Our Right to Use the Roadway
A cyclist wrote: Recently
I've been reading the book "Effective Cycling" by Forester. . . The
gist . . . seems to be that the bicycle should behave like a car. . .
The tips are very good . . . but the author seems to be too anti-motorist.
So, I brought up the topic . . . with my housemate, and [she said] . .
. "The motorist has a lot to pay attention to, without adding small, not
very visible, fragile objects in the way. The bottom line here is
that the roads are for cars, and trucks, and not for bikes and pedestrians."
My reply was: I
was talking with a truck driver the other day. He said that operators
of big rigs had too much to pay attention to for them to bother braking for small foreign
cars. He said that the roads should be for big rigs alone and, if
the cars wanted a safe place to drive, they should ride on their own highways.
I was talking with
a member of the Ku Klux Klan the other day. He said that the White
race had too many problems of its own to worry about the survival of the
colored races. The bottom line is that the US was founded by White
people and other races would have to find their own countries to live in.
I was talking with
a doctor the other day, and he said that he had too many wealthy patients
to worry about the welfare of poor people. He said we should follow
Hitler's advice and eliminate all the undesirables.
It's pretty obvious
right away that your housemate is a bigot and perhaps a potential murderess.
If she thinks it's too much trouble to have to look out for single person
vehicles, I assume that she doesn't worry too much about the riders' safety.
You said Forester was "anti-motorist," where does he imply that it's OK
to harm motorists? Or that motorists don't have the right to use
You notice that
she appropriated the roads for cars and trucks alone. I guess farmers
will no longer be able to move their tractors from field to field.
And the Amish and Mennonites are going to have to give up their religious
beliefs. Or is small size the only problem?
The cyclist continued:
My housemate brought up the example of pedestrians. At one time,
pedestrians walked in the roads, but that soon became quite unsafe with
the invention of the car, so they petitioned for sidewalks. They
didn't suggest that they should walk in the middle of the road like other
vehicles, because that wouldn't be safe. The same argument can be
used against bicycles in the roadways.
My reply was: Your
housemate is good at making up history. However, sidewalks and the
distinction between vehicles and pedestrians go all the way back to ancient
history and have nothing to do with the invention of the automobile.
Doesn't your housemate remember the sidewalks in the TV westerns?
the car was invented, the bicycle was already considered a vehicle by law,
and bicycles are recognized in every courtroom in the world as legal vehicles.
The automobile had its road paved -- literally and figuratively -- for
it by the bicycle. Maybe Henry Ford and the others should have petitioned
for their own separate roadways like the railroads. Then they wouldn't
have to share them with bicycles.
In most countries,
bicycles and automobiles have always shared the road without many accidents.
However, in the United States, cyclists had a hard time, even before the
automobile was invented. In those early days, people said the bicycle shouldn't
be on the road because it was "too fast." After the invention of the automobile,
life on a bicycle became too dangerous to contemplate, not because of the
great difference in speeds (it took cars over thirty years to reach average
speeds of 30 miles an hour) but because bigotry and cruelty were tolerated
(it was during these years that 3,000 Blacks were lynched every year in
should have three reasons for wanting bicycles on the road: 1) Automobiles
are the #1 source of pollution and CO2 in the US. Your
health and even the future health of the planet are jeopardized by them.
2) People who ride bicycles at least 60 miles a week live longer, feel
healthier, look better, and have fewer health insurance expenses, thus
saving you money. 3) The cost of automobile travel is enormous.
Most people lie to themselves about the expense, and they do not recognize
added expenses tacked on to taxes and the costs of goods.
vast majority of motorists are not bigots like your housemate. I
very seldom encounter anyone who believes bicycles have no right to use
the road. And I have done most of my riding in Alabama, which is
supposed to be one of the worst places in America to ride (not true).
What does amaze me is that the anti-bicycle bigots I do encounter are mainly
young people. But, I also notice that we are raising a new generation
of neo-Nazis as well. How do these things spring up?
I received a
very nice email from the "housemate" who I attacked as a bigot for her
attitudes toward cyclists. She turned out to be a real and reasonable
person. My comments disturbed her greatly, and she responded by citing
some real problems, which I will get to later.
As a boy, I moved
into a Jim Crow South, and thus I had a slap-in-the-face introduction to
bigotry. Few people living in the South today would fail to blush
if they could hear their remarks of forty years ago again. And that
includes me. And that includes many Black people. You can not
walk around knee-deep in bigotry all day long and not pick up some of the
attitudes. William Shirer, who lived in the Third Reich, said that
even though he was outraged at Nazi ideas, he still picked them up and
found himself accepting as normal the outrageous.
In America today,
we still are living in a society with a Jim Crow attitude towards cycling.
Touch a little girl at the mall, and your face will be bashed in, your
name will be printed on the front page of the newspaper, you will receive
a hash jail sentence on little evidence, and you will never be allowed
to forget your offense. Kill the same little girl with your car while she is cycling,
and even her parents are likely to be sympathetic towards you, your name
will never go in the paper, any evidence will be ignored, and your offense
won't even go on your driving record. I may have exaggerated to make
my point, but not much.
Some people claim
that the cycling situation is getting better. I think it may be getting
worse. It is true that during the last ten years there has been an
upswing in bicycle sales. But few of the new cyclists are riding
on the road. Most are driving long distances to ride on bike paths
or hiking paths. I have had college graduates tell me that it is
against the law to ride a bike on the road. I see law students and
policemen riding their bikes on the sidewalk, even though the state law
says their actions are illegal. In contrast, thirty years ago, my
advice on bicycle safety was published in the local newspaper, and Barney
(of Mayberry) was telling little boys that they had to ride in the street.
Back then, I was stopped once by the campus cop while riding on the road;
he had noticed my rear reflector was too small, and he only wanted to ask me
to get a larger one. So we may have more people riding bicycles,
but our opinions have slid backwards.
I think many of
our bigoted attitudes towards cyclists go back to Henry Ford. He
believed in a limited kind of equality: an equality based on the motor
car; if you didn't have one, you didn't count. He worked to destroy
alternate forms of transportation. Of course this motor car bigotry
was enforced by other hostilities that already existed: anger towards the
poor and envy of the physically fit. Thus we find many people insisting
that no other vehicles deserve the right to be on the road, not bicycles
nor motorcycles nor motorbikes (illegal in some states) nor buses nor streetcars
nor buggies nor farm tractors nor horses. Many would also like to
see the trucks off the road. In their highway utopia, only those
with nice automobiles would be allowed to travel at all, and they would
"arrive somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing" (Thoreau's words,
150 years ago).
But, I think a
lot of the bigotry comes from the fact that the automobile has failed to
provide that paradise we were promised. Most motorists, rather than
admitting the failure, blame the few remaining hindrances. Some actually
believe that if we did away with speed laws and traffic laws that our problems
would go away.
But we have to
be honest enough to admit that the automobile is far too expensive to our
economy, too destructive of our environment, too injurious to our health,
and too debilitating to our way of life for us to continue basing our whole
society on it. We have to start working towards more practical solutions
both for ourselves and our nation. As a community, we need to plan
for a less hectic future. As individuals, we need to slow down, get
off the treadmill, get out of the rat race, and work to make our lives
more meaningful and our communities healthier.
As cyclists, we
need to become less defensive about our method of transportation and more
frank about the problems of the automobile. As long as we are begging
for crumbs, that's what we will get. At the same time, we need to
have a tolerant attitude towards the automobile and recognize that change
will take time.
I don't see the
complete elimination of the automobile as being practical, but I do see
the necessity of providing alternatives that people will find preferable.
In particular, many people will never ride bicycles, so a worthwhile plan
has to provide alternatives for them.
I find it amusing
when automobile companies say that an electric car is not yet practical.
Of course, they have set the requirements so high that even if such an
electric vehicle could be produced, it would be neither an environmental
nor economic improvement. However, it would not be very difficult
to design a low-speed electric vehicle like a golf cart that would be cheap
and appropriate for short distance commuting. An electric motorbike
could also be a fun way for others to commute. Those two vehicles could
share the road with bicycles, but they would have even more problems than
bicycles on the current roads.
Many cyclists have
accepted the idea of a separate road system for bicycles. While I
am not opposed to the creation of bikeways for family recreation or for
transportation in a few corridors with limited room, I feel the idea of a
bicycle road system is badly flawed. First, the cost will be enormous,
and I doubt that motorists will want to pay that much just to get rid of
us. Second, as has been observed in Holland, the cycling path
will not be kept in as good of condition as the roadway. Third, the cyclists
will find themselves losing more opportunities
on the roads than they gain on the paths. Fourth, the cyclists will
find themselves riding on sidewalks amongst kids, dogs, skaters, joggers,
etc. which will make practical cycling speeds impossible (at times, I travel over
20 mph on level ground and over 50 mph downhill). Fifth, the
frequent road crossings will make practical commuting impossible and lead
to a greater number of accidents than if the cyclists had ridden on the
roads in the first place.
The solution, then,
is to make the roads safer, not to get the cyclists off of them.
In America, a process
has been going on for some years that has actually been making most roads
less safe for cyclists. This process is comparable to stream-channelization,
used by the Army Corps of Engineers on our nation's rivers. Stream-channelization
took meandering streams and straightened them to "reduce flooding."
Actually, the flow of water increased and massive flooding resulted downstream.
In the same way, engineers have been redesigning our roadways to channel
all the traffic into main arteries. If the highway engineers
provide alternate routes that bicycles could use, then this channelization
would work to our advantage; however, as a rule, they provide no alternatives,
thus making cycling less safe, unsafe, or impossible.
the country, I find some cities very easy to cycle into and out of because
of the way that they are designed while others are very difficult.
The quality of life varies greatly as well, and much of that is also due to design.
In looking at the
specific problems of cycling, we see that the greatest problems are the
volume and speed of the traffic:
1) On roads with little traffic,
the speed limit is not important, although motorists approach more slowly
on roads with lower speed limits. Therefore, these
roads can be freely used by cyclists with only minor changes if any.
In summary, then,
we need to provide alternatives only when the speed of the traffic is high
(3d) and/or the volume of traffic is heavy (2). Unfortunately, the
densely packed, high-speed road is on the increase, often leaving the cyclist
no safe place to travel. A purist might insist that the cyclists
continue to use the road anyway; others may want an independent bicycle
path. I don't like either solution. Few cyclists are going
to be willing to risk the busy roadway, and deaths might result.
The bike path, on the other hand, is going to be taken over by joggers,
dog walkers, roller bladers, and others, so that a practical cycling speed
is impossible; in fact, bike paths have a much higher accident rate for
cyclists than the road.
2) On roads with heavy traffic
flow, cycling is impractical except for short distances unless the speeds
are very low. Even if the cyclists have a separate lane, turning
left is impossible and intersections are highly dangerous. Cyclists
need alternatives to these roads.
3) On roads with average traffic:
a) Bicycles can travel in the
automobile lanes when the speed of the traffic
is about the same as bicycle speed, as occurs on crowded downtown
streets or in residential neighborhoods. No
change is needed.
b) When the speed of the traffic has
increased to double the speed of the bicycle, then
a widening of the lane by a couple of feet provides adequate room
for motorists to pass when necessary. Motorists and cyclists need
to be taught not to ignore each other, however, as doing so leads to accidents.
c) When the speed of the traffic reaches
three times the speed of a bicycle, the room
needs to increase to four foot. Again, the vehicle operators
should not ignore each other.
d) When the speed of the traffic reaches four
times the speed of the bicycle or more, the
cyclist is in danger, even if given a wide or separate lane, due
to the greater danger at intersections.
can often fail to produce fast travel times. I noticed when I visited
Denver in 1990 that the bike riders were all on sidewalks and bike trails and
that the main streets were all marked 50 mph but had frequent traffic lights. Of
course, raising the speed limit on a road with frequent intersections is more likely
to increase the number of accidents than to increase the average point to point
speed (in discussions with one highway engineer on this subject, I found he considered
average speed to be a radar-measured speed midway between traffic lights). On
these roads, lower speed limits with synchronized lights would probably
result in a higher point to point speed. On the other hand, on roads with limited access,
higher speeds do result in faster travel times, and more of these roads are being built.
My solution for
bicycle travel along high-speed roads with limited intersections
would be for a secondary road --
not a path -- to be built alongside the main road. Why would motorists
agree to a road that is much more expensive than a cycling path? -- because
it will benefit them and the local land owners also. The parallel
road keeps driveways and many light roads from entering the high-speed
road, it increases the value of land by making it more accessible, it provides
a route for delivery trucks and local traffic, and it provides an alternate
route if the main highway should be blocked. In fact, these "access"
roads are already being built everywhere. In many places, cyclist
can travel for hundreds of miles with light traffic, and the road is available
for everyone to use. Thus high-speed roads, which have been the cyclists'
greatest problem, could be our best friends. The problem is, for
the cyclist, that the access roads often don't connect together.
For instance, I can bicycle all the way from Anniston, Alabama, to Birmingham,
Alabama, along a parallel road, except for a half-mile section where there
is absolutely no alternative (except by riding on the interstate and climbing
the fence!). Usually, the reason for the termination is the expense;
the most likely problem is a stream crossing or a hill. But the root
of the problem is that no one is advocating that the road continue on through.
Therefore, I think a reasonable use of ice-tea money would be to provide
these connectors and also to provide maps or signs, so cyclists will know
that an alternative route exists.
I also think it's
important that such roads could provide a place for low-speed electric
vehicles and other alternatives to be used. As long as alternative
vehicles have no legal place to operate, they won't be built.
Some have countered that it does very little good to plan moderate and low-speed roads if the motorists won't reduce speeds. I think speeding, to a great extent, is due to our deliberately ignoring the problem. The 55 mph speed limit was very unpopular, so many communities either focused on enforcing that speed limit on the interstates or began to ignore speed violations everywhere. Sometimes the right to deal with speed violations was even taken away from local police agencies. It's not necessary to stop every speeding car to bring about a meaningful change; if motorists recognize that getting stopped for speeding will be painful, that residential and other low-speed roads will be patroled, and that speeds five to fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit will not be ignored, they will change their habits. Definitely, those who use vehicles wantonly need to be as severely punished as they are when using other weapons.
There are even good ways to enforce the speed limit without using police officers. One method involves cameras attached to radar guns that automatically record speeding vehicles and their licenses. Of course, the cameras would need to be moved daily. Another depends on computer chips buried in the pavement and another computer chip in each motor vehicle's engine to temporarily limit maximum speed to the amount indicated by the chip in the ground. This would make speeding within designated areas impossible. To some extent, the design of the road itself can determine speed limits; however, some traffic calming measures such as speed bumps and narrow roads restrict cycling also. Divided two-lane roads with good turn lanes can actually carry more traffic per hour than four-lane roads while reducing maximum speeds and collisions.
Every town and
city and state has different traffic problems, so I think the solutions will
vary from place to place. My experience, in cycling all over
the country, is that the situation is generally more favorable than most
cyclists believe it to be. While the majority of people say they
don't bicycle because there is no safe place to ride, I find that many
of them are living on flat roads with minuscule traffic, so their real
problem is in their heads and not with the road. However, there are
many places where the roads really are dangerous and no practical alternatives
exist. I think that the suggestions I have made will seem reasonable
even to non-cyclists and highway engineers.
In any event, it
should be the judgment of each cyclist as to which road to use or not use.
If appropriate and useful alternatives are available, then cyclists will
use them. However, these attempts to restrict cyclists without providing
a free choice are simply attempts to deny our right to free travel
based on the bigoted notion that people who drive automobiles have superior
rights. Our society needs to get past prejudice, recognize the healthy lifestyle
that cycling offers, and make the improvements to our roads and highways
that are necessary.