Friday, January 7, 2011

The bicycle "social contract"

It's rare that there is a public discussion of bicycling without someone complaining about bicyclists' behavior. It doesn't happen when we discuss driving or walking but for some reason bad behavior by bicyclists seems to really annoy some people.

In an excellent posting on Greater Greater Washington entitled What's our bicycle "social contract"? David Alpert discusses the issue:
With the frequent calls for cyclists to "start behaving," it's clear that a number of people driving and walking are unsettled by the conduct of at least some people on bikes. But people in cars speed all the time, and people walking cross against the light, and neither generates as many newspaper letters to the editor. What is the difference?

One explanation is that people naturally notice infractions by others on different modes more than those on the same mode. People driving tend to see misbehavior by people walking and cycling rather than from other people driving, for example. Since relatively few people ride bicycles while a great many drive, the outraged letters would skew toward misbehavior by those on bikes and away from that by people in cars.

Felix Salmon proposed another interesting explanation a while back. Basically, he argues that we've developed a clear understanding of what to expect from people walking and driving generally, but lack that consensus for people bicycling:
The trouble all starts when you drop bicyclists into the mix. At that point, a whole new set of combinations comes into play, and as a city we haven't worked out how to make them work. In other cities, especially in places like Copenhagen or Utrecht, bicycles are ubiquitous and everybody knows how to behave on and around them. But we're not there yet.
David goes on to propose various behaviors by bicyclists and whether they should be part of a "bicycle social contract." Rather than list them here, read the article and read the comments. For once there is a reasonable dialog about this issue and very little whining. Thanks to David for starting this discussion.

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