Traffic study finds ‘Wild West’ atmosphere on roadways for bicyclists

LINCOLN, Nebraska — There is no consensus regarding how bicyclists should behave on the road with other vehicles, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Colorado’s Boulder and Denver campuses found that people make judgments about proper bicycling on the road based on their individual experience, not common etiquette or laws governing appropriate bicycling.

Woman on bicycle
A new study finds that the roads can often be a “Wild West” environment for bicyclists, with the occasional traffic violation considered the norm. (Photo by Jack Alexander on Unsplash)

Daniel P. Piatkowski, assistant professor in the Regional Planning Department of the College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska, likens bicycling in urban areas to traveling in a “Wild West” environment.

“There are all these conflicting ideas of how a bike rider should behave — some legal, some illegal. We found that, regardless of how people are riding, most are doing so to avoid being injured or killed by a driver,” he says in a university media release.

Piatkowski and his co-authors turned to data and responses obtained in their “Scofflaw Bicycling Survey” launched in 2015. The team used 18,000 responses from cyclists all over the world as part of their study, along with results from more than 14,000 Americans surveyed about bicyclists’ behavior on roadways.

The surveys posited several common activities bicyclists engage in on city streets, including running stop signs, riding in the middle of a lane, and biking the wrong way down a one-way street.

Respondents were surveyed also for their own biking habits.

Most responses seemed to be based on the respondent’s own biking habits and whether motorists felt they followed the rules of the road. Cyclists who doubted others’ cycling ability or who admitted to using a cell phone while they ride were less aggressive when responding to cyclists riding the wrong way, for example. On the other hand, bicyclists who tend to follow the rules of the road and wear helmets when they ride tended to harbor more anger towards those who were less respectful.

While most respondents (65 percent) were accepting of cyclists running stop signs, about the same amount were also angered by cyclists going the wrong way down a one-way street. Eight in 10 respondents were fine with bicyclists “taking the lane” on narrower streets without shoulders, despite such situations making it harder to pass the cyclist.

“The more one rides a bike, the less likely they are to respond aggressively to another rider,” says Piatkowski. “Aggressive responses are significantly correlated with how one might behave in a similar situation, suggesting the behavior is guided by an informal norm based on personal experience, rather than the law.”

He adds: “These results suggest that people are making judgments about appropriate bicycling based on their own experience, and that’s a problem. It means traffic laws or street design are not working.”

The first of three articles published based on this research was published in the journal Transportation Research.

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