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

Vélib hire bikes in Paris. Photo by Francesc Pozp Flckr Creative Commons

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

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!

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It's a good idea but we need to careful about the impact on pedestrians. Here in the U.S. where I am at the moment, right on red is allowed for motorists as ŵell as cyclists, and as a ped I'm finding it a wee bit intimidating. Also if you choose not to go on red when you're driving people behind toot at you although it should be your choice whether to go or not. As ever, public education will be the key to success.

Left on Red definitely not, once we go down this road motorist will simply claim they didn't see the light as they were watching the 'large' numbers of cyclists filtering up the inside. It may just undo the large amount of work done by the road justice campaign - we must not give any reason for poor driving. Red is Red for all.

This is really not a good idea. However sensible this may sound in a conversation between cyclists, the headline about 'jumping the lights' reflects how the vast majority of the population would view this idea. During occasional visits to London, in recent years I have been dismayed by the number of cyclists who already treat red lights as a 'give way' to all directions of travel or just jump onto the pavement to circumvent a red light. Whilst still only a minority, these individuals help to convince the public we are not responsible road users. We must strive to promote the image of being responsible road users if we are ever to be treated with respect by the motoring public. The potential issues of cyclist Vs pedestrians is also a very real one. At busy junctions with marked ASLs, there can be large numbers of cyclists waiting at a red light. If all of these were progressing through the 'left turn on red', a collision with a pedestrian is almost inevitable. Our road traffic laws are complex enough and many road users don't really understand them well enough. A change such as cyclists being allowed to turn to left on red will not reach the consciousness of many motorists and as such will only provide another source of friction and frustration for motorists to vent at cyclists.

Whilst I am sympathetic to the views expressed above regarding care for pedestrians and very sympathetic about the running of red lights by my fellow cyclists this is an area that needs to be improved in the UK . My belief is that this can be done through enhancements to existing traffic signals. Lets add a 'cyclists turning left green light' onto the traffic lights. This would make the whole thing legal. I hate seeing cyclists crossing red lights - they should be spot fined. But equally I get frustrated when I can perfectly safely turn left at a red light but don't do so because the law treats me in the same way as a motorist and makes me wait.

As a pedestrian I don't enjoy having to negotiate with the traffic when I wish to cross the road. Are the junctions in Paris signed for the pedestrians as well as the cyclists even if the former do have right of way?

Cyclists might be more inclined to filter up the inside of the traffic already queueing at junctions if they don't have to give way in the same manner. This might increase the chance of a 'left hook' if you get caught in the act when the lights change.

There was, once upon a time an article headlined 'We Are The Traffic' in the CTC mag. Given the lack of physical infrastructure separating cyclists from the other traffic I'd rather cyclists remained on the same footing as other road users.

Under the Road Traffic Act and within the Highway Code, cyclists are not the same as motorists and they're not the same as pedestrians, so all pleas for them to be seen as the same as other road users is already unrealistic. For example, the law says that they shouldn't ride on the pavement and yet guidance is provided to allow them to do so if they are young or if the road is too dangerous; not a defence but a plea to enforcers for understanding.
Nobody is suggesting that pedestrians crossing against a red man should be criminalised and nor should they. It could be argued that it is inevitable that they will come into contact with motorised traffic, and yet I am not so sure that the statistics demonstrate this to be a more dangerous activity than other behaviour that pedestrians conduct on the road. This is because people are pretty good at using their judgment.
Cyclists should be allowed to filter left at red lights as it is often much safer for them to do so. I would certainly advise my kids to do so in preference to setting off at the same time as a truck that pulled up alongside them. Now this is where accident statistics provide overwhelming correlation between observance of red signals alongside left-turning lorries and death/serious injury.
The proviso is that crossing pedestrians take priority. It's as simple as that. We do this already at zebra crossings and do there is no real behavioural adjustment needed. Unfortunately we have to accept that some cyclists are our worst ambassadors and I regularly challenge their aggressive attitude to pedestrians in London.

It is best if road traffic rules are as simple as possible and the same for all road users, then they are more likely to be understood and less likely to lead to conflicts. If there is a need for cyclists to proceed through junctions before other types of road user, cyclist only green lights should be introduced which allow cyclists through before other traffic, while the pedestrian lights are still on red, in the same way we already have left turn only or right turn only green lights for motorists. This is less confusing than having different interpretations of the red light for different types of user. It is also important for pedestrians that when the light is green for them to cross the road, the lights are red for all road users. If there is any optionality or judgement concerned with stopping at red, pedestrians are likely to be bullied into staying on the pavement. This already happens at zebra crossings where motorists are supposed to give way to pedestrians, but in my experience generally don't, whereas they usually stop at a pedestrian crossing when the light is red.

At last a CTC debate I can add too!

As per Wildnorthlands, I now live in the USA, where right turn on red has been permitted for everyone since, I believe, the 70's.
As always, the details here are slightly different to the UK.
Firstly, outside the major metropolitan areas, there are no pedestrians compared to the UK.
Secondly, it is quite normal for vehicles to have green signals at the same time as pedestrians get the "walk" or "green man" signals at traffic lights, typically the vehicle flow parallel to the pedestrian flow. This means that pedestrians are used to idea that vehicles may conflict with them as they walk across. It is the vehicle drivers responsibility to "give way" to pedestrians if the vehicle is turning and finds pedestrians in their path. As you might imagine, this makes American pedestrians a nervous breed - and means right turn on red did not introduce a type of conflict they had never previously encountered, since they also encounter left turning vehicles when crossing, even with the "walk" signal.

So under the cyclists turning left on red proposal, the UK pedestrian, used to having no conflicting traffic when the green man is showing, would be getting entirely new types of conflicts, whereas the American pedestrian did not when right turn on red was introduced.

So I think this proposal increases hazards to pedestrians in the UK. Not good. Now, since the new hazard is only bike-ped collision, and therefore much less severe than vehicle-ped collisions, whether that increase in risk is "worth it" for the increased convenience to cyclists, I cannot say! Tricky.

That said, I would enjoy cycling through left turn on red (in the UK) because it would speed up my journey, and enable me to escape from lorries and buses that pull up next to me at lights. It would encourage greater "squeezing up the inside" though, which might increase collisions with wing-mirrors.

There is some increase in danger with left turn on red because the cyclist is joining a road where the traffic flow from the right has a green light and might be moving at full speed - in other words the movement has gone from being as safe as pulling away at a green light to being as dangerous as pulling out at a Give Way junction, except that oncoming vehicles actually had a green light to re-inforce their perception that they can go.

Its a close call.

I'm an occasional commuting and leisure cyclist and a regular pedestrian, mainly in the crowded streets of London. The ability to set out quickly and confidently whenever there is a 'green man' is essential to making safe and rapid progress as a pedestrian. I agree with a number of the commentators above: have clear and simple rules, and maybe a green man for cyclists is appropriate at some junctions but don't degrade the confidence and safety of pedestrians crossing at traffic lights.

I also observe that in my own experience I almost never find myself cursing motor vehicles at light controlled or zebra crossings, but frequently curse cyclists, avoiding them as they completely ignore zebra crossings or jump red lights, or as I watch fellow cyclists acting this way. The risks of damage from being hit by a cyclist (dirty clothes the once it happened to me recently) aren't huge, but the intimidation of pedestrians by cyclists, at least in London's main streets, is high. Pedestrians need confidence of safe crossing, not every few hundred yards having to negotiate further hazards from left turning cyclists.

Should there be a monitored trial of 'go left on red' in London?
Would very much welcome 'give way on red' instead of being obliged to stop even when the road is clear.

In the USA, turn right on red is standard, provided it is safe to do so. Traffic turning gives way to cross-traffic and pedestrians. At certain junctions turn right on red is not allowed and this is clearly indicated. I have found American traffic to have a better attitude to pedestrians and cyclists than over here, and in turn pedestrians have more respect for traffic signals.

It works well there so could it work here? If we were to adopt it in the UK I would wish it to apply to light motor vehicles as well as bikes. We should strive to reduce congestion, which is not helped by forcing traffic to stop unnecessarily. I have reservations about allowing heavy vehicles to turn left on red. Our roads are in general less wide than in the USA and big vehicles would need time to turn left, in which time cross-traffic could arrive with signals in its favour but be obstructed. I would not agree to bicycles being allowed to go in any direction against a red light. "Red-runners" already attract much criticism, and no doubt they already claim that they only run red lights when it is safe to do so. (Taking this argument to extremes, one could claim that it is OK to ride or drive on the right when there is no other traffic around, but I doubt if the police would take this view.)

So generally I feel inclined to support the idea of traffic turning left on red. But we need to consider a point that several have mentioned - the "left hook" by a lorry.

If I on my bike have filtered through traffic waiting at a junction, I stay behind the leading vehicle, unless there is a box marked for cyclists ahead of the stop line and I am sure I can get there before the lights change. There is a risk involved in being alongside a vehicle, even a car, whose driver may not know I am there. This applies whether I am going left, ahead or right. I would not stop alongside the right of the leading car either; its driver would see me but not appreciate my blocking their view to the right. I stay behind the leading vehicle, knowing the driver of the second vehicle in the queue will see me.

So would adopting turn left on red entice cyclists into a dangerous situation, or would it give them means to escape from one? I think it would be advantageous to both cyclists and other traffic. I don't think it would put them in any more danger provided they would still observe the principle of staying behind the leading vehicle. Unfortunately this idea is not expressed strongly enough. Instead we get warnings like "Don't pass on the left," which are of little help, often inappropriate and miss the point.

So by all means let us have a trial of turn left on red and watch its results carefully, but make sure cyclists are aware of the risk of being alongside the leading vehicle, as they should be now of course.