A few months ago, I was riding my bike downtown to see a band. They were going on late, I was set to arrive even later. So this put me on the streets well after many areas of Manhattan had emptied of almost all automobile traffic and much foot-traffic as well.
I like riding late at night. Feels like you own the city.
But heading down Broadway, I reached a congested area. Some roadwork was creating a pretty severe bottleneck. A cop car was in the bottleneck as I squeezed up in between the ten or so non-moving vehicles. I emerged from the clot and continued down Broadway until I came to a stop light at one of the few busy cross streets, busy enough that I actually had to stop instead of blowing straight through the red, which I definitely would've done otherwise.
Eventually, the cop made it out of the clot too, and pulled up to the stoplight near me. Then he rolled his window down and called out to me. We had the following exchange...
COP: Excuse me...
COP: Did you know that you came very close to hitting one of those cars back there?
ME: Um... okay... ?
COP: Are you careful when riding that thing?
ME: Of course. That's why I didn't hit anything when squeezing up through those tightly packed cars back there. I'm always very careful, I assure you.
COP: Well... you should be more careful.
[At this point, I notice the cop is maybe 22 years old. Possibly less? When are new cops turned loose? What's the youngest a NYC cop can possibly be? This guy was that at most.]
ME: Is almost hitting something a crime now?
COP: No, but you have to obey the rules of the road just like everybody else.
ME: (considering my response extremely carefully.) Um... okay...
[The light is still red, but there are no more cars crossing our path as far as the eye can see, so, anticipating being able to get moving again, I start re-arranging the pedals to make it easy to start forward in a moment. I don't go anywhere yet, but it probably looks as if I'm about to take off.]
COP: You're about to run this red-light! You're really gonna do that right in front of me?! Right after I just told you you gotta obey the rules of the road!?
ME: I'm just getting my foot set on the pedal. I'll wait till it's green.
COP: Because you have to! You have to obey all rules of the road!
ME: (biting my tongue, biting my tongue... ... deep breath, then very calmly) Fair enough.
After what seems like several minutes, just standing there over my bike frame, poised to continue my journey, the light finally turns green. I let the cop leave first. Then I finally get moving again. I immediately go back to running red-lights and disobeying whatever rules of the road I don't happen to need at any given moment.
The other way that exchange could've gone was...
ME: Is almost hitting something a crime now?
COP: No, but--
ME: Okay then. [translation: 'Then shut the fuck up.']
COP: Look--you have to obey the ru--.
ME: Blah blah blah--this is your first day on the job, isn't it.
COP: Now listen here--
ME: No, you listen pal. I know you think you're just doing your job, and maybe on some level you think you're protecting and serving me. But in all the time I've been riding a bike in this town, do you have any idea how many cops I've run red-lights right in front of? You're the very first one who has ever seen the need to remind me, or any of the tens of thousands of other cyclists I imagine, about the rules of the road, and I didn't break any of them in front of you. I know it must be boring riding around in your squad car all night, but that's a little gung-ho, don'tcha think? What next? You gonna stop and lecture all the jaywalkers?
COP: Don't make me get out of this car! I'll give you a ticket, no problem!
ME: You'd have to catch me first.
Then I would've immediately turned 180 degrees, and sprinted back up Broadway, going against traffic until turning off a side street, taking a few nonsensical turns, doubling back randomly, and would easily have lost the cop in probably no time. But that would've been a bit more of a commitment than I was willing to make, just to satisfy an ego I try not to have in the first place. There was certainly no need for me to make the logic of un-enforceability clear to this hatchling officer of the law. Even one more day on the force would surely show him the folly of our actual conversation. What's he gonna do when he finds himself working a day shift, faced with bike-messengers swarming all over the place? Stop and ticket every single one of them?
The reason why I don't feel bad running red lights is because on a bike, you have perfect visibility 360 degrees, and you don't have several feet of vehicle sticking out in front of you. You're more like a jaywalker, only faster.
The only rule of the road I DO feel like a total asshole for breaking sometimes, is riding the wrong way on a one-way street. And not for my own safety. I never feel unsafe. It is only for the pedestrians. Since almost all streets in all of NYC are one-way, pedestrians never look both ways when crossing. They shouldn't be expected to. And there have been a few times when a pedestrian has stepped out from between two parked cars unexpectedly, while only looking in the direction of car-traffic, and I've had to slam on my brakes. I've never actually HIT anybody, but I've scared a couple of people shitless. Myself included. And even when I don't even come close to hitting a pedestrian, the fact that you can't hear a bicycle approach above the ambient traffic noise any given moment anywhere in Manhattan, means that to the unwary pedestrian (all of them) it seems as if you come completely out of nowhere. I don't want to give some old lady a heart attack just by, you know, suddenly popping into existence next to her. She could be somebody's granny!