The Magazine

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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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.

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