A CU Boulder doctoral candidate is studying ‘scofflaw bicycling’ and the sociological explanations of the cultural divide on the road
Aaron Johnson was riding his bike during the phone interview, which, in a strange way, reinforced his point about “scofflaw bicycling”—when bicyclists make rational yet technically illegal riding choices.
“It’s really about what’s considered—or not considered—acceptable bicycling behavior that creates most of the conflict between motorists and riders,” said Johnson, an avid cyclist and PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Talking on Bluetooth while riding down the Boulder Creek path doesn’t raise many eyebrows in Boulder, but on other clogged roads of the Colorado Front Range, bicycle riders flouting minor traffic laws for expedience seem to attract greater scorn and ridicule than other roadway users. After all, who doesn’t get annoyed watching a scofflaw two-wheeler roll through a light while motorists must wait it out?
Johnson has been researching the nature of conflict between motorists and bicyclists with Wesley Marshall, a CU Denver civil engineering professor, and Daniel Piatkowski, an assistant professor in community and regional planning at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. The three met in CU’s Active Communities Transportation Research Group when Piatkowski was a PhD student, and Johnson was just considering the topic for his dissertation research.
“It all started with this idea that riders are perceived negatively in the public eye,” Johnson said. “That was the observation that got us started. Many news stories and entertainment media portrayals of bicyclists suggest that they are rude, don’t follow the rules of the road, or they ride in a way that puts themselves or others in danger. We wondered, is that true? And if so, why?”
“I’m new to biking as a research subject, and was worried that there wasn’t going to be enough substance there, but luckily I was proven wrong.”
Actually, getting the substance of the research was the most difficult step, Johnson explained. With bicycling composing only 0.6 percent of work trips, contacting those commuters using traditional, probabilistic survey methods is difficult.
However, the researchers were fortunate enough to get some great media coverage about their web-based survey, including Colorado Public Radio, the Washington Post and Atlantic Cities (the Atlantic Monthly’s sister publication that focuses on urban land use). In all, the survey got about 18,000 respondents, most of whom rode bikes frequently, though there were also sets of questions for motorists and pedestrians.
The survey results showed some fascinating misconceptions about bicyclists’ behavior, and those results were published this year.
“Bicyclists don’t break the law at greater frequency than motorists, and when they do, motorists seem to selectively notice. They [the motorists] seem to be thinking they are engaged in something serious—trying to get to work, to be on time—while bicyclists are perceived to be engaged in something more frivolous,” Johnson said.
As long as roadway infrastructure and social norms do not include bicycling, bicyclists will remain the ‘social others’ of the roadway, and suffer the ill-effects such as stereotyping and scapegoating."
Furthermore, bicyclists often explained their scofflaw behavior as trying to be safe, or to conserve energy, which are often difficult tasks when riding on roads designed for motor traffic.
Most motorists consider speeding a bit, or not coming to a complete stop at an empty interchange, to be perfectly justifiable. Similarly, the study found that bicyclists also found their behaviors to be justifiable, though motorists in the study often didn’t see it the same way.
The most prevalent response as to why cyclists break the rules of the road was “personal safety,” with more than 71 percent of respondents citing that as a reason. Saving energy came in second for bicyclists (56 percent) followed by saving time (50 percent). Increasing one’s visibility was the fourth-most-cited response (47 percent) for bicyclists breaking the law. The authors noted that an overwhelming majority of bicyclists break the rules, but suggested they did so in situations where little harm would come to themselves or others.
The trio of researchers has published two papers based on the “scofflaw bicycling” survey, and are busy finishing a final paper that explores the survey’s qualitative comments. Despite the first two papers’ reliance on quantitative data, Johnson’s specialty is qualitative interpretive methods, or garnering meaning from lived experiences, which is the same approach he uses to explore “biking bad” in his dissertation.
“As long as roadway infrastructure and social norms do not include bicycling, bicyclists will remain the ‘social others’ of the roadway, and suffer the ill-effects such as stereotyping and scapegoating,” Johnson said.
“They will also continue to improvise their riding behavior, often in contrast to the law and motorists’ expectations, creating a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophesies. In many ways, the roadways for bicyclists are like the Wild West, where anything goes. In this context, we are finding that drivers’ aggression is a form of informal social control, an effort to establish order in the absence of widely agreed-upon norms. Considering such, the best thing to do is to normalize bicycling, and make it as routine, unremarkable and predictable as using silverware or a vacuum cleaner.”