Why Drivers Might Hate Bicyclists

Michael Lewyn's picture

I spent the last two weeks of December in Atlanta, living (mostly) with my parents.  My life in Atlanta is much more car-dependent than my life in Jacksonville; in the latter city, I live a block from a bus stop, while in Atlanta, I live at least a mile from the nearest bus stop (and more importantly, near no sidewalks to take me to said bus stop).  So naturally, I drove everywhere in Atlanta.

And while driving, I noticed a couple of unusual things.  First, I noticed that unlike in my Jacksonville neighborhood, bicyclists actually tried to ride on the street rather than on sidewalks.*  Second, I noticed that I was beginning to get annoyed with bicyclists- to a much greater extent than I have ever been annoyed with pedestrians while driving.

A recent Planetizen article (http://www.planetizen.com/node/47339 ) suggests that motorist hostility to bicyclists is no more rational than motorist hostility to other nondrivers.  But I believe that the bicyclist/motorist relationship is different, for two reasons.

First, bicyclists affect motorist behavior more often.  Pedestrians rarely share space with motorists; they walk on sidewalks, cross the street, and then return to their customary state of invisibility.   By contrast, if someone is cycling in front of a motorist, the motorist must drive more slowly and be more careful as long as the cyclist is in front.  And if traffic is sufficiently congested that the driver cannot easily pass the bicyclist, this status quo might last awhile.  So the driver not only must go more slowly, but has a more difficult (and thus more annoying) experience where a cyclist is present.

Second, nearly all drivers are occasionally pedestrians- if only because drivers must walk in and out of parking lots. By contrast, many drivers rarely or never use a bicycle.  As a result, they have less empathy for cyclists, because they will never be in the same position as a cyclist.

Thus, it is only natural that as long as cyclists use the same streets as drivers, the driver/cyclist relationship will be a tense relationship- to a much greater extent than the relationship between drivers and other nondrivers.

*Which of course, is as it should be according to most local laws.   I have no opinion as to proper cycling practice on this issue. 

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



More of the picture

It is good for this discussion to get raised and addressed. Having worked on this issue while developing mobility education curriculum, it is something I've thought about extensively.

Your central point is that the inconvenience must be accompanied by empathy to avoid hostility. This point is quite solid, and it is a key rationale behind recommending that all driver training include significant time in a bicycle saddle riding in traffic.

But additionally, drivers who approach cyclists in the roadway face several sources of cognitive dissonance and uncertainty. (1) Though this is starting to change, few drivers were trained to understand that bicyclists have a right to the road. (2) Passing a bicyclist often involves crossing over the centerline or lane divider -- and there is typically no mention in driver licensing guides that it is permissible to pass a bicycle in a no-passing zone. (3) Drivers approaching cyclists from behind do not see a face. Research has suggested that drivers actually give more space when passing to cyclists who are not wearing a helmet. (4) The sight of a cyclist in traffic sometimes scares drivers who actually fear the possibility of hitting the cyclist. The father of a friend of mine told him when he was a young boy riding a bicycle that "the drivers are more afraid of you than you are of them."

Fear converts readily into hostility. Especially fear that is poorly understood. So, we need to do more to educate and address the uncertainty that drivers experience.

Hating Cyclists

Professor Lewyn-
Here is a subject for you to research. My hypothesis is that hostility toward cyclists is controlled by infastrucure.
I am a native of Kentucky, who lives and cycles in upstate NY. New York roads consistently have at least 12 foot lanes. I rarely interfere with passing cars. Drivers have no problem with my being on the road. In fact, they tend to be friendly.
Neither of these conditions are present in KY. The narrow roads in Ky. make the cyclist interfere with passing vehicles.
The other factor is the lack of the redneck culture in NYS.

Don't forget -- it's a felony

NYC's work to diversify the roads continues to produce multiple mode routes. As the density builds, maybe a few dedicated routes as well. I see more tandums, side-by-side and bike trucks, and small power assist vehicles every year. The NYC's public slogan for drivers is "share the road" but the subtext within the system is much more subtle.

One new example. trucks on bilke lanes are voraciously ticketed, and so they take a lane outside to produce excellent traffic calming on the speedy north/south routes.

While break through efforts like this are made (or discovered) in old urban centers like NYC, the main "alert but nerveous" message you point to is this:

"go ahead, hit a cyclist, it is a felony, the fine for the unsafe operation of a car is very steep, your licence will be suspended and you'll be one more driver off the road and into the subway where you belong and for a very long time"

The heros of the dense urban landscape are on two wheels, not four.

Reducing Bike-Car Conflicts

Let me suggest that the best way to reduce bike-car conflicts is the "green wave" - time the lights so traffic goes at 13 mph, as they have done on San Francisco's Valencia St. It is safer for pedestrians as well as for bicyclists, and it is more civilized for everyone.

Start by doing this on a network of bike boulevards, so bicycles have some streets where they can ride as part of ordinary traffic.


(But I don't think they will do this in Atlanta or Jacksonville.)

Charles Siegel

Don't Hate

Since you state that you have no opinion as to proper cycling practice (and it's obvious in your article) I would also suggest staying away from saying that drivers might "hate" cyclists in the road.

The inherent assumption that drivers have first rights to the road is surprising to read on this site. As is the assumption to ride on the sidewalk. That is not proper practice either.

As another commenter notes, driver training, more cyclists and better infrastructure would certainly improve the relationship of shared right of way and improve "conflicts".

Finally, the author can be thanked for demonstrating his misconceptions about cycling and driver behaviour for the benefit of readers, and hopefully can write a follow up piece about how it felt to go for a ride on the road.

Follow the pounds

I suspect that drivers hate cyclists because drivers are jealous — you will rarely see a fat everyday cyclist. I would bet that most drivers (moi included) are a bit on the tubby side and have feelings of guilt at not getting enough exercise.

That doesn't preclude the fact that -- like drivers -- there are some very rude cyclists who seem to want to show off at being cyclists.

In any case, "You Are How You Move," until you change modes.


Bikes, Cars, and Transit--Sharing the Roadway Network

There's another important aspect to Valencia Street's use as a bikeway, besides the green wave. That's the fact that San Francisco has optimized parallel streets for transit, bikes, and cars. Heavily commercial Mission St., one block east of Valencia has frequent trolley bus service, with long bus stops set up to accommodate articulated trolley buses. Then there's bike-oriented Valencia St. Muni, the transit agency, took its route off Valencia. One block west of Valencia is Guerrero St.--hilly, only a little commercial, fast. It works well for auto drivers. So the network accommodates all modes, as opposed to the places where bike improvements come at the expense of vehicle lanes, causing slowdowns not only for cars but for transit as well.

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