[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Our Right to Use the Roadway
The problem of anti-bicycle bigotry, some fake and real history, sources of bigotry and defensiveness, making roads safer for cyclists rather than providing separate paths.

Is it too much to ask motorists to share the road with cyclists, or are their attitudes revealing anti-bicycling bigotry? Do the highways belong to cars and trucks alone? Is the distinction between vehicles and pedestrians recent? Why have US motorists historically found it difficult to share the road with cyclists? Why is it helpful to motorists for cyclists to be on the roads? Are most motorists bigots? How does a Jim Crow society affect one's thinking? Are attitudes towards bicycling improving? Has the automobile lived up to its promises? Why haven't electric vehicles been introduced? What practical problems exist with a bikeway system? How have we been making our roadways less safe? Which streets and roads are difficult or dangerous for cycling? Does raising speed limits always increase traffic speed? What would be a good travel alternative to high-speed roads for cyclists? How should speeding be deal with? How can speed limits be enforced without tying up the police? Is cycling on the roads generally dangerous? Who should get to choose which roads a cyclist travels on?


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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 the road?

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?

Actually, when 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 the South).

Your housemate 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.

Fortunately, the 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.

Traveling around 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.

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.

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.

High-speed roads 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.


The Roads We Have  An argument by John Andersen that improving our current road system is the only help cyclists need.

Cyclist Inferiority by John Forester  A discussion of the prejudice attached to cycling which is dangerous to cyclists.

But if not Lanes - What?  by Jeremy Parker. Discusses the advantages of wide curb lanes over bike lanes.

Lousy Lanes in London  by Jeremy Parker. Explains the problem of bike lanes in London. Remember in reading this that left and right are reversed, as the British drive on the left side of the road.

Rumble Strips  by T. Lamar Stonecypher. The problem of rumble strips on roadways in rural South Georgia.

Vehicular Cycling  by Tom Swenson. A short article which explains the reasons for vehicular cycling and which provides good links.

Bike Paths Useless  by Wade Eide. Explains why a bike path is not needed for most normal streets.

Do We Really Need Bikepaths?  by Richard Risemberg. A short argument against bikepaths and in favor of cycling.

What the MDC Says About Your Safety  While some cyclists think they are safer riding on a path, the agency in charge may not consider their safety a priority.

Road Diets This article, which requires Adobe Acrobat, shows that a road can carry more traffic safety if reduced from four lanes to three or two (with ample turning lanes).

The Right to Travel by Human Power  by Steven G. Goodridge. Like me, Steven likes to go back to the source of our rights. He has provided a sound, legal argument.

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