The Rules of the Road

UPDATED OCTOBER 21, 2013 5:39 PM

PREMISE: Should the laws and infrastructure be altered to recognize differences between bikes and cars, or should cyclists and drivers be treated the same?

© Joseph Michael Lopez for The New York Times A person on a Citi Bike, part of New York’s new bike share program, navigates traffic.

© Joseph Michael Lopez for The New York Times
A person on a Citi Bike, part of New York’s new bike share program, navigates traffic.

According to the League of American Bicyclists, there has been a 61.6 increase in bicycle commuting since 2000. New York has introduced a successful bike share program and the mayor of Chicago intends to create a 500-mile network of bike routes.

With more cyclists on the roads, and bicycle safety a constant source of debate, should the laws and infrastructure be altered to recognize differences between bikes and cars, or should cyclists be treated the same as drivers?

Drivers and Cyclists Should Be Equals

John Forester

John Forester

John Forester, known as the “father of vehicular cycling,” started cycling on the streets of London in 1937. In 1940 his family moved to Berkeley, Calif. Since 1971 he has been an activist for cyclists’ rights.

OCTOBER 21, 2013

Since the 1920s American car culture has carried on a campaign to make motor transport the highest priority for streets and highways. While cyclists originally had the same rights as other drivers, the vehicular campaign against bicycle traffic was based on three arguments:

1. Roads are made for motor vehicles.
2. Cyclists must stay close to the edge of the roadway, or off of it if there’s a path, because the greatest danger to cyclists is same-direction motor traffic.
3. Cyclists cannot be expected to be capable of obeying the rules of the road.

Cyclists are fully capable of obeying the rules of the road; they fare best when they act, and are treated, as drivers of vehicles.

So cyclists grew up feeling guilty for trespassing on the road and for slowing real traffic, feeling scared of the same-direction motor traffic behind them, and helpless because there was nothing they could do. Eventually many of them became motorists themselves, losing any sort of cyclist-sensibility they once had. I have described this occurrence before: “The cyclist who rides in traffic will either slow the cars, which is Sin, or, if the cars don’t choose to slow down, will be crushed, which is Death, and the Wages of Sin is Death.”

There is a motorist-superiority/cyclist-inferiority complex in this country. In the 1960s, various changes produced an increase in both young-adult and mature-adult cycling for both transportation and sport. California’s auto culture feared that these cyclists would clog up the roads. The problem was solved by instituting new and tougher restrictive laws and mandatory bikeways. But California’s cyclists caught motordom in the act and fought back. Cyclists did not win any political battles, but managed to prevent the worst from being imposed on them. Two products from this era are American bikeway designs and the bicycle traffic laws that we have today.

But cyclists did win the scientific battle. Both of motordom’s scientific claims were proved false. Turning and crossing movements are the cause of 95 percent of car-bike collisions and only 5 percent of accidents are the result of same-direction motor traffic. Cyclists are fully capable of obeying the rules of the road; they fare best when they act, and are treated, as drivers of vehicles.

So we have a bikeway system and bicycle traffic laws designed by motordom to oppress cyclists for the convenience of drivers, but which are contradicted by the scientific knowledge available. Furthermore we have a cycling population that still believes motordom’s nonsense and rides with feelings of guilt, fear of same-direction motor traffic and belief in its own helplessness. Working out the difficulties of this situation is a pretty problem.

In Copenhagen, Separate but More Than Equal

Ayfer Baykal

Ayfer Baykal

Ayfer Baykal is mayor of the technical and environmental administration of Copenhagen.

OCTOBER 21, 2013

Half of Copenhagen residents use bicycles to get to work or school. Not because these individuals are eco-friendly, young or sporty – but because bicycles are convenient and the fastest way to get around in the city.

Our focus as city administrators is not on the bicycle itself. It’s on creating the framework for a good life and an attractive city; by happy coincidence, the bicycle is an extremely efficient tool to achieve that. It gives us less polluted air, better health and efficient infrastructure. In the last three years, we have invested more than 52 million euros (about $71 million) in urban cycling.

Cyclists have their own roads and signs in Denmark, and they are often allowed to use streets both ways that are one-way for cars.

Our constant priority is on building new bicycle lanes next to but separate from the roads for cars. That’s important for any city that wants more cyclists. Bicycles should not only be for the brave young men on their way to work, but also for the children on their way to school. We’ve also seen that improving bicycle infrastructure at crossings and along congested stretches has empowered cyclists and improved safety. Over the last four years, Copenhageners who have reported that they feel safe while cycling has increased from 51 to 76 percent. Only 5 percent of them now feel unsafe.

Cyclists are seen as an independent traffic group in Denmark. There are separate signs for them, and we often allow cyclists to use streets both ways that are unidirectional for cars. In our traffic planning, we often give first priority to bicycles instead of cars. For example, around popular bicycle routes, we synchronize the traffic lights with the speed of bicycles instead of with that of cars. Our focus now is expanding bicycle infrastructure into the suburbs by up to nine miles. There’s huge potential here; last year we opened our first “Cycle Super Highway.”

Increasing the number of bicycles in a city doesn’t require specific political thoughts. It simply requires giving clear traffic priorities to the cyclist. City planners or American citizens are welcome to contact us for advice or inspiration. Copenhagen cyclists are not specifically eco-friendly, young or sporty. They are just people.

Make Cars More Inconvenient

Grant Petersen

Grant Petersen

Grant Petersen is author of “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike,” and founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works.

UPDATED OCTOBER 21, 2013, 5:39 PM

Bike commuting is up 61.6 percent in the last 13 years, but since the national average is still less than 2 percent, it’s hard to make a strong case for revamping the laws to accommodate the significant upsurge. I think the laws should be rewritten to create an upsurge.

Let’s ban cars downtown (except for taxis and commercial vehicles); allow cyclists to roll slowly through stop signs like in Idaho; and give cyclists free, secure parking.

Let’s ban private cars downtown; while continuing to allow commercial vehicles, taxis and shuttle and bus services. Cyclists should be permitted to roll slowly through stop signs like in Idaho, and they should also be granted free, secure parking.

Up to now, for the most part, pro-bike people (I am one!) have been selling supposed positives of bike commuting: a cleaner world for the earth’s inhabitants in 50 years, plus it’s good exercise and fun. But most people see any one trip they can make on a bike as a drop in the bucket, and the deferred benefit to strangers is no incentive at all. In any case, legislation is the only way to go. This is how I think we should upgrade it:

  • Make pedaling more convenient than driving, by banning cars downtown. Have shuttles haul riders in every 15 minutes or so. Make ‘em wait and walk. Disincentives to driving always work, by definition. The dreamy shuttle plan won’t happen soon, but whatever laws can do to make driving an air-conditioned car not worth the time and hassle is on the right track.
  • I’m all for The Idaho Stop. In the early ‘70s lawmakers in Idaho voted to allow bike riders to treat red lights and stop signs as yield signs. Cyclists can legally roll up to a red light, look both ways, and pedal on through it. This means bike riders can often maintain their momentum through intersections, with no guilt for running a red. It has the added benefit of keeping motorists on their toes, since they don’t know what the heck the cyclist will do.
  • I’d also vote for convenience concessions based on how much space a vehicle takes up, how much noise it makes, how much it pollutes, and how much damage it’s likely to do to a human body it hits at, say 15 miles per hour. Should those thingsnot matter? It would be hard to make that case, and when you consider all those things, the bicycle is the clear winner. Based on this idea, bike riders should get their own direct roads, instead of the circuitous paths that commonly define “bike routes” right now. Give cyclists two lanes to every one a car has on wider roads, and easy, free and secure indoor parking in what are now exclusive car parking spots.

The most effective way to increase biking is to make it the preferred choice, even for lazy people, and you do that by making cars more inconvenient. Bike ridership will go up, accident rates will go down, taxi drivers and bike riders won’t hate one another anymore, and cities will be so much more livable.

Different Spokes for Different Folks

Laura Sandt

Laura Sandt

Laura Sandt is a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

UPDATED OCTOBER 21, 2013, 5:39 PM

Investment in bicycling infrastructure, such as bikeshare programs and bike lanes, signals that communities across the U.S. are recognizing the health, safety and economic benefits brought by providing choices in transportation. It also acknowledges bicycling as an important mode of travel worthy of receiving funding.

Bicycles have different dimensions, speeds and stopping distances than cars, and these factors need to be taken into account when roadways are designed.

But while bicycles are defined as vehicles by most state laws and have a legitimate right to the road, from a safety and operations perspective they are not the same as cars. Bicycles have different weights and dimensions, travel speeds and stopping distances than cars, and in many cases these factors need to be specifically taken into account when roadways are designed.

Also bicyclists as a population are not the same as the car-driving population, and some have special skills or needs. While all car drivers have to be at least 16 and have passed tests to be eligible to drive, there’s a lot greater variety in the age and skill level of bicyclists. A 13-year-old riding her bicycle to school at 8 miles per hour is not the same as a 45-year-old man bicycling to work at 18 miles per hour, and neither is the same as a car driver traveling at 40 miles per hour, so it may not be appropriate for the infrastructure or environment to be the same in all circumstances. In some cases, the needs of different road users may all be served by the same facility, but in many cases special attention for each type of road user is warranted to ensure safety.

Luckily, there is flexibility in our roadway design guidelines and standards so that transportation professionals can develop a context-sensitive approach, taking into account the needs of different users when designing a roadway. And with the increase in bicycle riding, bicycle safety is becoming a bigger part of the discussion.

Attitude Adjustment in the U.S.

Yan Xing

Yan Xing

Yan Xing conducts research on travel behavior, particularly bicycling behavior, as well as the effects of environmental factors on bicycling, at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

OCTOBER 21, 2013

China was once known as the “Kingdom of Bicycles.” However, bicycle usage has been in decline for about 20 years, owing mainly to the increase of income and rapid urbanization, meaning more cars on the streets. That said, in many big cities like Tianjin and Xi’an, about 50 percent of the inhabitants partake in bike share programs, and there is a growing environmental movement to encourage bike use again. Recently, the electric bicycle (e-bike) in China has grown popular because of its affordability, convenience and mobility. In 2005, more than 20 million e-bikes were on the roads and production was expected to grow 80 percent annually in China.

Although overall, cycling is still less popular in the United States, it’s become quite common in cities like Davis, Calif. and Boulder, Colo. A series of studies that I co-authored on these areas show that attitudinal factors play important roles.

To increase bicycling and bicycling awareness, planners usually focus on tangibles like improving bicycle facilities. However, as the study suggests, changing attitudes and supportive social environments can also make a big difference. Although the United States still needs to improve the physical environment for bicycling, more bicycling advocacy organizations and individuals should continue to form and emerge. Even though cycling is still more prominent in China, the Chinese government is not as encouraging of the practice as the U.S. government. And the more supportive of cycling the social environment at-large is, the more drivers will pay attention to cyclists, which will keep them safe.


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