Why 'turn left on red' is not 'running red lights'

Vélib hire bikes in Paris. Photo by Francesc Pozp Flckr Creative Commons
Reflections by Duncan Dollimore on headlines about proposals allowing cyclists to jump red lights, and how a similar plans introduced in Paris have met apparent success.

Give way on red is not 'jumping red lights'

Last week the Guardian and other newspapers reported on possible rule changes concerning cyclists at red lights. Predictably the headline begged the question 'should cyclists be allowed to run red lights?'

Reporting on the position in Paris, Channel 4 also claimed this week that cyclists would be allowed to 'run red lights'. Other cycling organisations within the UK have also curiously covered this issue referring to 'red light jumping cyclists' and similar descriptions.

However it is far better to look past the headlines and consider exactly what is being suggested and how it has worked elsewhere.

Duncan Dollimore, CTC  Road Safety and Legal Campaigns Officer


Describing the proposals in this way immediately ignites a fractious argument between cyclists and other road users.

"Why should cyclists be allowed to 'run the lights'?" ask motorists. Pedestrians fear they will be at risk from cyclists paying no regard to the rules others have to comply with. "Why are cyclists a special case?" is the cry. The radio 'phone in' debates commence and most participants are firmly in one camp or the other.

However it is far better to look past the headlines and consider exactly what is being suggested and how it has worked elsewhere.

My Red Light trip to Paris

Last Sunday, whilst in Paris testing out Eurostar's new bike carriage policy, I arranged to meet Alain Boulanger. Alain is in charge of sustainable mobility at the Paris Municipality and lives in the 10th Arrondisement around Canal St-Martin in Paris, the district chosen in 2012 for the first trial of red light rule changes.

Those changes did not allow cyclists to jump red lights. They simply enabled Alain's department to identify the junctions within the district where it was safe and sensible to allow cyclists to treat a red light as a 'give way' sign when turning right (left for UK cyclists on the 'other side' of the road) or go straight on.

Crucially pedestrians still had priority at all of those junctions. After giving way the idea was that cyclists could pass through or turn right if the way was clear.

Alain walked me around the district through numerous junctions to show how this worked. Where the new rules apply the traffic lights are clearly marked at an appropriate height for cyclists. Each junction was assessed first and some junctions were not included within the changes.

The trial in the 10th Arrondisement persuaded the Mayor of Paris to extend the scheme across the entire city. Within France each City Mayor can chose whether to implement these rules (Nantes and Strasbourg are examples of cities which have), and at which junctions. It is not a blanket scheme but more the French equivalent of 'Localism' in the UK, which will presumably continue to be the political flavour of the month here as the Devolution Bill passes through Parliament.

After cycling from Gare de l'Est to the Bastille (and trying out the 'give way' on red at various junctions) I met Kikki Lambert from the campaign group Mieux Se Déplacer à Bicyclette (Better By Bike), and Pierre Toulouse (Deputy to France's Inter Ministerial Cycling Coordinator) at the aptly named La Maison du Velo (House of the Bicycle). Both are Parisians who regularly cycle.

Kikki was quoted in last week's Guardian report saying that 'traffic lights are there to slow cars down and allow pedestrians to cross - when there are no pedestrians and the way is clear, it is stupid that a cyclist should have to stop'. Controversial when considered from a regulation compliance perspective. Less so if your focus is the purpose of the regulation.

One of my concerns was whether it would be confusing to road users if different cities operated different rules, or if the same rules did not apply at every set of traffic lights. None of my hosts for the day believed this had been a problem either when the trial scheme merely operated around St-Martin or after it was implemented across the whole city.

Interestingly in the UK the 'left on red' debate has been presented as a safety initiative, with a significant concentration on the problem of cyclists deaths at traffic lights due to 'left hooks' from lorries turning left. The changes in Paris were introduced more to improve the flow of traffic and as part of the plan to triple the amount of journeys by bike by 2020 than for safety reasons. The evidence from the trial was neutral in safety terms, although my hosts all instinctively suspected there would be a safety benefit with 'lorry hooks', which are seemingly less of a problem in Paris than in London.

Cycling through Paris

Kikki and Pierre kindly escorted me on a guided cycle tour through Paris and back to Gare du Nord to meet French journalist and transport blogger for Le Monde Olivier Razemon.

Cycling in a busy city through many traffic lights permitting 'give way' rather than 'stop' on red, seemed to significantly improve the traffic flow for cyclists, which would presumably encourage the cycling commute. It was also easier than I expected to identify the junctions where this was not permitted.

Over a glass of Chablis, Olivier was scathing about many aspects of the Paris traffic infrastructure, lamenting the absence of a congestion charge or the high parking charges we have in London to discourage private car use in the city centre. He was in agreement with my other hosts that the red light rule changes had been a significant positive both for cyclists and in terms of traffic flow, as was the widespread use of contra-flow cycling in one way streets in Paris (cyclists allowed to cycle both ways against the motorised traffic flow where 30kph speed limits apply), which I will touch on in another article.

Should there be a monitored trial of 'go left on red' in London?

CTC does not yet have a formal policy on what in the UK has been described as 'left on red', though perhaps it would be better described as 'give way on red'. However it is worth stressing this popular Parisian policy is not a mandate for 'cyclists to jump red lights', as often poorly summarised in media reports.

In France as of October, the City Mayors are now actually authorised to designate junctions where cyclists are permitted to turn left on red if the road is clear and it is safe to do so. Imagine how the equivalent 'turn right on red' would be reported here!

As these rule changes were only introduced a few weeks ago they are yet to be implemented. As Alain calmly explained, the plan is to identify junctions where this policy may be beneficial either for safety or traffic flow reasons, and if appropriate monitor how a trial scheme works. A beautifully simple but logical approach absent of any hysteria.

I left Paris clear that we need a more sensible debate in the UK about this idea. With CTC due to formulate its own policy on the issue during next year, we're keen to hear from members and supporters about what stance you think we should adopt. Please share your views in the comments section below.

Au revoir!