Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things

An NPR journalist’s fumbled tweet exposes a hole in the debate about urban cycling

After 15 million miles traveled, the Citibike program has still caused not a single fatality for either pedestrians or riders.

Manhattan. (via Flickr user |vv@ldzen| )
  • they’re a threat to pedestrian safety
  • they flout the law
  • they interfere with an otherwise smooth-flowing system

The likely conclusion is that people riding bikes don’t break more laws or fewer laws than when they drive cars, but they do break different laws.

The few studies that look at specific violations have found that people on bikes do roll through stop signs about 15% more than drivers do (at least in Oregon), but also that drivers roll through them almost 80% of the time, suggesting this is more of a human fault than a cyclist one. Meanwhile, a host of other infractions are almost exclusively the domain of motorists: speeding, dooring, aggressive driving, violating the three-foot passing law, etc.

Crowdsourced signage. (via Flickr user Pablo BM)

That’s what makes bikes so frightening: we prefer the devil we know, even when it’s infinitely more bloodthirsty than the one we don’t.

The problem with this belief, though, is that the smoothly-running system that bikes are disrupting already kills over 30,000 people per year. On the same day that Suchi Hui was struck by a cyclist in San Francisco, resulting in one of the only bike-on-ped deaths of 2012, around 82 Americans died in car crashes. Going by averages, roughly that many more died in car crashes the day before as well, and the day after, and every other day of the year.

Normal. (via Flickr user Neil Kremer)

A 2002 study found that drivers are far more likely to see a cyclist’s infraction as stemming from ineptitude or recklessness than an identical one committed by another driver.

When a bike blows a stop sign, though, we’re more likely to see it as evidence that “cyclists think they’re above the law.” The social psychology term for this bias is “fundamental attribution error”: the tendency to attribute the actions of others to their inherent nature rather than their situation, and the less we sympathize with their situation, the greater the bias. A 2002 study from the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory found that it plays a starring role in our perceptions of traffic behavior, with drivers far more likely to see a cyclist’s infraction as stemming from ineptitude or recklessness than an identical one committed by another driver. It may also help explain why I’ve been approached more than once while holding my bike by random strangers, asking me to explain the behavior of another cyclist they once saw doing something stupid. I ride a bike, therefore I’m one of them.

Four modes. (via Flickr user Sébastien Levaillant )

It would be tragic to derail this kind of enrichment because we can’t figure out how to have a real conversation.

That’s a pity, and kind of a Catch-22, because the best tool for overcoming all this fear and anger and bias is simply to get more people on bikes, and show them not only the joys and concerns of urban riding, but also its humanity and diversity. The main reason bike advocates get so excited about car-free riding events like Los Angeles’ CicLAvia or Portland’s Sunday Parkways is that they’re powerful bias-breaking tools, and do wonders to dispel the stereotypes that still permeate the discussion about cycling: cyclists are entitled hipsters, spandex-clad elitists, wild-eyed eco-warriors, scofflaw bums. These are harder to maintain when you’re surrounded by biking families of six, and retirees carrying dogs in their front baskets.

Not hipsters. (via portlandoregon.gov)



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Carl Alviani

Writer and UX strategist. Founder of Protagonist Studio. Obsessed with design’s hidden consequences. Living in Glasgow, with my heart in the PacNW.