Red lights at night, cyclist's delight? Overthinking the ethics of cycling again

June 18, 2017

There’s something lovely about riding a bike at night. The volume of traffic is massively reduced (although London is never as quiet as you might imagine it would be), the air feels less polluted, and you can get from A to B much faster. One of my favourite cycling memories is of following a stream of blinking tail lights through the countryside as part of the Dunwich Dynamo, with no motor traffic to get in the way. Sadly, most of my rides aren’t like that.

Recently I needed to start work at 3.30 AM. I decided against going my usual route along the cycle path up Surrey Canal Walk behind Peckham Library - at that time of night, the main roads seemed more appropriate than an isolated, unlit back lane. Speeding along the bus lane on Camberwell New Road, I came to a red light. Visibility down the side road was clear, and there weren’t any cars coming, so I went through it. As I did so, I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing. I may be overthinking the ethics of cycling again, as I have done before, but it got me thinking about the conflict between deontology and utilitarianism.

Why do we follow the rules of the road? Or rules in general, come to that? Is it because they prescribe how we should behave, based on some deeper truth about what is right or wrong? Or is it because the world is a complex and messy place, and the rules and norms help us to rub along with other people?

In the case of traffic lights, it seems pretty clear that they’re more about pragmatism than dogma. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the lights - they’re just there to put some order into the chaos of the road.

Respecting the rules is the way we manage in a big city. If we didn’t, it would be a mess - down that slippery slope lies anarchy, or perhaps just Mumbai.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, cyclists should avoid annoying other road users. We’re vulnerable, being made of squishy flesh and fragile bone, and there have been too many instances of cyclists being put in danger in road rage incidents - drivers are angry enough about cyclists being more agile through traffic, without adding fuel to the fire by jumping lights.

For this reason, among others, I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about Critical Mass, even more so since cycling in London seemed to reach a genuine critical mass. There’s always seemed to be something unnecessarily confrontational about it, a two-fingered salute to motorists that probably does more harm than good to the perception of cycling in the mind of the average Londoner. There’s already more of a ‘them and us’ mentality between cyclists and drivers than there needs to be - as I’ve mentioned before, we would be better off thinking about people on bikes and people driving cars - there’s more that we have in common than there is dividing us.

So I do think we should stop at red lights, and I get annoyed with cyclists who don’t, especially when they’re slow and I need to overtake them a few pedal strokes later. But when there are no other road users are there to get annoyed about it, does it really hurt anyone? To paraphrase a more familiar question, if a cyclist goes through a red light, and no-one is around to see it, does it cause a problem?

So anyway, did I go through the red light? That’s between me and my conscience.