Quality Bike Infrastructure Decreases “Scofflaw” Riding

Image: People for Bikes

Colorado Public Radio aired an enlightened story this morning that’s worth a listen (or read) for its treatment of the bicycle-versus-car narrative that permeates the Denver transportation discussion. Reporter Nathaniel Minor interviewed CU Denver Civil Engineer Professor Wesley Marshall, who is researching why people on bikes sometimes break traffic laws.

Here’s a snippet:

“Not all bicyclists that break the law are these hooligans that are out to be sort of anti-society,” said Wesley Marshall… who recently completed a survey of more than 18,000 cyclists, motorists and pedestrians. “I think a lot of people do it for very practical reasons.”

Take a cyclist who runs a red light. Consider, Marshall says, that if they don’t, they will be stuck battling a 3,000-pound car for a spot on the road. If they do, they have time to establish themselves in a lane.

Everyone breaks traffic laws, Marshall said. It’s just that cyclists are judged more harshly.

Bikers who pedal through a stop sign do it for basically the same reason drivers go a few miles over the speed limit — it’s a matter of convenience, says Marshall. But for some reason speeding is generally the more socially accepted of the two illegal activities, even though it’s much more dangerous.

The faster a motorist goes, the harder it is to avoid a collision, and the greater the risk that a crash will prove fatal. Someone struck by a driver traveling 30 mph has a 55 percent likelihood of survival. At 40 mph, the survival rate drops to 15 percent, according to the UK Department of Transportation.


And guess where a disproportionate share of Denver’s bike collisions occur? Forty-two percent happen on speedy urban arterials without bike facilities like Broadway, Colfax, and Federal, according to the Department of Public Works, much higher than arterials’ share of the street network. That’s what happens when city streets are designed for cars, without taking walking and biking into account.

Without dedicated space for bikes, some cyclists will also opt for the sidewalk, which is against the law and causes conflicts with pedestrians. But quality infrastructure can change that behavior. Honolulu installed its first protected bike lane earlier this month and sidewalk riding dropped 65 percent.

CPR also interviewed Megan Hottman, a Golden lawyer and bike racer who represents people on bikes:

Apart from winning cases, Hottman said following traffic laws is vital to gaining the respect of motorists. She does admit that’s a tall order for cyclists who have to use a system built for cars. And Marshall said infrastructure affects how cyclists behave on the roads.

“If we give these people a system that’s built for and really meant for cars, you might see more people breaking the law,” he said. Conversely, he said, cyclists are more likely to obey signs and signals when they are bike-specific.”

More bike riders are coming. The question is: Will they have safe infrastructure, or will streets still be designed to marginalize them?

I was at an Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation meeting in March to inform people of the city’s still unreleased bike safety study. The tenor of the conversation after the presentation was divisive. Drivers wanted bike riders to stop “blowing through” stop signs while bike riders asked that drivers not roll through them. There was general trepidation, also, about building infrastructure that would encourage better and safer road behavior, because it might take away car parking or motor vehicle lanes.

As Denver bike planner Rachael Bronson told Streetsblog Denver yesterday, bike riders are drivers and drivers ride bikes. It’s not a clean-cut division. Framing the issue as cars-versus-bikes obscures the broader benefits of bike infrastructure and road diets: They slow traffic and make everyone on the street safer, not just people on bikes.