On your bike

Cycling is an increasingly popular way to get around New Zealand cities, but the sociology behind it is only just beginning to be understood.

A man rides a bycicle towards the camera on a sunny day, a red and blue car are alongside him.

Dr Mike Lloyd from the School of Social and Cultural Studies says that while current research on the complexity of traffic focuses on the domains of psychology and engineering, there is growing interest from sociologists wanting to understand traffic as a complex space of interaction.

A keen cyclist since his school days in Christchurch, Mike has a personal as well as professional interest in the interactions between cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians. He says as cycling in New Zealand has grown in popularity, so has the focus on infrastructure to make it safer.

“Working from an understanding that road rules are not a hard and fast guide to what actually transpires on the road, my research investigated how cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians finely adapt their interactions with each other,” says Mike.

Using Wellington’s Island Bay cycleway as his research site, Mike fixed GoPro cameras to his helmet and bike to capture video footage.

He found that road design—things like placement of speed bumps and the colour and width of paint—combined with the fine movements of pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists, played a remarkably important role in how new cycling infrastructure is used. Mike includes gaze direction, stance, and the use of objects such as cell phones, car doors, and kerbsides, as important factors that coordinate movement on the road.

“It’s not possible to predict exactly which features of infrastructure play a key role in interaction on the road, but a clear finding is that transition points need particular care in their design. The places where cycle lanes move onto shared space on footpaths, where cyclists and drivers share space in ‘sharrow’ lanes, and even the boundary between the kerbside, the cycle-lane, and parked cars, are areas where near misses and collisions can occur,” he says.

Growing recognition of the usefulness of video footage enabled Mike to use videos posted on sites such as YouTube for the second branch of his research, revealing some surprising results.

Focusing on what cyclists call ‘cell-phone zombies’—pedestrians moving in or near cycle-lanes while distracted by their cell-phone use—Mike’s research shows that there is remarkable variety in what pedestrians do when supposedly distracted by a cell phone. “Even though a cell phone might be at-the-ready, it is often the holder’s gaze direction that successfully communicates to a cyclist that there is no worrying distraction occurring,” he says.

“Very few collisions actually occur. Pedestrians are using peripheral awareness and at the same time cyclists are on the lookout for serious instances of cell-phone distraction, adapting their course when this occurs.”

While there are instances where just holding a cell phone does appear to have an impact on oblivious movements by pedestrians, Mike’s research suggests that the pejorative term ‘cell-phone zombie’ is not very useful.

“Given the ubiquity of cell-phone use and the potential dangers of the street, understanding these complex interactions between cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians is an important task for further research.”