I began commuting by bike in Richmond five years ago, and learned very quickly about the sometimes strong tension between drivers and cyclists on the road. It’s not super fun.
I get honked at or yelled at once in a while. Cars have gone out of their way to get really close to me. Recently a huge truck came up behind me when I was waiting for a stoplight to turn and the driver revved their engine with their bumper about a foot behind me until the light turned. All of this happened while I was following the rules of the road.
I get it. I completely accept this tension, because this is me:
So in circumstances where we are all following the rules, why does this tension exist?
A survey done in 2016 by Portland State University researchers asked 2,300 people from five major metropolitan areas if they agreed that cars or bikes “follow the rules” or are “predictable” on the road. Drivers, in this case, were those who said they take most of their trips by car, and non-drivers were those that never drive or drive only occasionally.
Most people, drivers and non-drivers alike, said that bicyclists follow the rules of the road less often, and are less predictable on the road than drivers in motor vehicles.
This survey can tell us a few things. First, maybe cyclists are a bit more flippant when it comes to following the rules of the road. But think about this—how often do we see a motor vehicle change lanes without using a signal? How often do we see drivers speed up at yellow traffic lights just barely clearing the intersection as it turns red? I’d be willing to bet you see this type of “unpredictable” rule breaking on almost every trip you take. The Portland study only gathers data on the perceptions of individuals, not on actual cyclist and driver behavior.
Here are a few things we should also consider:
- Drivers seem more predictable because traffic engineering created a system with motor vehicles in mind. Most users understand the expected behaviors for drivers, and (mostly) abide by them.
- This ties in closely familiarity—drivers understand what other drivers are doing on the roadway. As a driver, you may see other drivers do things that are technically illegal, but you have more understanding when the rules are skirted because you probably do it too when you perceive that it’s safe to do so. Similarly, when you see bicyclists behave in a way you don’t understand, it may seem reckless—even if it’s technically legal.
- Then there’s confirmation bias, which is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Because we are using a traffic system designed for cars and we are very familiar with what ourselves and other drivers are supposed to be doing on the roadway, we don’t necessarily get alarmed when we see drivers breaking the rules every day. Any deviation from that norm though, like a bicycle taking the lane, yielding instead of stopping at a stop sign, or moving between a sidewalk and the road, cements the idea that cyclists are unpredictable even if we only see this behavior once in a while.
We can see the effect of familiarity when the survey divides the drivers from the same data set into drivers who never bike at all and drivers who sometimes bike.
Drivers who sometimes bike are much more generous when evaluating whether cyclists follow the rules of the road. This is likely because this group is more familiar with how cyclists should behave and understand why they make certain decisions on the road.
We can argue all day about whether or not cyclists really are more reckless than drivers, but the goal for most of us is the same. We all want to feel safe on the road. We want others to act predictably so we can avoid injury to ourselves and others. When this goal is accomplished, the tension will dissipate.
Here is how we do it:
- Education for both cyclists and drivers on cycling laws in Richmond. If we all know how to behave as cyclists and what to expect of cyclists on the road, it will improve familiarity and understanding. This will reduce tension between drivers and cyclists when the rules are being followed and improve drivers’ perceptions of cyclists.
- Get on a bike and get others on bikes. If you bike already, get involved with community organizations that support biking in Richmond. If you’re new to biking, attend group rides or other events to help you get started. There’s no way to increase familiarity like immersion. If you don’t own a bike, there are really cool people in Richmond that can help you get one regardless of your budget. The more people we get on bikes, the more positively our community as a whole will view cyclists, and willingness to support road bicycling infrastructure in our community will also increase.
- Advocate for inclusive traffic engineering. The third solution is to physically separate bikes and cars with infrastructure. Protected bike lanes, greenways, and bike/walk boulevards eliminate most confusion and give cyclists paths that are engineered for how they travel. Goodbye, honking and yelling!
The first two solutions feed into the third because those same people we looked at earlier—the drivers who never bike—are not only more likely to think cyclists don’t obey traffic laws, they are also the least likely to support bike-inclusive infrastructure. With more understanding and familiarity however, they may be open to the idea.
Now get out there, Richmonders—drive your cars, ride your bikes, and be nice!