Author’s note: For this series, I crowdsourced driver questions on social media and posted the top 10 in several bicycle enthusiasts’ and advocacy groups for their replies. For more background, see the series’ introduction here. Let’s build empathy for all the ways we get around!
In our second installment of “Why Do Bicyclists Do That?,” let’s turn our attention to drivers’ questions about bicyclists’ mindsets and motivations. This first set of questions underscores the divide between those who favor different transportation modes.
Part 2 Questions
- Why do bicyclists seem to blame vehicle drivers for everything? Moreover, why are they so angry?
- Why don’t bicyclists behave with more caution around vehicles?
- Why don’t all bicyclists use lights at night?
Many bicyclists were incredulous about the first two questions. “What doesn’t really seem to fit any of the questions is that right-of-way does me no good if I’m on the hood of a vehicle or the ground after being hit,” Lisa DeMore Rudolph said. Rudolph identifies herself as a recreational cyclist and rides about 1,000 miles every summer. “Everything I do on a bike while on a road is about protecting myself,” she added.
A few bicyclists turned the question of anger around on drivers. After sharing a story about being dangerously tailgated and harassed while commuting, Claire asked, “Is it bad if all my answers are, ‘I just want to ride my bike and not be almost killed doing so. Why are you angry at my existence?’” Identifying herself as a fitness rider who has bike-commuted extensively, Claire asked that her last name be omitted to protect herself from harassment.
Angela Olson, director of education at the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, laid bare this dynamic. “There’s frequent contention between those who primarily cycle and primarily drive,” she said. “We are all sharing our largest public space in Minnesota, which is our road system. A lot of us are fighting with each other because the infrastructure isn’t equipped for all modes, and the education is inadequate.”
With that, let’s get started. For each question in the series, we’ll start by describing a typical situation around that question. Then, we’ll explore how a driver might interpret it, based on my own driving experience, as well as comments from drivers who proposed questions via social media. Finally, we’ll share a few bicyclists’ perspectives about what’s going on for them in that same situation.
1. Why do bicyclists seem to blame vehicle drivers for everything — and why are they so angry?
A vehicle driver attends a public meeting, scrolls through a social media group or flips to the opinion section of the paper. They notice an increasing number of bicyclists advocating for bike infrastructure, often to the detriment of parking and driving lanes.
A Driver’s Narrative
Holy cow, the Bike People are organized and forceful, and they seem to have the ear of so many politicians! They act like my SUV is a personal affront to their existence. I even saw a bike rack with a “Cars Ruin Cities” sticker the other day. What the heck is that supposed to mean?
Bicyclists’ Perspectives on Safety
The dynamics of this situation are largely about system safety, wise land use and environmental justice.
When answering this question, many bicyclists shared dangerous experiences they’ve had because of aggressive and inattentive drivers. Jessica Schoner, Ph.D., is co-owner and data science lead of Safe Streets Research & Consulting, LLC, where she helps cities diagnose safety issues for transportation users. She drove the point home: “Not all drivers are trying to kill people walking and biking. But all pedestrians and bicyclists have experienced a driver nearly kill them, either with malice or inattention.”
In her work, Schoner uses data from crash reports to trace their causes and help cities improve their systems. “Safety strategies aren’t that hard: Slow drivers down, and separate vulnerable road users and drivers by time and space,” she said. “What makes actually implementing these strategies so challenging is our (as a profession) unwillingness to decrease motorist throughput or inconvenience drivers in the name of saving lives.”
Gage Read, a self-described “serious recreational cyclist,” went further in explaining the frustration that comes from bicyclists’ perceptions of unjust traffic enforcement. “Hitting a pedestrian or a cyclist with a car is often hand-waved by police and district attorneys as long as the driver says, ‘I didn’t see them!’”
Read also referenced a recent study which suggests that drivers tend to view bicyclists as objects, rather than human beings. Having experienced that kind of dehumanization on the road, Read suggested that bicyclists sometimes “become jaded and frustrated at drivers, and as wrong as it is, lump them all together as inattentive and dangerous.”
Bicyclists’ Frustrations about Safety
Many bicyclists said that they’ve tried to double down on their own safe practices only to find that their behavior doesn’t have any impact on how drivers treat them. Ian Magnuson used to run a nonprofit bike shop in Minneapolis. He shared, “I biked every day for four years in Minnesota, always sticking to the right, always letting cars pass when it was safe to do so, and still have countless stories of drivers who seemed to just be mad I was biking in general.”
Moreover, many felt the responsibility for safe practices should be greater for those with more protection. “The reason cyclists are ‘angry’ is because our lives are constantly in danger. It isn’t the ‘angry cyclist’ who is at fault. When you are driving a 2-ton piece of metal, equipped with airbags and a crush zone, you have a responsibility to drive it safely,” added Magnuson.
Despite this, a few bicyclists were quick to point out the positives. While they get angry like any other human, they wanted vehicle drivers to know about the joy of biking. “When drivers cut me off, when drivers force me into a curb or pothole, when drivers yell angry things at me,” Lee Penn said, “the vast majority of the time, I’m so happy to be riding a bike. It’s like flying. I feel connected to my environment and my body.”
Bicyclists’ Perspectives on Land Use and Environmental Justice
The phenomenon of bicyclist anger isn’t just about safety. Many bicyclists feel an increasing responsibility to advocate for transportation and climate justice, and they’ve chosen to bike more as a demonstration of their values. Poor bicycling infrastructure can feel like a betrayal of what’s best for our collective thriving. Board co-chair Christy Marsden talks about this in her latest piece for Streets.mn.
Avid cyclist Sylvie Shawn Hyman shared, “Cycling is my preferred mode of transportation, and if I can bike somewhere that I need to go, I will. I also bike recreationally and teach mountain biking and kids how to ride bikes professionally.” When answering this question about anger, she put it this way: “When a cyclist expresses anger with a driver, they are generally misplacing their anger with infrastructure that forces them to contend with cars. It is frustrating when we as cyclists have to move within spaces that are designed for cars.”
When it comes to the impacts of driving on climate change, Dan Marshall shared, “It doesn’t make me angry at drivers. I drive too, and almost everyone in this country has a pretty huge carbon footprint. But it does make me angry when people oppose cycling infrastructure, often by claiming to be fighting for environmental concerns like boulevard trees — as if infrastructure choices and climate change were totally unrelated.”
“Regular cyclists quickly become aware of how automobiles utterly dominate the American landscape, destroy cities and towns (with their speed and need for space), and are destroying the planet with their air pollution, carbon emissions, water pollution, roadkill, crashes with pedestrians and bicyclists, severing of neighborhoods and habitats and a host of other ills.” Singer wrote. “The fact that cars are literally driving us all to an ecological, economic and social hell can make a person quite angry.”
While multimodal infrastructure is gaining ground, our shared transportation system continues to favor the use of single-occupancy, greenhouse gas-powered vehicles. Anger results.
2. Why don’t bicyclists behave with more caution around vehicles?
A driver is moving along in their lane. They notice a bicyclist riding very fast, changing lanes at will, and using hand signals inconsistently.
A Driver’s Narrative
Whoa, who does this person think they are? Why aren’t they more careful? Do they have a death wish or something?
This one is more nuanced and may have to do with perception versus reality. Many bicyclists did acknowledge that just like car drivers, there are many bicyclists who do behave recklessly. But frequent bicyclist Ben Zvan offered an alternative perspective. “I’m not going to say cyclists are perfect; there are definitely bad ones out there too. But cars are so dangerous — and drivers are so unpredictable — a lot of what people might call unpredictable behavior is a cyclist trying to figure out what a driver is planning to do.”
“What may look like ‘less cautious’ behavior to a motorist is probably in the cyclist’s best interests, in terms of safety,” Rosalia McNamer, who uses a bicycle as her main form of transportation, shared. Indeed, many bicyclists shared that changing speeds can mean they are trying to get away or take in more visual information. Changing lanes may be about avoiding a pothole. Not signaling may be about keeping escape routes open, and road hazards may prevent a bicyclist from taking their hands off their handlebars.
“Most cyclists are very cautious around vehicles,” Streets.mn co-founder Bill Lindeke added. “If they aren’t, it’s because they’re younger and/or more confident in their ability to see and predict what drivers will be doing. Personally, I almost always assume that drivers don’t see me, and that they’ll do something reckless at any given moment.”
3. Why don’t all bicyclists use lights at night?
A car driver is moving along at night. They need to take a turn or change lanes, only to be surprised by the presence of a bicyclist who has no lights or reflective gear.
A Driver’s Narrative
Oh, my goodness, I could have killed them! They were wearing all black, with no lights or reflective gear!
Most bicyclists we talked to strongly advocated for using lights at night. Casual biker and triathlete John Weeks put it simply: “They should.”
That said, some bicyclists offered complicating factors to consider. Andy Singer pointed out a problem in the bicycle market. “Unlike Europe, the USA doesn’t require bicycle manufacturers to sell their bikes with built-in lights. Imagine if cars didn’t come with headlights and taillights, and automobile drivers had to buy headlights and taillights as ‘aftermarket accessories.’”
When considering the added costs or lack of access to a good bike shop, some bicyclists might imagine they don’t need them until they’re stuck riding home after dark. “Sometimes batteries die, or people stay out later than expected,” offered Kevin Greimel, a year-round bike commuter. That said, he added, “I’d be curious how frequent this is. I’d guess it’s in line with cars driving in the rain or at night without lights on.”
Finally, the cost and inconvenience of finding safety gear like lights and reflective wear can be a barrier. Good bike lights are a hot item to steal. Ceema Samimi shared, “Mine have been stolen off my bike several times, and I can’t always afford to get new ones right away. Some people can’t afford them at all.”