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Bicyclists found on today's roadways range from the very young through those in their retirement years. In the past, the majority of bicyclists were teenagers or younger. A recent trend, beginning in the '60's, has more nearly balanced adult and younger riders. Today many bicyclists use bikes for additional purposes of utility, commuting, and planned recreation trips.

The behavior of the bicycle rider is often tied to the very specific type of user. A middle-aged businessman may ride a $600 bike at a brisk pace along a rutted roadway, at times darting around a bit of debris. On the other hand, a pre-teen may travel a bit slower, ride right through the debris, and then make an erratic left-hand turn into a friend's house without checking for traffic from the rear. Thus, it is important to identify different riders according to the general behavior we may anticipate. Only in this way can we target our specific safety messages for the greatest effect.

For the purposes of this study we will describe one very specific class of riders--the bicycle tourist--whose riding style and behavior is among the most predictable and cautious. Certain characteristics of the bicycle tourist are true of all bicyclists, but be careful to not assume these patterns are uniform.

Bikecentennial Riders.

Cyclists taking part in Bikecentennial were well-educated urbanites whose families had middle-income salaries. In their lifestyle and habits, these bicyclists formed a unique group concerned with ecology, safety, health and nutrition. In general, the riders were outgoing and appreciative of contact with other riders and the people in the communities through which they traveled. There was very little evidence of littering or vandalism. Law enforcement officials were highly complimentary of the riders, with the exception of a few bicyclists who were discourteous on the highways.

The great majority of the riders (73.8%) were between the ages of 17 and 35. However, there was a fair distribution through the other age groups, with about 5% of the riders in their retirement years. The age range was from 7 to 86 years. The oldest known rider to complete the entire trail was 67, while the youngest were two 9-year-olds.

  • Sex. Men outnumbered the women 3:1 on the long trips, and 2:1 on the short trips.
  • Marital Status. Single riders predominated (72.5%) in both the long and short trips.
  • Race. Although not included as source information in either the survey or registration form, only a few black, native American, Spanish, or other minority group members were represented in the tours. As an example, only 4 of the known 4,065 riders were black.
  • Formal Schooling. Bikecentennial riders were well educated. Those having completed college or graduate school represented 49.5% of all riders. Another 28% had some college background, or were currently enrolled.
  • Occupations. The majority of the bicyclists were from white-collar or student groups. Roughly 45% were either students (34%) or educators (11%). The next highest category is for technicians (16%), with managers (7%) following. Only 4% of the riders labeled themselves as being unemployed.
  • Family Income. The single largest income category was for families earning $22,500 or more (23.5%). The median income was established at $15,500. Independent riders represented higher income levels (34% of all independents reported family earnings in excess of $22,500).
  • Riding Experience. The bicyclists had been riding an average of 3.5 years, and rode their bikes 8 or 9 months out of the year. When off their bikes they drove an average of 7,500 miles per year. The average rider put in about 450 bicycle miles in 1976 before starting the Bikecentennial ride. Thirty-six percent owned more than one bike.


The attitudes and resulting behavior of the bicycle tourists gave us important clues to their potential for accidents in a given situation. Such information also provided us with important data for law enforcement, bike route design, and education programs. Below are some common attitudes and a partial explanation for such a position.

  • Stop Signs. Only 40% of the Bikecentennial riders stated that they always obeyed stop signs. The majority (53.7%) sometimes do, and 5.5% rarely obey signs. Although most adult bicyclists realize the risk at intersections, many find it a nuisance to bring a bike to a complete stop as required by law, put their foot down, and then make a wobbly start. Many bicyclists approach the intersection at a slow pace, check the cross lane for traffic with both ears (cocking head slightly to side) and eyes, and then proceed with caution. The bicyclist who makes this type of "stop" actually spends as much time, or more, checking for traffic as the motorist. A not so obvious problem is that an adult rider using this technique might pass along a poor habit to an observing 8-year-old who fails to understand the risk involved.

    Bikeway planners should be aware of the added problem they pose to the bike rider when designing a route of several miles laced with 6-10 stop streets. Either the bike rider will ignore the route entirely, or will soon abandon the cautious approach required by law. One solution is to change the traffic control, placing a yield sign or giving right of way to the bicyclist.
  • Traffic Lights. Intersections with traffic signals are approached more uniformly. A majority of the riders (78.3%) stated that they always stop at traffic lights. Unfortunately, there are another 20.3% who announce they sometimes stop. Of those 20.3% some are likely to be found who do not see the risk or understand the irritation this brings to others anticipating uniform observance. Lack of adequate law enforcement adds to this problem.
  • Signal Turns. Roughly one-fourth always signal turns, and an additional one-half sometimes do. Most bicycle tourists will signal their turns when in known traffic, but see the move as awkward when the need for the communication is not immediate, since this requires removing one hand from the handlebars at a time when balance is also important.
  • Two or Three Abreast. One of the most common complaints of the motorist sharing the highway with a group of bicyclists comes from a cluster of riders taking up the lane. Common courtesy, legal statutes, and safety dictate that when motor vehicle traffic approaches, riders should break from two or more abreast and go to single file to allow easy passing. The habit of riding three or more abreast is illegal and frowned upon in bicycling circles, since it is hard to disperse safely. However, the two-abreast pattern is both common, and often acceptable by most bicyclists, as long as the riders are attentive, on a lightly traveled roadway, and willing to move to single file at the first indication of a motor vehicle. Riding two-abreast has certain added safety benefits. The biggest is the more dramatic visual impact two riders in the roadway ahead as opposed to the slender lone rider. Two riders sharing the same roadway also find the two-abreast position more social, with less chance of a bike/bike collision, which occasionally takes place if one rider is tailing another.
  • One-Way Street. Another behavior common to many bicyclists is riding the wrong way down a one-way street. Although 60% of the riders stated they never ride the wrong way, 31.6% rarely do, and 7.7% sometimes do. Again, the great freedom of the bike and the slight hassle of riding an additional block or two helps generate this illegal behavior.
  • Ride Against Traffic. One of the most dangerous riding habits for any bicyclist is to ride against the flow of traffic. Motorists often fail to perceive such bicyclists until it is too late. Although this behavior was not observed along the TransAmerica Trail, nearly 20% of the riders stated that they rarely will ride against traffic (presumably in an urban setting); the other 80% never ride against traffic.
  • Lane Use. There is a mixture of opinion among bicycling groups as to the safest approach to use of a traffic lane. The split is nearly 50/50 on riding to the right most of the time or using the entire lane.

    This past summer there was a certain percentage of riders (1-3%) who had the habit of dominating a lane no matter what the traffic situation. This creates great hostility between motorist and biker, and poses serious safety [sic] to both the biker and cars backing up behind a prudent driver. Such traffic offenders should be made aware of the very serious problems they create. When traffic allows, those who ride in the center of the lane feel that the position allows them greater safety. There are normally fewer potholes in the center of the lane, and on a downhill the position is essential for control. On uphills, bicyclists sometimes use a weaving motion across much of the entire lane. Although this is a hazardous practice in areas of traffic, it is done and should be anticipated.

    Those who ride to the right are more cautious about traffic, but sometimes are annoyed that motorists fail to see them; or do not slow down because the rider is already showing care. Both bicyclists and motorists are confused on proper sharing of lanes.
  • Other. About 27% of the riders wore safety helmets, and 70% wore a bright orange triangle to help motorists pick them out from a distance as a slow-moving vehicle. Concern for riding safety also extended to nearly 70% of all riders wearing bright clothing at all times or frequently.


Convinced of his/her right to share in the use and responsibilities of the roadway, the bicycle tourist is normally predictable and visible. The long-distance bicyclist shares a unique set of commands and signals when. riding with others, calling out potholes, traffic, notifying other riders when overtaking, or alerting a fellow rider to another hazard. The great majority are concerned for their own safety, and show courtesy to fellow highway users. The great freedom of the bicycle inspires some bicyclists to ride under unsafe and illegal conditions. This problem must be addressed by educators, law enforcement officials, and legislators.

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