Image by Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center used with permission.

Last week, I was on my bike heading toward a four-way stop intersection on a quiet suburban street. Seeing no cars in any direction, I rolled through without stopping. It was my way of conserving energy for the long trip ahead. A new report presented at this year's Transportation Research Board tried to get at that kind of behavior and why it makes some drivers so angry. 

About 18,000 people responded to a survey about traveler behavior conducted by Daniel Piatkowski of the University of Nebraska and colleagues after then-Wonkblog writer Emily Badger included it in an article called “Let’s Talk Seriously About Why Cyclists Break Traffic Laws." From there, it “went about as viral as a transportation survey could,” says co-author Wesley Marshall of the University of Colorado, Denver.

Some people put cyclists in danger on purpose

In response to a question asking whether they drive too close to bicyclists “frequently” or “always," 68 people answered Yes. Piatkowski termed these respondents “the aggressive sub-sample.”

Who are they? Although the authors received surveys from people in 78 countries, 59 of the sub-sample live in the United States and nine are from Canada. 77% are male, 94% are white, and most had an average annual household income of $90,000 a year or more. Among those drivers who also cycle, they consider themselves “confident” riders.

The sub-sample’s rationale for aggressive behavior had two prevailing notions about cyclists:

  • They "had it coming"
  • They "needed to be taught a lesson"

Some of their sample comments:

  • “They need to obey highway rules EXACTLY the same as anyone driving.”
  • “Unsafe bicycle riding is the greatest single hazard in my community.”
  • “I don’t trust bicyclists in any way.”
  • “It’s like they dare you to hit them.”

In describing his soon-to-be-published research, Piatkowski observed that, among those exhibiting what he termed “corrective behavior,” they did not specify what lesson they were attempting to teach cyclists. He posits their motivation might be “crime as social control,” or using a crime as a means to enforce social norms. A similar example is placing a chair in a public parking space and calling it your own, then vandalizing any other cars that park there.

Now that this report is written, the researchers hope to better define “appropriate cycling behavior” in the US. For instance, Piatkowski told me in an email, “where legally what a rider should do is unclear (to them or to the driver) and/or requires them to put themselves in really uncomfortable (and dangerous) situations, like 'taking the lane' on a busy, high-speed street." In that case, he says, “no matter what a rider does, they may be seen by a driver as rude/reckless and can lead to conflict with drivers.”

They also want to explore the disconnect between existing laws, infrastructure, and rider behavior, adding that it doesn’t help that “bicycling lacks institutional support.”

New tools make roads safer for everyone

Thankfully, some powerful new tools meant to strengthen bicycling’s (and walking’s) institutional support were announced at TRB. The Federal Highway Administration’s new Guidebook for Developing Pedestrian and Bike Performance Measures allows transportation planning agencies to “take a look at their overarching community goals and how they can find measures that align with those goals to help evaluate, track, and implement pedestrian and bicycle systems,” explains Karla Kingsley, a co-author of the Guidebook.

States and metropolitan areas can also directly incorporate health measures and goals into planning with the US Department of Transportation’s aptly-named Transportation and Health Tool

To learn more about new tools for multimodal planning, check out this post.

Jenifer Joy Madden is a multi-media journalist and founder of DurableHuman.com. Vice chair of the Fairfax Co. Transportation Advisory Commission, she was instrumental in the Tysons Metrorail Station Access Management Project and planned a multi-purpose trail system that connects to Tysons.