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, Photo: John Luton/Flickr
When people who bike get behind the wheel of a car, 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?”

127 thoughts on What Do Drivers Really Think of Cyclists?

  1. So in other words, the motorist passing the bikers hogging the road has to take the risk of crossing a double-yellow line and going into oncoming traffic? Or if there is too much traffic just drive at 15 MPH until finally he can pass. Total head scratcher.

    Here’s a better idea. Avoid as best as you can biking on 50 MPH roads that have no shoulder, unless it’s early Sunday morning. Not worth the risk.

  2. You guys don’t drive cars because you think they are destroying the earth, or whatever else you’re thinking.

    I drive a car when it makes sense to do so. I bike to work in NYC because driving a car to work in NYC is crazy and the trains are unreliable so it’s actually the quickest and most reliable way for me to commute. Whereas you’re just an asshole with an anger problem. You shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

  3. My comments are common sense and would be endorsed by 95% of motorists (and I’m talking about motorists who own a bike or have nothing against people who bike on the road).

    But the responses to my common sense comments have actually inflamed me.

    PS – I notice that the vast majority of bikers do ride single-file. What do they know that the posters here do not?

  4. Here’s an everyday example of what you reference. There’s just no reason for this. It’s unsafe. It’s wrong. And it should be punished. This is my life, ya know. I’m not some mouse to be toyed with by cats.

  5. One more time – I bike and I bike on the road with friends. We ride two abreast until a car is coming from behind because we have something called common sense, like the vast majority of bikers.

  6. Biking to work is great. You are changing the subject. We are talking about not riding single file and hogging the road.

  7. Biking to work is great. You are changing the subject. We are talking about not riding single file and hogging the road.

    Oh ok, because this is really on message here, winning a lot of converts with this:

    You guys don’t drive cars because you think they are destroying the earth, or whatever else you’re thinking.

  8. No. A travel lane is 12 feet. You need to give a cyclists 3 feet, the cyclist should never be less than 3 feet from the curb (and even more from parked autos) and the cyclist takes up three feet. That means that to safely pass a cyclist you ALWAYS need to move into the other lane. If that lane is not totally free, the pass is unsafe for the cyclist, you, and any oncoming traffic.

    If you can’t figure out how to selflessly, and safely operate your vehicle, then please, please not only stay off the road, but also please don’t dispense your false opinions about safe operation. Thanks.

  9. The road was made for trucks, cars, emergency vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles. Rubagreta, you need to understand this.

  10. Here in Chicago, we have police squads on bikes all over downtown. I think it’s a great way to interact withe the public, as well as display to other drivers that it’s perfectly fine to bike in the streets.

  11. You are having an argument with yourself.

    There are three distinct scenarios at play here:

    1) A multi-lane road. In this case, cars can move to the left lane in order to pass a bicyclist. And, if bicyclists are riding two abreast, then the passing distance is half what it would have been if the cyclists had been riding single file. This is what @disqus_1d7O7PLvSz:disqus and @cyclistsrights:disqus are saying.

    2) A road with single lane of standard width and with no shoulder. In this case, it is not safe for a car to pass. So a bicyclist should take the lane, so as not to encourage unsafe passing. And here again, bicyclists riding two abreast is preferable to riding single file. This is what @Andrew_J_C:disqus and @disqus_BcHijGCDUx:disqus are saying.

    3) A road with a single lane, but where the lane is wide enough for a car to pass a bicycle safely, or where there is a shoulder. In this situation, riding single file is preferable to riding two abreast.

    So there’s no point in your continuing to insist on something when you’re talking right past other people.

    I would like to note that, during my bike from New York to Washington last summer, at one point I found myself on a road in rural Maryland that had one lane in each direction. As I was riding on the shoulder of Brock Bridge Road in Laurel, the shoulder suddenly disappeared. So I took to the centre of the single lane.

    Drivers could not move to the opposite side of the road in order to pass, due to the limited sight distances caused by the bends in the road and the hills. So the drivers in the cars and even in the trucks behind me just drove at 10 or 15 miles per hour. Not one of them beeped at me; and no one shouted at me or showed me any aggression.

    There were almost no intersections on that street, only the occasional driveway into a home. When I would get to one of the driveways, I’d pull over, and let the cars go. But, other than that, the drivers there seemed to understand requirement that, if you are behind a vehicle that is moving at 15 miles per hour, you have to move at 15 miles per hour.

    I am a proud New Yorker. But my bike trips to other places really taught me something. I found that the drivers in other big cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, and the drivers in the non-urban areas in between, behave in a much more civilised way than drivers in the New York City area do. So, when people say that New Yorkers are rude assholes, I have to concede that they probably have a point.

  12. It’s not just a driver’s mindset; when cycling in a completely separate, protected bike lane, faster cyclists will yell at you if you ride slower than they do two abreast.

    Some people just want to go fast.

  13. I used to hate seeing cops on bikes; I guess I sort of had the feeling that they were targeting us. But, now that we don’t see bike cops anymore in New York, I miss it, because I now understand that riding a bike gives police officers a perspective that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Also, as you indicated, seeing bike cops emphasises to drivers the legitimacy of bicycling.

  14. I am impeded for no apparent reason by motor vehicle drivers in $50,000 cars every time I ride (and indeed every time I drive). Should I be angry at these people? Should I hate these people? Should I judge them selfish and self-absorbed? Do these people give all motorists a bad name? Should I be embarrassed to say I’m a motorist?

  15. In most instances single file or two-abreast is irrelevant. If you must cross the centerline even a small amount then it is moot. A single bicyclist in a standard width lane can position themselves anywhere in that lane. So adding another cyclist next to them, within that lane makes no material difference except on a very narrow roadway where such positioning prevents a driver from being able to pass with the 3′ of clearance (typically a narrow, unmarked rural road).

  16. And when a shoulder isn’t present, then what? And roads were originally improved because of the Good Roads Movement in the early 20th Century; a movement by bicyclists to create roads that were passable by bikes (not rutted out dirt roads).

  17. Only the widest lanes (14′, which are rare) allow a motorist and bicyclist to safely and legally travel within the same lane. So in virtually every instance a motorist must cross the centerline and at least partially encroach into the adjacent lane. If there is oncoming traffic, you don’t pass. You wait for a gap in traffic. I get stuck behind slow cars (in my car) far more often thatn getting stuck behind bicyclists. Not really a head scratcher.

    Avoid the 50MPH roads? Where I live (10 miles from my office in downtown) I have to ride on 45 and 55 MPH posted roads with no shoulders. There are no alternate routes. So nobody can bike based on your rules and logic? Brilliant!

  18. Most travel lanes are less than 12′. Interstate travel lanes are typically 12′. City street and rural roads are typically in the 10-11′ range, and many are less than 10′. Suburban arterials are often striped at 12′, which is pointless.

  19. You are free to ride anywhere except limited access highways. And if you choose to take that risk, feel free.

    How many others are biking on this dangerous road during rush hour? My assumption is very few.

    And if you were biking with another person, would you ride two abreast during rush hour?

  20. He’s also saying it’s other people’s responsibility to not make him angry, or else…
    When someone is in control of a machine that can easily kill you, and tells you to modify your behavior to please them, that’s a threat. It’s not ok.

  21. I think i’ll take this dissertation written by a professor with 676 surveys over your anecdotal “reality” 🙂

    PS. When it comes to vehicular cycling and “taking the lane,” cyclists face the same problem that the drivers surveyed in this article do–a intense pressure to not hold up traffic behind them which is uncomfortable and dangerous. Also research suggests that kind of cycling is favored by young, able-bodied, males. Everyone else isn’t so into it.

  22. So then please explain how most CyclingSavvy participants are women and teenagers, who have great success riding on roads with no special bike infrastructure, controlling the lane by default? I suspect the problems you and the author feel are “rampant” among motorists towards cyclist aren’t really as common as is conveyed by this and other similar articles.

  23. This is the correct approach. Whenever I’m in a bike lane and I can see it’s blocked ahead, either by a car or delivery vehicle or a construction fence, I always take the full lane at the earliest availability, and more often than not I stay nearer to the center of the road, not the right-hand side. It’s an intimidating position for sure, but it guarantees no one but the more irresponsible/dangerous of drivers will try to pass me. It’s far safer for me and everyone else on the road if I ride visibly in the center of the lane.

  24. The only problem is that people behave differently around cops. A uniformed police officer on a bike will get an entirely different experience than a plainclothes officer on a bike. Everyone acts so deferential to them that they probably think motorists are all impeccably considerate of bicyclists…

  25. LOL Once we know you’re of CyclingSavvy , we know you only want to hear voices who chant your mantras.

  26. No, I want to help cyclists of all abilities to be able to go anywhere by bike. Not just places with cycling infrastructure. That’s what CS and ABEA has set out to do. When the bike lane or path ends, you can either continue on or turn around and go back. CS helps all cyclists of all abilities to be able to confidently continue on, and be safe doing so. I would advise you, as the saying goes, “don’t knock it till you try it.” Don’t criticize the organization until you’ve taken the course and know what it’s about and what is taught.

  27. If you are a cyclist, you need to educate yourself about how to ride in traffic. Whether or not you believe in “The Mantra”, you should not disrespect the value of being properly educated.

    Even in the cycling infrastructure Mecca of Holland, both cyclists and motorists are properly education on bike riding skills.

  28. True. Again this has to do with motorist education. In Holland, motorists are taught that cyclists have priority.

    Unfortunately here in the United States, operating a motor vehicle is treated as a right instead of a privilege. That means a VC/LAB/Cycling Savvy education is beneficial to all cyclists.

  29. “Also research suggests that kind of cycling is favored by young, able-bodied, males. ”

    Lol. Citation needed please.

  30. The bottom line is it takes carrots and sticks to get people to use bikes instead of cars. The Netherlands uses really high quality carrots (excellent infra) and big nasty sticks (expensive fuel, high taxes, expensive/limited vehicle parking, restrictive land-use policies) to get it done.

    Tossing around a few crummy carrots here and there, which is as good as it’s going to get in the USA, won’t cut it.

    So what we’re left with cycling on roadways with cars. Turns out anyone from 8 to 80 can learn to do that safely and comfortably, quite easily. It’s mostly a matter of adopting a different paradigm, starting by dropping the one that assumes bikes and cars need to be separated for safety and comfort, which is especially difficult to do since it is reinforced by every foot of separated infrastructure.

  31. There is a way to encourage close passing, and a way to discourage it. As others have noted, it’s all about lane positioning. One of the many immediate benefits I noticed when I changed my riding practice from edge riding to full lane use was the virtual disappearance of close passes. From several per ride to one every couple of years is a huge difference.

  32. Using the full lane when you have a good reason to do so is a good start.

    You’ll know you have arrived when you used the full lane UNLESS you have a good reason to temporarily move to the edge.

  33. The Netherlands uses really high quality carrots (excellent infra) and big nasty sticks (expensive fuel, high taxes, expensive/limited vehicle parking, restrictive land-use policies) to get it done.

    Dutch land-use policies, gas prices, parking policies, etc. are not vastly different from their neighbors which have far lower rates of biking. What is different is the quality and extent of the bikeway networks. Claiming that we can’t invest in bike infrastructure until all the other differences are removed is a huge fallacy.

  34. ShatteredGlass was comparing NL to the US. It was an excellent springboard for discussion, not full of fallacies. Also you need to consider the density of cities and shorter trip times in NL compared to the US.

  35. …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. But there isn’t and the big difference is the (lack of) bike infrastructure in those neighboring 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.

    Also, the density argument is meaningless and anyone making it has almost certainly never actually been to The NLs. 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. It’s also the province with some of the best infrastructure.

  36. At the first sign of a blockage I leave the bikelane then I use that experience to justify remaining outside the bike lane under the premise that the experience will be repeated. And then I only use the bike lane to release traffic when I feel it is safe to do so.

  37. Most of the folks I know who actually practice vehicular cycling are 60+, including myself.

  38. It’s incredibly unpopular. Some people like it, a few people love it, most people hate it. Look at the cycling trip share, look how it languished or declined all the years that the only answer was “VC”.

    And I learned all the VC stuff when I was a kid, practiced it for decades, and then one day I took a hard look at how it had failed to increase the number of cyclists on the roads for decades, where other approaches (e.g., infrastructure) had rather more success.

  39. The Netherlands are less populous and larger than metro NYC. Denmark is less populous and larger than Massachusetts.
    There are plenty of Dutch towns/cities with high ride share that have density similar to many towns and cities near where I live in Massachusetts.

  40. Thanks for that, seeing it graphed really drives the point home that for all the talk about how “urban” a lot of The NLs is, it actually isn’t. Then there are also towns like Houten that is decidedly suburban, yet still manages to have excellent biking infrastructure, to say nothing of the fact that new suburbs under construction integrate a bike connection to the nearest train station and to the city in general as part of the plans. Countless examples of those all over the country.

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