How Much Do Bicyclists Really Slow Down Drivers?

530050555_e1bd487327_m.jpgWhat’s really slowing these cars down? Probably not bikes. Photo by richardmasoner via Flickr.

What is it about bicycles that drives some motorists so crazy?

Anyone who’s ever ridden a bike more than a handful of times in this country has experienced it. The honking, the rude remarks, the vehicles speeding past with drivers shouting "get out of my way."

There’s no doubt that drivers sometimes have to slow down because there’s a cyclist in the road ahead of them. But Streetsblog Network member M-Bike.org wants to put the inconvenience in perspective:

Throughout the Detroit suburbs, cyclists can expect to hear the occasional verbal assault from motorists. The typical theme is "you don’t belong on the road" or "you’re in my way."…But are motorists really that concerned about being occasionally slowed due sharing the road with cyclists? How much time do Metro Detroit motorists "lose" to cyclists on the roads?

Rather than attempt to answer that question, it’s perhaps more important to step back and judge all the issues that delay motorists.

How much time do motorists lose to:

  • Road construction
  • Stop lights and stop signs
  • Speed limits
  • Rush hour traffic
  • School buses loading and unloading children
  • At-grade train crossings
  • Inclement weather
  • Emergency vehicles
  • Slow downs due to vehicle crashes
  • Other cars on the road

Motorists’ time lost to bicyclists is certainly minor compared with most of these. So are these same motorists yelling at school buses and emergency vehicles to get off the road?…

And speaking of travel delays, this past week an apparently careless driver
caused a horrific tanker explosion on I-75 which caused over a $1 million in damage and has left the expressway closed for days. This portion of I-75 carries 160,000 vehicles per day and the closure is causing many minutes of delay per vehicle.

This single crash has likely caused more motorist delay than all the cyclists in Metro Detroit combined — ever.

Of course, some people don’t let school buses slow them down. But M-Bike definitely has a point.

This post reminded me of something I recently said to a friend who, like me, uses a bike for transportation in New York: Why is it that drivers in this city, who frequently tout the "personal freedom" and speed of their chosen transportation mode, are the angriest, most impatient people on the streets? I sometimes think that drivers hate on bicyclists so much because, consciously or subconsciously, they envy the freedom that being a bicyclist represents. And lest there’s any confusion, I say that from the perspective of someone who has spent many (too many) hours behind the wheel of a car.

Of course, cars can slow you you down when you’re on a bike, too. When that happens to me, I try to be philosophical about it and not succumb to the anger that is too often rampant on asphalt.

Your thoughts?

Other good posts from around the network: Seattle Transit Blog has a postmortem on the first day of the city’s new Link light-rail system. The Dirt reports on a new article from The Economist that says perhaps high-polluting people, rather than high-polluting nations, should be the focus of carbon-reduction efforts. And for those of you who wondered if chic cyclists wear helmets, they do, at least some of the time. Just ask Let’s Go Ride a Bike (scroll down for the proof).

  • Rob

    OK, so let’s imagine that all of the cyclists who piss off drivers decide to get into an SUV and drive, alone, everywhere they go. Does this make the driver who originally told them to get off the road better off? No, it just increases the congestion that already plagues most cities.

    It’s really easy for a driver to imagine what it would be like if all those cyclists were gone and the level of congestion was fixed at its current level. It’s extremely difficult for a driver to imagine what would actually happen if they got what they wanted.

  • Its a marketing issue.

    Nobody has a problem with delays due to emergency vehicles – those clearly are out there serving the public interest.

    The crash that put the emergency vehicle on the road in the first place is called an “accident”, not a desired outcome, and so drivers don’t have a problem to wait.

    Motorists delay eachother far more than bicycles, but this is either considered a property of the system, or the fault of individual drivers, not of drivers as a class – the driver can hardly get angry at a class to which s/he belongs.

    But bicycles constrict other traffic in places where it would not normally be constricted, and the riders make a conscious choice to be there. Thus the driver’s perceived long-term reward for a system of vigilante harassment of cyclists makes some sense to me.

    Much as we hate to admit it, the system of harassment is very effective. It keeps many, many cyclists off the roads, and in a state of fear. Consider what inputs most potential cyclists are exposed to:

    1) How many times does an official source tell them of their right to the road? In Kentucky, this is buried in the back of the driver’s manual on page 60-something.

    2) How many times does a road user see law enforcement or media taking advocating for cycling rights? Never in this burg.

    3) Other, non official sources of cycling advocacy are few and far between as well.

    4) How often are cyclists harassed? For new cyclists that likely are doing things poorly (e.g. wrong way riding, running stop lights), its probably on the order of once per five miles travelled. This is by far and away the most common form of cyclist “education” we have. Too bad the curriculum is wrong.

  • Mark

    First off, let’s remember that drivers are NOT very nice to each other, so if you’re expecting a ‘Thank You’ for being one less car, then prepare yourself for constant disappointment. Expect to be treated no better or no worse than other any other road user.

    As a cyclist, surviving and thriving on the streets requires understanding the drivers’ mindset.

    If you are snaking the queue or blowing traffic lights–whatever your reasons–you should prepare yourself for the occasional blowback from a frustrated driver. To them, your behavior looks like those late mergers or those shoulder drivers on the NJ Turnpike whose behavior can motivate otherwise rational people to fits of rage and violence.

    You are messing with that fundamental belief in fairness that Americans hold so dear. Ya just don’t cut in line at Mickey D’s.

    What I find amazing is that more people don’t “lose it” more often.

    I am not arguing that the above is correct or just. I am just saying that you’re going to have a better time out there on a bike when you understand where the other guy is coming from. Act accordingly and accept the consequences.

  • The majority of drivers are acting in good faith and are mostly concerned with the perception that bikes are breaking the law and being afraid of hitting bikers. If that’s true, there’s a lot of room for collaboration. I make that argument in full form at http://dc.thecityfix.com/why-do-drivers-get-mad-at-bikers/

  • Abel

    I cycle in Boston where it’s been reported that the number one cause of traffic is double parking (by cabs and trucks unloading). Most of the times that I get into a vehicle’s way such that it cannot go around me, it’s because I’m avoiding someone who is parked illegally. In the grand scheme of things there are so few cyclists on the road that I find it absurd that anyone would even suggest that they cause significant congestion.

  • Jimm

    I believe there is some psychological reason way motorists sometimes react contemptuously to anything that disturbs their travels. Driving could be their last vestige of freedom. Driving may offset the powerlessness some experience in their lives. So much of ones daily life is dictated by responsibilities (ones job, family, etc.). Consequently many identify themselves by both their car and their job. Additionally, their inability to control their destiny and their own apathy could only make matters worse. Maybe they should get out of their cars and ride a bicycle.

  • We have all seen people who let their anger get out of control.
    anger courses

  • I cycle in Fayetteville NC, and get the occasional honk, or someone telling me to ride on one of the few sidewalks here. Even though I’m doing 25 in a 35. But what are you gonna do, haters gonna hate!

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