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New study finds that cyclists don’t hold up motorists

Researchers find difference in vehicle speeds with a cyclist ahead or another car in front is “negligible”

Our Near Miss of the Day series regularly features motorists overtaking cyclists in a dangerous manner simply to get ahead of them – a type of driving behaviour that now has its own acronym, MGIF (Must Get In Front) because they perceive that bike riders are holding them up. Now, a new study from the United States highlights just how pointless such passing manoeuvres are, finding that cyclists are not responsible for holding up motorists in traffic.

Published last month in the journal Transportation Research Record, the study highlighted that “A concern raised by some motorists in relation to the presence of bicycles on urban roads without bicycle lanes … is that cyclists will slow down motorised vehicles and therefore create congestion.”

Researchers from Portland State University’s Transportation, Technology & People Laboratory sought to establish whether that was true on urban roads without cycle lanes.

They found that “Bicycles are not likely to lead to reduced passenger car travel speed,” and “In most cases, the differences in speed were not significant from a practical standpoint.”

The study was carried out on six streets in Portland, Oregon, and involved two scenarios – the first where a cyclist rode in front of a passenger car, the second where it was another car in front of a car.

While “a few statistically significant differences” between those two scenarios were identified, “the actual speed differences were generally in the order of 1 mph or less.

“Therefore, differences in class two (motorised passenger) vehicle speeds with and without cyclists were found to be negligible from a practical perspective,” the study concluded.

As cycling journalist and author Carlton Reid highlights on Forbes.com, the study found that people riding their bikes downhill were less likely to be passed by drivers, since they were travelling more quickly than they would on flat roads.

Reid asked study co-author Miguel Figliozzi about the potential implications of that for people riding e-bikes.

Figliozzi told him that e-bike riders “are not as affected by uphills, and have better travel performance regarding speed and acceleration. In a low volume and low-speed street, motorists are less likely to overtake e-bikes because the speed differential is smaller or maybe zero.”

The study was welcomed by Dr Ian Walker of the University of Bath, who told Reid: “It’s nice to have hard data to suggest that sharing roads with cyclists doesn’t slow down drivers by any real degree.

“A lot of sentiment towards cyclists is founded on prejudice rather than rational analysis.”

He said that the study would be of most value to local politicians who are sympathetic towards making provision for cyclists but are concerned about it potentially causing congestion.

“They might find themselves reassured that such effects might not happen,” he explained.

With the caveat that the study was carried out on American roads, not British ones, he cautioned that some local authorities might use the results to oppose the case for segregated cycling infrastructure.

“Showing street planners that you can mix cycles and motors without speed impacts might make planners think it’s a good idea to mix cycles and motors,” he said.

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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22 comments

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neilmck | 5 months ago
1 like

Perception is important. On my commute I changed from a standard bike to a road bike. At first my speed did not increase however I noticed immediately a lot less drivers over taking me. I concluded that the drivers though they would be delayed less by me on a road bike and waited behind me for the 200-300m before we would part ways.

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Bungle_52 | 3 years ago
3 likes

Unfortunately comments citing irrational driver perceptions are correct. How do we correct this. In the lowlands, where almost everyone has cycled, attitudes are different. The answer therefore is to get more people cycling. The lockdown seems to have gone someway towards this but freeing up driving too soon has scuppered the progress made. Other solutions? The only one I can see is to make it a prerequisite for getting a driving licence.

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mdavidford replied to Bungle_52 | 3 years ago
1 like

Requiring cycling time for driver licencing might be nice, but one challenge might be to justify why just cycling. Why not require experience of other vulnerable road use - say, riding a horse or using a mobility scooter (or e-scooter, given the latest news)? Or come to that, experience the challenges faced by a whole range of road users (tractor drivers, bus drivers...)? And pretty soon that would become impractical.

An easier to implement approach might be to tighten up the requirements for driving instruction, so that they have to teach the perspectives of other road users, rather than just how to navigate around them, and to improve the driving test so that it tests rigorously for these. It would be less visceral than actually experiencing it, and so less effective, but could still make a useful contribution to shifting attitudes.

And then, of course, we have to bring in retesting every 5 years to re-educate the vast mass of existing drivers who have already learnt bad habits.

The more intractable problem, though, is how to shift the mindset that speed is everything - that getting places and getting things done quicker is always better, no matter what the costs.

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macbaby replied to mdavidford | 3 years ago
4 likes

How about cheaper car insurance for drivers who have completed level 3 bikeability training?

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mdavidford replied to macbaby | 3 years ago
0 likes

Or if we had retesting and relicencing the cost of that could be discounted for those with bikeability training?

In general, though, it seems like holding a licence ought to require, rather than just encourage, an understanding of other road users' perspectives.

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imajez replied to macbaby | 3 years ago
0 likes

Better yet, no licence unles you passed Bikeability Level 3. Because if you cannot pass that, then you definitely should not be in charge of something as dangerous as a motor vehicle. 

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Cycloid | 3 years ago
2 likes

It's not the fact that cyclists do not slow down motorists that matters.

It's the PERCEPTION that cyclists DO slow down motorists that swings the balance

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BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP | 3 years ago
3 likes

Facts? Evidence? When have they ever been any use? 

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Zebulebu | 3 years ago
9 likes

Not sure whether this makes any difference. 'Road tax' hasn't been a thing for 80 years, yet it doesn't stop motorists wittering on about it. At that rate, we might start to see some traction with the results from this study sometime around the year 2100...

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caw35ride | 3 years ago
0 likes

BGO to end 'em all.

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Captain Badger | 3 years ago
5 likes

In a separate shock study, scientists also found that there is growing evidence that melesian quadrupeds sometimes defecate in arborial areas....

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mdavidford | 3 years ago
10 likes

Quote:

“A lot of sentiment towards cyclists is founded on prejudice rather than rational analysis.”

He said that the study would be of most value to local politicians who are sympathetic towards making provision for cyclists but are concerned about it potentially causing congestion.

“They might find themselves reassured that such effects might not happen,” he explained.

Unfortunately, data doesn't tend to have much impact on prejudice, and what politicians tend to be interested in is not so much whether it works in practice, but how it plays with those prejudiced electors.

What a lot of drivers see is 'there is an empty space beyond this cyclist that I could have driven into if the cyclist wasnt there, so this cyclist is holding me up. The fact that by doing so they'd just end up at the back of the same queue doesn't enter into the thinking, and no amount of waving scientific studies at them is likely to change that much.

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RobD replied to mdavidford | 3 years ago
4 likes

This is the fact that most people don't see when they drive, that all they're doing is getting to the back of the next queue more quickly. Rarely do they make it through lights any sooner, or out at a junction, and on the occasions when they do, there's other traffic just a little way ahead. Once I accepted this I became much less bothered by traffic when I'm driving.

People are strange and very illogical, it's like the studies they've done on queuing in supermarkets, people feel better about their situation when there are people queing behind them, rather than being in a shorter queue, I guess this translates over to driving, as long as they feel they're getting ahead of someone they feel better about themselves. Explains those drivers you see on the motorway desperately weaving in and out of traffic, yet 10 minutes later they're less than 50 meters further ahead of you than simply sticking in the lane.

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David9694 replied to RobD | 3 years ago
3 likes

Strange, illogical - hmmm - child-like in my view. When you're really little, you have very little concept of what just happened, or what will be happening next - you live for and respond to the moment you're in. Quite worrying, really. 
As has been said, your efforts as a driver to "speed up" your journey nearly always come to nought.
"Hang back", my old dad taught me, when there's any sort of situation ahead on the road, yet many drivers charge on in to whatever tangle it is. When you cycle, you conserve energy and momentum, e.g. you've no interest at all in accelerating up to a red light. 

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eburtthebike | 3 years ago
3 likes

While the conclusions are welcome, that cyclists don't hold up drivers, that fact has been obvious for many years.  It's why cyclists always beat drivers in commuter races.  If anything, it's the drivers who hold up cyclists.

When I used to ride 6.3m each way on crowded roads every day to work, I very occasionally had to use a car.  Even though part of the drive was on a motorway, the same journey took longer by car.

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fukawitribe replied to eburtthebike | 3 years ago
1 like

Bit confused - was it the same journey and you cycled on the motorway, or one where you cycled on crowded roads and another, different route, involving motorways ? (sounds a pretty short journey to involve a motorway, even when 6.3m is miles rather than metres).

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eburtthebike replied to fukawitribe | 3 years ago
1 like

fukawitribe wrote:

Bit confused - was it the same journey and you cycled on the motorway, or one where you cycled on crowded roads and another, different route, involving motorways ? (sounds a pretty short journey to involve a motorway, even when 6.3m is miles rather than metres).

I lived north of Bristol and worked in the centre, so my route was a few minor roads to get to the A38, Gloucester Road, and then straight in.  There is always queueing traffic which it was easy to get around, but would be a nightmare in a car (something the same hundreds of drivers I passed every day seemed unable to grasp).  The best car alternative is the M32, built to cure congestion in north Bristol, but like all the other roads built with that premise, it didn't, it just encouraged more driving; money well spent

If they closed the M32 to everything except buses, emergency vehicles and cyclists, it would massively improve air quality, noise pollution and safety and accessibility for cyclists.  The authorities, either the HA or the council weren't keen.

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giff77 replied to fukawitribe | 3 years ago
1 like

With my commute to work I have a choice of two A roads and a Motorway the later obviously called into play if I drive. All three routes come to 5 miles. I can cover the A roads faster than when the motorway is clogged up with traffic!  There is a third road which adds on an extra mile or so and is even quieter than the others. The advantage of early finishes is my return leg is 20 odd miles!! 

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imajez replied to fukawitribe | 3 years ago
2 likes

fukawitribe wrote:

Bit confused - was it the same journey and you cycled on the motorway, or one where you cycled on crowded roads and another, different route, involving motorways ? (sounds a pretty short journey to involve a motorway, even when 6.3m is miles rather than metres).

A while back for work, I cycled from very South to very North of Sheffield through city centre and the following morning I drove, but used a section on motorway because that was quickest way by car.  Bike was marginally faster and about 11 Vs 13 miles

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brooksby | 3 years ago
5 likes

New study finds that cyclists don’t hold up motorists - well of course not: they're far too heavy!

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Mungecrundle | 3 years ago
16 likes

In 35 years of driving, I reckon I can count my time lost due to cyclists in terms of minutes. Whilst the time lost due to traffic congestion caused by cars, lorries etc would be measured in weeks, if not months.

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wycombewheeler replied to Mungecrundle | 3 years ago
4 likes

Mungecrundle wrote:

In 35 years of driving, I reckon I can count my time lost due to cyclists in terms of minutes. Whilst the time lost due to traffic congestion caused by cars, lorries etc would be measured in weeks, if not months.

I suspect all time lost to cyclists in a lifetime is less than the time lost to congestion due to a single accident because some f'wit can't drive properly. Yet no drivers give those eedjits any abuse when they finally pass them.

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