Behind handle bars
Faculty member Aaron Johnson’s research delves into why bicycle riders get a bad rap on the road.
Out on the clogged streets and roads of Colorado’s Front Range, bicycle riders seem to attract more scorn and ridicule than other roadway users trying to get to and fro. After all, what’s worse than watching a scofflaw two-wheeler roll through a light while drivers must wait it out?
Aaron Johnson wanted to know why bicyclists are perceived so negatively by others on the road. The affiliate faculty member in MSU Denver’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and avid bicycle rider launched the Scofflaw Bicycling Survey, capturing more than 18,000 responses from riders, drivers and pedestrians across the globe. “It all started with this idea that riders are perceived negatively in the public eye,” Johnson says. “That was the observation that got us started. Many articles about bicycling suggest that bikes are a pain to drivers, or that they’re 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?”
The results showed some fascinating misconceptions about the behavior of bicyclists, which not only garnered Johnson plenty of media exposure but also caught the attention of several organizations devoted to transportation, city planning and land use on a national and local scale.
One of the key takeaways from Johnson’s research centers around how often riders disregard traffic laws and other rules of the road. According to his research, and contrary to popular belief, bicyclists don’t break the rules any more often than drivers and pedestrians—in fact, they do so with slightly less frequency. And when riders do break the rules, Johnson found, they do so for primarily for safety reasons.
“Our research suggests that the scofflaw riding behavior that is observed is being induced by the system of rules and infrastructure that were designed primarily with cars in mind—bicyclists don’t feel comfortable,” Johnson says. “Intersections, for example, are places where cars bunch up and where there’s lots of exhaust and the cars are going in all different directions. To slip through an empty intersection in violation of the law is arguably safer.”
Johnson’s research also suggests that cars and bikes should be treated differently under the law and suggests that different transportation modes require different rules and, in some cases, separate facilities so all can safely co-exist. His research is also timely, since Gov. John Hickenlooper announced his intention in 2015 to invest $100 million in infrastructure to make Colorado the best state for bikes in the nation.
“I would encourage the state to use some of that money in an effort to normalize biking behavior that keeps riders safe,” Johnson says. “For example, additional bike-priority signals, like those found at Speer and Lawrence would be money well spent. It could also be used for education and other programming aimed at changing the perception of riders as being rude and reckless, perhaps by extolling the value of bicycling for all, car drivers included. After all, every bike on the road means one less car, and thus less congestion for everyone.”
While Johnson’s findings have given him plenty of exposure, he plans to continue teaching at MSU Denver while completing his doctoral studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he will continue his exploration of attitudes about pedal pushers.
“At first, I was a little surprised at the attention the research received, but considering what a valuable and contested resource our roadways are, I see why it’s a popular topic, especially in growing cities like Denver,” Johnson says.