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U of M study's surprise finding on how drivers treat male, female cyclists

Researchers unintentionally found a clear gender disparity in their data.

Female cyclists are at a significantly greater risk of having a car get too close to them on the road, according to recent University of Minnesota research.

A study by U of M grad students and Hennepin County to collect data for future bike lanes threw up a surprising finding that goes beyond infrastructure.

The students used handlebar radars to document a total of 2,949 passing events on various bike paths and roads, and revealed a clear gender disparity that they hadn't been looking for.

With the passing events roughly split between male and female bicyclists, the research found that cars passing female riders gave them on average 68 inches of space, or three less inches than male riders.

Minnesota law requires at least 36 inches of space when passing, and anything less than that is what researchers considered an encroachment. While total encroachments were rare, comprising just 33 of the total passing events, 73 percent were with a female rider.

This meant female riders were 3.8 times more likely to experience an encroachment, all other conditions being equal.

“However, more unexpectedly, these findings also validate the anecdotal concerns expressed by women about safety as an important consideration in cycling," a report about the study stated.

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And despite the rate of encroachments being relatively low, researchers noted actual instances in Hennepin County would still be quite high given the total number of rides in the area. A 2016 Minnesota Department of Transportation study found the metro made up around 70 percent of the total bicycle trips and miles in the state.

Some of the findings were less surprising to researchers. Findings suggest that protected bike lanes increase passing distance and prevent encroachments. Of the 33 encroachments, none occurred in a protected bike lane, and 64 percent occurred in a 4-lane roadway with no bike lane.

In response, Hennepin County says it will continue to work to improve biking conditions through improved infrastructure.

“The evidence is clear. Cyclists, particularly women, face risks. Separation of cyclists from vehicular traffic reduces encroachments and can address the well-founded concerns women have about safety,” the report read. 

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