For this 5-part series, the author crowdsourced drivers' questions about bicyclists' mindsets, beliefs and safety practices, then posted the top 10 in several bicycle enthusiasts’ and advocacy groups. Here are the bicyclists' replies.

Top 10 Questions for Bicyclists, Part 3: Intersections

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 and click here for Part 2, on bicyclists’ mindsets.) Let’s build empathy for all the ways we get around!

In our third installment of “Why Do Bicyclists Do That?,” let’s capture the particulars of “Minnesota Nice” culture and its applications to intersections. Whether you’re a driver, bicyclist or pedestrian, you’ll understand the curiosity and frustration underlying these questions:

  • Why do bicyclists wave on a vehicle when they would legally have the right of way? 
  • Why do some bicyclists disregard signage at controlled intersections?

For each question in the series, we’ve started by describing a typical situation illustrating that question. Then, we’ve explored how a driver might interpret it, based on my own driving experience and comments from drivers who proposed questions via social media. Finally, we’ve shared a few bicyclists’ perspectives about what’s going on for them in that same situation.

Now, about those intersections:

Why do bicyclists wave on a vehicle when they would ordinarily have the right of way?

The Situation

A driver pulls up to an intersection where a bicyclist is waiting. A bicyclist waves the driver on, or actively ignores them. The car driver inches forward, then finally moves on in frustration. 

The Driver’s Narrative

I was trying to be nice and yield to that bicyclist, but they refused to go and wasted my time! Don’t they trust me to not run over them? And don’t they know when they have the right of way?

The Bicyclist’s Perspective

This one is about confusing rules, practicality and what we’ll call Minnesota Niceties. 

Many drivers assume that bicyclists have the same rights of way as pedestrians, but that’s neither clear in the law nor something most bicyclists expect. Bob Power describes himself as a “fast older biker” who rides about 3000 miles per year. He broke it down this way: “Adult bikers wave on motorists, usually at a 90-degree intersection of a major road and a less-major road, because we want to be treated as a vehicle rather than as a pedestrian. State law is vague on this point. However, drivers on a busy street who stop for me to cross as if I am a pedestrian endanger everyone involved.”

Even four-way stops can be complicated. Bicyclists might have a right to proceed, but choose not to. In explaining why she never takes an offered yield from a vehicle driver, Ceema Samimi put it more bluntly. “Drivers get angry when you take too long, and it’s easier to just have them go first.”

An illustration of a car failing to yield to an oncoming cyclist, from BikeMN's People Friendly Driver Program.
An illustration of failing to yield from BikeMN’s People Friendly Driver Program’s slide deck. Image Courtesy of BikeMN.

Jessica Schoner, Ph.D., said that “using Geller’s ‘4 types of bicyclists’ classification, I am in the ‘interested but concerned’ category. I bike infrequently – especially this summer since I have an infant who is too young to ride in a trailer or wear a helmet.” At intersections, she said, she prefers safety to expediency. “When I start from having stopped, I’m slow . . . and worried you or someone else will run me over as I get up to speed. Doubly or triply so when I’m biking with my child — he’s even slower than I am. You might be waving, but I can see other drivers who aren’t going to stop.”

A Need for Predictability

Co-owner and Data Science Lead of Safe Streets Research & Consulting, LLC, Schoner shared her expertise about this common pattern. She described the “multiple threat” crash, where “the first driver stops, but another driver is coming up behind them.” The driver sees “the stopped vehicle, passes around them at speed on either the right or the left and hits the person crossing the street.” She added, “It’s common on multi-lane roads, but can also happen when there’s extra space in the shoulder.”

The safety reasons are paramount, but there’s also the practical need of active transportation users: Taking breaks! “I don’t want to be under pressure to start off and cross the road fast, and I might want to take a moment to get a drink of water,” explained casual biker and triathlete John Weeks. While a car driver can hydrate while driving, that’s not the case for many bicyclists.

Overall, bicyclists stressed the need for predictable behavior. “Courtesy is nice, but if there is no reason for a vehicle to stop, yet they wave you through, it’s a lack of predictability for other drivers,” Holly Hanson shared.

Angela Olson, director of education at BikeMN, confirmed Hanson’s feelings. Olson coaches bicyclists to assertively yield to cars, no matter how nice drivers think they’re being. She encourages riders to “stare at a pebble” in front of them at busy or uncontrolled intersections, rather than making eye contact with drivers.

Olson referenced Minnesota Nice culture, as well. “It feels really un-Minnesotan to ignore those folks. They think that they’re doing something nice. But that can put you in a dangerous situation when we want to create a clear situation. I’d recommend nobody wave anyone across.”

An illustration of a driver's failure to yield to a bike lane rider by turning right in front of the bicyclist, from BikeMN's People Friendly Driver Program.
An illustration of what can happen when drivers fail to yield to bike lane riders when turning right, from BikeMN’s People Friendly Driver Program’s slide deck. Image Courtesy of BikeMN.

Why do some bicyclists disregard signage at controlled intersections?

The Situation

It’s common to see bicyclists running through intersections, despite stop signs and stop lights. Sometimes they slow down, but other times, they completely disregard traffic controls. Many drivers may not be aware of a new law that allows bicyclists to coast through stop signs.

The Driver’s Narrative

Don’t these bicyclists care about their own safety? They’re lucky I wasn’t just coming up to that intersection, or I might have crashed right into them! And I’m a good driver; there are plenty of other drivers who speed through backstreets. Plus, it’s not fair that they don’t have to stop when I do!

The Bicyclist’s Perspective

This one is sometimes about impatient bicyclists, but it’s more often about physics and visibility. And after years of bicyclists’ advocacy efforts, the dynamics of intersections are changing. There’s a new law about intersections and bikes that became effective August 1. Bike MN’s Angela Olson shared that with Minnesota’s new law permitting the Idaho stop, also known as the safety stop, “bicyclists will be able to treat a stop sign as a yield sign. They’re still required to treat stop lights as stop lights.”

Drivers may feel that this rule is less safe for bicyclists, but the opposite has proven true in Idaho and Delaware, where it’s been adopted. Studies there have led to an endorsement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration co-founder Bill Lindeke explained. “It’s very rare for a cyclist to ignore a stop sign or stoplight if it’s dangerous for them, so this is almost always done because there aren’t many cars, it has no impact on anyone else and/or the wait for the signal to change would be quite lengthy,” he said. Lindeke went on to explain the physics of a “complete stop” on a bike. “The difference between 5 and 0 miles per hour is a negligible safety difference for someone on a bike but costs a lot of time and energy. The opposite is true for people driving.”

Using Discretion

David Kratz is a commuter and utility bicyclist who occasionally enjoys recreational trails to the suburbs. He explained that there are differences between bicycling and driving at intersections. “Cyclists have better visibility than many drivers. Our field of vision is higher up and isn’t obstructed by a pillar. It also takes more effort to start and stop than moving your foot.”

Bicyclists have both an increased field of vision and a stopping disadvantage. That means having to weigh their options at intersections to increase everyone’s safety. “Many bikers use discretion at intersections and proceed due to a number of factors,” said Rebekah Mitchell. She identifies herself as a “full time, year-round cargo bike commuter mom.” She named several situations that shape bicyclists’ reasoning at intersections. “A car behind them is approaching rapidly or recently made a close pass; a car turning right doesn’t appear to see them and is approaching from the rear; the light has remained red for a long period of time and it is unlikely to change anytime soon; or cross traffic is low and they are crunched for time.”

Hurrying is Human

Many bicyclists pointed out the similarities between vehicle and bicycle operators at intersections for this question. Mitchell shared, “Car drivers sometimes drive through stop signs when they are in a hurry. Car drivers and bike riders have a lot more in common than they often think they do.” 

Despite the time pressure that drivers and bicyclists experience, Mitchell added, “One of the things I enjoy about biking is the forced slowing down of one’s lifestyle. I really struggle when I’m stressed and rushed.” She also stressed the responsibility of impact is greater for drivers who hurry at the expense of safety. “When I see a biker being frankly stupid, I remember that they could be being stupid in a two-ton piece of man-crunching metal.”

An illustration of a driver failing to scan for a bicyclist when turning left, from BikeMN's People Friendly Driver Program.
An illustration of what can happen when drivers fail to scan for bicyclists when turning left, from BikeMN’s People Friendly Driver Program’s slide deck. Image Courtesy of BikeMN.

About Sherry Johnson

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Sherry Johnson gets feisty about sustainability and localism. A complexity coach, adaptive strategist, and amplifier of counter-narratives, Sherry supports civic and nonprofit leaders as Principal Guide at Cultivate Strategy.