What Do Drivers Really Think of Cyclists?

New research shows how biases affect motorist behavior toward people on bikes.

When people who bike get behind the wheel of a car, their attitudes toward cyclists are influenced by the type of bike trips they make. Photo: John Luton/Flickr
When people who bike get behind the wheel of a car, their attitudes toward cyclists are influenced by the type of bike trips they make. Photo: John Luton/Flickr

There’s ample research out there backing up the safety benefits of streets with protected bikeways and slow car speeds. But what about the critically important yet less tangible factor of individual attitudes — how does the mind of the person behind the wheel affect driver behavior toward cyclists? A new report from Portland State University looks at the question.

“Driving is one of the most complex tasks that we all engage in. Very few of us are airline pilots or surgeons, but almost all of us can get a drivers license,” says Tara Goddard, who authored the report as part of her PhD dissertation at Portland State’s urban planning program. “Like all aspects of human behavior, we’re not always rational, and we’re not always civil.”

Goddard surveyed 676 frequent drivers from across the country about how they feel when driving near cyclists and about their own cycling behavior. She also asked questions aimed at assessing each respondent’s biases regarding drivers and cyclists.

“We have finite road space and finite transportation dollars, so we create this system of competition. It’s a totally uneven competition… But when you put people in those circumstances, they act like a member of their group and not an individual,” Goddard says. The result is that “there is a complete lack of empathy” among otherwise nice, normal people, she explains. “Do these interactions have an impact on safety, and if so, what can we do about it?”

The survey responses indicate that drivers feel a lot of pressure not to hold up traffic behind them. “That’s relevant to vulnerable road users, because then, potentially, drivers are going to be making closer passes, or engaging in unsafe passing behaviors,” Goddard says. “We know that when people are under stress, they make more errors in their motor skills.”

Goddard found that drivers who live in more densely-settled zip codes, who ride a bike at least once a week, or who ride to commute and do errands, had positive attitudes about bicyclists on the road. But drivers who ride a bike for recreation did not necessarily have a higher opinion of cyclists — even though, unlike all other drivers, they said they were comfortable with their ability to pilot a car around bike riders.

“The type of riding you do matters,” Goddard says. “One-off events like Sunday Parkways might have a lot of benefits, but that may not include making people more empathetic drivers.”

Goddard, who is about to start work as an assistant professor at Texas A&M’s urban planning program, is interested in pursuing more research about the anxiety drivers feel around cyclists. She also asked drivers for the first word that came to mind when they saw three outlines showing different types of cyclists — a racer, an upright commuter, and a backpack-wearing rider doing a track stand. The goal, Goddard says, is to explore how stereotypes inform driver behavior.

“It’s very difficult as a planner or engineer to take on peoples’ biases,” she said. “My research helps shore up the evidence that it’s not fair or safe to put the onus on cyclists to just take the lane… Drivers, whether they mean to or not, are behaving unsafely or badly around cyclists.”

Goddard sees enormous potential for technology to improve road safety, but also big risks in the development of autonomous vehicles. “The algorithms behind them are human creations,” Goddard says. “Are decisions being coded into these decision-making processes that have views about who is a legitimate roadway user? Is the most important thing to get drivers to their destinations on time, or is the most important thing to not hit anyone?”

  • ShatteredGlass00

    Marven, the point is to get people out of cars and onto bikes you need luscious carrots and serious sticks. The NL neighbors that have comparable sticks but only lousy carrots and don’t have the high bike usage makes my point: you need both. The US has neither. I’m not saying you can’t invest in bike infra. I’m saying such investments will make only relatively minor increases in bike usage (if any) unless and until the sticks are seriously implemented, and that’s not going to happen as long as we remain a democracy.

    Of course, for bike advocates for whom the true ends is improved infra for themselves (increased bike usage would only be frosting on the cake), and for the infra designers/builders for whom just building the infra is how they get paid, i it doesn’t matter. They’ll keep arguing it’s about increasing bike usage as a smokescreen excuse to get others to pay for the glorified sidewalks they seek.

  • Cyclist’s Rights

    Could be the case but still ignores all the other points raised about the differences between the two places.

  • Cyclist’s Rights

    “…and I was comparing The NLs to its neighbors. If those policies were the reason for the higher biking mode share in The NLs, then there should be a similar mode share in the neighboring countries that have similar policies. “

    Again, we were comparing NL to the US. That’s it. If you want to discuss neighboring countries then you really need to be specific otherwise your arguments are meaningless.

    “But there isn’t and the big difference is the (lack of) bike infrastructure in those neighboring countries. “
    Again, what countries?

    “So to say that America has less biking because we have different policies is simply not accurate because even countries with similar policies have less biking.”

    No but it is. We have cheap energy, development that is very pro-automobile, low density development, large trip times, and a culture accepting of all of this. On top of that bicycles are considered by a large part of the population as toys or as devices that need special snowflake infrastructure instead of the vehicular tights each state grants them. You facilities people make things worse for everybody. You make the mythical “cars vs bikes” war worse and you further promote the idea bicycle riders cannot ride as a part of traffic. This is mostly due to the fear of being hit from behind which is incredibly rare. Besides solo crashes, most collisions between cars and bicycles occur at intersections. The bicycle facilities you all promote do not protect from these potential collisions.

    “Also, the density argument is meaningless and anyone making it has almost certainly never actually been to The NLs.“

    Arguing differences in density is meaningless because you think I’ve never been to NL? Lol.

    “Ignoring the fact that there are hundreds of American communities that are denser than Dutch ones and that the average trip distance here is around three miles, the Dutch province with the highest cycling modal share is one with one of the lowest population densities.”

    Citations seriously needed. But wait, you’ve never been to these hundreds of American communities with greater density or to that one province in NL so your argument is invalid. See how that works?

    “It’s also the province with some of the best infrastructure.”

    Define best. Never mind please don’t.

  • dr2chase

    Said differences were addressed by Marven Norman; those other conditions hold all over Europe more or less. Have you noticed that cycling ride shares in the US have recently increased in cities where more attention has been paid (some of it with skill, some without) to cycling facilities? E.g. http://bikeleague.org/commutingdata All this, without ultra-high Euro gas prices, etc, etc.

    At this point it really sounds like excuse-making to me. Consider that I was once a believer, and I changed my mind. I may have thought about this a little bit, and I did a fair amount of research; I don’t want to waste my time promoting something that won’t work, so I don’t want to promote infrastructure if it won’t work, and I don’t want to promote infrastructure where it won’t work. It would work in Boston and the ring of towns and cities around it where the density is high enough, the hills not (usually) too terrible, and the traffic/parking sufficiently terrible that driving is stressful and annoying.

  • Cyclist’s Rights

    Most people do not understand bicyclists are granted the same rights and duties as drivers of vehicles in all 50 states. Bikes are toys, the roads are for cars, yada yada. When they see a city is spending money and creating cycling facilities they view it as something for them when in all reality they’ve been able to legally and safely ride a bike on those roads all along.

  • Cyclist’s Rights

    Biased reporting? It’s a blog about bike law. It explains the practical and safety reasons for riding two abreast. You should re-read it.

    As for the example of the truck, it’s pretty simple. The driver either did not estimate the true time it would take to pass that long line of single file riding cyclists or did not have adequate sight distance to see oncoming traffic or a combination of both. As a result the driver was in the middle of completing the pass, saw an oncoming motorist and swerved back into the lane with the cyclists. If the cyclist weee two abreast the line would be shorter.

    This although it’s for countries that drive on the left is a good graphical representation of what I’m talking about

    https://www.cyclechat.net/attachments/bqwrvjicqaaobc_-jpg.306076/

  • dr2chase

    Notice that you’re explaining why infrastructure works and why VC didn’t. “But-but-but, it’s working for the wrong reasons” (I agree) but it works.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Define “wide”. For a lane to be considered wide enough for both a car and bike to safely and legally operate (within it), it needs to be 14′ per the MUTCD (and based upon AASHTO’s operating envelope for a bicycle). If someone rides as a gutter bunny, then you can drop that down to about 13′ (assuming the 3′ passing law is in place). But 14′ lanes are NOT common. I’m a transportation planner. Even in suburbia you rarely find a lane 14′ wide, or even 13′ lanes.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve been riding VC for decades even though I didn’t realize it. Acting like a car was a simple survival tactic. And that’s really all VC is. It’s a survival tactic for those who are going to ride a bike anyway. It’s not a way to get more people riding. That’s why it failed to increase the number of riders, whereas good infrastructure did.

    Even many hard-core VCs are coming around to infrastructure at this point. The fact people like me can and do cope with motor traffic doesn’t mean we enjoy doing it. Given a choice, I’d much rather ride somewhere free of cars, pedestrians, and especially traffic signals and stop signs. It’s much less stressful. The key here is to make bicycle infrastructure which is usable for cyclists of all ages and abilities. I want to get more people riding but by the same token I don’t want bicycle facilities which are glorified sidewalks where it’s unsafe to go more than 10 mph. Good infrastructures lets cyclist who go 20 or 25 mph coexist with those who might only feel like going 8 or 10 mph.

  • Joe R.

    The same line of thinking applies even to cyclists riding single file who take the lane. I almost never ride with anybody. In fact, it’s probably been close to a decade since I’ve ridden with somebody. So riding two abreast is entirely moot for me. However, there are times when I position myself in the center of the lane simply because there isn’t enough room for a motor vehicle to safely pass me if I go as far right as possible. Remember I still need to stay about 3 feet from parked cars to avoid possible dooring. If a motorist wants to pass me when I’m riding in the center of the lane, they’re free to do so if the opposing traffic lane is clear. Otherwise, they can’t. And that’s the entire point of taking the lane. I don’t want them trying to squeeze by me.

    Yes, I’ll gladly move to the right at the next intersection if I see someone behind me who wants to pass. That’s simple courtesy. But I’m not moving over a moment before that. In NYC especially it’s rare to go more than 500 feet between intersections. And I’m not a slow rider. If someone has to drive at ~20 mph stuck behind me for 500 feet instead of, say, 40 mph (yes, I know that’s over the speed limit but that’s typical motorist speed on many NYC streets), it costs them a whopping 8.5 seconds. Even if I’m only going 12 mph because I’m on a steep hill it only costs them 20 seconds. It’s also not like they going to get stuck behind another bike the next block after they pass me (in which case maybe I might understand their frustration just a bit). Few places in NYC with narrow streets have that much bike traffic. So really we’re talking about losing 10 to 20 seconds once in a while. Most motorists are delayed more than that more often from other motor vehicles. I’ve seen a double-parked car on a narrow street hold up an entire line of motorists for many minutes. And yet that doesn’t seem to elicit the rage being stuck being a bike for one block does. Go figure.

  • Pam Bikes

    I don’t need “priority” as a cyclist. I only want equality to use all the travel lanes without impunity.

  • reasonableexplanation

    It’s crazy how different our experiences are. In many years of biking in NYC (primarily in either midtown or Brooklyn) I’ve never had a driver yell anything at me.

  • Man, vehicular cyclists love taking over the comments on these types of threads. Why can’t everyone just ride exactly the same way regardless of experience or knowledge or ability wahhhhhhh!

  • Wanderer

    Is this a bad thing? It seems likely that drivers will be more careful around police on bikes, just as they generally are around police in police cars. If drivers are more careful, that’s a good thing, a little bit of more civilized behavior in the world. I think cops are smart enough to understand that their presence changes heavier.

  • Whatever the reason, they’re still riding more.

  • I don’t know how this went from “which characteristics of drivers affect their attitude toward cyclists” to “vehicular cycling is wonderful/awful” I doubt drivers love waving and signaling vehicular cyclists any more than edge-hugging gutter bunnies. Or vice-versa. However, that’s not what the study was about.

  • Again, we were comparing NL to the US. That’s it. If you want to discuss neighboring countries then you really need to be specific otherwise your arguments are meaningless.

    I mean, if you want to keep playing that game, I can’t stop you. But a comparison that tries to pin the differences in biking between America and The NLs on parking policies and mixed-use development while trying to ignore the very obvious infrastructure differences is simply not credible.

    Again, what countries?

    Belgium. Germany. UK. Like I said, the neighboring countries.

    No but it is. We have cheap energy,

    The high gas prices might contribute to Dutch biking some, but then we’d expect to see similar levels of biking among the Germans who have similarly high prices.

    development that is very pro-automobile,

    Yea, that’s kind of what I’ve been saying all along, but there’s no reason to continue down this path.

    low density development,

    Define “low-density”. Even a prototypical sprawling community can easily have more than 5000 people/square mile, which isn’t close to rural.

    large trip times,

    They might be faster if they biked.

    and a culture accepting of all of this.

    There is a growing movement around the country of people who are tired of “accepting all of this” and are stepping up and demanding changes, changes that are starting to come to fruition in communities from coast to coast. Of course, you can choose to ignore it if you want, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.

    On top of that bicycles are considered by a large part of the population as toys or as devices that need special snowflake infrastructure instead of the vehicular tights each state grants them.

    No, most people don’t want to play the game of roulette that riding on many roads unfortunately is. Except for quiet residential streets, it’s a rather high-stress activity, particularly for those who are riding all too fast. Recreational paths are popular because they usually remove that stressful component and the ridership gain that has accompanied the vast majority of installations of separated bikeways around the country shows that people are clearly interested in seeing bikes as more than toys.

    You facilities people make things worse for everybody. You make the mythical “cars vs bikes” war worse and you further promote the idea bicycle riders cannot ride as a part of traffic.

    Wait, how is something mythical being made worse? Anyway, the majority of people consistently asking for better bikeways than a sharrow and well-designed bikeways are better than riding in the midst of traffic. However, I have yet to see a proposal to remove bicyclist access to the roadway in exchange for building the separated bikeway. So if jockeying with trucks or sitting in traffic is your idea of fun, then by all means, please stay off the bikeways and enjoy yourself out there. Most everyone else will not be envying you.

    This is mostly due to the fear of being hit from behind which is incredibly rare.

    That really depends on the type of road in question. It’s not so rare on some types, as even the revered Cross study shows.

    Besides solo crashes, most collisions between cars and bicycles occur at intersections. The bicycle facilities you all promote do not protect from these potential collisions.

    …and the bicycle facilities, or rather lack of them, that you’re promoting do nothing to protect from potential collisions from behind or sideswipes, to say nothing of the harassment that not uncommonly accompanies riding in the lane. In actuality, the topic of safe intersections has been extensively researched by the Dutch with recommendations produced. I will readily admit that thus far, the design of separated bikeways has definitely been lackluster. But that problem can be fixed and there is evidence that the lesson is finally being learned.

    Arguing differences in density is meaningless because you think I’ve never been to NL? Lol.

    So again, the density argument is meaningless. Anyone who has been to The NLs should know this unless all they did was take a train from the airport city center locations, and even then, the bikeways with people biking on them in the middle of the farmland can be seen clearly from the train. But not everyone likes to look out the window or perhaps it was night, so we’ll give a pass on the train view. But if you’ve been and going from the airport to hotels downtown wasn’t the only thing you did while there, then you’re either lying about having been (outside the city center) or lying about what you saw—it’s up to you to come clean about which.

    Citations seriously needed. But wait, you’ve never been to these hundreds of American communities with greater density or to that one province in NL so your argument is invalid. See how that works?

    Actually, I have been to that part of The Netherlands and I live in one of the communities that has a far greater density and there are dozens more in my region alone. A region that was at one time, the textbook example of sprawl in America. It’s not anymore because it has gotten denser. I’ve also been to many other communities around the country that are also quite a bit denser than communities in The NLs and as presented by @dr2chase:disqus below, it is not hard to find many more.

    Define best. Never mind please don’t.

    The UCI already took care of that. Note that they especially liked how there are a lot of students biking to school in Drenthe. Parents aren’t putting their children out to bike to school in the midst of lots of speeding motor traffic.

  • Maybe it’s just a California problem, but it is not uncommon to see right-hand lanes, or paved expanses that look like a lane, that are easily 17′ wide and I’m not talking about unused parking spots either. Controlling those type of lanes is not fun at all.

  • JudyAF

    60+ and female

  • JudyAF

    and the lack of elevation

  • onlinenetizen

    i ride a bike, and i seen other cyclist doing some really really dumb things. Like blowing through a red light when cross traffic is going 40-50 mph. Riding against traffic, and kicking cars. when I am at an intersection, i give cars priority, because if I don’t, I become a pancake.

  • onlinenetizen

    as long as you follow the same rules of the road as motorist, you will be fine. Please don’t go kicking cars

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    But drivers are punished for making Cyclists pancakes ?

  • Jeff

    @ShatteredGlass00:disqus:

    //The bottom line is it takes carrots and sticks to get people to use bikes instead of cars.//

    That’s your problem; you think it’s your business how people get around, and you think just because it’s appropriate for you, it’s appropriate for everyone.

  • The question of how people get around en masse is most definitely our (the community’s) business. The act of providing appropriate incentives to influence people’s choices is something that a public adminstration has an obligation to do.

  • Jeff

    No.

    Unless you’ve been elected Lord Commander of Moving People About, it’s your business how YOU get around, and you should be able to do it in as safe a way possible.

    How your next door neighbor chooses to travel is most certainly not your business.

  • The sum total of people’s commuting choices impacts the economy, impacts pollution, and impacts public safety and public health. For all these reasons, it is a question that lies firmly in the domain of those matters that are legitimately to be managed by the public authorities.

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