People on bikes are vulnerable and don’t need to be reminded

By Chris McCahill 

Late last month, the Texas DOT posted a message on X (formerly Twitter) urging cyclists to behave better: 

Hey you, the one with the bike! Yes, cyclists have to observe traffic laws too. Use hand signals, stop at red lights and stop signs, and ride with traffic to keep everyone safe — including you. #BeSafeBikeSmart #EndTheStreakTX

Messages like this one are common and may seem harmless. The League of American Cyclists offers similar advice under its Smart Cycling program, and many local agencies promote safe biking through educational and promotional campaigns.

But this message garnered at least 250 frustrated responses. The echo chamber of X obviously is not a representative sample, but the backlash reflects real challenges that cyclists face every day. Unfortunately, people who bike—along with those who walk, take transit, or face other mobility issues—experience a world where most drivers do not follow the rules, which often puts them at a dangerous disadvantage.

Traffic violations are pervasive

One foundational study from the University of Colorado Denver in 2017 found that nearly all road users (99.97% of drivers) tend to break traffic rules. That includes anything from speeding to jaywalking. People on bikes, however, are slightly more law-abiding than others. More recent studies in Denmark and Florida reached the same conclusion.

More importantly, the 2017 study found that, unlike other road users, people on bikes typically break rules to be more visible and to protect themselves. Whereas saving time is the most common reason cited by people driving (77%) and walking (85%), many cyclists pointed to “personal safety” (71%) and preserving energy (56%). Only half cited time savings and another 47% pointed to increased visibility.

As an example, a cyclist might run a red light to establish themself in the lane (the same reason we have leading pedestrian intervals) or because they’re concerned their bike won’t trigger a green light. For those reasons, it is legal in at least four states for cyclists to treat red lights as stop signs, and it is allowed to some extent in several others.

Safe infrastructure makes a difference

These kinds of behaviors are often because the infrastructure isn’t designed to meet cyclists’ needs. In the Danish study, the percent of cyclists who broke traffic rules increased three-fold when there was no bicycle infrastructure. Conditions are often worse here in the U.S. An analysis by Transportation for America suggests a little more than 1% of federal transportation funds support bike investments, despite recent data showing bike-related deaths have increased by more than 50% in the last decade.

Much more common types of investments—road widenings—often make conditions worse for cyclists by increasing traffic speeds and crossing distances. Several studies point to the ways that design standards and performance measures prioritize vehicle movement and make it difficult to install safer bicycle infrastructure. For instance, road designers may eliminate separated bike lanes or dedicated signals from a project if those measures would potentially degrade traffic flow or “level of service.”

Law enforcement is uneven

Finally, there are real concerns about people on bikes often being disproportionately targeted by police, especially when they are a person of color. One study in Chicago found bicycle citations are 3 times more likely in Latinx neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods and they are 8 times more likely in Black neighborhoods. The research tied this pattern to a lack of infrastructure in those places. Police in Los Angeles reportedly used bicycle traffic stops as a pretext for mostly unwarranted searches in Latinx neighborhoods. And police in New York disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx cyclists, often citing them with minor infractions like biking in a park or on the sidewalk. Bicycling Magazine notes similar patterns across the country.

Many would agree, the world might be a better place if everyone followed the rules. But it is critical that those rules are designed with everyone in mind and enforced fairly, both by officials and in public discourse.

Photo Credit: Brett Sayles via Pexels, unmodified. License.