It’s not all about the mode: Race and gender bias in yielding to non-motorized road users

By Mary Ebeling

Two recent studies suggest that bias in driver behavior toward other road users could be contributing to enhanced stress levels for certain groups of pedestrians and bicyclists. Recent research documents a difference in drivers yielding to pedestrians based on race in Portland, OR. A second study out of the UK concludes women cyclists are more likely than men to experience “incidents” (passing too closely, verbal harassment, etc.). These two studies document how the experience with motor vehicle traffic of pedestrians and bicyclists, particularly those in minority groups, contributes not only to the feeling of being threatened but also to actual safety issues. This points to a need to raise awareness among drivers about their behavior and to incorporate better safety elements into street design in order to buffer these vulnerable road users from motorized traffic.

Researchers at Portland State University and the University of Arizona documented the racial bias in driver rates of yielding to pedestrians waiting at an unsignalized crosswalk to see if there was a difference in driver behavior towards Black and White pedestrians. The authors considered three primary variables: the number of cars that passed without yielding, the time that passed before a pedestrian could cross, and whether the first approaching vehicle stopped for the pedestrian waiting at the curb.

The racial bias study consisted of a controlled field study that isolated race as the independent variable, allowing the researches to document that the Black pedestrians were twice as likely as the White pedestrians to wait for at least two cars before they could cross. This finding was statistically significant. The safety implications of this behavior are also significant. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 2000 to 2010, the pedestrian fatality rates in the United States for Black and Hispanic men was 3.93 and 3.73 per 100,000 population. This is twice the fatality rate for White men, which was 1.78 per 100,000 during the same period.

A study from the UK investigates near misses for bicyclists in the United Kingdom, asking the question “Why, when the real risk is so small, are people so reluctant to cycle?” This study focused on perceived risks associated with near misses, which are defined as passing too closely, turning in front of a bicyclist, and other types of aggressive behavior. This study relied on voluntary participation in online travel diaries and a survey, using contact lists of cyclists maintained by cycling organizations, direct contact through distribution of flyers, and social media. Most cyclists completing travel diaries hail from England or Scotland, with just over 32 percent of participants living in London. As in the U.S., cyclists in Britain are predominantly male, and this is reflected in the demographics of those participating in the study. Seventy-two percent were men. Most of the participating cyclists ranged in age from 25 to 54, with rates dropping off markedly in the 55-64 age brackets.

This study also found discrepancies in driver behavior. However, this time the differences were gender based. While the study suggests women may experience a higher rate of near misses due to the slower speed at which they travel, it was clear from the survey results that male and female cyclists are treated differently by car drivers. Writing in The Guardian, author Rachel Aldred of The Near Miss Project states that this creates an environment where “road users who pose the least risk to others are systematically marginalized, through a combination of dangerous road environments and thoughtless to hostile behavior.”

These studies provide insight into how minority pedestrians and bicyclists experience additional challenges using the transportation system. The findings suggest that if we want biking and walking to be viable modes of transportation for all road users we should design facilities to meet these objectives. There are best practice examples of how to do this. For example, places that have invested in designing streets that are safe and appealing for bicycling show increases in female cycling. We also must address the disparate stresses experienced by women and minorities because of driver behavior.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.