What to say when people complain about bicycles

Posted on July 21, 2014

by Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Source: Wisconsin Bike Federation

Stop means stop, and traffic studies show that there is really no need for the supplemental signs.

Stop means stop, and traffic studies show that there is really no need for the supplemental signs!

Lately there has been a lot of media chatter suggesting people who ride bikes are notorious scofflaws. Last Friday our fearless leader Dave Cieslewicz jumped into the fray and referenced the broad spectrum of complaints from the anti-bicycle tweets from NPR’s Scott Simon to comments from Rush Limbaugh’s jokes about opening his door in front of people on bikes.

I have to confess that I wrote headline for that postand added the WWII rationing posters that probably gave it a bit more of a controversial tone than he intended. That said, I left the body of his post alone in which Dave clearly made the point that since much of the anti-bike chatter has more to do with politics than facts, perhaps the best thing we can do to change the dialog is be even more law-abiding than we are.

“Maybe the best thing we can do to cool the tension is just to take the thirty seconds and actually come to a complete stop when the rules call for it. – Dave Cieslewicz from Friday’s post Are bicycles the latest weapon of neoconservatives?

Since this anti-bike screed is more about politics than facts, I doubt it would help even if everyone on a bicycle obeyed all the laws all the time. Don’t get me wrong, like Dave, I obey the rules of the road whether I am on a bike or in a car, even though my respect for the speed limit irritates passengers and people in cars behind me when I am driving. I also encourage others to do the same, which also annoys people who ride bikes with me and those who give me a lift and have to listen to me ask them to slow down or stop for pedestrians.

Despite Dave’s personal pledge to obey the law and his suggestion that other should try to become even more law-abiding, one reader commented that bikes just don’t belong on most roads:

“…bicyclists seem to think they have no accountability, all the burden is put on the motorists, when the bicyclist has none what so ever ( sounds like a special privilege to me) they seem to think they can do what they want.

I am not anti-bicycle, I just want them prohibited from highways/rural roads…”-Brian

Another reader suggested what we really need to dialog with people like Brian are better talking points.

“You suggest some ways to improve your own behavior behind the wheel and on the bike, but you offer no solutions for improving broader driver-cyclist relations. Why not give some talking points for conservative and liberal cyclists to share with their non-cycling conservative friends the next time the topic comes up?” – Withheld

I have written a few blog posts in the past in which I cite traffic studies to prove people on bicycles do not violate the laws in any greater numbers than people in cars, and others have written similar articles, but perhaps it can’t hurt to share those facts again. So here you go, some more facts and talking points you can use to respond when someone complains to you about scofflaw urban hipsters on bicycles.

Although so many people share actual facts about cycling with Scott Simon’s that he retracted his anti-bicycle tweets, let’s use his comment as an example to generate appropriate responses.

Scott Simon Tweet

Scott Simon Tweet

Suggested response: Lance Armstrong aside Scott, on your walk through downtown, did you count how many people walked across the street even when the light at the crosswalk said don’t walk? On that same walk, were all the cars that passed you going the speed limit? Really Scott, people are people and some of them are going to break the laws they can get away with breaking if it gets them from point at to b faster whether they are on foot, on a bike or in a car. Some people in cars will speed; some people will walk when it says “Don’t Walk”; and some people on bicycles will run stop signs or red lights. 

Facts to back up response: The facts (not anecdotal observations) show that people on bicycles do not break laws any more frequently than people in motor vehicles. They just break different laws, and there are numerous national, state and local studies to prove this. Most recently, Bike Fed volunteers have been counting bicycles in Milwaukee’s Riverwest and Harambe neighborhoods to get benchmark data for a Smart Trips encouragement program we will be running next year. As part of their counts, they also note when people on bicycles run red lights, ride on sidewalks or against the flow of traffic. The results of the studies done twice at eight different intersections show less than 26% of people on bicycles broke any laws.

When I worked as the City of Milwaukee Bicycle Coordinator, I did similar counts at other locations. The highest percentage of violators  I found was at the intersection of Water Street and St. Paul Avenue, where I recorded 48% of people on bicycles broke either rode on the sidewalk or ran the red light.

Water and St. Paul (2010)

Water and St. Paul (2010)

 If between a fourth and half of people observed in these studies broke some rule of the road, isn’t it fair to say cyclists are scofflaws? No, it is not fair because compared to the percentage of people who drive over the speed limit, roll through stops, or fail to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, it looks like people tend to be more law abiding when they ride bicycles.

Facts to back up the response: As the person who used to manage the neighborhood traffic safety program for the City of Milwaukee, I had dozens of meetings in all parts of the city with neighborhood groups with complaints about motor vehicles speeding, failing to stop for stop signs, and failing to yield to pedestrians. For each of those complaints, we had traffic engineer interns conduct speed studies or crosswalk studies. The City also used unobtrusive radar units (not speed boards) that count and measure the speed of every vehicle. The vast majority of those studies resulted in a bell curve like the one below, which shows about 65% of people driving above the legal speed limit. Most drive 5 to 10 miles per hour over the limit, but some race as much as 25 miles per hour above the posted limit.

Most speed studies look like this (posted limit of 25mph) and show the majority of drivers exceeding the posted speed limit., some by extreme amounts.

Most speed studies look like this (posted limit of 25mph) and show the majority of drivers exceeding the posted speed limit., some by extreme amounts.

Even worse are the studies of how many people in cars yield to people trying to cross the street at crosswalks. These statistics are frightening, with some studies showing nobody would stop to let our subject cross the street, and even in the best case, only 23% of cars obeyed the law requiring them to yield to let people in a crosswalk. Put another way, between 77% and 100% of people driving in cars broke the law.

Yield studies show the vast majority of drivers break the law.

Yield studies show the vast majority of drivers break the law.

There are lots of other national, state and local traffic studies that illustrate how frequently people ignore traffic laws when behind the wheel. In 2006 and again in 2007, the Portland Transportation Department did traffic studies at intersections controlled by stop signs and that determined people on bikes came to a complete stop 7 percent of the time and people in cars 22 percent of the time. Yes, people were more likely to roll a stop sign on a bicycle than in a car, but both modes had pretty dismal compliance rates. Stop signs are only supposed to be used to control right of way, but many have been installed in a misguided attempt to stop speeding. We now have so many unwarranted stop signs that were installed to try to stop speeding in neighborhoods, it is no wonder people tend to ignore them whether they are on a bike or behind the wheel.

Bicyclists are dangerous to pedestrians because they ride on the sidewalk. Studies do show that riding on the sidewalk is dangerous, but primarily for the people on bicycles, and while it may be annoying or scary for people walking, the risk is really very low.

While it is not unheard of for a person on a bicycle to injure or even kill someone walking, it is extremely unlikely. The CDC reports that 59,925 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles between 1999 and 2009, while bikes only killed 63 in that same period. Another way to look at it is deaths per mile traveled. Fatal crash rates are measured in deaths per billion miles traveled, with 1.71 people killed per billion motor vehicle miles traveled.

We don’t study bicycles like we do cars and trucks, so data on miles traveled is harder to come by. The advent of big bike sharing programs like CitiBike in NYC, have given us an excellent and growing data source. So far, in the 15 million miles traveled by CitiBikes, no pedestrian has been killed. As popular as the program is in Gotham, it won’t be long until we have a billion miles and we can compare the rates.

Riding on a sidewalk certainly is a bad idea and while it might be annoying or even frightening to people walking, it is actually legal in some municipalities in Wisconsin. Most crashes happen at conflict points and every driveway and intersection is a conflict point. When you factor in that people in cars don’t look for bicycles on sidewalks, it is generally much more dangerous than riding on the road. Even though it is more dangerous, some people ride on the sidewalk because they are afraid to ride in the street. Bike lanes help and reduce the percentage of sidewalk riding, but protected bike lanes are the really the only way to get those who are afraid to ride next to motor vehicles to use busier roads.

2012 NYC DOT study of New York City’s protected bike lane on 9th Avenue showed a 56% reduction in injuries to all street users, including a 57% reduction to people on bikes and a 29% reduction in injuries to people walking, as well as an 84 percent reduction in sidewalk

I hope this post gives readers some reasonable responses to typical complaints about the misperception that more people flout the law when they ride bicycles than when they drive motor vehicles. I also hope the facts will begin to stick someday so I don’t have to keep repeating them. Perhaps we will publish this post as an article in the October issue of the Bike Fed’s quarterly magazine since 10,000 people read that, but only about 1,000 read our blog each day.

I’m under no illusion that if the statistics I shared above were more well known, everyone would like bicycles. People are entitled to their opinions, but not to the facts.


A Justification for Running Red Lights and Stop Signs

A Justification for Running Red Lights and Stop Signs

The aim of cyclists should be to have a better record than anyone else on the roadway. This is not about who is as negligent as anyone else. It is about showing the way towards a more civil society and that begins first and foremost on the roadways.

Much of what passes for passion in the Urban Cycling Movement is carried out at the level of Junior High School thought. This is silly and really needs to be ‘called out‘. This does not make the person doing the ‘calling outanti-bicycle. It rather makes them anti-stupid.