Psychology of sidewalk cyclists

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005
By Yokota Fritz

You're riding in the street minding the traffic around you when *BLAM* some guy on a bike blasts from the sidewalk, across the intersection and almost into you. Because you're such a do-gooder, you begin to explain to him that sidewalk riding is about a zillion times more dangerous than cycling on the road.

This sidewalk cyclist will then look at you like you're a wild-eyed freak. You've just gathered empirical evidence that bicycle safety education does not always work. Dr. Richard Potts, professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, came to the same conclusion after several years of studying cyclist behavior at the Stillwater campus. “It’s a complex and almost unsolvable problem,” he says.

I think fear of the unknown is the major barrier. This barrier might be partially countered by education. I believe education is an important factor in improving cyclist behavior and safety, but experience is much more important. We really need to encourage our children to get out and ride with traffic. To that end, our local bicycling advocacy group has organized a program to encourage children to walk and bike to school. I ride with newbie bike commuters to show them that riding in the streets can be done safely.

Safe cycling education has to go beyond pamphlets and websites and into the realm of example and hands-on. What are some other things we can do to help cyclists get beyond the sidewalk and path and into the street?

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I'm pretty sure it's an education issue. Like parents who instruct their charges to ride against traffic, it's seen as safer though plenty of empirical evidence suggests otherwise. We need to get bicycle education started really early, like in first grade.
As a relative newbie to the whole commuting thing, I have to admit that from time to time I hop on the sidewalks to miss some traffic.

Care to give me some edumacation on what this is more dangerous?

The conditions at OSU seem to be that bicyclists are running into pedestrians on campus. I talked with Dr. Potts who did the study and I'll follow up some more in another post, but his surveys show that 24% of students claim to have been hit by cyclists on campus.

So basically, don't ride on the sidewalk if it's used by pedestrians. If you do use the sidewalk, slow to pedestrian speed. Don't dart out across intersections -- motorists don't generally expect to see anything fast coming from the sidewalk.
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