going, whereas cars, vans, trucks and public transport are essential to it. They also contribute least to maintenance.

Your red light is someone else’s green, which makes this a potentially dangerous idea. Would pedestrians crossing be confident of being given way to by a left-turning bike? I’m afraid their track record does not inspire confidence. A more practical and useful improvement at light controlled junctions would be to extend the practice of countdown displays for both traffic and pedestrians, for both red and green.

Stephen Smith, Newham Cyclists

Should cyclists be able to run red lights in Newham?

Twenty-four cyclists have been killed and many more injured on the streets of London so far this year.

Many of the fatal accidents are caused by large vehicles turning left at junctions.

Although forward stop lines for cyclists and different phasing of lights can help they do not really address the problem.

Mayor Johnson and Transport for London requested permission for a trial to allow cyclists to cross some red lights in 2009. It never took place.

TfL has concentrated instead on remodelling junctions to allow “early release” (where cyclists get a green light before cars) and “hold the left-turning traffic” (keeping cyclists and cars apart on left turns).

These schemes have not been successful as there have been fatalities since they were introduced at the Bow roundabout and Warton Road.

Donnachadh McCarthy from the campaign group “stop killing cyclists“ wants, as part of its strategy, the introduction of the Idaho law, allowing cyclists to turn left when traffic is free at junctions, with full legal priority for pedestrians”.

Whereas, currently the Metropolitan Police hand out 3,000 fixed penalty notices to cyclists running red lights.

In Paris and San Francisco, as well as many smaller towns in the USA, cyclists are able to go through red lights.

As a cyclist who has ridden in London since the late ’70s I have seen the changes in cycling and the growth in the sheer number of cyclists on the road.

Many improvements to cycle safety have been made, but some of the common sense solutions, such as this, have been ignored.

Is it because motorist and other road users will see it as unfair, as they wait for the green light?

If so, this is hardly a reason for not allowing such a scheme if it can save lives.

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