Bikes Are Vehicles; But They’re Not Cars

Some bicycle advocacy groups promote the slogan “Same Roads, Same Laws” to support cyclists’ right to use the roadway along with car traffic.  I think it’s a bad slogan; at best incomplete, at worst self-defeating.  Bikes and cars are radically different types of vehicles, exposing cyclists and drivers to radically different conditions.  In addition to the laws that all vehicles should obey, we need special laws and road designs to protect the safety and promote the use of bicycles.

Today, including “accommodations” for pedestrians and bicyclists in all road projects is national policy – even if it is not always implemented.  And some pioneering cities have even prioritized transit, bicycling, and walking over car traffic.

But it wasn’t always this way.  For most of the past century, the United States was overwhelmingly mono-modal: internal combustion engine vehicles were treated as the most (sometimes as the only) important part of our evolving transportation system.

This car-centric design was an accurate reflection, and reinforcement, of an increasingly car-centric economy.  The oil, rubber, steel, tool-fabrication, and machine-making industries evolved in partnership with the car manufacturing, parts-supplying, car selling and servicing, and freight transportation businesses.  The growth of real estate, housing construction, and road building firms expanded along with car-dependent suburbs.  By the late 1950s, nearly one in every seven jobs in the entire country was directly or indirectly tied to the automobile industry.  Today, the United States contains more cars than people.

Not only did cars dominate our economy, it dominated our culture as well.  The American Dream, our vision of the desired good life, the definition of success included living in a non-urban suburb, driving a big car, commuting to work.  The car promised convenience, status, personal freedom, and sexual liberation.   It was no accident that early Rock and Roll songs had so many car references.

The transportation ideal of this era was embodied in the new Interstate Highway System – which was originally justified based on its military value but was actually implemented because of its economic value to car-centric businesses. The Interstate was designed to move large vehicles as fast as possible for long distances with no hindrances.  Walking and bicycling were considered so irrelevant, if not a safety hazard for “real vehicles,”  that they were simply banned – the first time this was done on a major road system and a clear message to transportation designers across the country that non-motorized modes were not worth considering.

In this context, a small but vocal push-back, calling itself Effective Cycling, began insisting that bikes were not just kid’s toys but legal vehicles.  The slogan of “same roads, same rules” was a response to marginalization, proclaiming that bikes didn’t need or want any special treatment beyond recognition of their right to “share the road” with cars.  And the set of cycling strategies developed by Effective Cycling to deal with traffic are still useful in most of the on-road situations faced by today’s bicyclists.

However, times change.  The energy crisis, climate and environmental concerns, awareness of the connection between increased physical activity and long-term health, dissatisfaction with suburban life, and the recent bursting of Wall Street’s bubble economy have made the economy less car-dependent, our culture less car-obsessed, and our political system more open to new visions.  But all of cycling’s societal benefits – from reduced energy use to climate protection to improved public health – are dependent on a vast expansion of the numbers of bike riders and a parallel reduction in the number of single-occupancy-vehicle (SOV) trips, especially on the 40% of daily trips that are less than 3 miles long

As a result, the need to preserve the right of a small group of bike fanatics to remain on the roads has been replaced by the need to turn cycling into a mainstream activity able to attract the vast majority of the population that is not predominately young, fit, white, male, and attracted by risk-taking behavior.  Bikes are vehicles, and we have to aggressively defend cycling as a legitimate (even preferred) mode of travel on our road system (as well as being able to take bikes on trains, buses, and airplanes).  But the “model cyclist” we need to be designing for is a middle-aged, slightly out of shape, mother of two kids wearing regular business-appropriate clothes and either slowly pedaling to work or doing a quick errand or taking the kids to school.

What will induce huge numbers of people to ride a bike for everyday short trips?  What is keeping them from doing it already?  There are many reasons:  the cost of fancy bikes; the image of who rides a bike; bad weather; being out of shape.   But in every survey the main reason is fear of traffic.  Most potential bicyclists are afraid of being on the road with cars.

What will make cycling safer?  As Effective Cyclist proponents point out, training in cyclist skills will help.  But research shows that the most important contributor to safety is not increased skills but increased numbers.  The greater the number of people on bikes the more car drivers become accustomed to their presence and the more likely the motorist is to drive in an accommodating manner.  And the behavior of motorists has more of an impact on what happens to bicyclists than anything the bicyclist does.

So making the streets safer requires increasing the percentage of “ordinary people” on bikes, but that requires making the streets safer.  How can we cut into this circle?

The first step is to accept that while both bikes and cars may be vehicles, the two are not the same. Cars can accelerate from stops and travel faster than bikes.  Cars are high-powered armored weapons and cyclists are unprotected.  Cyclists need special protection because, like pedestrians trying to cross a busy intersection, they are especially vulnerable.

The same survey research shows that what “traffic intolerant” people say will make them feel safer on busy streets are bike lanes.  Even better are “protected bike lanes, or “cycle tracks,” that are physically separated from car traffic by a curb or other barrier.  (Of course, off-road paths divided into separate “fast” and “slow” lanes are even better.)  If they have to share the road they want traffic to be enormously slower – through “traffic calming” tactics or even the “shared space” strategies now being tried in some cities.

But promoting any of these proven and necessary infrastructure changes is, unfortunately, exactly where Effective Cycling turns from helpful to destructive.  They believe that it is the bicyclist’s responsibility to fit himself into the traffic flow; that roads should be designed for cars, and that cyclists should be fit and skilled enough to merge into the moving lane – or they don’t have any business being on the road.

Typically, the few remaining (but very vocal) Effective Cycling advocates say they are not opposed to properly designed bike lanes or other changes.  But their criteria are so extreme that they can seldom be realized in practice – a self-fulfilling situation of “making the perfect the enemy of the good enough” and of any realistic step forward towards increased numbers of bicyclists.  (It is no accident that the cities with the largest increase in bicycling are those that have aggressively adopted a “let’s do as much as we can” approach to building bike lanes, off-road paths, and now cycle tracks.)  More dangerously, the arguments of Effective Cycling have become an excuse for the many remaining bike-hostile traffic engineers (trained in the old “Interstate as ideal” curriculum) to claim that they are complying with the desires of the “bicycling community” by not implement any bike-friendly changes.

Effective Cycling’s approach may have made sense as a defense against having bicycles entirely banned by car-centric regulations.  But simply demanding the right to “take my place among the cars” (in the words of a recent letter to The American Bicyclist magazine) no longer makes sense to anyone who thinks bicycling has more to offer society than being an elitist hobby.

As a source of on-road bicycling skills, Effective Cycling still has a positive contribution to make.  As a philosophy and strategy it is now part of the problem.

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  • commented 2015-11-30 16:58:35 -0500
    Bicycle trips in the city will always involve “taking one’s place among the cars” at various points, making a shared space strategy crucial. All urban street-users, motorists included, need to finally accept that cars are, indeed, “high powered armored weapons” (nice!), not as a criticism but as an acknowledgement of fact. VisionZero seems to be about this, but how to effectively deliver the message? There’s the rub!