The problem with cyclists – and how to fix it

The problematic behaviour of cyclists has received an increasing level of attention in the Danish media over the past few years. But what are these problems actually about? And why can’t the cyclists just behave better in traffic?

Recognising the need to investigate the nature of cyclist behaviour as well as the actual extend of the problems, the Danish Cyclists’ Federation commissioned IS IT A BIRD to investigate how road users – cyclists included – perceive cyclist behaviour. As we discovered, doing the right thing as a cyclist isn’t easy. It turns out, that the real problem is that cyclists lack some crucial elements – infrastructure and communication – that would make it easier for everyone to behave more thoughtfully in traffic. In short, cyclists lack the things that nudge us in the right direction.

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The perceived problematic behaviour of cyclists

The Danish Cyclists’ Federation commissioned IS IT A BIRD to investigate how road users – cyclists included – perceive cyclist behaviour. In our research, we combined a quantitative understanding of the extent of the problems with deep qualitative insights into the experiences and motives of the individual road user. The overall conclusion was clear: All road users experience problems with cyclists.

If you have ever had to get from A to B through the streets of Copenhagen, or any other city in Denmark for that matter, you’ll easily point out problematic behaviour amongst cyclists. It’s easy to demonize cyclists, but what are the roots of this problematic behaviour? In the following, we will outline some of the underlying conditions that cause problematic behaviour – and explain how some simple nudging initiatives can make traffic safer for everyone.

 

There are three types of road users – but only designated space for two

We categorized three types of road users: motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. The rules are clear on how and where cars are supposed to be on the roads, and pedestrians typically have the sidewalks to themselves. But problems arise when it comes to the cyclists: they are the only type of road user without a designated space on our streets – particularly in intersections.

From the perspective of the motorist, a cyclist is vulnerable and shouldn’t be out on the street amongst cars. From the perspective of the pedestrian, on the other hand, the cyclist is a potentially dangerous quasi-motorist when on the sidewalk. The consequence of this is that when there is no bicycle lane, cyclists become unpredictable road users who have to navigate in traffic at their own discretion. No matter what option they choose, the cyclists enter spaces of conflict with other road users and become the cause for uncertainty, distress, or potential danger.

 

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Communication is key – but cyclists lack a language

As most cyclists will tell you, the process of communicating on a bicycle is, at best, arbitrary. Motorists can with the use of lights, mirrors, and placement signal their intent to other road users – and they are required by law to do so. This is not possible for cyclists, who are left to communicate through hand signals and eye contact. Both of these ways of communicating are difficult to do in the dark, and hand signals have a number of problems, namely that they are only used while moving and that they require the cyclist to let go of the handlebars. In any case, neither of these modes of communication is used in a consistent manner and they are rarely enforced by the police.

Other road users are therefore left in uncertainty about the intention of cyclists and have to rely on guessing when they navigate through potentially dangerous situations. It is easy to understand how this can enforce an experience of irritation and insecurity in relation to cyclists.

 

When following the rules is not always thoughtful

These underlying factors make getting around in traffic a complex matter. Lacking these crucial elements – infrastructure and communication – forces cyclists to occasionally break the rules in order to keep themselves safe and make traffic flow. All types of road users agreed that a competent road user isn’t someone who drives according to the letter of the law. Rather, it is someone who drives according to the circumstances. This means that sometimes breaking the law is seen as both desirable and considerate.

The problem is that rule breaking also makes road users feel insecure in traffic. And it generates the lack of predictability that gave cyclists their bad reputation to begin with. So how can we make it easier to make the right choice in traffic?

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Everyone wants to be considerate – and nudging makes it easier

It is clear that cyclists aren’t just ‘behaving inconsiderably’ – they are merely trying to navigate competently in areas where their designated space is ambiguous or non-existing using the few communicative tools available to them.

Based on our extensive research, we posit that there are some simple ways we can minimize the unpredictable behaviour of cyclists and thus increase safety on the roads. The answer is twofold: First, make it easier for cyclists to make choices that other road users can predict. Second, make it easier for cyclists to communicate effectively with others on the road.

We believe that the way to do this is nudging by way of infrastructure.

Examples: Designated spaces for cyclists on the road increase predictability and eases communication through placement. Increased lighting on bicycle paths makes communication through hand signals and eye contact easier. Formalize the rules in case of roadwork so that cyclists know exactly what to do when the bike path is blocked. Reduce the number of unenforced bicycle laws and concentrate on upholding the ones left. Improve signage for cyclists in order to minimize confusion on the road and direct traffic flow.

In short, the infrastructural solutions of the future must be made taking into account the perspective of the cyclist. What all these suggestions have in common is that they in one way or another nudge the individual cyclists towards behaviour that not only makes sense for him or her self, but also make the traffic flow more predictable for other road users – and thus makes the traffic safer for everyone.

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