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Feel safe, cycle better

Cognition scientist Rul von Stülpnagel investigates how architectural structures influence cyclists’ behavior

Freiburg, Sep 30, 2020

Winding, narrow, busy with traffic? Dr. Rul von Stülpnagel investigates when it is that people perceive cycle routes as dangerous and which routes they actually are. The cognitive scientist from Freiburg is particularly interested in the question - Would more people pedal if cycle paths indicated a high degree of safety? To this end, von Stülpnagel has launched a study, evaluated surveys and analyzed cyclists' eyesight using mobile eye tracking. Interested parties can take part in the survey until the end of October 2020.

Those who’ve heard of Freiburg’s reputation as a cycling town are not disappointed. “Generally speaking, cyclists here enjoy luxurious circumstances,” says cognition scientist Rul von Stülpnagel. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

Unrestricted all-round views challenge cyclists. “Many people find them unpleasant,” says Rul von Stülpnagel from the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Freiburg. Stülpnagel, a psychologist, was surprised by this finding. He has been looking into how dangerous or safe cycle routes are since 2015. When does the subjective feeling of cyclists match up with the objective accident figures? Von Stülpnagel is particularly interested in the influence of walls, tram stops and other building structures that restrict visibility. “Initially I thought that cyclists would feel safer the more open their field of vision is.” But then he put special glasses on the cyclists. These glasses had several small cameras integrated into them which recorded the cyclist’s field of vision and eye movements. Finally, a computer calculated whether the cyclists looked to the right, left or straight ahead - and for how long. This technology is called mobile eye tracking.

A test with 18 people showed that with a wider field of vision, the fear of missing something important grows. “If my field of vision is too open, I have to look in many directions,” explains Stülpnagel. In city traffic, dangers threaten from all sides. This is why, for example, house walls that obstruct one line of sight are reassuring. “Then I can focus on the other side,” he says. The more obstacles restrict the view, the less far ahead the gaze is directed. To compensate, cyclists ride slower - at least most of them do. Von Stülpnagel asked his test subjects beforehand how familiar they are with the area in question and how they assess their cycling skills. “Those who think they are more experienced feel safer and ride faster,” he adds.

Conflicts between cyclists and motorists

On the other hand, a restricted field of vision must not give cyclists the impression of narrowness, says von Stülpnagel, “The width is subjectively extremely important for the feeling of safety on cycle paths, especially on cycle lanes.” This has been confirmed by data from a project in which more than 15,000 Berliners used photographs to classify the danger of cycle paths. “Coloured markings are good, but they do not further increase the feeling of safety if cycle paths are wide enough,” says von Stülpnagel. However, most of them in cities are narrower than officially recommended.

Do such subjectively unsafe routes discourage people from cycling? Would more people cycle if the buildings made them feel safe? “My main focus is on how buildings influence human behavior,” says von Stülpnagel. His projects focus on the structural backdrop of conflicts between cyclists and motorists. However, his work could also reveal misjudged structures that make certain places objectively dangerous. This could also increase real safety.

Breaks in the path present a danger

Figures on the objective danger are drawn from accident statistics. “The Freiburg police were very helpful. They also provided me with anonymised information on the age and sex of the people involved in accidents,” reports von Stülpnagel. He assessed the local subjective feeling of safety from a survey by the Freiburg Traffic Forum. This survey has now been completed. Interested parties have until the end of October 2020 to fill out a survey designed by von Stülpnagel.

“Cyclists almost always assess the danger correctly,” says the researcher, who compares the subjective impressions with the objective facts. Cycle paths that are separated from the roadway for cars by construction elements such as curbs or edges both feel safer and really are safer. However, dividing lines painted on the road are better than nothing. Places where cycle paths disappear for some distance have proven to be statistically and emotionally critical, "As in Freiburg, for example, at the transition from Habsburgerstrasse to Zähringerstrasse, where people cycling out of town have to get onto the road to cross the railway bridge.” Many accidents also happen around tram stops - where cyclists do not feel they are unduly threatened. Von Stülpnagel cannot satisfactorily explain either this misjudgement nor the frequency of accidents; “I will continue my research into that,” he says.

He stresses that not all of his findings apply to the whole of Germany. Not all routes, for example, carry the same number of cyclists. The importance of danger spots can also be distorted if data on the volume of cycle traffic is missing. The information was available for Munich. “That is how we discovered that 30 km/h zones are probably not as safe as generally assumed,” von Stülpnagel says. The low number of accidents could be deceptive because there are often fewer bicycles in the zones than outside of them.

Luxurious conditions in Freiburg

Traffic is tricky, and the emotional state of cyclists no less. Most of the funding goes into projects for motorised transport, says Rul von Stülpnagel, but the situation is improving. The researcher has published or submitted for publication a number of articles on this topic in 2020 alone. Now he plans to analyse the content of cyclists' complaints in more detail, preferably automatically or semi-automatically with text mining. His online survey should also help to better understand subjective impressions of the danger. So as not to endanger test subjects, he also wants to recreate sequences of complex traffic situations virtually. For Freiburg, he notes: “Generally speaking, cyclists here enjoy luxurious circumstances. But of course there is always room for improvement.”

Jürgen Schickinger