How Much Do Bicyclists Really Slow Down Drivers?

530050555_e1bd487327_m.jpgWhat’s really slowing these cars down? Probably not bikes. Photo by richardmasoner via Flickr.

What is it about bicycles that drives some motorists so crazy?

Anyone who’s ever ridden a bike more than a handful of times in this country has experienced it. The honking, the rude remarks, the vehicles speeding past with drivers shouting “get out of my way.”

There’s no doubt that drivers sometimes have to slow down because there’s a cyclist in the road ahead of them. But Streetsblog Network member M-Bike.org wants to put the inconvenience in perspective:

Throughout the Detroit suburbs, cyclists can expect to hear the occasional verbal assault from motorists. The typical theme is “you don’t belong on the road” or “you’re in my way.”…But are motorists really that concerned about being occasionally slowed due sharing the road with cyclists? How much time do Metro Detroit motorists “lose” to cyclists on the roads?

Rather than attempt to answer that question, it’s perhaps more important to step back and judge all the issues that delay motorists.

How much time do motorists lose to:

  • Road construction
  • Stop lights and stop signs
  • Speed limits
  • Rush hour traffic
  • School buses loading and unloading children
  • At-grade train crossings
  • Inclement weather
  • Emergency vehicles
  • Slow downs due to vehicle crashes
  • Other cars on the road

Motorists’ time lost to bicyclists is certainly minor compared with most of these. So are these same motorists yelling at school buses and emergency vehicles to get off the road?…

And speaking of travel delays, this past week an apparently careless driver caused a horrific tanker explosion on I-75 which caused over a $1 million in damage and has left the expressway closed for days. This portion of I-75 carries 160,000 vehicles per day and the closure is causing many minutes of delay per vehicle.

This single crash has likely caused more motorist delay than all the cyclists in Metro Detroit combined — ever.

Of course, some people don’t let school buses slow them down. But M-Bike definitely has a point.

This post reminded me of something I recently said to a friend who, like me, uses a bike for transportation in New York: Why is it that drivers in this city, who frequently tout the “personal freedom” and speed of their chosen transportation mode, are the angriest, most impatient people on the streets? I sometimes think that drivers hate on bicyclists so much because, consciously or subconsciously, they envy the freedom that being a bicyclist represents. And lest there’s any confusion, I say that from the perspective of someone who has spent many (too many) hours behind the wheel of a car.

Of course, cars can slow you down when you’re on a bike, too. When that happens to me, I try to be philosophical about it and not succumb to the anger that is too often rampant on asphalt.

Your thoughts?

Other good posts from around the network: Seattle Transit Blog has a postmortem on the first day of the city’s new Link light-rail system. The Dirt reports on a new article from The Economist that says perhaps high-polluting people, rather than high-polluting nations, should be the focus of carbon-reduction efforts. And for those of you who wondered if chic cyclists wear helmets, they do, at least some of the time. Just ask Let’s Go Ride a Bike (scroll down for the proof).

  • ZA

    This seems to me a question about optima for each transport mode. At any given moment, people seem to express themselves in one of two groups: lead-feet or slowpokes, whether they’re in cars, buses, trains, bikes, on foot, etc. Anarchic mixing between modes and types only works to a limited extent (such as the clustering of cyclists into a bike box to optimize road space for all users; a similar function for traffic lights that create cells), before the the sheer mass of people and vehicles will bring all traffic to the slowest link in the chain (assuming manslaughter isn’t accepted practice).

    The ideal then is for each transport mode to have their own designate lane/space, with enough room to facilitate the slow vs. fast in the same mode. Of course we just don’t have that kind of space in cities, so we have to be more clever. Lights, designated lanes on shared roads, designated boulevards for a primary traffic type (where possible) for the entire road, bike boxes, and pedestrian zones are all different ways of being clever.

    I also think there’s something to be said for shared roads between drivers and cyclists, that cuts down on that V8-powered acceleration to the stop sign, which only trades more emissions for more stress for everyone in the transaction.

  • mcas

    As for the conscious/unconscious jealousy of drivers– that’s my favorite line to say to myself when I’m harassed: “It must really suck to hate your form of transportation so much that it makes you angry.” My commute is one of my favorite parts of my day– I feel bad for anyone who feels otherwise.

  • cfhanes

    I think the issue is not how much time is lost by auto drivers, that is minimal. The issue seems to be (based on my experience) that when the driver must slow down to the bicyclist’s speed, that this feels very unnatural. To the driver it seems as if he is traveling at an agonizingly slow speed.

    Another aspect is that (from the perspective of the driver) the bicyclist sometimes seems to impede vehicle traffic when this is not necessary.

    The solution: education, make this issue part of driver training. If you learn to cope with this situation, and that you actually don’t lose a lot of time, then you will not be upset and angry when it happens. Drivers should also be trained that the bicyclist is allowed (at least in SF) to take the full lane if this is necessary to travel safely. Maybe having student drivers try riding a bicycle in traffic situations would be helpful.

  • Jon

    I have certainly seen bicyclists and motorists behaving badly. As a bus driver, it took some time to figure out how to give cyclists safe space and still do what I’m there to do. It’s been my experience that most drivers react badly to being forced to think through what they are doing. I don’t know why, but most people seem to think that driving should be “natural” and done without thought. I don’t see anything natural about driving.

  • SFresident

    My pop-psychological suspicion is that most of these other components (trains, traffic, etc..) have become naturalized parts of the transportation landscape and that these sorts of events are internalized by drivers and pass-by almost unconsciously. Bicyclists are still viewed as ‘out of place’ on the road by most drivers and when they get in the way it’s snaps the driver out of zombie-mode as they consciously deal with slowing down.

    The solution is to make bicycling part of the common landscape – bike lanes, more bicyclists, and increased education are all components of this process.

  • Nick

    When you run Stop Signs on a bike, motorists complain that bicyclists don’t follow the law (even though it saves them time by not further delaying them).

    When you practice complete observance of the law (a full stop with one foot down), drivers get even more irate and think you are doing it just to get under their skin.

  • Chris

    I think that the solution is for cities to plan for adequate bike lanes and the like. The things on that list are a completely different type of delay. Stop signs, traffic lights, speed limits? Those are necessary to enable the actual flow of traffic–without traffic lights it’d take way longer to get anywhere. To drivers, a cyclist on the road is someone who is potentially causing them delay for no reason.

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