Cyclist Gearóid Keeling says he often sees cyclists whizz through reds.
“It drives me mad,” said Keeling, on O’Connell Street on a recent Tuesday morning. “I see it all the time. Two weeks ago I saw a garda catch someone going through a red light. That made me happy.”
For Keeling, it’s simple – like motorists, cyclists who break red lights are a potential hazard, especially for children. “If we [cyclists] want to be treated as equals on the road, we have to respect the rules,” he says.
The rules are straightforward enough: break a red light as a cyclist, and face a potential penalty of €40. Yet, depending on who you ask, the practice isn’t all that dangerous.
“Cyclists don’t kill anyone, so why is the focus always on cyclists doing stupid things?” asks Dublin Cycling Campaign spokesperson Mike McKillen.
Other cities have decided to focus on other issues. Paris, Brussels and some cities in Germany and The Netherlands allow cyclists to ignore red lights, according to The Guardian.
Breaking the Reds
As of 26 July this year, 480 on-the-spot fines, or “fixed charge notices”, have been issued to cyclists nationwide for breaking red lights, according to the Garda press office. (Dublin-specific data wasn’t available.)
Research from the Road Safety Authority (RSA) in June 2015 found that, nationwide, only one in every eight cyclists broke red lights during the study. Observing 60 sites, this study recorded the movements of 26,126 cyclists.
Dublin specific research, however, found the occurrence far more commonplace.
Shortly before the RSA’s figures were recorded Matthew Richardson and Dr Brian Caulfield of Trinity College Dublin conducted some Dublin-based research in late 2014.
Their study, “Investigating traffic light violations by cyclists in Dublin City Centre“, observed 3,064 cyclists at four sites, and found that an average of 61.9 percent broke the lights.
The research was conducted at the Baggot Street and Charlemont Street bridges over the Grand Canal. It looked at two cycle lanes (where cyclists share the road with motorists) and two cycle tracks (where cyclists have their own segregated lane).
Cyclists on the segregated cycle tracks were far more likely to go through red lights (97.8 percent did) than cyclists using cycle lanes (18.6 percent did).
Since the study used equal numbers of tracks and lanes, but the city has more lanes, the researchers concluded that “It is expected that the actual rate of infringement across the City is slightly less due to the under-represented amount of cycle lane users in the surveys.”
At one particular site on a designated cycle track, 660 cyclists were faced with a red light, and 98.9 percent of them broke it, according to the research.
Cycling over Portobello bridge towards the city centre, Debbie Lambert’s daily commute is 8 kilometres, including two school drop-offs.
Her route is relatively cyclist-friendly, but that shouldn’t prevent cyclists from obeying the rules, she says.
“There are pedestrian lights here, there’s cycle paths, signs and everything else. I think they should stop,” says Lambert. “It’s a little different when it’s 11 o’clock at night and it’s a red light and the light’s never going to go green, but if it’s rush hour, it’s dangerous.”
But, as Richardson and Caulfield’s research shows, many Dublin cyclists often flout the rules.
Of course, so do motorists. Shouldn’t we be tackling them and lay off the cyclists? asks McKillen, the Dublin Cycling Campaign spokesperson.
An Emotive Topic
As McKillen sees it, the point about cyclists breaking red lights is moot.
“We’re just fed up because, you know, it’s not yourselves asking that question,” he says. “Every single newspaper, media outlet in the country is asking those questions, but it’s always picking on cyclists,” he says.
“If you look at the Road Safety Authority’s street speed surveys you will see that the majority of drivers exceed the 50 kilometres per hour speed limit,” he says. “Now why aren’t we focusing on that because it’s drivers who kill people?”
McKillen argues that the issue is not with cyclists, but with road-traffic management. The traffic corps in Ireland is simply understaffed, he says. “It’s at 702 active members and the operational strength is meant to be 1,200,” says McKillen. “We have a high degree of light-touch regulation in this country across all sorts of sectors in our society.”
Indeed, the 480 on-the-spot fines issued to red-breaking cyclists across Ireland pales in comparison to the 2,359 road-transport offences issued for motorists. Or the 2,614 notices issued for dangerous driving between January and July 2016.
Yet, do cyclists breaking red lights not pose a threat to pedestrians? “Absolutely,” says McKillen. “I mean, a cyclist poses a threat to a pedestrian just as a driver poses a threat to a cyclist. There’s a hierarchy of threats.”
The problem is that, unlike motorists and cyclists, pedestrians have little representation. “They’ve no voice,” says McKillen.
Cian Ginty of Irishcycle.com says the issue of cyclists breaking red lights is an emotive subject. He reckons that cyclists breaking reds could be tackled, but that the problem is often exaggerated.
“Just like any other transportation, there are certain people who need to be stopped from running red lights,” he says. “The people who do go through pedestrian lights, they’re the people I would target if I were the guards.”
While Keeling, the cyclist on O’ Connell Street on Tuesday morning, says he is angered by the red-breaking bicycles of the city, he admits it’s not always an easy city to navigate for cyclists.
“The roads aren’t designed for cyclists, and sometimes you almost do have to weigh up the differences between safety versus traffic organisation,” he says. “Sometimes you do have to preempt the danger and get off and walk yourself.”
Like the cyclist-commuter Lambert, Keeling says better infrastructure would help cyclists and prevent red-breaking. And stronger enforcement. “There are measures, they just have to be enforced,” he says.
Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe, who is head of Dublin City Council’s Transportation Strategic Policy Committee, argues that cyclists break red lights for understandable reasons.
“I think they feel they have a clear view of the road and that they have greater awareness of the traffic around them,” he says. But that’s not to say it should be accepted, he says.
There’s two approaches to take to tackling the issue – continue with the fines (the policing approach) or think bigger.
“Look at the reasons why this is happening,” says Cuffe. “Are the cycle times too long? I also think cyclists are frustrated by the significant amount of one-way streets around the city, making them take very long detours.”
“We could change the way our traffic lights are programmed so they will change faster. We could introduce contra-flow cycle lanes on a lot of the one-way streets of the city,” he says. “And also we could create dedicated cycle lanes in the city.”
That would be a start. Cuffe argues for a step-change in improving cycling facilities across the city, from lower speed limits to greater cyclist priority at our traffic lights.
The effectiveness of the policing approach had yet to be proven, Richardson and Caulfield concluded in their study. The fines were only introduced in August 2015.
But, “red light running has clearly become a part of Dublin’s cycling culture”, the study noted. With more cyclists, they argued, the issue becomes more pressing.
“First of all, there needs to be more awareness raised and education for cyclists on the fact that breaking the lights, although may seem safe to do so in certain situations, is against the law.”