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Cyclists obey red lights in Minneapolis — most of the time

MinnPost photo by Tom Nehil
While it’s comforting to know that most cyclists here do obey red lights, the importance of this study and future ones is to open a dialogue about what influences the compliance of all road users. Is it a function of intersection complexity (number of lanes, speed of traffic, types of bicycle facilities) and how confident people are to take risk yet be safe? logo

Watching a cyclist fly through a red light while we wait idling in our car, on our feet or on our own bikes is frustrating. Such a brash move in the face of society causes us to lambast the enforcement of the legal system, we criticize their parents’ child rearing skills, and start attributing recklessness to the entire race of cyclists.

But do all cyclists disobey stoplights? No, of course not! On my daily rides I often observe cyclists stopping and waiting for the green, and I know several cyclists that habitually obey all traffic laws. So, how many scofflaws are there and what attributes and behaviors do they share? Nearly two years ago, I set out to find these answers and in the hope of adding facts to the often heated & opinionated discussion of cyclists and their propensity to stop at red lights (this post has been a long time coming). Below is a distilled version of my much lengthier study.

My initial search for similar published studies unearthed two which looked at the compliance of cyclists at red lights. However, neither study took place in the U.S. (Australia and China instead) and both involved reviewing video footage of intersections in order to identify specific behaviors and attributes of cyclists. Because I didn’t have the resources to invest in video cameras, nor the time to review footage, Jacob Thebault-Spieker (a UMN PhD student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering) helped me customize a mobile app he developed called CitizenSence to meet my data collection needs. With the app I was able to quickly and easily record real-time observations of individual cyclists in the field and beam the data to a central server which automatically formatted it into a downloadable Excel file for analysis. Easy peasy!

Deciding to record cyclist observations with a phone app rather than video sped up the collection and data analysis process and it enabled identical parameters for observations to be replicated across different intersections (and users if desired). But the app’s interface and my own limitations (sadly I only have one set of eyes and I do not have x-ray vision to see cyclists through big trucks) did narrow the amount of data I could collect. So, of the 18 variables the other two other studies collectively addressed, I determined eight could feasibly be recorded with the existing CitizenSence interface. Then those eight variables were dissected and combined to create the final attributes below:

  1. GENDER – Both studies found women to have higher compliance rates than men
  2. STOP TYPE – Each cyclist observed was categorized as having stopped then proceeded through the red, waited for red to turn to green before proceeding or failed to stop
  3. DIRECTION OF TRAVEL – Direction of travel was entered as proceeding left, straight or right through an intersection
  4. GROUP SIZE – This measure attempts to account for behaviors related to group size by comparing the number of members of the stopped group and the stop types for each person within that group
  5. MISCELLANEOUS: GPS coordinates and the time at which each observation was made were recorded automatically with each submission (each submission being an individual cyclist) using the mobile app. Also other intersection characteristics such as types of bike facilities and number of traffic lanes at each observed intersection were recorded

I chose 15 signalized intersections across Minneapolis with high cyclist volumes recorded by the City of Minneapolis during recent signal retiming projects. Six of the 15 chosen intersections happened to also be listed within the top 33 intersections with the most bike / vehicle crashes from 2000 to 2010 as stated in the Minneapolis Crash Report. Over the course of my study, I counted each intersection twice resulting in 30 separate counts.

I visited the intersections and made observations whenever I was available on a weekday between 3pm and 7pm (evening rush hour was chosen in an attempt to capture the highest daily volume of cyclists). In all, 9.5 hours of observations over eight fair weather days (no rain and above 60F) were recorded between May 6th and June 28th, 2013.

Of the 411 cyclists I observed, 239 (58%) complied, meaning they came to a complete stop and waited for the light to turn green before proceeding. Interestingly, the proportion of non-compliant cyclists ranged from 8.7% to 68.9% across the 15 different intersections.

My overall findings showed that:

  • Nearly half (47.7%) of the observed cyclists actually encountered red lights
  • The majority of both genders (70.3% of females and 52% of males = 58.2% overall) complied
  • When turning right, the majority of both males and females failed to comply with red lights (88% and 81.3% respectively)
  • Of the 349 cyclists traveling straight 63.3% complied while 57.1% of the 21 cyclists traveling left complied
  • Those riding alone were compliant 46.2% of the time compared to groups of two (76.8%), and three (80.9%)
  • Cyclists at intersections with sharrows or bike boulevards had the worst and second worst compliance rates (31.1% and 37.2% respectively)
  • Gender varied most at intersections with sharrows (males: 89%, females: 11%) and was most similar at intersections with separated bike paths (males: 55%, females: 45%)

I also found that compliance levels varied dramatically by intersection:

  • Minnehaha Parkway & Portland Ave had the highest compliance rate (91.3%) of any intersection observed
  • Lasalle Ave & W 15th St, and Lake St & Bryant Ave had the worst compliance (31.1% and 37.2% respectively) and had the greatest number of cyclists that stopped but proceeded through the intersection (24 and 20 respectively)
  • W 24th St & Nicollet Ave, and Franklin Ave & Portland Ave had the greatest number of cyclists that didn’t stop at all (18 and 17 respectively)
  • Lasalle Ave & W 15th St had the greatest rate of red light cyclists per minute (1.56) compared to an overall average of 0.64 per minute

Overall, Minneapolis cyclists comply with red lights 58% of the time, which is right in the middle of the Australian study (7%) and the Chinese study (79%) compliance rates, but well below the Portland study (which didn’t include right turning cyclists in their 94% compliance percentage). While it’s comforting to know that most cyclists here do obey red lights, the importance of this study and future ones is to open a dialogue about what influences the compliance of all road users. Is it a function of intersection complexity (number of lanes, speed of traffic, types of bicycle facilities) and how confident people are to take risk yet be safe? Or is compliance a function of the presence or absence of a clear and attractive option to comply (designated spaces, nice way-finding all the way through the intersection)? Or is it something else entirely?

Ultimately, compliance is good, but safety is better. Don’t get me wrong, law enforcement is important, but ticketing red light runners doesn’t provide better cycling conditions (unless the generated fees went directly towards building better cycling facilities). Instead, engineering and educational pursuits like Minneapolis’ Safety Starts With All Of Us, have the potential to yield better results. By informing and empowering the public, narrowing travel lanes, reducing speeds, and building designated facilities for each mode that minimize the number of conflict points (where paths cross), people will know where their vehicle belongs and trust who has the right of way. They will know that the coil buried beneath the road will detect them and trigger the light to turn green. They will know how to act predictably. After all, we should strive to be a society where someone riding a $30 used bicycle is provided the same level of safety and security as someone driving a $30,000 car. And using data from monitoring cyclists behaviors and attributes to identify problems, promote solutions and safeguard present and future citizens is a fantastic step in that direction.

This post was written by Michael Petesch and originally published on Follow on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 03/04/2015 - 10:49 am.

    Lights, not signs

    Stop LIGHTS, yes. But when was the last time you saw a cyclist stop for a stop SIGN? They just blow through them and then complain that motorists don’t “share the road.”

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 03/04/2015 - 11:41 am.

      I don’t really..

      want to get into a shouting contest, I’d like to keep this open and honest. I think it’s helpful to remember that road users of all modes fail to comply with the law in urban environments. Failing to yield to pedestrians, rolling through stop signs, speeding, etc are all infractions drivers commit, and so finger pointing from either side is not productive to having a real conversation about safety for people on foot, bikes, or in cars.

      There’s a fairly well laid-out case for why people on bikes oftentimes roll through stop signs, made here:

      Of course, safety and compliance of laws and rules that make sense should be primary concerns. We know that people on bikes will comply with lights/etc much more if given safe places to cycle and priority at intersections ( Those are good first steps. Changing the design of smaller streets with stop sign to be slow-speed, continuous flow would make for a more predictable, less dangerous situation for all users as well.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 03/04/2015 - 05:10 pm.

      When there was a reason to

      Same as stop lights, my sense is most (not all) cyclists will stop if there is a reason to, like as conflicting traffic. Which is all they should do.

      I get that motorists are envious that everyone agrees that they have to stop regardless, but the cyclists isn’t moving around a few tons of deadly steel.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/05/2015 - 10:13 am.

      Signs o’ The Times

      I have to confess that I rarely see anyone–bike or car–stop for a sign these days. Generally no one stops for a light either if they’re making a right turn. And the number of people who run through a yellow/red light these days is so common it’s darn near universal.

      These says nearly everyone is playing the margins, which means the roads just aren’t as safe as they used to be.

  2. Submitted by Matt Becker on 03/04/2015 - 12:36 pm.

    Well, I do feel like getting in a shouting match

    I ride every day. And I stop at stop at stop signs every day. The five-way behemoth near lake Como, the four way on Victoria at Arlington…etc etc etc. I stop, look, wait my turn and proceed. And I see dozens of other people on bikes doing the same thing.

    Your generalization of people on bikes is part of the problem here. We are all different people, we are not nameless, faceless, personality-less “cyclists.” Some break the rules, most don’t. We are all people though, trying to get to work, just like you.

    99% of people in cars share the road just fine. They see me, they give me my three feet and they do so safely. Some, however, do not. And I let them hear about it right there on the spot. I don’t lump all drivers together and paint them with the same broad brushstrokes as you do with cyclists.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/04/2015 - 02:50 pm.

    And in between

    As a nearly-daily pedestrian, I’ve found Minnesota cyclists to generally be rude and arrogant – much like their counterparts in Colorado, with whom I also had years of experiences and hundreds of encounters. That said, in terms of regulations, I come down somewhere between Steve Hoffman and Alex Cecchini.

    Using the “everybody else does it” excuse exposes the shallowness of Cecchini’s thinking on these issues, but doesn’t entirely toss them out the window. Anyone with a rudimentary exposure to physics ought to be able to see why a cyclist would rather approach an intersection, especially one with relatively little traffic, as a “yield” situation rather than a “stop” situation, and that is, in fact, the way cyclists in my neighborhood generally deal with stop signs.

    I don’t personally have a problem with nailing cyclists for ignoring traffic signals in precisely the same way a motorist would be issued a citation. I’d like to see far more of that, as a matter of fact. On the other hand, many a stop sign, especially in sparsely-traveled intersections, could be replaced with a “Yield” sign without unduly endangering the public safety.

    From my perspective as a non-native, it appears that Minnesota drivers received either no driver training at all, or training that was totally inadequate. That appears to be the case for cyclists, as well. If everyone using the road, including pedestrians, actually had to demonstrate some minimal level of knowledge of road use rules and regulations, it would go a long way toward averting road rage or its equivalent among and between every road-using group. Eventually, it might even improve public safety, but we’re a very long way from seeing any sort of comprehensive program along these lines.

    I’d also add that 58% compliance doesn’t strike me as “most,” as the headline suggests. It’s a majority, but not much more than that. If 58% of automobile drivers complied with stop signs and red lights, it’s not difficult to imagine the blitz of negative publicity and the massive uptick in enforcement.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 03/04/2015 - 05:17 pm.

      As an actual daily pedestrian

      And occasional cyclist, I’ve found Minnesota cyclists to be all different manner of people, nearly all of which are not a problem.

      What is a problem is drawing conclusions about a large group of people based on the acts of a small few.

      Given your understanding of the physics, why do you object to the way cyclists in your neighborhood deal with stop signs, especially, as you concede, there is no undue harm to public safety from doing so at many of them?

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/04/2015 - 02:12 pm.

    In your research….

    How many tickets were issued by the MPLS police department for cyclist who fail to stop at STOP SIGNS and stop lights in the past year?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/05/2015 - 10:10 am.

      Great Idea!

      It would be wonderful to see those figures–along with a comparable study on how many cars stop for lights and signs. I would love to see the two of them side by side.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/04/2015 - 03:27 pm.

    What a surprise! to find that your study did not include one of the bike routes most used in Minneapolis: along 15th Ave. SE north of University Avenue. You looked solely at adult commuters in south Minneapolis.

    University student bikers are notorious non-compliers with traffic laws. They run signs and they run red lights, going straight. They have a high level of accidents, too. This is deliberate avoidance on your part (the city has not been lax in focusing on 15th Ave. SE, both in highlighting the large numbers of bikes and accidents) and, for me, vitiates your results.

    • Submitted by Jim Young on 03/04/2015 - 05:46 pm.

      Connie’s right

      I used to commute on this stretch of 15th every day and it did seem to have more non-compliant bikers than some other sections of my commute. That said, the level of compliance on that stretch of road has improved greatly over the years. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was much more of a “wild west” than it is today. I seldom see people riding the wrong way there now days whereas it used to be an everyday occurrence, especially in the fall as new students adjusted to biking in a heavily used corridor.

      One thing this article didn’t address at all is traffic signals that ignore the presence of bikers such as the one at 15th Ave. and Rollins (the street just south of Van Cleve park.) That light there would stay green for the 15th Ave. traffic forever if there were no motor vehicles on Rollins to trigger the sensors. I am a pretty law abiding biker but I’d consistently run that light if there was little likelihood of a car coming up to the light any time soon.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/05/2015 - 10:15 am.

      No Shock There

      What, you’re surprised to find that the young think they’re invincible?

  6. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 03/04/2015 - 04:02 pm.

    58% sucks

    So 4 out of 10 people are going to run the light or stop sign. It sucks! Last summer I hung up my bike after three incrediblely close calls with other cyclists. All of them involved jerks on bikes running a stop sign or light. The worst was a cyclist running the llight at Washington and First who actually hit my shoulder with his shoulder. He was going over 20 mph when he blew the red light. If I had even turned around while standing over my bike I would have been severly injured. I have only been riding into my shop for the past two years about twice a week. I was unable to ride for along time due to an injured neck and when I could finally ride some distance again I was incredibly happy. For years out of college I would ride 6000 to 10000 a year before work. This year I plan to sell my commuting bike. In my 50’s and having my own business It is too much risk for me to bike commute here. 🙁

  7. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 03/04/2015 - 07:45 pm.

    Conversation misses the point

    Every time this discussion occurs, the point is completely missed.

    What matters is how our current road and street situation came to be. It was designed entirely for cars and is inhospitable to all other users. To make biking even remotely convenient in such a system — and there are a whole host of reasons why it’s beneficial to everyone to do so — cyclists are forced to change a few rules in the game that’s not made for them.

    In a world designed to be friendly to cyclists, there would be slow-moving traffic, yield signs, and round-abouts. Instead, our system requires constant stopping, and since our entire city isn’t very dense (car based design!), a cyclist obeying the rules perfectly may have to make fifty complete stops to get anywhere, and return to speed each time with sweat and effort.

    And then drivers whine and complain as if cyclists, with their 20 lb bicycles moving 15 mph, are some kind of menace. Yes, the operators of those 4000 lb machines that kill 50,000 Americans a year. They should be exactly as angry at stop-sign rolling cyclists as they are at a “jay” walker who crosses the street and doesn’t get in anyone elses’ way doing it; both are almost entirely harmless to anyone but themselves. The rage cyclists inspire, that is so beyond the actual danger they cause, makes it clear that something else is at play here.

    • Submitted by Steven Bailey on 03/05/2015 - 08:17 am.

      You are missing the point

      This isn’t about the problem of cyclists rolling stop signs. It is about cyclists blowing stop signs and especially stop lights at full speed. It is about them entering intersections with no intention of stopping and putting everyone at risk. When I talked to the City about this problem they said it was becoming a real issue and the number of pedestrians hit by cyclists is a serious rapidly growing problem. As a life long cyclist at this point I am totally for police immediately impounding the bike of anybody cyclist who runs a stop light at full speed.

      • Submitted by Jeff Christenson on 03/05/2015 - 10:28 am.

        Can you back that up?

        I don’t doubt that you had a couple scary experiences with other cyclists rolling stop signs. And that sucks that you had to hang up your bike as a result. I wonder, though, if you aren’t letting that bad experience color your sense of what is actually going on. In my experience commuting daily from St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis, I am not sure I even remember seeing another cyclist “entering intersections with no intention of stopping and putting everyone at risk.” What’s your source for “the number of pedestrians hit by cyclists is a serious rapidly growing problem”?

        In my experience (again, this is going from St. Paul to Minneapolis, and not riding through campus), almost everyone stops (and those that don’t at the very least slow down). Some stop and then proceed through when there’s a safe time to do so. Others wait the full light (I would guess, based on this article, around 58%). Still others (like me), wait until the light for crossing traffic is amber and it’s clear there’s no one coming and go just before their light has turned green. I do this to stay out of the way of traffic accelerating from the stop light. I would be counted, then, among the 42% that do not stop. So consider that.

        Maybe it would make sense to impound the bike of someone who ran a light at full speed. That would seem to protect the cyclist from himself, but again, I’d suggest that that almost never happens (based on my experience, at least), and that there might be more important things for police to be doing.

  8. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/05/2015 - 01:50 am.

    Remove the right turns

    Since Portland got very different results but didn’t count right turns, might be interesting to see if excluding the right turns makes a significant difference.

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