Cyclists and Drivers – It’s a cultural thing

New research that tries to understand what’s really happening on the road

This report from the UK Department for Transport is an intelligent attempt to understand what’s going on between cyclists and other road users and how problems arise.

Key findings included that

  • roads are generally designed for cars but cyclists have developed diverse ways to use them that challenge motorists’ expectations
  • cycling provision is not consistent or easily understood
  • social attitudes privilege car users and you have to work on all that intelligently if you are going to make a difference but it’s a difficult job not to be taken lightly.

There’s lots more in there worth attending too and some things we should all reflect on in terms of our personal behaviour. It contains some interesting ways of understanding the issues.

We might consider some of the things that it says to be “bleeding obvious” but this is an expert report intended to influence government policy and sometimes you need a respected analyst to check out those bleeding obvious assumptions so that the politicians can take them seriously or even notice them.

This particular research is very valuable because a lot of other research uses quantitative analysis which is good for identifying and checking technical “facts” but less good for developing understanding of social issues, and road safety is mainly a social issue. Trying to make it a technical problem and find ways to protect us from physical risks misses the point and just adds to the depressing arms race on the road where bigger cars with more protective features make drivers feel more invulnerable, and protective clothing for cyclists just pitches them into the same unproductive spiral

This report takes an in-depth qualitative approach to identifying issues in people’s attitudes and experience and is therefore very rich in helping us think intelligently about the challenges. Some of the ideas will need to be checked out by quantitative studies but it’s only by this kind of social research that you can start to understand the problem.

Here’s a snippet which may persuade you that the analysis is really getting to the heart of the matter

…it is clear that the issue here is not just the poor quality of the cycling facilities provided, it is the fact that these facilities may diminish the legitimacy of bicycles on the road even further without actually given them a viable alternative. Poorly executed cycling facilities might actually make the road-sharing problem worse.
Cycling facilities can also make the road-sharing problem worse if they create additional confusion about where cyclists and drivers are meant to go…

Oh yes, and it’s very well-written.

Christmas,S. Helman,S. Buttress,S. Newman,C. Hutchins,R. (2010) Safety, cycling and sharing the road: qualitative research with cyclists and other road users, UK Department for Transport, available online at

4 Responses to “Cyclists and Drivers – It’s a cultural thing”

  1. Gareth Says:

    For me a key quote is: ‘From the cyclist’s perspective, inadequate cycle facilities can diminish the legitimacy of bicycles on the road even further without actually providing a viable alternative.’

    Earlier this week I cycled from Sunderland to Newcastle station by the national cycle network – distance 20 miles. Distance given by Google Maps for the on road route – 12 miles. Little wonder I encountered only four other cyclists in 20 miles of cycling

  2. chrisrust Says:

    Thanks Gareth, although I was wondering about the point you were trying to make with the second para.

  3. Gareth Says:

    oh, I can see now it wasn’t very clear.

    Essentially the point was that anyone commuting or otherwise on a tight schedule would shun the cyclist specific route and mix it on the dual carriageways

  4. Stan Says:

    Thanks for highlighting this research paper. It makes for interesting reading even though there are not that many surprises in the findings.

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