Let’s Roll Together: A Debate About Bicycles vs. Automobiles

Background Reading


Rick Bernardi, J.D. has an excellent article on the Scofflaw Cyclist as a myth. If you have not taken the time to read it do so now and then return. He sums up his argument in this fashion:

( HANDOUT / May 31, 2012 ) The heavy-duty bikes in the Divvy program feature a step-through, one-size-fits-all design; upright handlebars with the gear-changer on the grip and wide, adjustable seats for comfort; hand brakes; a chain guard to protect clothing; and a basket with an elastic cord for storing items.

( HANDOUT / May 31, 2012 )
The heavy-duty bikes in the Divvy program feature a step-through, one-size-fits-all design; upright handlebars with the gear-changer on the grip and wide, adjustable seats for comfort; hand brakes; a chain guard to protect clothing; and a basket with an elastic cord for storing items.

In one sense, what is really at issue here are conflicting ideas about whether a bicycle is exactly like a motor vehicle and should therefore be subject to exactly the same laws, or whether a bicycle is fundamentally different—a human-powered vehicle—and should have laws that reflect that difference.

Motorists and cyclists who believe that all vehicles on the road should be subject to the exact same laws are taking the position that, for purposes of the law, a bicycle is exactly like a motor vehicle. Conversely, cyclists who believe that a bicycle is fundamentally different from a motor vehicle believe that the law should reflect the differences, while still recognizing the cyclist’s right to the road. And then there are the motorists who believe that the law should reflect the fundamental differences between bicycles and motor vehicles. Unlike the cyclists who hold this view, these are the motorists tend to believe that cyclists should not be allowed on the road at all—even if the law says that bicycles do belong on the road.

These are the drivers who vehemently object to the presence of cyclists on the road. These are the drivers who never miss an opportunity to point out that cyclists are scofflaws. These are the drivers who never pass up the chance to argue that cyclists are unworthy of being treated fairly. These are the drivers who believe that when a law-abiding cyclist is injured or killed, careless drivers should not be held accountable for their actions. It’s not that they object to lawbreaking, it’s that they object to the law.

And when they take the law into their own hands, these are the drivers who harass, bully, and even assault law-abiding cyclists for riding on the road, as the law allows.

Their rationale?

The myth of the scofflaw cyclist.

Let me address this “head on“. What we are talking about here is the roadway and not the vehicles on the roadway. That is the fundamental issue. Trying to lobby for a viewpoint that brings into question whether a human powered vehicle is somehow to be considered differently than one with an internal combustion motor is spurious. There are lots of hybrid vehicles already on the roadway. These can have electric or gasoline motors and still be considered bicycles. In fact there are scooters than are capable of being powered by foot or entirely by electric motor. What we should focus on is not whether there is something inherently other about velomobiles versus automobiles, but rather how does any user of the roadway integrate themselves into the traffic mix.

This is largely the same issue that people in this country have had regarding people of color. The concept of race is exactly analogous to whether a person of color is exactly like one who is said to be white. And of course in this country we have had great difficulty in determining what to do with people who look white but have black ancestry. In the past issues of property ownership, marriage and voting rights have been settled on the verification that a person had “a single drop of African blood in their veins“. All of the vestiges of racism are inherent in any debate about bicycles that starts to differentiate vehicles based on anything else other than their right to use the roadway.

Now if you agree to consider just the roadway issues and whether or not bicycles have the right to use the roadway the same as cars (with obvious exceptions being superhighways) then the decisions about how each traffic segment is to behave is simple. You follow the rules. Any other discussion is merely splitting hairs. Bicycles and cars do not fundamentally differ in their violations of roadway use law. They differ in how they do it.

Cars speed between intersections. Bikes try their level best to maintain a high speed and in a city situation can beat cars across town (in many instances) simply by ignoring traffic controls. Both vehicles are “speeding” in that they are both attempting to end with an average speed as high as possible but each does so in a different manner. This is kind of like the tortoise and hare story. In fact it is exactly like that fable.

But there is one additional difference between motor vehicles (i.e. cars, trucks, buses, motor scooters, motorcycles and such) these all have been around long enough that the powers that be have seen fit to make them wear ID tags. Bicyclists at present are not required to do this. And that is no doubt one of the chief reasons they ignoring intersection controls is a manageable risk. Unlike their automobile counterparts taking a photograph of a bike doing anything illegal is useless unless someone knows the face of the cyclist. With cars and other vehicles license plates are the great leveler and cyclists know this and take advantage of it.

Now as with things like the Voting Rights Act and Racial Quotas it is becoming clear that they will soon have to pass away. The same too I hope will be true for bicycles without license plates or some other form of “visible identification“. The Boub Case taught us as with Jim Crow Laws in the South you could pay taxes along with everyone else and still be denied the right to fair access to housing, hiring, education, use of public accommodations and voting. The question is not how light-skinned a black a person is before he is worth of our respect. Instead it should be always about being a human with the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as anyone else.

With all due respect Mr. Bernardi is unwittingly using a Jim Crow distinction as the basis for deciding how people should act and be treated while on the roadway. I reject that notion wholeheartedly.

Thinking About “42”

To attempt to explain the absurdity in Mr. Bernardi’s argument let me ask you what should have happened when Jackie Robinson entered the Major Leagues of Baseball? Should there have been a 6-strike rule for him and any other black player than came along later? Or perhaps he should have been forced to wear a different uniform than his team mates? Or perhaps because he was black the shower for him should have been different than those used by the white players on his team. Maybe when he rode to a new town for a game he should have had to check into a different hotel? This did in fact happen, but should that have been the case? Should he have been able to take meals at public accommodations with his team mates?

Where Mr. Bernardi understand it or not suggesting that there is a fundamental difference between bikes and cars is true in one sense but has little to do with the problem at hand. When you play baseball regardless of the color of your skin, your sexual orientation or your gender the rules should be the same for every player on the field. In fact in the rule book there should be no distinction between the home runs hit by a player based on his skin color. A home run should be simply a “home run”. A stolen base is simply that, regardless of how tall or fat or smart the runner was.

If we are going to have to fight the latent bigotry of Mr. Bernardi’s position we will need to do more than trump up reasons for differences in the treatment and expectations of vehicular types. We will need to consider whether or not the classes of vehicle can even be allowed to occupy the same roads at the same time. I hope we do not go down that road.

Let’s Roll Together

People for Bikes has a new campaign for dealing with the bike versus automobile controversy:

The road shouldn’t feel like the Wild West. Watch our National Bike Month video, and then make the promise to travel with compassion. Two wheels or four — let’s roll together.

They are asking people to take a pledge:

Look out for my fellow travelers — on bikes, in cars, and on foot.
Keep my cool with other riders and drivers.
Recognize that there are real people behind the steering wheel and the handlebars.

What Separates Us Is Not Our Vehicles

The People for Bikes campaign is one I could support. What separates road users is not the kind of vehicle they choose to use. After all a multimode traveler could be using one or more kinds of vehicles each day to get to work and then home. And given the day of the week people could choose to spend their weekends on horseback, rollerblades, bicycles, recumbent trikes or in sports car rallies. It just depends.

It is our attitude towards one another that counts most. When I choose to obey traffic laws I am not doing so from a position of weakness but rather a position of strength. I do it because it makes it safer for every pedestrian, child playing ball in the streets, motorist, motorcyclist, skateboarder, jogger, motorized wheelchair rider, and yet cyclist who occupies that street on any given day at any given time.

What make each of us safer is not road diets, green paint, PVC bollards, specialized traffic lights or anything else. It is our willingness to give up momentary distractions to pay attention to the roadway. It is our willingness to travel at a pace consistent with safety rather than some Walter Mitty style race we might be having with automobile traffic in getting across town, it is refraining from texting or making needless calls on my smartphone, it is crossing at points in the block where pedestrians are expected not only because it is safer but because children watch what I do and mimic it.

We need to get beyond the question of what kinds of vehicles we drive and ask the question what kind of people we are. Are we responsible. Are we going to continue and endless argument about who breaks the law more often? Or are we simply going to be better people because we owe it to our children and ourselves?

Something to think about!