Why Some Cyclists in Toronto Break the Rules

Cyclists Dismount Sign

I’ve stopped reading the comments from readers on almost all news articles on the topic of cycling in Toronto.

The anti-cycling advocates make my blood boil:
“Once, I saw this guy on a bike and he was going the wrong way, he deserves to die!”
That’s not a direct quote, but I’m sure you’ve read the same sort of comment.
And, the pro-cycling team also has been contributing their own leaps in logic:
“Cars are destroying our planet and you are selfish for owning one!”
While, I tend to agree with this to some extent, this argument has nothing to do with the article on cyclists you were just reading. And it has nothing to do with expressing the fact that both vehicles of all manner and size and bicycles are allowed on Toronto’s streets.
As the major media outlets try to find more ways to talk about the Sheppard/Bryant case, we’re starting to see more articles on cycling in general. For the most part, I believe they all read like they were paid for by the manufacturers of automobiles:
“Cyclists deserve to be fined and imprisoned! There’s no room on OUR roads for them! They need to stop behaving like children and follow the rules!”
Why do some cyclists choose to break the rules? Please, note my wording here. Breaking the rules is a choice made by people riding their bicycles. We all know the rules. Two-year olds know what a stop sign means. Anyone who has ever even seen a road knows which side goes in what direction. Anyone claiming ignorance of the rules is lying to you…

A police officer on his bike chased down and fined the first-year U of T student yesterday on St. George St. after he ran a red light on his bicycle. The visibly upset student, who wouldn’t give his name, said he was from China and didn’t know the rules.

The above snippet is from an article in the Toronto Sun. The writer also adds this pull quote:
Cycling organizations should also speak out more against their “radical” members, Burrows added.

“We know that 99.9% of drivers will stop at a red light. We don’t know that with cyclists,” he said.

I ask again, why do some cyclists in Toronto break the rules of the road?

1) Safety

How can running a red light increase safety? How does not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign increase anyone’s safety?

It is unfair and unreasonable to assume that just because I’m on a bicycle, I have some sort of twisted death wish. If I really wanted to die in Toronto, I’d get in a car. When approaching a red light I know there’s going to be a stream of cars piling up behind me. Some of the drivers are going to try and push to get in front of me at the light, the rest are going to push me in the intersection as I’m trying to build speed again. This is why you see so many cyclists in crosswalks, when you’re being tailed by monstrous steel machines, you’re going to move to where you know they aren’t going to go.

Why then, would I run a red light? If the way is clear, running the red gets me through an intersection without impatient drivers riding my ass or trying to squeeze me out of the lane. Once through the intersection, I can now establish my line, so the drivers coming up quickly behind me can react and pass me safely.

Same goes for stop signs. I proceed safely without coming to a full stop and I preserve some momentum and get to continue on in a predictable fashion. And that’s what motorists want, isn’t it? Predictability.

2) Lack of enforcement

Even Toronto Police Services admits to this. They are lack on enforcing the rules of the road when it comes to cyclists. And, we can all see why. Cyclists very, very, very rarely kill people. Cyclists, even with our growing numbers, are still a minority. And what’s more dangerous? The guy in his car eating a breakfast sandwich and speeding along a side street, or a cyclist, going less than 20 km/h, who doesn’t fully stop at a stop sign? It’s not like either of these are rare occurrences on our roads.

3) Laziness

Even though it takes far more physical energy to operate a bicycle vs. a car, cyclists can be and are often lazy. We want to get where we’re going as fast as possible.

Motorists, doesn’t that sound familiar? Isn’t that why we have drive-thru banks and coffee shops? Isn’t that why there are HOV lanes on highways? Isn’t that why your car can go 160 km/h when you legally should never reach speeds greater than 100 km/h, and much lower in our city?

We go the wrong way on streets because it is simply easier than trying to get into a turning lane, then wait for oncoming traffic while watching behind us for anyone who doesn’t see us and then get honked at because we turn too slow. We go the wrong way because our destination is on the side of the street we’re on and we don’t want to deal with street car tracks. The reasons are numerous, even if they aren’t in the name of safety and following the rules.

So, the next time you see a cyclist breaking the rules, ask yourself why they are behaving in this manner. There is always a reason for a cyclists behaviour. Cyclists aren’t always making the right choices, and we do need to address not only the problem action, but also the reason behind why this action was made.

What do you think of the rules of the road and why cyclists break them in Toronto?

Photo by ammiiirrr posted to Flickr


  1. Interesting post Duncan,

    This needed to be said, it’s a tricky topic – while not counciling the breaking of traffic laws, why do so many cyclist do it? Short answer; because the road system was built for these alien monsters that inadvertently step on you every once in a while for no apparent reason. We’re trying to run away. EEEEE!

  2. Just got to ure page and I think its great.

    This article is no exception… I commute through the core 5 days a week, getting me from home (St.LM), to work (Queen and John) and back. If possible I try to burn through red lights at every safe opportunity, in order to ride in that “safe zone” between traffic. One day ill get a ticket…but then again its better than getting love tapped buy the latest and great Suburban.

  3. I don’t think this is a tricky situation at all. I am a pedestrian, a motorist, and a cyclist. I drive my car roughly 10-15km/ day and I cycle about 25km/ day in the summer months. When I drive, I expect pedestrians and cyclists to follow the rules. When I cycle, I follow all the rules I would in my car. It’s only fair, right? I also believe that as cyclists, it is important to be the positive example that drivers want to see on the roads. Believe me, motorists appreciate when bikes follow the rules.
    As far as the safety element of breaking the rules goes, this is baloney. I have accumulated hundred (possibly thousands) of cycled kilometers on Toronto roads, and have very rarely found that breaking a safety rule makes you more safe. In fact, I have found that if you assert your position on the road in a safe and respectful way, cycling in Toronto can be a positive and pleasurable experience.

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