Cyclists' Choice of Ally

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The Strategic Problem

As long as anyone can remember, American society has disapproved of bicycle driving, cycling in accordance with the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. Typical Americans believe that cyclists are inferior to motorists in legal status and in competence, that cyclists should defer to motor traffic, and that failure to defer to motor traffic is dangerous. American opinion on this subject is divided into two parts. While American motorists like that view because it is convenient for them, their emotions are not strongly involved in the safety argument. But those persons who oppose motoring are very strongly involved in the safety argument for two reasons. First, opposition to motoring is likely to be allied to fear of motoring. Second, probably more important, they depend on the fear of motor traffic to justify their anti-motoring agenda. They use this fear of motor traffic to justify building bikeways designed to accommodate fearful and incompetent cyclists, in the expectation that reducing that fear, as bikeways do, will cause transportationally significant numbers of motorists to switch trips to bicycle transportation. These people are much more strongly motivated to use bikeways to reduce motoring than motorists are to use bikeways to make motoring more convenient.

Bicycle drivers are stuck in the middle; both of the two major groups want cyclists to operate in the fearful, deferential, and incompetent manner, while bicycle drivers want to operate in the confident and competent manner of drivers of vehicles. I say that it is obvious that bicycle drivers cannot win over either of these two forces. They cannot change American motoring opinion to support the policy that cyclists must operate as drivers of vehicles. They cannot change the anti-motoring bicycle advocates to base their strategy on lawful, competent cycling. Their only hope is to carve out a policy of permitting, or tolerating, those cyclists who choose to operate according to the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles.

This would reinstate the historic compromise. That is, while American society considered most bicycle riders to lack the skills to obey the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles, and therefore should be subject to restrictions supposedly for their own safety, American society also permitted those adult cyclists who chose to operate according to the rules of the road to do so, despite the existence of the discriminative laws. However, because of the ensuing governmental program of bikeways and their laws, with all the attention that has been directed to them, it is impossible to simply return to the old system of tolerance. Fixing the problem today requires the repeal of the restrictive laws. Bicycle drivers probably cannot carve out that area of permission themselves; they will need the assistance of one or the other of the two major groups. Which group would be more likely to provide useful assistance?

The Motoring View

While the motoring group rather likes the idea that bikeways will make motoring more convenient, they are not strongly emotionally committed to prohibiting cyclists from operating as drivers of vehicles. After all, their basic laws not only say that that is the proper way to operate, but, even with their special bicycle laws, they admit that bicycle operation should not contradict their basic laws. There are two other favorable aspects of this argument. All of this is consistent with traffic-engineering knowledge, and it is obvious that few bicycle riders will take advantage of the permission.

The Anti-Motoring Arguments

One might think that the bikeway-advocating anti-motorists would be more likely to provide useful assistance in a matter favorable for cyclists. However, they have consistently refused to do so. Several explanations for this refusal appear credible, although perhaps not reasonable. Anti-motoring bikeway advocates are committed to a public strategy that their system removes the need to operate according to the rules of the road; their target audience is attracted by the belief that bikeways and bikeway cycling make cycling safe without needing to learn how to operate safely in traffic. They are committed to the public strategy that traffic-safe cycling is dangerous and heroic. They are committed to the principle that the products of motoring are dangerous, not only the pollutants but suburbs and the good roads that make them possible. Assisting bicycle drivers in attaining uncomplicated legal right to operate as drivers of vehicles would be a repudiation of their anti-motoring bikeway-advocating principles.

Emotional Intensities

In addition to the substantive differences in cycling policy, the two groups differ regarding both the emotional intensity of their beliefs and the other beliefs which they associate with cycling beliefs.

Motorist Self-Interest

The motoring group largely pays attention to its own concerns without the need for any particular ideology. It is true that there are militant motorists who believe that bicycle traffic should not be on the roads, but these persons have never controlled the agenda. As long as bikeways exist to control the bicycle traffic problem, most of the motorists don't bother much about lawful, competent cyclists. That, after all, has been our experience for years.

Anti-Motoring Ideology

The anti-motoring, bikeway-promoting group comes with a long list of additional ideological baggage. Its opposition to motoring causes it to oppose the changes made possible by motoring; they advocate returning American cities to their state in 1920. Because they oppose the suburban growth pattern of the motoring era, they argue that it was forced on people by conspiracies of big industries, and, hence, can be easily returned. In short, they fail to recognize the human motivations behind that suburban growth. Likewise, they advocate the mass transit of a bygone era, despite the fact that mass transit cannot well serve the modern distributed city. Because they oppose motoring, they oppose shops that present to purchasers a wide variety of goods at low prices, because such shops have to draw customers from a large area. Because they oppose motoring, they oppose the ability to choose from a wide variety of employers, because that depends on the ability to reach such employers by road travel. One can say, rightly, that the anti-motoring bikeway-promoting group opposes practically every feature of modern decentralized urban life, and thereby opposes an enormous group of people.

Not only is there opposition to specific groups, but there is the emotionalism with which that opposition is exercised. These people are out to change the world and they believe that they are leading the world into the change that they predict. However, their claim that they are leading the world into change is completely unrealistic. No amount of bicycle activism is going to force the rebuilding of American cities, or the rebirth of streetcar systems. Those events may occur, and if they do bicycle transportation will revive because the trips required would make it useful again, but, if those events occur, present-day bicycle activism will have had insignificant causal effect. If nothing else, the enormous social pain that would produce this change would make prior actions largely irrelevant. This air of unreality pervades the movement. The first mistake was to base their bicycle activism on motorists' discriminatory view of bicycle traffic and the bikeways it produced. Bikeways failed to generate the switch from motor transport to bicycle transport that the advocates' hatred of motoring had caused them to predict. This failure leads bicycle activists to complain that society does not give proper respect to their own wonderfully desirable mode of transport. They complain that motorists fail to acknowledge their right to use the roads, which is precisely the attitude fostered by the bicycle activists' demand for the bikeways designed to restrict that right. In short, there are so many intellectual self-contradictions in the bicycle activist agenda that reason never had a chance.

Advantages on Two Sides

Which of these two groups presents the higher probability of gaining repeal of the anti-cyclist restrictive laws? I don't say that either group presents a high probability of success, but I think it obvious that appealing to the motoring group presents a much higher probability of success than does appealing to the anti-motoring group. The request is reasonable and according to traffic-engineering knowledge, which makes sense to the motoring group. Every bikeway system requires either that cyclists operate at some times and places, that cannot be specified in advance, in accordance with the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles, or it requires such drastic traffic controls (as in the Dutch system) that motoring traffic (and bicycle traffic, too) is greatly delayed. The motoring group has achieved the bikeways that it wanted, in fact in rather more places than it wants, and has seen that in those locations most cyclists use them. The possible expansion of the bikeway system along Dutch lines must present dim prospects to the motoring group. The formal acknowledgment that cyclists have to be legally entitled to obey the standard rules of the road will help both bicycle drivers and the motoring groups. Obviously, that would benefit bicycle drivers, but the motoring groups and society as a whole would benefit also.

Making cyclists fully legitimate road users would destroy the propaganda power of the anti-motoring bicycle activists. It would be formal acknowledgement that cyclists should learn to operate properly in traffic, and thereby ease conflicts between motorists and cyclists when cyclists operate, as they sometimes must, outside bikeways. It will ease the bicycle problems of police departments and prosecutors. American society has never worked out a logical system for combining proper operation between equals, which is the essence of the rules of the road, and the servile state decreed by the restrictive laws. The intellectual and emotional contradictions cause police officers to attempt to enforce against cyclists laws that don't mean what the police officer believes they mean, or even don't exist at all. And in accident investigations they frequently misdirect the investigation. These errors, once exposed, decrease the public stature of police and judiciary and fuel the anti-motoring propaganda. Finally, such a change will percolate through the public, who will no longer have the discriminatory laws to use as the basis of their discrimination.

I think that the probability of success is much greater by working with the motoring groups, using the arguments given above, than is the probability of success with any conceivable arguments presented to the anti-motoring groups.

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