Cyclists Are Special, and They Should Have Their Own Rules

Background Reading

by Angie Schmitt
Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Source: StreetsBlog

There’s a line of reasoning advanced by the media, angry motorists and, sometimes, cyclists, that goes something like: Since some cyclists don’t follow the rules, cyclists don’t deserve respect.

There is a double standard when cyclists are expected to "earn" their right to the road, while motorist misbehavior is accepted as the norm. Image:

There is a double standard when cyclists are expected to “earn” their right to the road, while motorist misbehavior is accepted as the norm. Image:

A version of this axiom was repeated yesterday by Sarah Goodyear at Atlantic Cities, in an article titled “Cyclists Aren’t ‘Special,’ and They Shouldn’t Play by Their Own Rules.” Goodyear argues that cyclists need to clean up their behavior in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of others. A crackdown on rule breakers is needed, she says, to advance the cause of cycling.

Blogger David C. at Greater Greater Washington says that’s baloney:

Goodyear is asking cyclists to become footdroppers and thinks that more enforcement of cycling laws is what is needed for cycling to “get to the next level.” I disagree which is easy to do since Goodyear offers no evidence, no data and no defense of her position. It appears to be 100% emotion-based opinion.

When I look at great cycling cities in Europe it doesn’t appear to me that there is some point where increased enforcement is needed to keep growth going. Growth is fueled by better designed streets, laws that protect cyclists, and increasing the costs of driving. If anything, what I’ve read about Amsterdam and Copenhagen is that they don’t tolerate the kinds of bad driving that are considered normal here. I don’t read about ticketing blitzes.

She makes the point that many cyclists are rude or ride dangerously and that she’d like to see such behavior ticketed. I have no problem with ticketing dangerous behavior — though if we’re really going to focus on the MOST dangerous behavior, that will rarely mean ticketing cyclists. And if law enforcement were to blitz cyclists, it would likely not be for their most dangerous behavior (riding at night without lights or too fast on the sidewalk or against traffic) but rather not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign during a charity ride or at some out-of-the way intersection.

Bike lawyer Brendan Kevenides wrote in Urban Velo last year that “the way you ride is probably a crime,” saying that in many cases cyclists have logical reasons for breaking the rules, often for their own safety. He wrote that lawmaking bodies across the country are starting to recognize ways in which cyclists behave differently from motorists, and are making appropriate accommodations. In other words, lawmaking bodies are recognizing that cyclists are special, in that they are not the same as cars, and that they should have their own rules.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Kansas City’s gudthoughts blog considers whether crowd-funding is a viable way to improve that region’s transit infrastructure. Systemic Failure says Amtrak’s strict “no pets” policy is unnecessary and puts the quasi-public transportation provider at a competitive disadvantage with other modes. And People for Bikes asks cyclists to send pro-bike letters to their local newspapers in honor of Bike to Work Week.


The thing that most galls me about the current discussion on the status of cycling is the constant reference to a place on the planet (Copenhagen) that has contributed very little to the technical discussions of the last 100 years. And further is the fact that what little is being fed to us from that corner of the world comes by way of an interloper, namely Mikael Colville-Andersen. The chief claim to fame is that the Danes have positioned themselves to grab the honors over their chief rivals the Dutch who did all the “heavy lifting“. So now we have a “Johnny Come Lately” who is garnering big bucks by telling us what the Dutch have done that makes him and his compatriots experts on what we should do.

This would be like having the North Koreans visiting South Africa to learn more about the apartheid movement and then trying to tell the world that they are now the spiritual heirs of Mandela and should henceforth be hired as consultants to show the Western Countries how best to assimilate their underclass. Yep, that is how I see it.

Now To the Usual Non-Sense from Ms. Schmitt

Ms. Schmitt is a Social Engineering type through-and-through. What she has to say permeates much of the discussion being conducted by a rabid group of individuals in large cities who are the backbone of the Urban Cycling Movement. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel came out with his ultimatum to cyclists it was met with a fair amount of vitriol by the Chicago ChainLink Forum crowd.

What we have here is a religious argument being foisted upon the rest of the world by a few zealots who have conflated, oil usage, human freedom, sustainable energy sources and a whole panoply of other issues into something that includes bicycling. Fine, I can respect wanting to cure what ails the world in a single treatment, but please do not try and sell the notion that what you bring to the table is science and common sense and everyone else is blathering.

If that were the case then over time we should have seen a constant drop in fatalities as ever increasing numbers of miles of bicycle infrastructure make their way across the American landscape. But that has not been true and it was not true last fall when the figures for the year of increased infrastructure came out in New York.

What is even more telling is that the United States even by the measures of Colville-Andersen is not producing the kind of infrastructure that he thinks is correct. At the same time the Dutch are getting a bit miffed at having him pass off his ideas as Dutch Design because he likes the cachet of it. Keep in mind that this is the fellow who has pronounced helmet as unnecessary and indeed unsafe in that they contribute to the injury of riders who mistake the protection that these devices provide. Again of course he cites the fact that his data show quite the opposite of what is found to be true in the United States.

Keep in mind that just a scant month or so ago a strong-willed GOP was brandishing a report from a collection of Harvard Economists on the ultimate failure of the American Economy unless severe austerity measures were adopted. We it turns out that not only does the GOP not understand Climate Change, Gender-Identity Issues, or Sustainable Energy Planning but they sure as heck have not yet mastered the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet calculation.

My bet is on the fact that much of what Mikael Colville-Andersen is suggesting for use here (e.g. Bike Boxes and other magical concepts) will never be embraced by the crowd she represents simply because it is clumsy and does not work well when you ratchet up the ridership.

Embrace Jan Heine Instead

Jan Heine of Off The Beaten Track has written a very interesting article in which he dissects the Colville-Andersen treatment of streets the old fashioned way, by actually riding them. This is the kind of diagnosis of what we are doing that needs to be done by every single writer and rider across the country. Go out and try and use the protected bike lanes (PBLs) that are springing up all over the country.

Many of these travesties of design are either unworkable or just downright clumsy. That would include such boondoggles as the beloved Dearborn Street PBL right here in Chicago. At a price tag of $450K we should have gotten far better value for our money. But we are seemingly in such an all-fired hurry to garner the acclaim of people like Colville-Andersen that very little is being done to actually see if these crumby designs actually work in real life. Now that Ms. Schmitt is how you do science.

Rather than taking the word of our World Cycling Yenta that this or that design is a match made in heaven, let’s actually ride the damned things. I think you will be surprised at what you discover. Oh, and while you are stress-testing this heap of dung that Mr. Colville-Andersen has wrought make certain that you have “newbie riders” do the testing as well.

I recently had a discussion in which my friend said that using people who knew nothing about cycling to prove or disprove the value of protected bike lanes was unfair. That you needed seasoned riders to tell you if things would work or not. Wrong! PBLs are supposed to be the “cats meow” precisely because they accommodate newbies. So why not use “newbies” to test them?

Take a few down to Jackson Street in Chicago with the express purpose of riding eastbound on that roadway to Morgan and then from there south into the UIC Campus. Any newbie without Vehicular Cycling training is probably gonna fail miserably at this. This will be because their notions of how things work is that the PBL is the place for them to be at all times. And this is not a Chicago-based misconception it is lodged in the consciousness of just about every Urban Cyclist under the age of 50 years.

For most cyclists the chance to learn real world strategies for dealing with traffic have been neglected by bike clubs, schools and municipalities. Along comes someone like Mikael Colville-Andersen who tells them that a coat of pretty green paint and a few stencils of bikes along with a boatload of PVC piping will fix what ails us is too good to pass up. Its chief attraction for politicians and cycling advocates alike is that it is readily visible as a sign of “progress“. That is until you try to use this stuff.

Then you discover that bikers on Dearborn Street do not understand that pedestrians in crosswalks have the right-of-way over them where their bike lanes intersects with one. This is a confusing and horrible concept for many cyclists to grasp. And apparently on Dearborn Street no one in the CDOT anticipated the fact that having drivers enter their parked cars from the protected bike lane side of the street meant that they might just want to walk along the bike lane to get to their vehicle. Duh!

So Ms. Schmitt you can stick what little science you have on your side where the “sun don’t shine“.

American Cycletrack – 15th & K from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo.