Mode split in Amsterdam by trip distance. Mode splits for London and Melbourne that're approximately comparable are shown below. Source: Meijer

Australians tend to see cycling as something special – it’s racing, it’s exercise, it’s ‘cycle chic’, it’s advocacy, it’s identity – but it’s not usually hum-drum transport like it is in Amsterdam. For many of us it’s an enthusiasm.

Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic argues it’s time to change. She says cycling’s now a mainstream form of transport. It isn’t special anymore. Her key point is cyclists should therefore obey the road rules and be more respectful of pedestrians.

Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian agrees. He reckons it’s time cyclists started stopping at red lights.

If they’re right, the pay-off from regularising cycling could include greater respect from motorists, improved safety, expanded facilities and a better relationship with pedestrians.

There’re some important issues here. Is greater compliance achievable? Would it really deliver the claimed benefits? Would there be any (negative) unintended consequences?

These are questions worth discussing, but for now I want to take a step back and look at why some cyclists disobey the road rules in the first place.

An important reason I suspect is the obvious one – the probability of detection is low. Provided a cyclist isn’t involved in an accident or isn’t riding in the CBD, getting caught for breaking the rules is no more likely than getting pinged for jaywalking.

There aren’t many cops around and to the extent they’re interested in cyclists, it’s pretty much limited to cycling-specific infractions like failing to wear a helmet.

Nor do cyclists have to worry about losing their license. They might cop a fine, but that’s pretty much it. A cyclist’s biggest incentive isn’t to obey the rules but to protect life and limb and minimise effort.

Another reason is the road rules were primarily designed to facilitate motorised transport, not human-powered transport. Some rules make less sense or are too inconvenient for travellers who rely on their legs.

Cyclists see themselves as more like pedestrians than drivers. Like walkers, they can’t do much damage to other road users. They ‘negotiate’ red lights at risk only to themselves, but very rarely ‘run’ them.

The most important reason though is one that’s often over-looked. Cyclists who ride on roads aren’t representative of other road users or of the broader population.

They’re predominantly males and mostly younger ones at that. Moreover, they tend to be toward the risk-taking end of the spectrum.

That’s not surprising – those who’re more risk-averse are likely to perceive cycling in traffic as inherently dangerous and avoid it.

I expect it would be very hard to persuade risk-takers that there’s value in waiting at red lights when there’s nothing coming.

Of course there’s a sub-set of motorists who’re risk-takers too. The difference is they’re a minority of drivers. In the case of cyclists however, risk-takers constitute a large proportion, perhaps even the majority, of those who currently ride on roads.

Motorists tend to assume cyclists who ignore the road rules or behave inconsiderately toward pedestrians are typical of all cyclists whereas drivers are far more law-abiding. But that’s not comparing like with like.

It would be a mistake however to think that the current cohort of cyclists is typical of the next wave waiting in the wings. These potential on-road cyclists are likely to be more risk-averse and probably therefore more inclined to ‘behave’ if they can be induced to take to the streets.

Indeed, it’s never a good idea to assume the behaviour and values of existing users – when they’re very small in number – are representative of potential users.

But there’s a chicken and egg problem here. Unless safety improves significantly the next wave of on-road cyclists might well be a ripple. If the rule-breaking behaviour of some cyclists really does induce dangerous behaviour from drivers, then the whole thing is circular.

Many cyclists already ride in conformity with the road rules, at least almost all the time.  I think it would be very hard however to change the behaviour of that highly visible group who flout the rules. Having said that, if the overall number of cyclists using roads increases enough, they’ll be less visible.

Whether or not it would even be worth trying to promote greater compliance on the part of cyclists is something I’ll consider shortly.

Update: Another possible explanation (comment #7).

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Note: It’s wise to treat the three exhibits as only broadly comparable as the precise assumptions underlying the Amsterdam one in particular aren’t known and aren’t necessarily the same as the other two. Note that the distance categories aren’t the same in all cases either. The really interesting question here isn’t about Melbourne but why cycling in London isn’t closer to Amsterdam.

 

Mode split in London by trip distance. Source: (Drawing) rings around the world

 

Mode share Melbourne by trip distance. Bicycle's share is comined with walking, but sadly is trivial. Source: data from Vista