I can’t tell you how many times I hear complaints (from motorists and cyclists alike) about cyclists who run red lights and ride on the sidewalk. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that cyclists should be taught the rules of the road and given a test like motorists, I could retire and move to Copenhagen where those things actually happen. There seems to be an almost universal perception from motorists and cyclists alike that the vast majority of people riding bikes are criminals, ninety percent of whom feel traffic laws do not apply to them.
But for the longest time I have not had any data about just how many people riding bicycles ran red lights. Google it and you will see, almost no studies have been done, and the only decent one I have found was done in Australia. We have lots of data about motorist behavior and traffic violations, but we have not had any data about cyclists. Last year the Milwaukee DPW did a number of pedestrian and bicycle counts at various intersections so we had some data for the Milwaukee streetcar study. This year we did more ped/bike counts for the same study.
The counts were only along the possible streetcar routes, so this year I did some other counts just to have bike data at other areas of the city. When I started my first count at Water and St. Paul, almost on a whim I decided kept track of people riding bicycles on the sidewalks and running red lights. The next day I asked the traffic section if their interns could do the same. So now we actually have some hard data on what percent of cyclists are law breakers.
So what did we find? Get ready for a big shock, but the fact is that people riding bikes are more law-abiding than people driving cars. The percent of people riding bicycles that made illegal maneuvers (ran red lights, rode on sidewalks, or rode against traffic) through the intersections where we did the counts varied from 11% to 48%. To say it another way, the majority of people who ride bikes obey the law. This definitely runs counter common perceptions.
What about people driving cars? How law-abiding are motorists? We have done a lot of radar speed studies in Milwaukee because the number one traffic complaint we get at the DPW is about speeders on neighborhood streets. The results of the speed studies vary, but in almost every case we get a bell curve shifted to the right of the posted speed limit, as in this speed study.
As I said, we have done lots of these studies, and while the results do vary, they do not vary as much as the bike counts do. In some speed studies, the median speed is at or just below the posted speed limit by a mile or two per hour, which means that in the best case scenario a little less than half of the drivers are breaking the law by speeding.
The other major traffic complaint we have to respond to concerns motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. If you live in Milwaukee, you may have noticed the City has put in a lot of curb extensions (“bump-outs”) and R1-6 in-street “Yield to Pedestrians: State Law” signs. We have been doing this in response to all the complaints we get about how difficult it is to walk across the street.
There have been a couple pretty good studies done to check the effectiveness of these signs. The first study was done in Whitefish Bay by Bay Ridge Consulting. In that study, before Whitefish Bay installed the in-street yield to pedestrian signs, 94% of motorists failed to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk. The study then checked twice after the signs were installed and a there was a media campaign to alert people about the law requiring motor vehicles to yield to pedestrians. In the final check, the yield compliance rate increased to 39%, which is a big jump, still not very good odds if you are betting your child’s life when they walk to and from school.
The second yield compliance study was done more recently by Mark McComb. He looked at a wider variety of crosswalks, some with the in-street yield signs, some without, some crosswalks in the City of Milwaukee and some outside the city. His results were more disappointing. The best result he got was 23% of motorists yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk at Oakland and Olive. But at two study locations, none of the cars yielded to pedestrians.
So while I agree that we would all be safer if everyone (people walking, people riding bikes and people driving motor vehicles) would obey all the traffic laws all the time, it is pretty clear that people will break the laws they think they can get away with if they think it will add convenience to their lives. Bicyclists are no worse than any other user of our roads. In fact, our studies suggest people who ride bikes are more law-abiding by quite a large margin than people who drive cars (often these are the same people).
Don’t get me wrong, I still think we as cyclists can do better and hold ourselves to an even higher standard. But for now, go spread the good word, bicyclists are law-abiding, red-blooded, apple pie eating Americans. We are the good guys.