Cyclist Compliance at Red Lights in Minneapolis

Watching a cyclist fly through a red light while we wait idling in our car, on our feet or on our own bikes is frustrating. Such a brash move in the face of society causes us to lambast the enforcement of the legal system, we criticize their parents’ child rearing skills, and start attributing recklessness to the entire race of cyclists. But do all cyclists disobey stoplights? No, of course not! On my daily rides I often observe cyclists stopping and waiting for the green, and I know several cyclists that habitually obey all traffic laws. So, how many scofflaws are there and what attributes and behaviors do they share? Nearly two years ago, I set out to find these answers and in the hope of adding facts to the often heated & opinionated discussion of cyclists and their propensity to stop at red lights (this post has been a long time coming). Below is a distilled version of my much lengthier study.

My initial search for similar published studies unearthed two which looked at the compliance of cyclists at red lights. However, neither study took place in the U.S. (Australia and China instead) and both involved reviewing video footage of intersections in order to identify specific behaviors and attributes of cyclists. Because I didn’t have the resources to invest in video cameras, nor the time to review footage, Jacob Thebault-Spieker (a UMN PhD student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering) helped me customize a mobile app he developed called CitizenSence to meet my data collection needs. With the app I was able to quickly and easily record real-time observations of individual cyclists in the field and beam the data to a central server which automatically formatted it into a downloadable Excel file for analysis. Easy peasy!

Deciding to record cyclist observations with a phone app rather than video sped up the collection and data analysis process and it enabled identical parameters for observations to be replicated across different intersections (and users if desired). But the app’s interface and my own limitations (sadly I only have one set of eyes and I do not have x-ray vision to see cyclists through big trucks) did narrow the amount of data I could collect. So, of the 18 variables the other two other studies collectively addressed, I determined eight could feasibly be recorded with the existing CitizenSence interface. Then those eight variables were dissected and combined to create the final attributes below:

  1. GENDER – Both studies found women to have higher compliance rates than men
  2. STOP TYPE – Each cyclist observed was categorized as having stopped then proceeded through the red, waited for red to turn to green before proceeding or failed to stop
  3. DIRECTION OF TRAVEL – Direction of travel was entered as proceeding left, straight or right through an intersection
  4. GROUP SIZE – This measure attempts to account for behaviors related to group size by comparing the number of members of the stopped group and the stop types for each person within that group
  5. MISCELLANEOUS: GPS coordinates and the time at which each observation was made were recorded automatically with each submission (each submission being an individual cyclist) using the mobile app. Also other intersection characteristics such as types of bike facilities and number of traffic lanes at each observed intersection were recorded

CitizenSenseApp

I chose 15 signalized intersections across Minneapolis with high cyclist volumes recorded by the City of Minneapolis during recent signal retiming projects. Six of the 15 chosen intersections happened to also be listed within the top 33 intersections with the most bike / vehicle crashes from 2000 to 2010 as stated in the Minneapolis Crash Report. Over the course of my study, I counted each intersection twice resulting in 30 separate counts.

I visited the intersections and made observations whenever I was available on a weekday between 3pm and 7pm (evening rush hour was chosen in an attempt to capture the highest daily volume of cyclists). In all, 9.5 hours of observations over eight fair weather days (no rain and above 60F) were recorded between May 6th and June 28th, 2013.

Of the 411 cyclists I observed, 239 (58%) complied, meaning they came to a complete stop and waited for the light to turn green before proceeding. Interestingly, the proportion of non-compliant cyclists ranged from 8.7% to 68.9% across the 15 different intersections.

results

My overall findings showed that:

  • Nearly half (47.7%) of the observed cyclists actually encountered red lights
  • The majority of both genders (70.3% of females and 52% of males = 58.2% overall) complied
  • When turning right, the majority of both males and females failed to comply with red lights (88% and 81.3% respectively)
  • Of the 349 cyclists traveling straight 63.3% complied while 57.1% of the 21 cyclists traveling left complied
  • Those riding alone were compliant 46.2% of the time compared to groups of two (76.8%), and three (80.9%)
  • Cyclists at intersections with sharrows or bike boulevards had the worst and second worst compliance rates (31.1% and 37.2% respectively)
  • Gender varied most at intersections with sharrows (males: 89%, females: 11%) and was most similar at intersections with separated bike paths (males: 55%, females: 45%)

intersections

I also found that compliance levels varied dramatically by intersection:

  • Minnehaha Parkway & Portland Ave had the highest compliance rate (91.3%) of any intersection observed
  • Lasalle Ave & W 15th St, and Lake St & Bryant Ave had the worst compliance (31.1% and 37.2% respectively) and had the greatest number of cyclists that stopped but proceeded through the intersection (24 and 20 respectively)
  • W 24th St & Nicollet Ave, and Franklin Ave & Portland Ave had the greatest number of cyclists that didn’t stop at all (18 and 17 respectively)
  • Lasalle Ave & W 15th St had the greatest rate of red light cyclists per minute (1.56) compared to an overall average of 0.64 per minute

Overall, Minneapolis cyclists comply with red lights 58% of the time, which is right in the middle of the Australian study (7%) and the Chinese study (79%) compliance rates, but well below the Portland study (which didn’t include right turning cyclists in their 94% compliance percentage). While it’s comforting to know that most cyclists here do obey red lights, the importance of this study and future ones is to open a dialogue about what influences the compliance of all road users. Is it a function of intersection complexity (number of lanes, speed of traffic, types of bicycle facilities) and how confident people are to take risk yet be safe? Or is compliance a function of the presence or absence of a clear and attractive option to comply (designated spaces, nice way-finding all the way through the intersection)? Or is it something else entirely?

Ultimately, compliance is good, but safety is better. Don’t get me wrong, law enforcement is important, but ticketing red light runners doesn’t provide better cycling conditions (unless the generated fees went directly towards building better cycling facilities). Instead, engineering and educational pursuits like Minneapolis’ Safety Starts With All Of Us, have the potential to yield better results. By informing and empowering the public, narrowing travel lanes, reducing speeds, and building designated facilities for each mode that minimize the number of conflict points (where paths cross), people will know where their vehicle belongs and trust who has the right of way. They will know that the coil buried beneath the road will detect them and trigger the light to turn green. They will know how to act predictably. After all, we should strive to be a society where someone riding a $30 used bicycle is provided the same level of safety and security as someone driving a $30,000 car. And using data from monitoring cyclists behaviors and attributes to identify problems, promote solutions and safeguard present and future citizens is a fantastic step in that direction.

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28 Responses to Cyclist Compliance at Red Lights in Minneapolis

  1. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini March 3, 2015 at 9:28 am #

    Excellent post, and thank you for spending the time outside recording this data. One question, did lights that just turned red count or only ones where the light was clearly red as the cyclist approaches the intersection?

  2. Ron March 3, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Interesting data. I’m torn on this one. It would be nice if we could reach an agreement like reds lights = red flashing and stop signs = yields.
    When it comes to safety, more worrisome to me is the compliance on head and tail lights at night. There’s got to be a way to outfit people with cheap LEDs at least.

    • Matt Brillhart March 3, 2015 at 10:32 am #

      Yep. I would have no problem whatsoever with police ruthlessly enforcing the law regarding headlights/taillights. Not having proper lighting on a bike at night is really stupid and should be chastised by fellow cyclists. Yes, obviously you see the occasional motorist without their headlights on too, but I suspect in most cases it is accidental (and easily corrected with a flick of the switch). A good number of cyclists are out there riding with no lighting equipment whatsoever.

      Two summers ago I was biking northbound on 1st Ave S (at night) and nearly got into a head-on collision with a cyclist who was riding *the wrong way* in the bike lane with no lights. I routinely see people biking on/across the busiest parts of Lyndale with no lights and that scares the crap out of me. Please make a $20-50 investment and get some damn lights!!

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary March 3, 2015 at 11:20 am #

        Tail lights are not required by state law. A red rear reflector or tail light is required. (Until very recently, you had to have a reflector even if you also had a tail light.)

        That said, I agree that tail lights are a good idea — and headlights are essential and required by law.

        I’d really like it if we had an aggressive ticketing system that also gave first-time offenders a set of cheap lights (covered by the cost of the ticket).

        • Ron March 3, 2015 at 11:36 am #

          I did some google work. One program let’s you out of the fine if a bike shop stamps your ticket after installing lights. At least it’s a plan.

      • Julia Curran March 3, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

        I have a rear light that doesn’t work when it gets cold (under 20F?).

        I feel like $20-50 is not that minor of an investment for some people, especially those who don’t bike frequently and this might be something to address via the same systems that have pushed for helmets (health care, fire/police outreach?) rather than starting with punitive measures.

        • Ron March 3, 2015 at 1:49 pm #

          Hi Julia,
          I get what you’re saying but we’re under $10 now for a front and back silicone (easy install) LED. It’s a good law and should be enforced. If I were a school that had kids using bikes I’d just hand them out at the racks but it’s the responsibility of the rider. It kind of surprises me that such a progressive bike area like MSP doesn’t have a plan (that I’m aware of).

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary March 3, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

          Allowing bicyclists to endanger themselves and others in traffic at night is doing poorer bicyclists a far great disservice than proper enforcement (and providing lights as part of that).

          If we were talking about bike license, or mandatory helmet law, or anything like that, I’d agree with you. But this is such an essential piece of bicycling at night, I absolutely think it’s worth enforcing.

          However, I do agree, I’d also like to see light giveaways instead of or alongside helmet giveaways.

          • Ron March 3, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

            I was just on the MplsPoliceDept. Bike Unit FB page and an officer posted a picture of someone he pulled over for riding w/o lights. Option A was a ticket. Option B was a free set of lights. The guy took Option B and got a free set of lights from the officer.
            This plan is so obvious they already thought of it. Good to see.

  3. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary March 3, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    The high/low comparisons are interesting. Of course, I’m also not clear what direction cyclists are going that you’re observing. Lasalle and 15th are both bike routes, but Lasalle has more favorable signal treatment, so I’d assume most of the bicyclists you’re seeing running lights are on 15th. Still, I’m surprised to see such high numbers here, since it’s a fairly tight urban intersection with lots of parked cars and poor sight lines.

    On the other hand, Portland and Minnehaha is pretty wide open, yet has very high compliance. (Again, I’m assuming most bicyclists observed were on the Minnehaha trail, although Portland is a transportation bike route.)

    Are recreational bikers just more patient than bicyclists trying to get somewhere?

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini March 3, 2015 at 9:49 am #

      “Are recreational bikers just more patient than bicyclists trying to get somewhere?”

      Probably more patient + less experienced (confident they can safely make it across). The data shown doesn’t have the cross-sectional layer down, but I’m guessing they’re more likely to be in groups, and also with kids in tow.

    • Reilly March 3, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

      As someone who frequently cycles in the area, I agree with your assessment on 15th and Lasalle, with the further speculation that it’s mostly left turns off westbound 15th. With Lasalle being a one-way, it’s much more appealing to go out of turn when you have an opening than it is to pop out of the bike lane, yield to the always fairly significant eastbound cohort on 15th, and hope you don’t get whacked from behind by a westbound car. I suspect a bike box would significantly improve compliance at this intersection.

  4. Ben F March 3, 2015 at 9:56 am #

    Interesting. This data could seem to imply that red light compliance is a function of opportunity rather than anything intrinsic to cyclist behavior, other than the gender/group size splits, of course. It would be interesting if you could somehow code for the texture of the intersection (traffic volume, aesthetics, pedestrian traffic, cyclist volume) to try to determine what causes such a wide variability in compliance across intersections. Could also just be small sample size noise too.

  5. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller March 3, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    I reject (the potentially unintended) implication that compliance is a necessary or good thing. For both cyclists and pedestrians.

    • jeffk March 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      Seconded . It’s not implied, it’s described as frustrating. Avoiding acknowledging that riding a bike is being an unwelcome guest in a world designed for cars by focusing on this issue puts us about a mile from the point.

  6. Janne Flisrand
    Janne March 3, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    I notice that the compliance appears to correlate with what I in my own head think of as two things. 1) safety and comfort of being a person on a bike at that intersection, and 2) the actual need for the light to manage traffic.

    I see high compliance where it is terrifying to be a person on a bike and you have a chance of refuge while waiting (Franklin and Nicollet, Lake and Minnehaha, Portland and Lake). This is from both an infrastructure and traffic volume perspective.

    I also see high compliance where it is very comfortable to be a person on a bike and there is a traffic volume that justifies waiting (Minnehaha and Portland).

    I see low compliance in terms of waiting where there isn’t enough traffic to justify waiting (Nicollet and 24th, Lake and Bryant, Lasalle and 15th).

    I also see low compliance where it is terrifying to be a person on a bike and one just wants to get the hell out of the way (Franklin and Portland).

    This is totally anectdata, and it’s how I perceive those intersections. Those behaviors make sense to me — and if they resonate with other people who ride bikes, they can inform our policy and design.

    • matthew March 3, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

      I think those are really important insights.

    • fIEtser March 3, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

      Interesting observations. It sounds like the study’s authors should also include information about traffic volumes and directions at the same intersections, might definitely provide some more insight.

    • Anton Schieffer
      Anton Schieffer March 5, 2015 at 8:12 am #

      Yes, I agree with these points. It’s far more dangerous biking down Franklin than it is down Portland, so behavior is going to change at that intersection accordingly. I hope the author of this piece captured that information, because it’s clearly crucial data. I’m hoping he did, given that we are only presented with Figures 7 and 9 of what is likely a more comprehensive study. I’d love to see the entire study when it’s available.

  7. David Markle
    David Markle March 3, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Good to see an in-depth treatment of this subject. Twice in the past 30 days near the University Minneapolis campus I’ve encountered cyclists obliviously whipping through an intersection in violation of a red light while I drove across on green; they’re lucky that I’m not a burr under the saddle type of driver. I suspect that many such careless cyclists lack driving experience or they’d be more cognizant of the way they court danger.

    One very common annoying and rather dangerous cyclist practices is to squeeze between cars, or more often, between cars and the curb, while drivers wait for a semaphore to change at an intersection. As a frequent pedestrian I’m also concerned about cyclists speeding within inches on the sidewalk; i seriously think it would be appropriate to institute a 6 mph speed limit for everyone on sidewalks.

    For my own part, as a driver I try to be vigilant about potentially erratic cyclists. And I stopped riding a bicycle on the street a long time ago after several close calls, including an MTA bus coming within inches as it made a left turn out of the middle lane on a one-way street and across the left lane where I rode.

  8. Wayne March 3, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

    “When turning right, the majority of both males and females failed to comply with red lights (88% and 81.3% respectively)”

    I feel like this is pretty common with cars too, actually.

    • Rosa March 3, 2015 at 7:58 pm #

      Yeah, this pretty much is the norm for all road users. I’d love to see a comparison, though – especially one that compared the bike lane to bike lane turns with one-way-street-to-one-way-street turns for cars.

  9. Phil March 3, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

    On a trip to Amsterdam a couple years ago, I was surprised to see that there was frequent red light running there too. We always hear people saying something like “cyclists run red lights because they’re being forced into a system designed for cars,” but in Amsterdam, a city wholly designed for pleasant cycling, it seemed just as common to go through reds as it does here.

    Has anyone else that’s been there noticed this?

    I’m with Adam Miller on the rejecting the idea that compliance is a good thing.

    • Matty Lang
      Matty Lang March 4, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

      It’s been too long since I’ve been to Amsterdam (outside of the airport), but I was in Copenhagen last summer. There’s very high compliance among people on bikes according to my eye (and video) test. When (mostly) tourist pedestrians start crossing against a signal there’s usually an older Dane there to scream and holler about it.

      Conclusion is higher compliance, but the same angst against the non-compliance that does happen.

  10. Joe Scott
    Joe March 4, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

    Earlier today I was biking North on Chicago ave. toward Franklin. The light was green going North-South on Chicago, but an ambulance was speeding toward the intersection from the West on Franklin, sirens on and horn blaring. The line of southbound cars on Chicago didn’t yield at all. The ambulance had to come to a complete stop and then gradually nose its way through the seemingly oblivious drivers. Yes, drivers comply with traffic signals at a much higher percentage than bikers, to a fault. That is, they stop at red lights, but consider green lights a license to proceed without paying attention (which can be particularly dangerous when they make turns through crosswalks).

    People on bikes are necessarily more aware of their surroundings and make fewer assumptions about having right-of-way, for reasons of self-preservation. I couldn’t care less whether a traffic signal is red or green. I care if there are cars coming that could run me over. When it’s safe to go through an intersection, that’s when I go. It’s very odd to me that this approach would be considered “frustrating.”

  11. ClaireB March 5, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Does anyone know how to answer the below questions?

    What is the average speed of a bicyclist that does not completely stop at a stop sign or stop light? For example, I often don’t stop completely if the intersection is empty, but when I move through the intersection I feel I’m going so much slower than drivers that come to a complete stop.

    What is the force of a bicyclist versus the force of a car on, say, an object in the intersection if a bicyclist hits that object at the speed in the above question, versus a motorist that makes a complete stop?

  12. Ken Duble March 5, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    In a sense, this is the wrong discussion to be having. We ought to be talking about why the U.S. retains an unusually high traffic fatality rate among our developed peers despite having far more signs and signals than anyone else. We need fewer signs and signals and more traffic calming.

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