The Antiplanner’s Library: Bike Battles

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.

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10 thoughts on “The Antiplanner’s Library: Bike Battles

  1. paul

    As a pedestrian, cyclist and driver in the San Francisco Bay area I am very tired of the superiority that some cyclists assume over other forms of transport. It appears that many cyclists feel they are above the law riding through stop signs and ignoring both pedestrians and drivers. I have had near misses being almost hit by cyclists while walking across the street, almost hitting cyclist while driving, and being hit by irresponsible cyclists while I am riding myself. Once I was berated by a cyclist who almost hit me in the back when I stopped at a stop sign. She was amazed that I had stopped and apparently thought cyclists should not stop at stop signs.

    When claiming environmental benefits cyclists ignore the time it takes to get anywhere on their bike.

    Throughout California we now see bike lanes being squeezed on major thoroughfares between parked cars and the traffic lanes. I used to think these were a good idea until riding on one the door of a a parked car was opened in front of me. Rather than run into the door I swerved around it almost hitting the door with my knee and causing a car behind me to swerve to the left slightly in their lane. The car driver was understandably furious as I was at the person who opened the door. Ever since I have tried to cycle on side streets whenever possible and avoid main roads even if they have bike lanes.

    I have now look for cyclists on these bike lanes on major roads and realized that these bike lanes are very seldom used. I cannot imagine they transport more than 1% of passenger miles. At the 2016 open houses that the Plan Bay Area 2040 planners had they were proud of the fact they were planning on putting in another 160 miles of bike lanes. When I asked them for performance data in percentage of passenger miles traveled and cost including time per trip they didn’t have any! However I note in this years Plan Bay Area 2040 open houses the bike lanes ate no longer mentioned.

    I note that in the University town of Berkeley some residential streets with little auto traffic are listed as bicycle boulevards see: https://www.cityofberkeley.info/bicycleboulevards/. I have felt much safer using these because there is little auto traffic on them and I can keep a good distance from parked cars.

  2. Sandy Teal

    Good theory by the Antiplanner. The “moralism” part of the debate does seem to work, but makes no sense in analyses. Let me add some to the debate.

    1. There is not one type of “cyclist”. There are kids and families and older people and others just cycling for recreation. There there are kids and adults commuting to stores and school and work, etc. There are adults on long tourism or sight seeing trips. Then there are the Tour de France wanna-bees.

    Each of the different riders have different needs. The Tour de France people won’t ride on most bike paths and the families approach major roads like pedestrians, probably even walking their bikes. [When I was a kid they tried to teach bike riding like it was a pedestrian, but then said not to ride on the sidewalk, which never made any sense. ]

    Legally, most cyclists probably switch back and forth from being a vehicle to being a pedestrian many times on each trip, and the different riders do it differently, which is one reason cyclists are so confusing to motorists.

    2. As a general and very good rule, if you enjoy using public lands/resources for something, you should WANT to pay a user fee for it. Nothing gets government attention more than a revenue source. Hunters and fishermen figured that out a century and a half ago and it is has served them very well. Airlines pay a lot in fees but get a heck of a lot in return for it.

  3. jon

    I enjoy biking for exercise. But having four young children I don’t have the time to do it recreationally like I did before and since I work from home I don’t use it to commute to work. Living in the Prescott area it would be nice if there was more room to ride between Prescott Valley and Prescott. I don’t know how it would be done and since most people just ride on the side of the highway I don’t know if it will ever be done. Since I have my 9 year old ride with me and being a cautious person, I don’t know if I would take her on that trip.

    Anyways, just rambling.

  4. prk166

    @Jon, your situation sounds like the sort of thing a bicycle tire tax like device could help with. Having the tax would help in working toward building a practical connection. And as the anti-planner mentioned, it doesn’t have to be a pure bike trail or lane, just a route that lends itself to biking. And in your case, it’s the least the state could do after building that expensive, freeway bypass in Prescott. Heck, even the old statte route 89 has enough right of way for a seperate bike path.

  5. prk166

    @antiplanner, what little experience I he with these sort of tax proposals is that a few in the enviro-heavy bicycle circles argue that any sort of a bike tax is used for roads. For example, IIRC, it was Washington had proposed a tax on high end bicycles awhile back. Some of the diehards complained it was paying for roads. When I mentioned it to a couple friends, they didn’t think much of it. They felt that the way to go was get local governents to spend money and not worry about the state.

    I can’t say I don’t disagree. My concern would be that state level bike tax funds would tend to get funneled into flashy projects like the Lake Wobegon trail ( http://lakewobegontrail.com/ ). That is, the rail-to-trail projects set up in rural areas that are nearly 100% recreational plays. Sure, that’s nice but it’s it makes for a horrible ROI.

  6. CapitalistRoader

    From the video:

    But it [the book] is also for urban planners, transportation scholars, and advocates. And it’s a call for scholars to take bike history seriously. Because it illustrates debates over race, class, gender, trade, safety, political philosophy, and scarce resources.

    I guess that’s what it takes to survive an academic career today, gratuitous injection of hot button SJW talking points. In a book about bicycles…

  7. TCS

    From 1918 to 1982 bicycle tires & tubes in the USA were subject to a federal excise tax. The bike rubber was taxed at the same $/pound rate as auto and truck tires. I recall at the time some cycling groups were actually against the 1982 repeal on the grounds that it formed a portion of a reasonable user fee, but I read under the old fee structure it cost the government more to collect this tax than the tax brought in.

    Here in Texas bicycles & gear are subject to a special, additional state Sporting Goods Sales Tax, which is applied to parks and wildlife rather than transportation.

  8. Jardinero1

    Weather permitting, I ride my five dollar garage sale bike, on a grade separated bike path, to the grocery store for my odds and ends. I really like that grade separated bike path. It was built in the right of way adjacent to a four lane roadway where the posted speed limit is 45. Grade separated bike lanes are relatively cheap to build, especially when the alternative is dedicating a portion of very expensive lane space that was built to auto standards. I have to pedal a bit through the neighborhood to get to the path. I stay to the right and always yield to pedestrians and traffic control devices as they occur. As I pedal through the neighborhood, more than half of the cyclists I see do not stay to the right, do not yield to pedestrians or to traffic control devices as they occur. These people are asshats. They are the reason that the general public resists bike lanes, even grade separated lanes which would not impede traffic or remove valuable auto lane space.

  9. prk166

    I’d be curious if some of the same annoyance at cyclists on the road comes out of the same part of the human condition that leads to those memes on facebook about the left lane being for fast drivers. Never mind that there are rarely granny drivers going 55MPH. The vast majority of the time it’s someone in the left lane going 65 in 55 with traffic all around. SOmeone else comes up behind going 70 and gets frustrated when they are only able to go 65 in a 55. Dios Mio!

    I’m curious how much is due to that sort of thing, the frustration from someone else getting in ones way even when they’re not actually doing anything wrong. I still have folks from time to time honk and yell at me when I’m out even though I’m not breaking any rules. I understand the dangers of hugging the curb and ride out in the lane, in the right ( passenger ) wheel rut. It gives me room to zig or zag if needed and encourages most drivers to pass at a safe distance. Nevertheless, there’s always a few who let me know their displeasure over me being on the road.

    Maybe some of it will always be around? Or at least until sometime after 2040 when we finally have 100% autonomous vehicles and don’t drive?

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