Ten Years of the Rambler - Favorite Posts #20 - "Bicyclists Are Not Drivers!"
This particular post inspired some of the most hostile email I've gotten and a few comments (see below). It seems that cyclists who see bicycles as strictly vehicular in nature are often, shall we say, simpleminded and hostile. It's fun to see how my own ideas about cycling and infrastructure have changed as well. I hope you enjoy this entire series.
A few months ago I joined a group on Facebook calling themselves, Cyclists Are Drivers. There are some fascinating conversations and articles posted there but after observing the page for weeks I was finding that the opinions posted were increasingly unreasonable in the way they could not accept any infrastructure that did not treat bicycles as if they were cars.
Now donât get me wrong, I am not saying, nor is my postâs title meant to indicate that I do not believe that bicycles are vehicles. They clearly are in that they convey people and their stuff from location to location using whatever urban infrastructure is available to them. What troubles me is the lack of willingness to consider that the physics and engineering of a bicycle does not give a bicyclist the same ability to navigate our landscape and there is little acknowledgement of this. Simply put, the bicycle as a means of locomotion has strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered when designing our cities.
To be sure, the Cyclists Are Drivers proponents raise some important questions about safety and the trend towards more âbicycle specificâ infrastructure. Unfortunately, the group also seems to think that they have all the final answers regarding these questions, i.e. treat cyclists like cars in all situations. I wonât site the stats regarding new bike lanes, etc. and safety, because I know Iâve seen numbers that lean both pro and con on the subject and you can pretty easily find various studies if you look around the web. But what if those stats are not the whole story?
Perception versus reality
As cyclists weâve all had those conversations. âIâd ride to work but itâs not safe in my neighborhood because there are no bike lanes.â How do you get people to ride if they perceive the roads to be unsafe, but what they desire to make them safe, i.e. bike lanes, actually is (maybe) less safe? Itâs not like lines of paint act as a force field for cyclists yet thatâs exactly how some novice riders feel about them.
For years as a younger rider I adhered to the idea that we already have a vast network of âbikeâ lanes through our cities. They are just plain traffic lanes, to be used by anyone regardless of whether they are in cars or bicycles. That seemed the best answer to the question of how to get around by bicycle.
Yet after a while I realized that that answer worked just fine if you were an experienced, and typically young, fit, and male, cyclist. This attitude is a recipe for keeping the number of cyclists at the abysmal 1 â 3% range of users of the road. In some places that 1% is being optimistic. If you are happy with that number then you are set because in my experience, growing the cyclist population isnât going to happen without more cycling infrastructure.
But whatâs the end goal in terms of adding more bicycling infrastructure? Safety and the increased use of the lanes by cyclists. Is safety or numbers more important? What if there is more safety in numbers? The Cyclists Are Drivers contingent clearly comes down on the side of less (or no) cycling specific infrastructure but if the end game there is no increase in ridership is that in itself a dead end?
Here is a question worth considering: If bicycle specific infrastructure proves to be less safe than a purely autocentric infrastructure is that a good enough reason to throw it out? Arenât we all hoping to increase the number of cyclists? And more intriguingly, how do you quantify the effect that seeing more cyclists on the road has on motorists? Certainly the more cyclists they see, the more likely they are to be accustomed to looking out for us on the road.
Personal Responsibility and City Planner Responsibility
Adherents to the idea that bike lanes are unsafe will often point to the right hook as a problematic example of biking infrastructure. But where does the responsibility of urban design end and the urban cyclist begin. We all have to take some personal responsibility for how we use our shared urban space. Just like a pedestrian can blindly use a crosswalk without looking both ways she might just find herself dead. It wonât really matter if she had the right of way. In the same way, a cyclist should note problem areas in the urban environment and be extra careful regardless of whether there is paint on the road with a bicycle symbol in it.
In the end there are no easy answers. We have a growing movement of people wanting to use their bikes for transportation in urban environments that have been shaped and reshaped, and reshaped again, by the needs of automobiles for decades. Those numbers are growing for a whole variety of reasons from economic and environmental, to health.
This poses some very real challenges for urban planners when from block to block different variables that they have inherited keep evolving. Nevermind the economic challenges faced by infrastructure redesign. Some of the cookie cutter approaches used in some cities seem just as dangerous as the rather loose interpretations of what is considered a bike lane that I have observed in various U.S. cities.
The Cyclist are Drivers contingent seems to have tunnel vision in terms of their definition of cycling and their ideas about how to navigate our roads. While I support the idea that cyclists should have full access to our transportation infrastructure as vehicles, I fear that their strict definition is a recipe for keeping cyclists subordinate to the car. Havenât we had enough decades of that already?
For over 12 Years I wrote the Reno Rambler Blog covering everything from Bicycle Advocacy, Reno Politics, Popular Culture, and my experiences as a long-time cyclist.