Scorchers and Scofflaws: Just the Facts Please


"Bicycles Also" signs like this should not really be necessary, for a lot of reasons.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear complaints (from motorists and cyclists alike) about cyclists who run red lights and ride on the sidewalk.  If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that cyclists should be taught the rules of the road and given a test like motorists, I could retire and move to Copenhagen where those things actually happen.  There seems to be an almost universal perception from motorists and cyclists alike that the vast majority of people riding bikes are criminals, ninety percent of whom feel traffic laws do not apply to them.

But for the longest time I have not had any data about just how many people riding bicycles ran red lights. Google it and you will see, almost no studies have been done, and the only decent one I have found was done in Australia. We have lots of data about motorist behavior and traffic violations, but we have not had any data about cyclists. Last year the Milwaukee DPW did a number of pedestrian and bicycle counts at various intersections so we had some data for the Milwaukee streetcar study.  This year we did more ped/bike counts for the same study. 

These scofflaws are actually in the minority.

The counts were only along the possible streetcar routes, so this year I did some other counts just to have bike data at other areas of the city.  When I started my first count at Water and St. Paul, almost on a whim I decided kept track of people riding bicycles on the sidewalks and running red lights.  The next day I asked the traffic section if their interns could do the same.  So now we actually have some hard data on what percent of cyclists are law breakers.

So what did we find?  Get ready for a big shock, but the fact is that people riding bikes are more law-abiding than people driving cars. The percent of people riding bicycles that made illegal maneuvers (ran red lights, rode on sidewalks, or rode against traffic) through the intersections where we did the counts varied from 11% to 48%.  To say it another way, the majority of people who ride bikes obey the law. This definitely runs counter common perceptions.

(Click to see larger image) As you can see, every car recorded to the right of 25mph is breaking the law. More cars are going above the posted limit than at or below the limit. So most people driving cars are breaking the law.

What about people driving cars?  How law-abiding are motorists?  We have done a lot of radar speed studies in Milwaukee because the number one traffic complaint we get at the DPW is about speeders on neighborhood streets.  The results of the speed studies vary, but in almost every case we get a bell curve shifted to the right of the posted speed limit, as in this speed study.

As I said, we have done lots of these studies, and while the results do vary, they do not vary as much as the bike counts do.  In some speed studies, the median speed is at or just below the posted speed limit by a mile or two per hour, which means that in the best case scenario a little less than  half of the drivers are breaking the law by speeding.

The other major traffic complaint we have to respond to concerns motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.  If you live in Milwaukee, you may have noticed the City has put in a lot of curb extensions (“bump-outs”) and R1-6 in-street “Yield to Pedestrians: State Law” signs.  We have been doing this in response to all the complaints we get about how difficult it is to walk across the street.

(Click to see larger image) As you can see, even after a media campaign and installation of sign in the middle of the road, 61% of motorists still broke the law and did not yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

There have been a couple pretty good studies done to check the effectiveness of these signs.  The first study was done in Whitefish Bay by Bay Ridge Consulting.  In that study, before Whitefish Bay installed the in-street yield to pedestrian signs, 94% of motorists failed to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.  The study then checked twice after the signs were installed and a there was a media campaign to alert people about the law requiring motor vehicles to yield to pedestrians.  In the final check, the yield compliance rate increased to 39%, which is a big jump, still not very good odds if you are betting your child’s life when they walk to and from school.

(Click to see larger image) In two of the study locations, 100% of the drivers broke the law and failed to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalks.

The second yield compliance study was done more recently by Mark McComb.  He looked at a wider variety of crosswalks, some with the in-street yield signs, some without, some crosswalks in the City of Milwaukee and some outside the city. His results were more disappointing.  The best result he got was 23% of motorists yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk at Oakland and Olive.  But at two study locations, none of the cars yielded to pedestrians.

So while I agree that we would all be safer if everyone (people walking, people riding bikes and people driving motor vehicles) would obey all the traffic laws all the time, it is pretty clear that people will break the laws they think they can get away with if they think it will add convenience to their lives.  Bicyclists are no worse than any other user of our roads.  In fact, our studies suggest people who ride bikes are more law-abiding by quite a large margin than people who drive cars (often these are the same people).

Don’t get me wrong, I still think we as cyclists can do better and hold ourselves to an even higher standard. But for now, go spread the good word, bicyclists are law-abiding, red-blooded, apple pie eating Americans.  We are the good guys.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

25 thoughts on “Scorchers and Scofflaws: Just the Facts Please

  1. Great entry. I am particularly fixated on your wrap up-
    “In fact, our studies suggest people who ride bikes are more law-abiding by quite a large margin than people who drive cars (often these are the same people)” – this quote highlights perhaps the most overlooked aspect of our multi-mode street network. Rarely is a commuter just a “cyclist”, frequently we are drivers, bus riders, and walkers. The unfortunate truth is that an aggressive driver is likely an aggressive person, and potentially, an aggressive cyclist. A jerk is a jerk is a jerk. As more Americans shift their primary commuting mode to a bicycle, the odds are that additional jerks will be riding aggressively, but there will also be additional riders who get it and “go with the flow”. It is important to have these statistics to inform the discussion so that the visible minority do not define the majority.

    • True Jim, but there is some evidence that a perfectly calm person who gets in a car can become agressive. Something about being insulated from your surroundings and interactions with others. My point was more that some of the nicest most law abiding cyclists are crummy drivers of motor vehicles.

  2. Not a bad article, but I do question the metrics. In order to support the statement “bikes are more law abiding”, you really need to compare cyclist behavior at a given intersection to the same auto behaviors (stop/yield) at the same intersection – not the number of drivers who exceed the posted speed.
    It would also be interesting to see a subjective component added – intent.
    If a bike blows the intersection when a car is present/approaching, they didn’t intend to stop. If they roll a stop after looking to ensure it’s clear, that’s at least slightly different (conservation of effort and all that).

    Just a thought!

    Best regards


    • Thanks for the comment Marsh. I have to disagree with you though about the metrics. Motorists violate different laws and those violations occur at different places in the roadway and under different circumstances. I think it is fair to compare the percentage of motorists who are driving illegally (speeding, failing to yield, running red lights, driving without a license, etc.) with the percentage of cyclists who are running red lights and stop signs, riding against traffic and riding on sidewalks. You could also compare percentage pedestrians walking against the don’t walk. Comparing the aggregate percentages of law breakers in each mode has value.

      It is important to note that I also hear the complaint “everybody driving on my block is going 50mph.” Our radar speed studies prove that to by hyperbole just as much as is the claim that all cyclists run red lights.

      • If you are looking at the percentages of drivers/riders who obey all traffic laws then combining speeding and stop sign violations would be fair. Quantitative analysis is all well and good and I would agree with your analysis that motorists as a whole break more traffic laws. (Though if bikers could pedal fast enough to speed, they probably would.) But qualitatively, I think most people view speeding and running red lights in two entirely seperate categories. If people thought of them as the same level of offense then why don’t you see everyone who speeds also running red lights. Running red lights would be just as prevalent as speeding. Since intersections are such a hot spot for collisions, it’s essential that everyone (motorist, cyclists, pedestrians) obey traffic flow regulations in these places. To avoid a collision, I need to know what everyone else at the intersection is going to be doing. As it is, when I approach a four-way stop and a bicycle is coming from the side street, I assume that the bike is not going to stop…

        • I think I see where you are going with this, but I would also say that we need to change the view of speeding as a victimless crime. It clearly is not. While speeding on the interstate may be like fighting in hockey and have no innocent victims, speeding, even by 5mph, on a local street dramatically increases the likelihood that a bicyclist or pedestrian involved in a crash will be more seriously hurt or killed. So when people tell me “all bicyclists run red lights,” and I respond “no more frequently than motorists speed” it opens the conversation about the dangers of speeding to innocents.

  3. It drives me nuts to see so many online comments bagging on cyclists every time a story on biking is published. It would be interesting to see how many of these commentors are people from outside of Milwaukee County. It’s been my experience that people who live in or near the city are much more tolerant to cycling than those living further out in the suburbs. As much as I’d like to see the Milwaukee area work well as a region, it seems like transportation has always been one of those things that drives communities apart. It’s not just in biking that we see this, but trains and buses as well. The good news for the City is that it’s completely up to City residents who can push for additional biking, and we don’t need the support of the suburbs to move ahead.

    • I do believe that more co-operation and co-ordination between city and suburbs would greatly improve the environment for bicyclists. A bike lane that goes between municipalities can strengthen ties among municipalities. I rode such a lane going to Bong State Rec. Area last weekend.

      • Barry, who could not agree that more cooperation is better. There are a couple areas where that has improved, one with Wauwatosa and two with the County. In theory, SEWRPC is supposed to foster that cooperation and keep the regional best interests in mind.

    • Casey,

      My advice is not to worry about the trolls that comment on jsonline. Read them if you want for entertainment, but remember they are a self-selecting group. You can worry about what the politicians say because their comments do mean something. On this blog I do try to provide some amunition in terms of facts if you do want to argue with that group. Now we have what amounts to a silver bullet for the argument that all cyclists are scofflaws. Spread the word, according to unbiased surveys done by independent engineering students, bicyclists comply with the laws in greater frequency than motorists. BAM! Take that “Overtaxed.”

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  7. Dave,

    It is my belief that the picture featured at the top of this post, “Bicycles Also” was actually taken by me, and appears in my Flickr feed as All Rights Reserved. To my knowledge, I did not grant permission for this photo to be used in this post, or any other post.

    I am generally very easy going about giving approval when asked, but it kills me when I see my work go up and I have no clue. Whenever I do give permission, it is always with the proviso that I am given credit for the picture, and that links appear to certain content of mine… neither of which have occured here.

    Please contact me at your earliest convenience to discuss ways to remedy the situation, or if I am mistaken, and that is not my picture, please let me know where you got it so I can confirm. Otherwise, please remove the picture immediately.


    Nick Schweitzer

  8. I guess I’ll have to take your word on that, but I find it extremely hard to believe because the cropping and light are identical. Also, there is a house with a car and ladder in the driveway, and to have that exact same situation appear 3 years later (my picture was taken in 2007) is pretty rare.

    • I took a closer look at it and it sure does look like your picture. I have it in the same folder as the photos I took that day, but it sure does look like yours. The light quality is different than the day I was shooting. I removed the questionable picture and swapped it out for a different shot of one of those signs that I am sure I took. It could be possible that I had saved that photo on my computer from some previous search and it just ended up in my stop sign folder. My apologies.

        • And I normally would give a link if I was using someone else’s work. It must have been my mistake. Easy enough to change the photo to an image I am sure I made. Again, sorry for the mistake and thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  9. I wish I could agree with the findings of this research but in my experiences, I seem to be one of the only cyclists who obeys traffic lights/signs (for my commute route, at least). I am a four season commuter who rides from Fox Point to downtown, using city streets as well as the Oak Leaf. I am picky about ensuring I obey all traffic lights/signs whether I am commuting, out for a training ride, etc.

    On Friday evening coming home I watched two situations of cyclists on Santa Monica, between Silver Spring and the JCC just blow the stop signs in that stretch – one where the cyclist and two cars both arrived at the stop sign together yet the cyclist had no interest in stopping and blew right through.

    I’ve been bike commuting for almost 5 years now. I used to take it upon myself to say something when I saw this happen (which is pretty much every ride). One morning I watched another commuter run every stop sign in this particular stretch and as I passed him I commented “You know, all those stop signs are for you too”. He got angry telling me it was none of my business and was very confrontational. I decided maybe I should keep my mouth shut from now on. I do feel, however, that it is my business being that I fear our rights on the road could be taken away someday.

    Thanks for letting me vent. I’d love to know how to solve this problem.

    • Jeff, you have need to remember that the results of the studies showed that cyclists do break the laws, just not as often as people in cars do. Also try to remember that these traffic signals and stop signs are only necessary because most people drive cars. No volume of pedestrians or bicycles warrant a traffic signal or stop sign. So it is difficult for some people to obey laws that are only necessary so people can drive cars.

      It is still very disconcerting to be a person on a bike waiting at a light and have another person on a bike roll through the red while you sit there. That said, try driving the speed limit from Milwaukee to Madison and see if you don’t feel the same way. Better, try driving the speed limit in the left lane on all the way to Madison.

      There are two tricks here: First, change the paradigm so more people see the violations by motorists and understand that no matter what the mode of transportation, many people break the laws they can get away with breaking if doing so adds convenience to their lives. Second, even though people who ride bikes do the same, we as community can strive to be better than the average driver. Let’s work together as people who ride bikes to promote a culture of obediance to the laws. It is in our own best interest to do so.

      As for your experiences trying to encourage others to obey the laws, that is a difficult thing to do and takes a very practiced comment, carefully phrased so that it encourages and informs, but does not criticize or condem. Even then, many will not respond positively when you engage them one-on-one.

      • I used to do a lot more on-road correction of other cyclists than I do now. It was very difficult to find just the right tone to take, not accusatory but not self-righteous or didactic either. I ultimately gave up, and now just nod, smile, and maybe say HI, and hope that my modeling what I believe to be better behavior might make some impression, no matter how small. I figure people are where they are in their riding philosophy, and one comment by me is not going to change that too much more, if any more, than just being friendly, especially if they resent me for it. (Well, okay, sometimes I’ll say something to a wrong-way rider who’s in my way. I think I do have a right to my annoyance.)

        • Yeah, I sometimes warn people that riding the wrong way is dangerous, but that is about it. Modeling is much more powerful. But then when I drive the speed limit and that still seems to piss people off, so I guess there is no winning. We can only control ourselves.

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