University of Wisconsin historian James Longhurst has written a book about the history of conflicts over cyclists’ rights to use the road. As Longhurst points out, cycling has gone through a number of “booms,” starting in the late nineteenth century, then during World War II, later with the growth of environmentalism in the 1970s, and most recently in the last few years. As a cyclist myself, I was familiar with most of this history except for the WWII part, and as near as I can tell Longhurst’s account is accurate.
However, as illustrated in the video below, Longhurst approaches the debate as an environmental issue, which leads him in the wrong direction. Treating cycling as an environmental issue leads to the conclusion that bicycles are morally superior to automobiles because they use less energy and pollute less. That leads to demands that cyclists be allowed special rights, such as the right to unnecessarily block traffic or use the middle of a lane even if it slows auto traffic.
Longhurst goes on to define roads as a commons in the last chapter of the book. This doubles the moral imperative because everyone has heard of the tragedy of the commons. What Longhurst fails to recognize is that, unless a commons is owned or controlled by a small number of people, the only viable solution to the tragedy of the commons is to make it not a commons.
Where cyclists like Longhurst believe cyclists’ right to the road is an environmental issue, many automobilists see it as a financial issue. They paid for the roads using their gas taxes, they argue, so they should have priority over freeloading cyclists. The problem with this is that most cycling is done on local roads and streets, most of which were not paid for out of gas taxes, so cars should have no more rights to those streets than anyone else.
Despite this, the Antiplanner has argued that cyclists would have more credibility if they were willing to pay user fees, perhaps in the form of a tire tax. Like just about everyone else, however, cyclists have resisted proposals to have them pay user fees for something that they are used to using for nothing.
However, the proper way to view this question is not as a moral issue nor as a financial issue but as a safety issue. This makes it an engineering problem. What is the best way to design roads and streets so they are safe for cyclists without impeding automobile traffic?
Some designs may allow cars and bicycles to mix together, such as this design for improving intersections where most auto-bicycle accidents take place. Others may provide more safety by separating traffic, perhaps by putting cyclists into bicycle boulevards or bicycle superhighways that may allow local auto traffic but are largely separate from high-speed auto traffic. Either way, I suspect cyclists will be more likely to be heard by politicians and highway agencies if they present this solely as a safety issue rather than a moral one.