To make safer cities, ask why cyclists break the law

“If some of us violate traffic rules to stay safe, would we be more law-abiding if cities created safer spaces for us?” asks the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

Reporter Emily Badger examines the psychology of cyclists and, specifically why some of them break the law when riding.

She acknowledges that part of the problem is that they have to use an infrastructure that’s designed for cars, not bikes. But she also finds that across the country, the social norms among bicyclists vary.

These questions about sociology and infrastructure point to a more nuanced picture of what’s happening on city streets than most heated rhetoric — darn law-breaking bikers! — allows. Marshall, who co-directs the Active Communities Transportation Research Group with Kevin Krizek, wants to research this scofflaw behavior, why people say they do it (drivers and cyclists alike), and when they don’t.

As part of this research project, they and Ph.D. student Aaron Johnson and Savannah State’s Dan Piatkowski are running a survey that they hope will gather broad data on all of our behavior (go ahead and help science out here, even if you’re not a cyclist yourself).

Most of us, whatever mode we travel, break the law at some point, Marshall points out, whether we’re driving five miles over the speed limit, or crossing the street against the crosswalk. And yet, we tend not to treat lead-footed drivers with the same disapproval as cyclists who ride through stop signs, even though the former behavior is potentially more publicly harmful than the latter. Which raises another question: Are cyclists really more prolific scofflaws than drivers anyway?

She theorizes that if we put more work into understanding why bicyclists break the law when riding in cities, we could design safer cities.

There is some evidence, for instance, that cyclists may be less likely to ride the wrong way down one-way streets and more likely to wait at red lights when they’re given dedicated bike paths. This would make sense for a number of reasons.

“You’re treating the bikers well, you’re giving them a place they should be,” Marshall says. “You’re giving them respect in the transportation system.”

Maybe that makes cyclists more likely to respect the laws of that system in return. Or perhaps, by giving cyclists their own safe space, they don’t feel the need to head down one-way streets to bypass busy roads, or to blow through red lights to stay ahead of traffic.

If infrastructure influences how we behave, maybe if we want people to behave differently, we should change the infrastructure.