What’s Our Bicycle “Social Contract?”

By David Alpert
Greater Greater Washington
January 5, 2011

Photo by fromcaliw/love on Flickr.

With the frequent calls for cyclists to “start behaving,” it’s clear that a number of people driving and walking are unsettled by the conduct of at least some people on bikes. But people in cars speed all the time, and people walking cross against the light, and neither generates as many newspaper letters to the editor. What is the difference?

One explanation is that people naturally notice infractions by others on different modes more than those on the same mode. People driving tend to see misbehavior by people walking and cycling rather than from other people driving, for example. Since relatively few people ride bicycles while a great many drive, the outraged letters would skew toward misbehavior by those on bikes and away from that by people in cars.

Felix Salmon proposed another interesting explanation a while back. Basically, he argues that we’ve developed a clear understanding of what to expect from people walking and driving generally, but lack that consensus for people bicycling:

The trouble all starts when you drop bicyclists into the mix. At that point, a whole new set of combinations comes into play, and as a city we haven’t worked out how to make them work. In other cities, especially in places like Copenhagen or Utrecht, bicycles are ubiquitous and everybody knows how to behave on and around them. But we’re not there yet.

We expect that people on foot stay on the sidewalk most of the time, and cross when there’s a walk signal or an unsignalized intersection, as the law says. We also expect that people on foot sometimes cross against the light if no cars are coming. That might not be legal, but it’s generally commonplace and pretty safe. People driving might not like it, but they tend not to be too surprised when it happens and don’t write angry letters to the editor about it.

Likewise, we expect that people driving will obey traffic signals and stop signs, and not drive up onto the sidewalk. We also expect that people driving may go a little over the speed limit, which can increase the risk of fatal crashes but is generally widespread. Likewise, people driving often don’t stop fully at a stop sign, which adds a small amount of danger but not that much, and so it’s generally tolerated.

But what do we expect from people biking? What should they do that’s legal, and what are they going to do that’s not technically legal, like people crossing on foot against the light or driving a bit over the speed limit?  Read more…

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