Too much stimuli

Segregated cycle lanes promote safety for reasons you may not be aware of

I just read a paper by Charles Korte and Rosalyn Grant, titled “Traffic Noise, Environmental Awareness, and Pedestrian Behavior“, and immediately I thought of segregated cycle lanes. Lets start from the beginning.

The study. Here’s the shortest possible summary: The more stuff that there is around you, the less you will take notice of it.

The study looks at pedestrians walking along a street during a less busy time and a busier time. The more stimulus they have to take in, the more they are focused solely on the task at hand – getting to where they are going. From the abstract: “During periods of high traffic noise and density, in contrast to low periods, pedestrians were found to be less aware of novel objects placed along their route, to walk faster, and to engage more in a straight-ahead gaze fixation.” The part of most interest to us here is that they didn’t notice things in their periphery. Where are bikes often forced to travel? In motorists periphery.

So, we have a problem, then. This isn’t a new problem. This isn’t really a novel problem. It’s definitely not a surprising problem. This is also a problem that some people decided to solve quite some time ago, and it’s really a pretty simple idea: separate motorists and cyclists with segregated cycle lanes.

Clearly, separating cars and bikes results in fewer of them getting hit. But separating them also increase the care with which both drivers and cyclists are able to take when travelling about generally. When there is more to focus on, there is less time to really take notice of it. The brain may or may not ultimately have a limited capacity to multitask, but that ability certainly becomes increasingly compromised the more stimulus we throw at it. Think about when you are trying to read in a busy environment, or when there is a TV on in front of you. Think about how well you remember something (maybe what you are trying to read, or someones name) when there are a million other things going through your mind. The less focused you are on something, the less chance you have of actually retaining that data. More than that, the more stimulus there is around you, the less inclined you may actually be to help someone! If you are less inclined to help someone, you can’t help but to think that you would be less likely to even consider their needs in the first place (I’m far too busy), so giving cyclists a wide berth when passing or waiting until they are clear of the intersection before turning might seem to be pretty low on your to-do list in a busy environment. That is, if you take notice of them in the first place…

Segregated cycle lanes give cyclists – and motorists – a double dose of safety. First, they remove the physical interaction between cyclists and motorists. Secondly, they would technically remove one more category of stimuli to have to focus on. Yes, junctions will always be a problem, but with proper design, these too can be made much safer. If there is more opportunity for drivers, and cyclists, to focus on fewer things, then there is more capacity for the brain to focus on those remaining things. Sounds like a pretty circular argument, which it is, but it’s also true. Who knows, if motorists don’t have to be constantly on the lookout for cyclists, then it seems likely that they will have more mental capacity to focus on the junctions where they can expect to look for them. With proper junction design, cyclists would be in plain sight rather than a potential surprise. I know you could easily, and rightly, argue that it’s the motorists (and cyclists) responsibility to drive in a safe manner and be aware of what is going on around them at all times, but why not try to make that situation less risky anyway? Checking for cyclists between you and the kerb before turning necessarily takes some of the attention away from looking for cyclists or pedestrians in the intersection you are turning into. I’m definitely not arguing that this is a valid excuse that motorists (or cyclists) can give if they do hit someone, but I’d like to hear your argument that this isn’t sometimes the reality of the situation. If you had segregated cycle lanes and junctions like those described in the video in the link above, then you are setting up a situation where both motorists and cyclists can focus on fewer things, and have more mental capacity to focus on the things that are remaining.

In general, I have always thought that roads have far too much stimuli lining both sides. It’s a bit bizarre that you can struggle to discern what street you are on, if the speed limit has changed, or if the second lane is ending, but not where to find love online or your next fast food meal. I have to admit that I was shocked at how much worse this was in places like Paris, which is the biggest city I have driven in. In some places there is so much going on and the streets are so full of… everything, that you struggle to even see the traffic lights. If we can take cyclists out of that equation for even a portion of the time by using segregated cycle lanes, then we ought to. Just another reason why motorists should be lining up along side cyclists in support of proper cycling infrastructure, including segregated cycle lanes.


Header image: source