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Why Do Drivers Hate Cyclists? It's Not Because We Behave Badly—Really

Most cyclists aren't jerks. But drivers tend to single out the few who are—perpetuating the forever war between road users.

[Photo: Flickr user radcliffe dacanay]

Why do drivers hate cyclists? Ask one, and the top answers are most likely to do with our behavior. Cyclists run red lights. We weave through traffic without looking and ride the wrong way down one-way streets.

First, let’s consider the drivers making these accusations. These drivers never use their cellphones while driving, they stick to all speed limits, they stop at all stop signs, and they never park in bike lanes, or turn right across a bike lane without looking, so they’re clearly well placed in the whole glass-house/stone-throwing scenario.

Back to these terrible cyclist. Are we really so bad? The data says that no, we are not only overwhelmingly decent folks, but we’re getting better. Slate’s Jim Saksa, "asshole cyclist," and "stereotypical Jersey driver," took a look at some figures from a 2011 report by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and found that average cyclist behavior is improving pretty fast.

[Photo: Flickr user Richard Masoner]

As part of its report, the Bicycle Coalition watched cyclists on the streets of Philadelphia and tallied typical behaviors—riding the wrong way down a one-way street, rising on the sidewalk. It then compared the results for 2006 and 2010, which is old data, but still valid. In 2006, 3% of riders when the wrong way on a one-way street, compared to just 1% in 2010. The sidewalk riders showed better improvement, from 50% of cyclists in 24% in 2006 to just 13% in 2010.

The improvements are good, but they came about mostly because of infrastructure. "Buffered bike lanes […] contributed to a marked decrease in sidewalk riding." says the report, showing that most people hop up on the sidewalk not to be jerks, but to escape the dangers of the road, where cyclists are bullied by drivers.

But even more important than the improvements (which occurred as cycling got more popular in the city) are the basic figures. Only 13% of cyclists use the sidewalk? Only 1% of cyclists, a number so small it’s almost not worth counting, rode the wrong way down a street? This is limited data, but that doesn’t sound like terrible behavior to me.

But we’ve all seen those cyclists. My favorite was in Barcelona, Spain, where I saw a woman on a bike-share bike, riding the wrong way up a busy one-way street which curves, wearing earbuds, and—I kid you not—typing on her phone. The thing is, drivers see one of these morons and assume we’re all the same. This is called the affect heuristic, "a fancy way of saying that people make judgments by consulting their emotions instead of logic," writes Saksa.

The affect heuristic explains how our minds take a difficult question (one that would require rigorous logic to answer) and substitutes it for an easier one. When our emotions get involved, we jump to pre-existing conclusions instead of exerting the mental effort to think of a bespoke answer.



When it comes to cyclists, once some clown on two wheels almost kills himself with your car, you furiously decide that bicyclists are assholes, and that conclusion will be hard to shake regardless of countervailing facts, stats, or arguments.

Worse, we tend to notice other bad cyclists and add them to our mental pool of evidence, all while ignoring the large majority of safe riders. One wonders how cyclists are perceived by drivers in places like the Netherlands, where the majority of urban trips are made by bike.

Perhaps, as cycling becomes more common in cities, these biases will change. It seems impossible, but maybe not. After all, all drivers are terrible, right? You can’t cross a street without almost getting run down, or nearly clipped by a driver rushing to make a light while they chat on the phone (I clearly have my own biases). And yet despite this, drivers still perceive each other as a fairly benign bunch. Perhaps they could learn to love cyclists, too.

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