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Drivers Get Rolled

Bicyclists are making unreasonable claims to the road—and winning

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Late last August, along the coast of New Hampshire, Kevin Walsh, police chief in the town of Rye, got a lecture on law enforcement from a bunch of grown-up bicyclists. Local law requires bikers to ride single-file when there is traffic. But this day, a pack of a dozen or so bikers were racing down Ocean Boulevard, at high speed, up to five abreast, according to an interview the chief later gave. Walsh decided to flag them down and tell them what they were doing was unsafe, “out of control,” and “an accident waiting to happen.” He stood in the middle of Ocean Boulevard and signaled them to stop. The bikers blew past him in a whoosh! of Lycra, sweat, and profanity. Walsh got in his cruiser and cut off the bikers four miles up the road. When he stopped them, they began to chew him out. “You almost killed somebody back there, standing in the middle of the road,” one of them screamed at the cop. “Do you understand we can’t stop? Do you understand we can’t stop like a car?” 

David Clark

David Clark

Like many episodes in the world of adult recreational cycling, this one breaks new ground in the annals of chutzpah. Few noncyclists would think to scold a law enforcement official for having nearly been run over by them. Fewer still would release to the news media a video of the incident—which came from a camera mounted on the handlebars of one of the bikers—in the almost demented belief that it constituted a vindication rather than an incrimination. And yet you can see it online.

Incidents like this now happen every day. Laws governing bikes on roads have never been crystal-clear, and have always been marked by a degree of common sense and compromise. An increase in racing and commuting bikers has altered what passes for common sense. Cyclists like the ones in New Hampshire, whose reckless riding and self-righteousness have earned rolled eyes nationwide and the nickname of “Lycra louts” in England, have tested the public’s willingness for compromise. As bicyclists become an ever more powerful lobby, ever more confident in the good they are doing for the environment and public health, they are discovering—to their sincere surprise—that they are provoking mistrust and even hostility among the public.

Transported

When there are more bicyclists on the road, when most bicyclists are no longer children and teens, and when well-built bikes can easily descend a hill at 50 miles an hour, new questions come up. The first is how we are to think of bikes. Are they like really fast pedestrians? Or like cars with a lower maximum speed? The law’s general view is that they are vehicles. But what the law really means is not that bikes are exactly like cars but that they are analogous. You don’t need to get a license to ride a bike, you don’t need your vehicle inspected to put it on the road, and you aren’t charged tax for the upkeep of highways. There is considerable ambiguity here, and activist bikers, with lawyerly sophistication, almost unfailingly claim the best of both worlds. Consider the guy we mentioned above who insisted police chief Walsh give him all the rights of the road for a vehicle he claimed to be unable to stop. Bicyclists are exactly like cars when it suits them—as when they occupy the middle of a lane in rush hour. But they are different when it suits them—going 18 mph in that very same lane even though the posted speed is 45, riding two abreast, running red lights if there’s nothing coming either way, passing vehicles on the right when there’s a right turn coming up. This makes bikes a source of unpredictability, frustration, and danger. 

This should not alarm us unduly. Bicyclists sometimes do require the middle of the roadway, and do need special consideration. The rightmost part of the road is often punctuated with old-fashioned sewer grates that will swallow a tire whole and fling you over the handlebars. There are broken bottles, dropped hypodermic needles, oil slicks that have drained off the road’s crown, and places where the road is frittered away. The right side of the road is also where passenger doors get flung open, sometimes suddenly, and one piece of bad timing will send you to kingdom come. Almost 700 cyclists died on the road in the United States in 2011. Let us not forget the environmental, aesthetic, and health benefits of cycling over driving, which are obvious and undeniable.

The problem is that our transportation network, built at the cost of trillions over the decades, is already over capacity, as the Obama administration was fond of reminding us when arguing for the 2009 stimulus package. It is not so easily rejiggered. Unquestionably we have misbuilt our transport grid. It makes us car-dependent. It should better accommodate bikers and walkers. But for now it can’t. Unless you want to cover much more of the country in asphalt—which is far from the professed wishes of bikers—lane space is finite. There are few places in America where public transportation can serve as a serious alternative to driving. In only five metropolitan areas—Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco—do as many as 10 percent of commuters take public transportation. 

So, except in a few spots where roads were built too wide and can now accommodate bike paths, adding bicycles to the mix means squeezing cars. Bike-riders don’t “share” the road so much as take it over. Their wish is generally that the right-hand lane of any major or medium-sized road be turned into a bike lane or, at best, a shared-use lane. This would place drivers in a position of second-class citizenship on roads that were purpose-built for them. There are simply not enough cyclists to make that a reasonable idea. What is going on is the attempt of an organized private interest to claim a public good. Cyclists remind one of those residents in exurban subdivisions who, over years, allow grass and shrubbery to encroach on dirt public sidewalk until it becomes indistinguishable from their yards, and then sneakily fence it in. 

Our numbers about how many people bike and how often are relatively imprecise. The best estimates come from counting commutes and accidents. According to the U.S. census, 120 million people drive to work every weekday, and 750,000 bike. In other words, there are 160 drivers for every biker. Bike use is growing—but even at 40 times the present level it would still not be sensible public policy to squander a quarter, a third, or half of the lane space on a busy rush-hour artery for a bike lane. 

Bike riding could be the wave of the future, or it could be a sports fad, the way tennis was in the 1970s or skateboarding in the 1980s or golf in the 1990s. It is hard to tell, since bike riding is now the beneficiary of vast public and private subsidies and massive infrastructure projects, from Indianapolis’s $100 million plan to add bike lanes and other nonauto byways to Citibank’s underwriting of the New York City bike-share program. “Subsidize it and they will come,” could be the motto. Drivers are being taxed to subsidize their own eviction.

High rollers

There are a number of internationally recognized signals through which bicyclists convey their intentions to drivers. The raised left hand means a right turn, the dropped left hand means slowing down, and so on. I have never seen either of these gestures used. Instead, cyclists tend to communicate with motorists through a simpler, all-purpose gesture, the raised middle finger. The self-righteousness, the aplomb, of bicyclists is their stereotypical vice and quirk, like the madness of hatters, the drunkenness of poets, and the communism of furriers. 

The attitude was nicely captured in a pro-biking letter to the editor in the Brookline TAB, the community paper for Boston’s richest neighborhoods: “Whenever someone bikes or walks to the store or to work,” the writer began, “he or she is taking one automobile off the road and making a significant contribution both to Brookline’s safety and to reducing the carbons so dangerous to life on earth.” You see? It only looks like I’m having a midlife crisis—I’m actually on a rescue mission! The question of what courtesy the cyclist owes the community is immediately taken off the table, replaced by the question of what the community can possibly do to repay its debt to the cyclist.

All of us who care about the environment have a sense—even a conviction—that biking is more virtuous than driving. What distinguishes the biking enthusiast is that he is just as convinced that biking is more virtuous than walking: “While riding,” another TAB correspondent wrote, “I have encountered pedestrians who are texting. They are a danger to themselves and others, because they sometimes make erratic movements and often ignore requests to step to the side so a bicycle can pass.” By “request,” the writer probably means a barked command of “On your right!” or “On your left!” made by a cyclist approaching from behind at 30 mph.

If bicyclists have a more highly developed sense that they can boss others around, this is because they disproportionately belong to the classes from which bosses come. They are, to judge from their blogs, more aggrieved by delivery trucks parked in bike lanes than drivers are by delivery trucks parked in car lanes. This may be because proportionately fewer of them have ever met a person who drives a delivery truck. The 2011 accident data of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration give us a hint that ardent bicycling is not, for the most part, a youthful avocation, as those whose biking days ended in the 1970s or ’80s might assume. The average age of those killed cycling—presumably a rough proxy for those doing the most grueling road riding—has been rising by close to a year annually. In 2003 it was 36; in 2011 it was 43. Cyclists are heavily weighted towards the baby boom generation. The group involved in the most fatal accidents in 2011 is ages 45-54, followed by ages 55-64. The two cohorts make up those born between 1947 and 1966. 

This generation is at the height of its earning power, and bikers are drawn from the very richest part of it. Shortly after Birmingham, England, got almost $30 million from the government to make itself more bike-friendly, the Birmingham Post researched who was building bike spaces in London. Topping the list were the Gherkin, the ghastly Norman Foster–designed skyscraper in the financial district that houses a lot of London’s financial-services industry; Goldman Sachs’s Fleet Street headquarters; and London Wall Place, a high-end office building slated for construction in the City. This helps explain why Portland, Oregon, is so proud of its status as the country’s most “bicycle-friendly” city, and why Las Vegas, Louisville, and other places are vying to outdo it. City officials want to be “bicycle-friendly” for the same reason they want to be “gay-friendly” or “Internet-friendly,” and for the same reason they built opera houses in the nineteenth century and art museums in the twentieth—it is a way of telling investors: “Rich people live here.”

Once you understand that bicycling is a rich person’s hobby, you can understand the fallacy that Slate editor David Plotz, an ardent bicyclist, committed when he asked why such a large number of dangerous drivers he encountered while cycling to work drove the same make of car. Of the 20 scares he’s had in his life, 10 came from BMWs. “In other words,” Plotz wrote, “the BMW, a car that has less than 2 percent market share in the United States, was responsible for 50 percent of the menacing.” Why, he wondered? Was it a sense of entitlement, or were BMW-drivers just “assholes”? Probably neither—it is that luxury-car-driving and bike-commuting are heavily concentrated in the same very top sliver of the American class hierarchy. The percentage of BMWs driving between where the average cyclist lives to where the average cyclist works is a heck of a lot higher than 2 percent. It may not be 50 percent—the Help, after all, needs to use these roads, too—but it is high.

Wheel estate

If bike-friendly areas are rich neighborhoods, they are a particular kind of rich neighborhood. They are college towns, or at least “latte towns,” to use the term David Brooks coined in these pages. The top cities for cycling commuters, according to the U.S. census, are Corvallis and Eugene in Oregon, Fort Collins and Boulder in Colorado, and Missoula, Montana. The census notes that Portland, Oregon, is the only metropolitan area in which at least 2 percent of commutes are by bike. 

Its concentration in cultural hubs has consequences. Bicycling’s apostles have behind them not just the economic and lobbying power of the “One Percent,” but also the cultural and intellectual power of its most sophisticated members. The idea that there might be alternative social goods competing with cycling, or any reason not to offer cyclists as much leeway and indulgence as they might demand, seems scarcely to have occurred to anybody who discusses it in public. That, surely, is why a cyclist might think that posting a video of a cyclist scolding a well-meaning New Hampshire police chief might help the cycling cause. The promotion of cycling is open to discussion as to means, but not as to ends. The question is how, not whether, to build more bike infrastructure; and how, not whether, to educate motorists about their responsibilities to bikers. It is never about educating bicyclists on how to find alternative modes of transport. 

Leaders of the biking community, though, most often try to cast themselves as an underprivileged minority. Ian Walker, a “traffic psychologist” from the University of Bath, describes cyclists as a “minority outgroup”—they suffer in a society that “views cycling as anticonventional and possibly even infantile.” In an August editorial calling for an end to “anti-cyclist bias,” the San Francisco Bay Guardian opined: “To focus exclusively on the behavior of cyclists is like blaming a rape victim for wearing a short skirt.” 

As is not uncommon when progressive utopias are being constructed, there are a number of informal activist groups for enforcing opinion. The Twitter feed CycleHatred was founded in Britain to expose those who wrote negative things about cyclists, although recent press reports have implicitly questioned whether such exposure might do the anticycling cause more good than harm. The cycling journalist Peter Walker of the Guardian commented on a Tweet (probably good-humored) attacking Britain’s Olympic gold medalist Bradley Wiggins for having made cycling popular (“If Wiggins came in here, I’d give him a piece of my mind”). Ian Walker responded: 

This is a fantastic example of what is sometimes called the “cyclists should get their house in order” argument—that people who have nothing in common except choosing cycling as one of their several regular forms of transport are nonetheless necessarily defined by it, and are somehow responsible for the worst actions by others on bikes.

But this is a category error. That our road system cannot provide the resources to support cyclists in the style to which they would like to become accustomed is a matter of policy and limited resources, not of civil rights and prejudice. An action that is ignorable at the individual level—such as cycling down the middle of the street at high speed—can become a problem when the masses do it. That is why, for instance, people have been forbidden to burn leaves in their backyard for the past half-century. One pile of leaves is a beautiful smell. Several are a pollution problem, or so they tell us. Right or wrong, those who consider leaf-burning a problem are not making a bigoted assessment of the personalities of the individual leaf-burners.

Bikers’ unmet needs, in terms of both infrastructure and law, are limitless. A common trope is to compare America’s spending on bikes with that of the Netherlands. Amsterdam spends $39 per resident on bike trails, laments the Boston Globe, while Boston spends under $2. Until we shell out as much as the Dutch, there can be no such thing as misspent money. Pointing to areas, mostly poor, in which Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare program has failed to win a following, the director of the program assured the Washington Post that “those areas where the bike community is not yet self-sustaining” are “precisely where the District Department of Transportation needs to double its efforts.” 

The bicycle agenda is coming to resemble the feminist agenda from the 1970s, when previously all-male universities went co-ed. Everything that was ever off-limits to the aggrieved minority must be opened up, while sancta established for the minority in the old days must be preserved, and new ones founded. So bikers must have access to roads and hiking trails, but also get their own new “bike boulevards.” Having a special bike-friendly highway, such as Route 9W, west of the Hudson River, does not mean that certain other highways will ever be closed off to bikes in the interest of efficiency or fairness. 

While it is wrong to call bicyclists a downtrodden minority, they are a minority in one sense. They are one of those compact, issue-oriented small groups that, as the economist Mancur Olson warned in his classic The Logic of Collective Action (1965), generally take unmotivated majorities to the cleaners. There are probably a million dedicated cyclists in this country, bent on taking over a quarter or a third of the nation’s road space, built at the price of, let us repeat, trillions. They are ranged against the 200 million drivers who have a vague sense they are being duped. But this sense is only vague, and because motorists, like other American voters, have developed the habit of being talked into giving up what is theirs, any wise person would bet on the bicyclists’ winning all they ask for. A small collection of elite hobbyists will continue, as Tacitus might have put it, to make a traffic jam and call it peace.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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