Study Shows That Cyclists Break Rules Way Less Than Drivers

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CC BY 2.0. Stop the presses! Cyclists stop at red light! / Lloyd Alter

But it is Danish, so it should be taken with a grain of Læsø Salt.

What's wrong with that photo up top? It's just a bunch of cyclists stopped at a traffic light. Except it is a T intersection with no pedestrians visible, and no cyclist has ever stopped for a red light at an empty T intersection in the history of cycling, because there is really no logical reason to. In France, they even changed the laws so you don't have to.

more cyclists stopped

Cyclists patiently waiting for lights/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But in Copenhagen, you see people stopped at red lights all the time, because in most cases, the rules all make sense, and the city is designed for the needs of people who bike as well as people who drive. So people generally accept the rules because they understand who they are for and why they are there. As Chris Turner wrote:

Cars aren’t people, and their needs are not only not the same but often stand (and move) in conflict. This insight — not superhighways for bikes — is Copenhagen’s greatest contribution to the global conversation about urban sustainability.

YES. Design for different needs and you get different reactions. So when Carlton Reid writes that in Denmark, "less than 5% of cyclists break traffic laws while riding yet 66% of motorists do so when driving," it's because the traffic laws make sense. Reid continues (my emphasis)

The study was carried out for the Danish government by consulting firm Rambøll using video cameras sited at major junctions in Danish cities, including Copenhagen. It was found that just 4.9% of cyclists broke road rules when they were riding on cycleways. This rose to 14% of cyclists when there was no cycling infrastructure present. (Want fewer scofflaw cyclists in your city? Install cycleways.)

new york city

Lloyd Alter/ One way street in New York/CC BY 2.0

Exactly. You want people to obey the rules? Design infrastructure that actually makes sense for people, not just for cars. When I am in New York City I understand perfectly why everyone goes through red lights; they are on every single block and they are timed entirely for cars, so that on a bike you hit a red almost every time. When everything is designed around cars, it's no wonder that people on bikes do stuff like this.

credit: Chris Turner

© Chris Turner

In Copenhagen, there are bike highways where the lights are timed for the bikes, not the cars. The lights are not every couple of hundred feet. There are footrests at the intersection so that it is a relaxing stop. No wonder people are happy to do it.

Bad infrastructure design leads to bad behavior on bikes.

In almost every case it is not a legal problem, it is a design problem. I have written about this before, complaining about New York City and its stupid one-way avenues, when a tweeter responded that the law is the law:

No. This is not a legal issue; it is fundamentally about bad design. Cyclists don't go through stop signs or ride the wrong way because they are evil law-breakers; neither are most drivers who go over the speed limit. Drivers do it because the roads are designed for cars to go fast, so they go fast. Cyclists go through stop signs because they are there to make cars go slow, not to stop bikes. TreeHugger Emeritus Ruben commented on a post about this:

Palmerstion Avenue

Lloyd Alter/ Palmerston Avenue, Toronto, with stop signs every 266 feet to slow down cars/CC BY 2.0

I learned in design school that The User is Always Right. It doesn't matter what you think you have designed, the user's behaviour tells you what your product or system actually IS.... A great example is how roads are designed for 70 km/h, but then signed for 30 km/h – and then we wag our fingers at the speeders. These drivers are behaving perfectly normally for the system. If you wanted people to drive 30 km/h, then YOU FAILED. The people are not broken, YOUR SYSTEM IS BROKEN.

The real lesson from the Copenhagen study isn't that cyclists are good and drivers are bad, but that if you design your infrastructure for everyone, then the laws are seen to be fair to everyone, and the majority will follow them. If the system isn't broken, neither are the laws.