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Are Bicyclists Jerks, Or Are They Just Being Safe?

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Do you disobey traffic laws when you're on your bike? I do, from time to time. So do a lot of other people. And we do it more, it seems, than we would in a car. Why is that? Are bicyclists contemptible jerks, or is there a method to our lawbreaking ways?

Photo Credit: George Phillips via Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

Over at Wonkblog, Emily Badger contends that a lot of people – herself included – moonlight as scofflaw bicyclists for safety's sake (for instance, if you've ever preempted a green light to avoid pedaling out into an intersection amidst a mob of cars). The behavioral psychology of bicyclists hasn't really been studied in any systematic way, but University of Colorado Denver Researcher Wes Marshall, who co-directs the Active Communities Transportation Research Group with Kevin Krizek, wants to change that. The two of them are researching scofflaw behavior by surveying bicyclists and motorists about when and why they break traffic laws. You can take their 15-minute survey for yourself, here.


Badger says the question of why bicyclists break the law is relevant because it could have implications for future city planning. For instance: Would you be less inclined to break the law on a bicycle, if your city had more bike-specific infrastructure?

There is, in fact, a lot we don't know about why cyclists behave the way they do, or even what happens when people on bikes — in numbers many cities have never seen — take to infrastructure that was not designed for them. If you've ever biked in Portland, or biked through Washington with someone from Portland, it certainly seems as if social norms about traffic laws vary from city to city. Marshall, for example, has observed cyclists in Portland police each other in ways I don't often see in D.C.

But why the differences? As cycling grows more common in a city, does peer pressure to obey the law follow? As cities build more bike infrastructure, does that make cyclists less likely to run red lights?

If some of us violate traffic rules to stay safe, would we be more law-abiding if cities created safer spaces for us? (By this, I do not mean a separate network of biking roads in the woods, but more protected bike lanes and dedicated signals that would allow cars and cyclists to share the road on their way to the same places.)

These questions about sociology and infrastructure point to a more nuanced picture of what's happening on city streets than most heated rhetoric — darn law-breaking bikers! — allows. [University of Colorado Denver Researcher Wes Marshall], who co-directs the Active Communities Transportation Research Group with Kevin Krizek, wants to research this scofflaw behavior, why people say they do it (drivers and cyclists alike), and when they don't.


Are bicyclists dicks? Are they being safe? Is it both? Is there a third (or fourth, or fifth) option that incorporates several explanations for this behavior? Probably. Help Marshall and Krizek take steps toward finding out, by taking their survey.

More at Wonkblog.