Bike Psych: Can Bay Area Drivers and Cyclists Get Along?

Dutch Streets Segregate Car and Bikes with Curbs, Trees, Buffers and Phased Signals. Photo: Roger Rudick
Dutch streets segregate cars and bikes with curbs, trees, buffers and signals. Photo: Roger Rudick

Yesterday, John Robert Donovan, 41, of Mill Valley, accepted a plea-bargain that got him a misdemeanor conviction, two years of probation, 80 hours of community service, and a $4,134 fine plus court costs, as reported in the Marin Independent Journal. Last November, Donovan, who was driving a Tesla, reportedly got into a road rage incident with some cyclists on Shoreline Highway. When one of the cyclists flipped off his wife, Donovan overtook, cut them off, and braked—causing one of the cyclists to crash into his car. Donovan then drove off.

It seems not a week passes without some kind of car-versus-bike road rage incident.

Just last week, cyclist Danica Helb was pepper sprayed by a motorist. “I got a call from Sergeant O’Connor, who recorded a detailed description of the events,” she wrote in an email to Streetsblog. “He said he is investigating the case as a battery, and would be following up with the witnesses.”

And then there’s this madness from last year, captured on video. The driver nearly ran over a cyclist who was riding safely in the bike lane. But instead of apologizing, the motorist gets out and screams and kicks at the cyclist.

No doubt next week there will be another conflict. And another. People will continue to get hurt. Sometimes they are intentionally killed.

What’s really going on here?

Dr. Robert Nemerovski is a psychologist with practices in San Francisco and Marin who specializes in anger management. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the psychology of road rage. He’s also a cyclist. “I feel extremely threatened by automobiles–they’ve got metal and airbags and I’ve got nothing,” he said. “So when a car gets too close or cuts me off or doesn’t see me, even with my flashers and my obnoxious yellow outfit, it’s really a gut reaction that my life is in jeopardy.”

Nemerovski says the close calls with motorist trigger a cyclist’s basic fight-or-flight system. For his patients, he recommends using a “Threat, Injustice and Frustration” model (TIF). Under this treatment, patients who are prone to anger write down whether their rage is triggered by a perceived threat, an injustice, or frustration.

The latter two are why cyclists tend to trigger anger in drivers, especially when drivers find themselves unable to pass on a narrow road, such as in the recent Mill Valley case. “As a driver I get fed up because it’s an injustice, so they are frustrating my goals to get where I need to go,” he explained. Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s famous 1970s study into prisoner-guard dynamics showed, among other things, that anonymity makes people meaner. In other words, if one is ensconced in a thick shell of steel and tinted glass, anger is amplified. This effect was lampooned in the famous Disney cartoon, “Motor Mania.” The cartoon also hammers the point that “pedestrians” and “motorists” (and of course “cyclists”) are all the same people, which just makes the whole phenomenon all the more strange.

So what’s the solution?

“We work hard to educate thousands of people every year who bike and drive how to do so safely, legally and politely. But there will always be people that fall short of what we teach,” said Chris Cassidy, spokesman for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “That’s why it’s so important that planners design safe streets, which necessarily impacts the behavior of everyone along that stretch of road.”

Ultimately, if car-versus-bike anger comes down to fundamental human psychology, no amount of education, discipline or law enforcement is going to solve the problem completely. In other words, sharrows won’t help. The answer has got to be segregation through infrastructure that just keeps the cars and bikes away from each other whenever possible.

This is certainly the model that was adopted in the Netherlands, which has the best safety record in the world—when Dutch roads aren’t segregated, they are engineered to keep cars going slow enough so they can’t do much damage. Even intersections, through phased signals, keep cyclist and motorists apart. Dick van Veen, a Dutch bike engineer who is currently working in Ottawa, wrote that mixing modes on roads designed for speeds above about 20 mph is deemed unsafe and unethical.

It’s a depressing conclusion that the only way to prevent motorist and cyclists from regularly beating the hell out of each other is by separating them. But, psychologists and history tell us that will work. As we wait for the day when that system is built, Nemerovski has ten tips for staying calm on the road.

  • davistrain

    When my wife and I see people driving like they had “Hellhounds on their tail”, one of us will sometimes say, “The hospital must have called” and the other will answer, “Yep, his brain transplant is ready.”

  • thielges

    Thanks for this excellent article Roger. One other source of motorist anger seems to be the assumption that motorists have priority. Most bicyclists have heard motorists shout “get off the road” or “get to the side of the road”. I chalk this up to mostly misinformation about the actual rules of the road. That and old style thinking that roads were made for cars exclusively. These motorists believe that they are right and they use that stance to mete out threats and punishment.

    Every once and a while I catch up to such a motorist at a stoplight and ask them to look up relevant info on terms like “door zone” or “directional positioning” so they get some impartial info on how roads actually work. Not sure whether any of that has an effect though.

  • Gezellig

    In such situations my mom has always said, “oh, that must be because they’re more important than everyone else.”

    (Even as a little kid I got and loved the deep sarcasm in that statement).

  • Andy Chow

    Drivers and cyclists can get along, as long as more drivers having experience in riding bikes. I bet that some of you who ride bikes also drive from time to time and that you won’t exhibit aggressive behaviors toward cyclists.

    I don’t see the Dutch solution right for San Francisco as a whole. Amsterdam is a very flat city whereas San Francisco is a hilly one, a 4 foot wide segregated path isn’t wide enough for cyclists to pass each other, which is bound to happen especially uphill. I think varying prioritization of parallel streets like Valencia, Mission, South Van Ness for different modes will do more to balance different needs.

  • Chris J.

    What follows is probably the typical driver’s perspective of bicyclists. This is coming from a comedian, so I’m not sure if this is an attempt to be funny or not (in my opinion, it falls flat as a joke):

  • Chris J.

    I heard a new one a few days ago while I was walking across Dolores in a cross walk with my parents. The driver yelled out the window, “hurry up” as he sped past us when we reached the midpoint of the street.

  • Gezellig

    4′ would indeed not be wide enough but the Dutch minimum for separated paths is at least 2m (6.5′) wide.

    In addition, while SF has many hills it’s important to point out that a city that has a goal of 20% overall trips by bike. And to get to overall 20% you don’t need 20% modeshare in, say, Twin Peaks. After all, compare a topographical map of SF:

    With a population density one:

    While hills will be an issue for some people not riding a bike, it doesn’t explain why a full 93-94% of people in SF currently aren’t hopping on bikes to get around. The lack of comprehensive low-stress networks is the single-biggest factor.

    The low-hanging fruit is attracting a sizable minority of the ~67% of bike-curious (“Interested But Concerned”) people making all those little trips within 1-3 miles who’d like to hop on a bike more but would prefer it look a bit more like this:

    Than this:

    Btw, don’t forget that despite the stereotypes, the Netherlands is actually no stranger to inclines–especially in its hilly southeastern regions, where grades of 10% and above are not uncommon. Believe it or not, this is the Netherlands:

    There are even biking guides for such terrain (“bergop” = “uphill”):

    As David Hembrow points out, even in hilly Limburg, bike modeshare of ~30% is not uncommon:

    While 30% is still lower than most other places in the Netherlands (and hills may indeed be part of the reason), it shows the kinds of modeshare that can be achieved even in places with hills when the proper infrastructure is put into place.

    Back to SF, when hills do impede core areas, there are already a fair amount of possible strategies to deal with local reality, such as SF’s famous Wiggle:

    This is pretty much *the* way to get from Market to Golden Gate Park/Haight/Sunset/Richmond/etc. with very little incline. Its popularity has only been enhanced by progressive rounds of infrastructure appealing to more than just the Strong & Fearless, as evidenced by bike counts and certainly anecdotal evidence such as that documented in the video above.

    I don’t think there’s much demand for a protected intersection on SF’s Twin Peaks, Portland’s West Hills, or the Berkeley Hills, for example, nor should we really be worrying much about those low-density, low-bike-demand areas.

    I think the clear focus is the low-hanging fruit of building out #minimumgrid spine networks amongst the most vibrant corridors of these kinds of cities that are very flat yet still have at best halfhearted bike infrastructure at this point:

    Financial District, SF, current:

    what could be:

    Polk St, currently:

    What could be (or could’ve been):


  • SuperQ

    Valencia, Mission, and South Van Ness are all basically flat routes. Most of where cyclists go in SF are flat routes.

    The excuse of “It won’t work because of the hills” is based on a false premise.

  • RichLL

    Motorists do not have priority, as you say. But faster moving traffic typically does. As an example in California you are supposed to pull over if there are five or more vehicles lined up behind you. There is a concept of “obstructing traffic” if one road user is going slower than the prevailing flow of traffic. Freeways even have minimum speeds as well as maximum speeds. And slower traffic is generally instructed to keep to the right.

    In the city cyclists can often keep up with the flow, because the average traffic speed in much of SF is probably no more than 10 mph. So “taking a lane” isn’t always a problem.

    But if you are cycling slowly, either because that is how you ride or you are going uphill, then there is an argument that you should keep right to make it easier for faster traffic to pass. Whether technically legal or not, you will be perceived as riding inconsiderately or dangerously if you take the lane, ride slowly and hold everyone else up. Or cause passing vehicles to cross the center line.

  • Some drivers feel sure that the roads have been paid for by drivers, and bicyclists are freeloaders who just get in the way and are annoying. (In fact, local roads are funded almost entirely through property and sales taxes, which everyone pays.)

    The funny thing is, if you point out to these drivers that roads are really expensive, and ask how and when exactly they paid their share, they couldn’t tell you. But they’re enraged about it!

  • That guy sounds like an angry, self-important prick. #justsayin

  • Alicia

    Motorists do not have priority, as you say. But faster moving traffic typically does.

    In theory, those are two different things. In practice, they’re the same the vast majority of the time. So this statement is a contradiction in terms.

    Freeways even have minimum speeds

    Few, if any other streets do.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Car drivers threaten the lives of cyclists and then react with shock when the reaction is anger. Most car drivers are such self absorbed losers, they barely even realize that anyone else exists.

  • murphstahoe

    I chalk this up to mostly misinformation about the actual rules of the road.

    I hate to attribute to malice something that can be attributed to stupidity, but I believe it’s malice. The reason they don’t know the rules of the road is because they have no interest in finding out if the rules do not favor them.

  • RinSF

    Most are convinced that the gas tax, which is the government reaching into their pocket and denying them the cheap gas they rightfully deserve, covers all the costs of road construction and maintenance.

  • murphstahoe

    Gas is $2.39 a gallon in Santa Rosa. Cheaper than milk.

  • thielges

    Rich – I’m aware of the “pull over if you are obstructing traffic” rule. In practice it never happens in during my urban bicycling. (and rarely occurs when bicycling in rural roads). That’s because the streets where I take the lane are either multi-lane in each direction (where the obstructing traffic rule does not apply) or on street segments that are too short to accumulate a tail of traffic behind.

    Still motorists are enraged that a little bicycle is taking the whole lane. And seems just too doggone hard to change lanes to the left to pass safely. Much easier to lay on the horn and shout. Auto-catharsis?

  • thielges

    Heh, yeah. Willful ignorance: the superpower of religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, and bullies.

  • PaleoBruce

    In addition, many feel that they are entitled to store their automobile for free in a lane of the public road, while simultaneously saying that bicyclists should stay in their bicycle lane (that couldn’t be built because the public road lane is reserved for free storage of their cars).

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    The problem is that there is never any place to safely ride a bike while “keeping to the right” because riding in the door zone of parked cars is incredibly dangerous! Zigzagging a bicycle between the driving lane and loading zones where there aren’t parked cars is also very dangerous. When there’s not room for a car to safely pass a bicycle in the same lane, then biking on the right side of the lane only encourages drivers to try to dangerously pass the bicycle. We need more bike lanes, and protection barriers for those bike lanes because bicycles and high speed vehicles riding in the same lane is inherently dangerous.

  • Americans are bombarded with advertising persuading them that cars make them powerful, safe, desirable and even virile. (Most car ads are directed at men.) 10% of all advertising dollars spent are to sell us motor vehicles. We then borrow enormous amounts of money to purchase a vehicle that depreciates the second we drive it off the lot. The unwritten social contract is that the price of the car includes the right to park it pretty much everywhere for free and drive it in a quick, pleasurable, carefree fashion. Because bicyclists and pedestrians obstruct this unwritten privilege, they violate the contract, an act the driver experiences as both illegitimate and unjust. The congestion that other vehicles cause violates it, too, but that can’t be helped because those drivers paid the same price of admission and so deserve to be on the roads just as much. So pedestrians and bicyclists get all the anger and frustration created by congestion vented at them, or almost all of it.

    While bicyclists and pedestrians annoy drivers, drivers endanger and kill pedestrians and bicyclists. (Basic physics means bicyclists don’t come close to endangering pedestrians the way car drivers do. See “The Best Tool for the Job–SUV, Bicycle or NFL Linebacker.” )

    I realize from behind a windshield, it appears the primary function of streets is to move cars around as efficiently and conveniently for drivers as possible. This is false. Streets add value to a society by allowing communal passage on public land. But it’s what people do outside their cars, not in them, that is valuable. Trips made by car are not only valueless, they’re negative due to inflicted externalities such as road damage, pollution, and health impacts. Car drivers believe allowing them to pass quickly and efficiently represents less of their time wasted, a benefit to society. But this is also false. The highest benefit to society is not movement, but human interaction. The faster cars move, the less human interaction there is per block. The greater the volume and speed and noise of traffic, the less neighbors know each other, the less children have range of movement, the greater the asthma and cancer rates, the less people get out and walk, the less people visit local businesses, and the more dangerous a neighborhood is. The more people walk in a neighborhood, the safer, healthier and economically resilient it becomes. Drivers have no inherent right to destroy neighborhoods to get more quickly to their own. The time a driver saves adds little value to the common good, especially if it discourages others from walking or biking. In fact, slower private vehicle speeds would probably encourage a driver to drive less and to walk and shop and visit service providers more in his/her neighborhood, benefiting society.

    After a clean water supply and a functional sewage system, access to safe walking is the number one public health measure a city can take. Next would be designing streets to encourage walking and biking and actively discourage driving for trips under two miles. Walking or biking 30 minutes a day significantly reduces occurrence (by 40 – 60%) of heart disease, a
    half-dozen forms of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, depression,
    osteoporosis, stroke, and high blood pressure. It boosts the immune system, helps the average person fall and stay asleep, and combats arthritis and lower back pain. It’s the best wonder drug there is, and it’s free to all, if only we didn’t design our streets to make walking and biking stressful and dangerous under the premise that car drivers have a greater right to our streets than anyone else.

    Remember, as a taxpayer, every pedestrian and bicyclist you see saves you money. Every car and even every transit rider you see costs you money.

    This should be the order of precedence on our streets:
    1) Sidewalks wide enough to accommodate all pedestrian traffic comfortably.
    2) For any street with a speed limit over 20 mph, protected bike lanes wide enough for two bikes to ride simultaneously. If your grandmother wouldn’t ride in it, it’s not protected enough.
    3) If there’s room after 1 & 2 are met, one lane of vehicle traffic.
    4) If there’s more room, another lane of vehicle traffic.
    5) If there’s room after 1-4 and it’s a major transit route, one or two transit-only lanes.
    6) Before any kind of parking is considered, all intersections should be daylighted with no parking possible within 15 feet.
    7) If there’s room after 1 – 6 are met, enough commercial loading zones and passenger pick up/drop off zones so that no delivery truck or taxi *ever* needs to double park.
    8) If there’s still room after 1 – 7, in commercial districts metered parking until 9pm for up to 4 hours.
    9) If there’s even more room, private car storage via Residential Permit Parking 9am to 11pm, priced to reflect actual market rate. (Allow non-residents to easily purchase a day pass for $10-$20, depending on neighborhood parking demand.) Spend all money from residential permits and day passes on local neighborhood amenities. (Neighborhood parks, community gardens, public plazas, etc.)

    I would favor eliminating the gas tax in exchange for a vehicle mileage tax, the rate set by what was actually spent, per mile, the previous year on all federal, state and county roads, and 80% of what was spent on local roads. Local municipalities could cover the other 20% from local taxes. (There should also be a carbon fee on all fossil fuel combustion, but that shouldn’t go towards roads–rather rail, transit, energy efficiency, etc.) I would favor eliminating the vehicle license fee in exchange for cities and towns being allowed to set all curbside parking prices at market rate (for RPP zones, by auctioning off only as many parking permits as there are actual parking spaces) and being allowed to tax surface parking lots at the average rate that improved property is taxed in their jurisdiction. This wouldn’t capture all the pollution, climate change and health impacts that cars inflict, but it would be enough to cut car driving in half.

  • murphstahoe

    “I would favor eliminating the gas tax in exchange for a vehicle mileage tax, the rate set by what was actually spent, per mile,”

    This removes the incentive for more fuel efficient cars. And the simplest way to make a car more fuel efficient is to make it lighter – and lighter cars cause less road damage. I understand you compensate for this with the carbon fee, but the whole mess seems more convoluted to get through our political system than simply raising the gas tax.

  • Gezellig

    Btw a bit more on the width question:

    The standard width for one way cycle paths in the Netherlands is a minimum of 2.5 m ( 8′). Wider ones are not uncommon. For bidirectional use the minimum is 3.5 m (11 ‘), but most modern cycle paths are 4 m (13 ‘) or more.

    You will occasionally find some older bikeways in the NL at 2m (6.5′) width but this is considered subpar/archaic and would not be built today. Older designs in the NL have been steadily replaced and upgraded wherever possible to favor greater width and greater separation from motor vehicles.

    Also note that 2.5m (over 8′) is the *bare minimum*.

  • RichLL

    I’ve never understood how a “mileage tax” could be implemented and enforced. Would you have to declare the odometer readings with your 1040? Would a “Mileage Inspector” perform a yearly check as part of smog? And how would you stop people tampering with the odometer, which still happens despite allegedly tamper-proof odometers?

  • RichLL

    Alicia, I gave the freeway rule as just one of several examples of how the law supports the notion that a road user can go too slow, as well as too fast.

    Ziggy and thiegles, I understand all that. I was simply explained why you guys are being yelled at. It’s not because you are a bike but because you are going too slow for the prevailing flow of traffic.

    I’d agree the solution is separation of different classes of road user, where possible. We already do that with pedestrians because we do not want all traffic going at 4 mph

  • thielges

    Rich – it is more than just slowing down drivers. If that were the case then drivers would be yelling at other impediments that slow them down like stoplights, traffic jams, and train crossing gates.

  • murphstahoe

    I was simply explained why you guys are being yelled at. It’s not because you are a bike but because you are going too slow for the prevailing flow of traffic.

    Not any more proper a response than the cyclist on Panoramic who flipped off the driver.

  • Christopher Childs

    If all of the Caltrain accidents are any indication, people aren’t happy with the gates either.

  • murphstahoe
  • Chris J.

    Not only that, they also feel entitled to park in and completely block the bike lane for minutes at a time!

    Can you imagine what would happen with the reverse, say a bicyclist stopped in the middle of a car lane while texting / using their phone, etc? Drivers would be outraged and wouldn’t stand it for a second.

  • Chris J.

    Does this also explain why car drivers consistently “drive” at 0 mph (aka park) in the middle of bike lanes?

  • jd_x

    It’s not an either-or: we can (and should) have both a mileage tax (because no matter how efficient your car is, how much you drive causes the same damage to the roads and the same damage to health via collisions) and a gas tax (because how efficient your car is has an effect on air pollution.

  • Volker Neumann

    I absolutely want to get a group of bike commuters to just hang out in the right most “main” lane of Howard or Folsom in SOMA during the commute hours. But only as long as some car is parked in the bike lane on the same block. When the cops show up (as they will) tell them to go make the the car move first since the driver had been there longer. ‘twould make a great video the way it plays out in my head.

  • SF_Abe

    “The highest benefit to society is not movement, but human interaction.”

    Yes! This!
    I’m glad the LOS metric is being phased out (supposedly) but there are still countless laws that enshrine swift vehicle movement as the ultimate goal of any street and road network. The result appears to be long trips at high speeds, compared to short trips at human speeds, and not much difference in the time it takes to commute or run errands.

  • RinSF

    It doesn’t matter what the facts are, it FEELS like it’s an exorbitant tax which must pay for all the roads, probably with some waste leftover to pay for soccer leagues for vegan unwed Latino mothers.

  • RichLL

    Too long to review in detail but the conclusions drawn in section 8.0 reinforce the notion that there are several practical, privacy and financial issues with such a proposal.

  • RichLL

    I guess the question is this. Do drivers yell more at fit fast cyclists who keep up with traffic flow? Or yell more at older nervous drivers who do not?

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    I get. So the logical alternative when the city has constantly refused to install protected bike lanes because of car-first interests would be to put 20mph speed limits downhill and 5mph speed limits uphill on all those streets with sharrows, and enforce that with speed cameras on every block? That would probably keep drivers from yelling at cyclists!

  • PaleoBruce

    > I’ve never understood how a “mileage tax” could be implemented and enforced.

    This is a little funny. Because we presently have an [income tax credit for several types of driving](, that is measured by the mile, which seems to be enforced with no sweat.

  • Greg

    “You’re a self-important angry prick!”

    “Well you’re a self absorbed loser!”

    Great discussion here.

  • RichLL

    The mileage tax credit works because only a relatively small percentage of drivers claim it. And because it is claimed by the tax payer via a self-assessment of the miles driven, and only a small percentage of those are audited.

    The idea here would impose a tax on all drivers and presumably self-assessments of mileage would be under-stated, just like they are over-stated when claiming a credit.

    You have solved the implementation problem – self-assessment and trust. You haven’t solved the enforcement problem. You’d need an army of mileage auditors and a methodology for who to choose for audits.

  • NoeValleyJim

    SF Gate called, they want their commenter back.



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