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Bicyclists learn from bicyclists to break traffic laws. But perhaps the law should learn from them, researcher says.

D.C. is considering allowing a new form of bike sharing that wouldn’t need docking stations, a move that could potentially increase biking in the capital. It might reconsider traffic laws for bikes, too. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

If you could rank a city’s bicyclists on a scale of law-abiding goody goodies to crazed outlaws — that is, based on how willing they are to break minor traffic laws — where would D.C. rank? And in places where bicyclists do freely interpret the traffic laws, should we change the laws rather than change the behavior?

It’s a question or two worth posing as D.C. explores the idea of expanding bike rentals through dockless bike sharing. The system, which was pioneered in China and recently arrived in the United States, lets users download an app to rent self-locking bicycles and leave them wherever the ride ends.

China is exporting its bike-sharing revolution to the world

As reported by WTOP and WAMU-FM, the District Department of Transportation will run a pilot program from Sept. 20 through April to allow companies to test dockless bike sharing here. The program could extend the reach of bike share to parts of the city where it doesn’t exist. Unlike Capital Bikeshare and similar programs, dockless bicycles don’t require government subsidies, backers say. The program could be a boon for a city that Bicycling magazine already ranks as among the top 10 biking cities in the United States.

But dockless bikes — which have generated backlash in China, where some say the bicycles are dumped at the end of the run like trash — might also increase tensions that already flare sometimes between bikers and motorists.

And that brings us to a fascinating study that came out a couple years ago and only became available online earlier this year. The study, ”Scofflaw Bicycling: Illegal but Rational,” examined the issues that lead to the bike-vs.-car angst, but particularly why bicyclists break traffic laws —  and what might be done to change things.

The study makes a number of excellent points, beginning with the assertion that everyone who uses public streets and roads breaks the law at times. That’s true whether you drive a car or walk across the street. And yet, the study asks, why do so many people lose their minds when they see bicyclists running a red light? Why the tendency to vent sometimes about bicyclists despite the fact that the odds of a biker hurting anyone other than himself are minute compared with the harm done by people in rolling metal boxes that weigh a ton or more? (Guilty.)

The study — which was conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Nebraska and published online in March in the Journal of Transport and Land Use — found that the reason most bicyclists (71 percent) violate traffic rules is a bid for self-preservation. Other reasons include saving energy (56 percent) or saving time (50 percent) or attempting to increase one’s visibility (47 percent). In other words, the study found that a large number of bicyclists tend to break the law because they think it will keep them safer.

Bikers blow through red light cameras with impunity, NBC4 reports. Firestorm ensues.

Some will no doubt dismiss the findings as an exercise in rationalizing bad behavior. But it actually makes sense, along the lines of a bicyclist’s “taking the lane,” a defensive maneuver that’s legal in D.C. and other places but also riles a lot of motorists, by traveling in the middle of a traffic lane. Bicyclists do that to stay farther away from doors that could open and hurt them; it’s also a maneuver to make sure motorized vehicles can see them.

What’s more, the study also says that one of the most important determinants about whether a bicyclist will take the lane, or merely slow at a stop sign, or go through a red light after stopping is whether other bicyclists are doing it. Bicyclists affect the way other bicyclists drive — in the way that people form opinions or start riots, the city says. It’s monkey see, monkey do, with a little tribalism mixed in. And it doesn’t matter where you grew up learning how to ride a bicycle. You adopt the practices of the people around you.

“There were definitely differences between city and city in terms of what people behave like,” Wesley E. Marshall, one of the researchers, said Wednesday in an interview.  “When you take somebody from Australia and put them in New York, they start behaving more like a New Yorker than vice versa. …  Where you are is more important than who you are.”

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Of course, as the study notes, the factors that influence bicyclists — or drivers operating motor vehicles, for that matter — are complex. These factors include traffic laws, existing infrastructure and law enforcement. In Australia, Marshall discovered during a recent sabbatical there, enforcement of traffic laws in regard to motor vehicles and bicycles is strict. People routinely receive hefty fines for not wearing bike helmets or equipping their bikes with bicycle bells.

“I even heard that a woman got a ticket for riding in high heels because it was unsafe attire,” said Marshall, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Denver. “The culture of bicycling there was so different than in the States, partially because they have such strict enforcement.”

But it’s also about reading the clues from other bicyclists. So Australian bicyclists also don’t run red lights, even when it’s just bicyclists waiting for the light, Marshall said.

“When you bike around the city, a lot of people sit there and don’t move at red lights,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t mean their safety record is any better than ours. In fact, what I found is that it’s worse.”

The upshot is that bicyclists are often trying to do the best they can when faced with moving dangers all around and a very small proportion of infrastructure restricted for their use. If anything, there could be something to altering the law to fit the way people ride, Marshall said. The Idaho Stop — which was passed there in 1982 — allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. And it turns out that it may have improved bicyclist safety, Marshall said.

The D.C. Council last considered adding a “stop as yield” as part of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act of 2016 but dropped the provision after opposition from police and AAA Mid-Atlantic, Washington City Paper reported.

“That might be a better way to go,” he said. “I’d rather us put our effort into fixing the things that will have real road-safety outcomes and differences.”

So the idea of expanding bike share seems like a winner, and so does altering the laws to embrace the way bicyclists need to drive to stay safe. That might mean another look at the Idaho Stop. At the very least, codifying the practice might put a damper on the people who yell out their window at bicyclists for breaking the law.

–This post has been updated to correct the name of researcher Wesley E. Marshall. 

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