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What Cycling Needs

By Tim Hall

This article first appeared on 14 Feb 2001 as a posting on the Icebike Mailing List in response to a running discussion of our "The Roads We Have" article.

There is just one serious obstacle to more widespread cycling in the U.S. :

Just about everyone in this country believes that cycling on public roads with motor traffic is too dangerous to be a realistic transportation option. All non-cyclists believe this. Most bike riders believe it too, except for a small handful of experienced cyclists.

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If this belief were changed, there could be extensive cycling without much modification of existing roads. If this belief is not changed, all the money we waste on bike paths and bike "lanes" will make little difference.

Consider that it's been about thirty years since one city after another was swept with a zeal for bike planning. We've had bike lanes, bike paths, bike lockers at mass transit stations, and bike "routes". Just about no one today uses their bicycles as transportation, however, despite these large expenditures.

Much of the cycling "advocacy" today is still based on the belief that cycling is too dangerous to do on today's roads. With this belief comes the natural conclusion that "Bicycle Planning" is separating cars from bikes.

For example, the premise of advocates like Critical Mass is that there just hasn't been "enough" money spent on bike lanes and bike paths. These efforts are worse than wasteful. They cause resentment among taxpayers who see these little used facilities. They reinforce the notion that only if there are dedicated cycling facilities can people cycle safely on public roads. They cause motorists to believe that cyclists have no business on roads without special paint on the right hand side. And they waste effort that might actually be put to better use: encouraging people to cycle on roads as they are, with traffic as it is.

We should be clear, too, that facilities like paths and lanes don't benefit cyclists.

Some have mentioned that where there are bike lanes cars don't pass so closely. We know, though, that bike lanes don't reduce accidents caused by overtaking traffic.We also know that bike lanes have nothing to do with the passing distance of motor traffic.

The width of the road is what determines how much room there is on the right hand side. Take the streets where there is a stripe on the right hand side, and just eliminate the stripe. Should we expect significant differences in the passing behavior of motorists? I don't, and haven't seen it in my experience of just this sort of experiment.

As far as bike lanes go, the experience I have on their effects comes from Southern California.  Sometimes, a road will pass from one city to another. Where there was a bike lane in one city there will be none in the other although the road is otherwise unchanged. I noticed that the motor traffic behaved the same way in overtaking on these roads whether the lane was there or not. It's not a study, but a strong suspicion backed up by my own experience.

There is ample reason to believe, though, that bike lanes cause inexperienced riders to make dangerous decisions. It's common, for instance, for bike lanes to cut across right hand turn lanes. Another example is where bike lanes will break up (dashed lines or no lines) only yards from an intersection, leading many cyclists to execute left hand turns all the way from the curb lane. But criticism of bike lanes and other dedicated facilities is nothing new, and I can't do as good a job at rehearsing it as the original critics do of complaining.  See for more.

Political Baggage

Fear of traffic is only part of the reason that cycling planning has been guided by irrational principles. Another important reason is that cycling has somehow been adopted as part of the environmentalist, socialist utopia envisioned by so many urban planners and activists today. These people don't love cycling so much as they hate motor vehicles, and the free market in energy sources. These are the sort who fantasize about federal agents shutting down gas stations, about urban "planners" forcing everyone to live in giant apartment blocks in inner cities, or about the apocalyptic day when gasoline will "run out", bringing much wailing and gnashing of teeth among profligate car owners.

None of these people will help cycling in the long run.

For one thing, just about everything they believe and envision is, to put it gently, unrealistic. For example, short of an asteroid collision or nuclear war we will never see large numbers of people in western countries forced out of cars and onto bicycles because of energy costs. That just isn't going to happen. To address one common fear (or hope), it's unlikely that any mature person will live to see the day when oil becomes so scarce as to be unprofitable to remove from the earth. Proven and likely reserves will last out this century, and likely better technology will allow us to remove oil from even deeper regions of the ocean or other areas we now cannot exploit.

Even if oil does start to become scarce, the developed world will simply adopt other sources of energy, such as natural gas, heavy crude oil, coal-synthesized oil, or other sources. The cost of an industrialized way of life, including privately owned motor vehicles, will then simply increase. (Unless, of course, more exotic forms of energy become available that are even cheaper than oil. In that case, we will move away from oil independent of its scarcity, and we certainly won't be faced with fewer cars and industrial machines.) People will just pay more to drive, to heat their homes, to run businesses, and to operate machinery. They're just not going to throw their cars, lawn mowers, and industrial machines into a giant rusting heap, and start riding bicycles to their new agrarian communes.

Something like this wouldn't help cycling even if it did happen. The first legions of new cyclists on the roads would be the poor. We could hardly expect more equal legal treatment of cyclists when they come to be viewed as predominantly poor and unimportant.

To mention one other issue, global warming, the latest in a long line of purported catastrophes which, of course, call for the immediate and brutal repression of free market activity, is hardly the proven threat it's been taken to be. It's far from clear, for instance, that the earth is warming in the long term, and it's not at all clear that human activity is causing any such changes. If the history of environmental warnings is any guide, this too will fade from public view within ten or fifteen years. Even if this is a threat, don't count on any sweeping prohibitions on driving to counter it.

I’m concerned about global warming too, but when the bicycle is used as a protest emblem, all cyclists suffer the disapproval of other highway users.


Needed Changes

In short, if cycling policy is just another front in the war to coerce the citizenry out of their cars and suburban homes, forget it. Cycling will have no political future.

On the other hand, if cycling is viewed realistically, as a fun, cheap, and healthy way to get around on existing roads among existing traffic, we might actually get something done. When we consider that what needs to be done is not really extensive or expensive, there is some hope.

What needs to happen is for common beliefs about cycling to change. It won't always be easy, and it will require some courage from public officials. Someone is going to have to get up in public and tell people just what the laws are. Someone's going to have to let motorists know that cyclists are legal users of the roadway, and that occasionally motorists are going to have to endure delays because of cyclists. These aren't nearly what motorists imagine they'll be, and in the end these delays are offset by other benefits, like less crowding in parking lots, cheaper road maintenance costs, lower health costs, etc. Still, it won't be easy. We will have to face an attitude that pervades a lot of public planning regarding cycling: that cyclists should be kicked off of the roadways so that motorists aren't delayed.

Cyclists will have to behave better, too. Too many cyclists ride around breaking one traffic law after another, and this includes many who ought to know better. I gave up club riding, for example, after too many experiences with selfish riders who don't care about traffic law or about infuriating motorists. I'll only ride with people who understand how to ride on the roads, or who are willing to learn.

In fact, at the risk of falling into the same old insipid cheerleading we hear a lot of, one commuter can have a significant impact on public perception. I'm sure that my signaling, stopping at lights, and otherwise predictable behavior comes as refreshing to at least some drivers. I've had people come up to me in parking lots and thank me for having proper reflectors, for example. I'm sure several others appreciate having to pass me only once (I will typically just wait behind cars at intersections who've just passed me, instead of creeping along on the right and forcing them to overtake me yet again in just a few moments).

Allocating our Resources

If only a fraction of all the money thrown after bike paths and bike lanes were spent on public education, or better still if bike manufacturers lent their resources to this sort of thing in conjunction with a marketing campaign, significant change could occur. It's frustrating, though, to see so much effort and propaganda wasted on bike paths, bike lanes, helmet warnings, and other useless diversions.

Anyway, the Roads We Have article is right on the money as far as I'm concerned. The roads are almost without exception the best place to ride. They go everywhere you want to go, they're as well maintained as any public facilities get, and you can go as fast as you can pedal for as long as you want. What more could you want?

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