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Should cyclists be allowed to run red lights?

Kathleen Schuster
July 14, 2016

Whether on the sidewalk, on the road or in a bike lane, cyclists in Germany must follow the relevant rules. Critics say it's high time that some laws - like waiting at red lights - be adapted to the uniqueness of biking.


Car, bike and even foot traffic come to a screeching halt in Germany once the light turns red.

Of course, cyclists - which the vast majority of Germany's 81.9 million can call themselves - have the advantage of being able to dart onto the sidewalk more covertly than cars. This occurs frequently during peak traffic hours, when cars choke the bike lanes.

In a bid to speed up traffic, the speaker of the Greens parliamentary faction, Dieter Janecek, has now proposed allowing cyclists to turn right on red when traffic allows. In many US states, cars are also allowed to turn right on red if traffic permits.

In an interview with the widely read German newspaper "Bild" this week, Janecek pointed to similar rules in Paris and the US state of Idaho that have proven successful.

"Cycling is the future. It's a way to stay in shape and it's good for the environment. Up until now, we've built our traffic systems in cities around automobiles. In the future, cars, bikes and pedestrians should be treated equally. That's my message," he told the paper.

The current rules

Cyclists in Germany often have the right of way. If a road narrows, or a car has to drive around a parked car or construction, the vehicle must allow a cyclist to pass first.

The country's 1.5 million traffic lights include those specially designed for bicycle lanes (pictured). The signals generally give bike riders an extra few seconds to begin pedaling before drivers get a green signal.

Berlin Radweg in Kreuzberg
Over 75 percent of 18- to 74-year-olds in Germany own bikes. An estimated 15 percent of Germans use their bikes to travel to work and 30 percent for leisure activitiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

The current laws also give cyclists the option of disregarding a red light at T-shaped junctions where there is no traffic coming from the right and if they don't have to cross over pedestrian crosswalks to do so.

But, in all other cases, cyclists must obey red lights or face a fine. Running a red light costs 60 euros ($67) and the fine goes up to 100 euros if the light was red for longer than one second. The price climbs if the move was dangerous (100 euros) or caused an accident (120 euros) and each of those fines increases if the light was red for more than one second.

A 'building block'

The proposal by the Greens met with a lukewarm response in Germany, where the German Cyclist's Association (ADFC) pointed to more effective, "intelligent" solutions already seen in France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Though Janacek's solution to allow cyclists to turn right on red could serve as a "building block" for new traffic laws, his proposal wasn't "top priority," the ADFC said in a statement on Thursday.

The ADFC instead supports testing new systems such as installing traffic signs that indicate right on red at specific junctions.

For the Berlin group Volksentscheid Fahrrad, or Bicycle Referendum, there are more important issues than stoplights, such as creating more space for cyclists in general, given the disproportionate amount of road surface allotted to vehicles.

Bildergalerie Amsterdam Fahrräder
Janecek points out that in Amsterdam (pictured), people use bikes for 30-40 percent of their trips and their transportation politics reflect this reality. With bike reliance on the rise in Germany, Berlin needs to rethink transportation, he told DWImage: DW/C. Nasman

"We can think about this proposal in a few years, when people have calmed down on the road," Heinrich Strössenreuther, a member of the Volksentscheid Fahrrad group, told the German daily "Die Welt."

For now, Strössenreuther told the newspaper, the traffic situation resembles a "rat cage."

'It was important to spark debate'

The emotional response to the proposal proves his point, Janecek told DW.

Germany is catching up to Amsterdam and Copenhagen in terms of the number of daily cyclists.

"Reaching those figures would most certainly be ambitious, but doable. The cycling boom is a certainly a part of the direction our culture is moving toward," he said.

And like the ADFC, he also views his proposal as a building block. More than anything, though, the Greens politician wants to see policies that acknowledge this new reality.

"For me, it was important to spark a debate."

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