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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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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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