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What Do Drivers Really Think About Cyclists?

Not much, according to a new survey.

AP Photo/Molly Riley

Drivers and cyclists don’t always get along, nor do they shy from critiquing one another’s road behavior in words unfit for print. But it’s nice to think that maybe somewhere, deep down, they hold a grudging respect for the fact that the other group is just trying to get around, day to day, on frustrating city streets.

Nice, but evidently wrong. For a new survey, presented this week during a transportation conference, researcher Tara Goddard and colleagues at Portland State University asked drivers and cyclists to rate how well both mode groups are able to “follow the rules of the road” or to be “predictable” on the street. While neither group scored great in the exercise, cyclists scored way worse—especially in the eyes of drivers who never ride a bike.

The survey included nearly 2,300 people in five major U.S. metros: Austin, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The slight majority (52 percent) were classified primarily as “drivers,” meaning they took “some” or “most” of their trips by car. (If this share feels low, it’s probably because the respondents tended to live in or near the downtown cores.) The rest were considered “non-drivers,” even if they did occasionally get behind the wheel.

Initial results show that drivers themselves recognized that a lot of their kind don’t always do right by the road. Only 67 percent of drivers agreed that other drivers follow the rules, and 70 percent agreed they’re predictable; non-drivers were significantly less inclined to agree—59 and 62 percent, respectively—though the majority were still fine with driver behavior.

But when it came to cyclists, neither drivers nor non-drivers thought people on bikes followed the rules or rode predictably, with only about a third agreeing that was the case. So in these five cities—among those generally considered progressive when it comes to street life—bicyclists have a universal perception problem. It’s not just that drivers don’t think much of how people ride bikes; no one really does.

CityLab

In an accompanying paper, Goddard and company try to explain this perceived gap in how well drivers and cyclists behave on the road. The negative attitude toward cyclists could be plain wrong, and indeed some work shows people on bikes to be highly compliant with traffic rules. It might also be true that some cyclists do act unpredictably—often understandably, since they’re operating in a street environment designed for another travel mode—and that drivers latch on to these selective cases as confirmation bias.

Here’s more:

The highly positive evaluations of drivers as predictable likely reflects the success of traffic engineering in creating a system in which most users understand the expected behaviors, and (mostly) abide by them. This attitude may also be explained by familiarity—drivers understand what other drivers are doing on the roadway.

That sense of familiarity does seem to matter. The survey also found that drivers who occasionally get on a bike themselves do show some sympathy for the cyclist.

Once again, about two-thirds of drivers—both those who never bike and those who occasionally do—agreed that people in cars abide the rules. But drivers who never bike think considerably less of cyclist behavior than those who do sometimes ride. About 25 and 28 percent of never-bike drivers agreed that cyclists follow the rules or are predictable, respectively, whereas 45 and 48 percent of sometimes-bike drivers felt the same.

CityLab

The results took a disturbing turn when Goddard and company asked respondents about their support for building more protected bike lanes. The same people who disagreed that cyclists follow the rules of the road or who disagreed that their riding behavior is predictable—in short, drivers—were significantly opposed to the idea of expanding bike infrastructure. So too were respondents who didn’t ride at all.

That’s a striking finding when you consider that protected bike lanes would seem to grant drivers precisely what they desire: some separation from cyclists. In that light, this attitude can be interpreted in a couple ways. Perhaps drivers, who already perceive cyclists to be reckless, doubt that people on bikes will actually stay in their designated lane, making the infrastructure a waste of money. Or perhaps they’re just being spiteful toward a group of people they don’t like.

Whatever the reason, such a stance could have an outsized impact on a city’s ability to rally support for bike lanes, and thus to make its streets safer for all. The good news, write Goddard and company, is that “getting people on bicycles can improve how they view bicyclists.” That small success, in turn, might reduce overall opposition to bike initiatives; the researchers conclude:

Events and programs that result in even moderate increases in people’s bike use may have wide-reaching effects on their attitudes toward bicyclists and their willingness to support bicycle infrastructure in their communities. 


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