Emotionalism in the bicycle transportation controversy

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The question has been asked, by a cyclist with experience elsewhere in the world, why the bicycle transportation controversy in America produces discussions that are far more emotional and less logical than elsewhere in the world. The answer is quite simple. Cyclists who would be considered normal in the rest of the world because they obey the rules of the road have been oppressed by an American society and by American governments who insist that cyclists are incapable of obeying the rules of the road. Therefore, American cyclists are treated as incompetent children whose primary task is to stay out of the way of same-direction motor traffic lest they be crushed, and most of them believe that. As always, discrimination and oppression produce resentment among the targets. But more than that, those who believe that the discrimination and oppression that they direct are right and proper develop very angry responses when their attitude is proved to have no factual basis. Such a summary needs more explication.

Demotion of cyclists from adults to children, 1930s to 1970

I first stated the controversy in 1972, but it had its roots in the America of the late 1930s early 1940s. I can remember reading, in 1940 or '41, in Popular Science or Popular Mechanics, of the future car journey from New York City to Buffalo. The predicted vehicle was a luxury van (not so improbable that, was it?) powered by a rear engine derived from the Auto Union 600 hp Formula One racing cars. Block average speed over the trip, 100 mph. At that time, my father's Cadillac 60 Special was good for only 90 mph, top. The General Motors exhibit at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair showed model freeways with stage perfect model traffic. Bicycles were as old-fashioned as the horse and buggy.

At that time, American traffic law changed. It removed bicycles from the class of vehicle (made them "devices"), required bicyclists to stay at the edge of the roadway, and to not use the roadway at all if a bicycle-usable path was nearby. Nowadays, we refer to these laws as: the Far To the Right (FTR) law and the Mandatory Side-Path (MSP) law. All this was done by motorists and the motoring establishment under the false excuse of cyclist safety, but these changes obviously served the convenience of motorists. The FTR law became the basis of American instruction in "bike-safety" under fear of death. Many years ago I described this as: "The cyclist who rides in traffic will either delay 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." The style of cycling so promoted I named cyclist-inferiority cycling because cyclists had status inferior to motorists and felt inferior to motorists. Seventy years of this has left a profound emotional impression on the American people.

Aside from the war years (1942-'45) in America, bicycle transportation was dead. Nearly all cycling was done by children; only a very small minority of adults, many of recent European heritage (as I was), continued cycling. The child cyclists cycled in the cyclist-inferiority, curb-hugging style that, although proclaimed to be for their safety, was acutely dangerous. Left turns from the curb, no looking behind, no negotiating with motorists, arm signaling in the expectation (contrary to law) that sticking out one's arm gave one the right of way. When the facts were first discovered (1976), 30% of American car-bike collisions were caused by the cyclist doing what he had been told to do. But, of course, very few have ever believed that analysis. The few adults cycled according to the normal laws for drivers of vehicles, the style that I named vehicular cycling, and their violations of the FTR and even the MSP laws were largely ignored by the police. (Very few side paths existed at that time.) Motorists did not feel that this declining bicycle traffic was worth bothering about.

Stronger restrictions via bikeways and bikeway laws, 1970 to the present

The confluence of demographic and political factors in the 1960s caused a resurgence of adult cycling. The motoring establishment looked at the growth rate and concluded that bicycle traffic would clog "their" roadways unless a stronger form of restriction were developed. As I remarked at the time, the number of potential bicycle riders was strictly limited by the number of births, but that didn't change the motorists' desire to restrict bicycle traffic. California being a leader in traffic affairs (and, coincidentally where I lived and cycled), its motoring and highway establishments created the modern American bikeway system with an added new law, the mandatory bike-lane (MBL) law. That process aroused the opposition of California's adult cyclists, and I led that opposition. Some say I created it, and I don't object to the compliment. But cyclists (by which, from this time, I mean adult, lawful, competent cyclists) were overwhelmed no matter what our arguments. We created the discipline of bicycle transportation engineering, a large part of which is the application of standard traffic-engineering knowledge and practice to bicycle operation, together with standard human factors techniques, and using the newly developed statistics of car-bike collisions. California's motorists and highway authorities did not get all they wanted. They didn't get the MSP law (which California had not adopted before), and the bikeway design standards did not contain the designs that were most dangerous for cyclists. We convinced even the motorists that if any such design caused serious injuries, no court would believe that the design was intended for the safety of cyclists, and would hold the highway authority liable for damages. (The American personal injury legal system has some advantages, after all.) The bikeway standard designs developed in California became, and largely remain, the American national standard.

Anti-motoring environmentalists collaborate with anti-cyclist motorists,
 1976 to the present

At about this time, the environmental movement grew rapidly. Before this, the bikeway controversy was a simple clash between motorists and cyclists. But the environmentalists then sided with the motorists over this issue. It seems absurd, indeed it is absurd, but the anti-motoring environmentalists agreed with the anti-cyclist motorists about the absolute necessity of bikeways. You see, the anti-motoring environmentalists were so imbued with the cyclist-inferiority superstition that they believed that only bikeways can make cycling safe, and safe cycling was obviously necessary if motoring were to be reduced.

Therefore, we have a significant proportion of the public driven by two very strong emotional forces: one is the anti-motoring fear of same-direction motor traffic, the other is the anti-motoring fear of motoring-produced environmental cataclysm. Of course, the motoring establishment looks out for its own interests by saying that motor transportation is vital for modern society, but it supports the bikeway system that it created for its own convenience. The only people who oppose the cyclist-inferiority policy and its bikeway program are vehicular cyclists. As seen by the cyclist-inferiority bikeway advocates, vehicular cyclists are opposing two great truths in the world, the danger to cyclists of same-direction motor traffic and the danger to the world of all motor traffic, and these vehicular cyclists are seen to base their opposition on the contradictory proposition that cyclists ought to operate by the rules of the despised and feared motorists. This is one of the powerful emotional complexes in American political life, and those who partake of it have such strong belief that they feel that any criticism of it must be powered by some motoring conspiracy or emotional problem.

Cyclist-inferiority, bikeway-promoting view is not supported by facts

I think that it is now necessary to summarize the criticism of the cyclist-inferiority bikeway-promoting view. Nothing in the American bikeway system design was calculated to reduce the car-bike collisions that had been occurring (proof arrived half-way through the design process), only to make motoring more convenient. Vehicular cycling provides the best method of travel by bicycle, in the standard terms of safety and convenience, in the modern city. Nowhere in the world has the provision of bikeways produced a transportationally significant switch from motor transport to bicycle transport; the locations where bicycle transport today has a large modal share are those which always had, for a multitude of reasons, even larger bicycle modal shares. In short, the facts support neither the cyclist safety nor the motorist reduction arguments for the bicycle advocacy position. This places bicycle advocates in a position of complete cognitive dissonance.

Cyclist-inferiority, bikeway-promoting view has to rely on emotional arguments

As a result, bicycle advocates are reduced to illogical, emotional arguments, such as: vehicular cycling requires superhuman capabilities; traffic systems should be designed to be safely negotiated by eight-year-old drivers; riding a bicycle destroys the capability of obeying the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles; becoming a parent or grandparent destroys the capability of obeying the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles; suburbia produces a soul-destroying type of life; the people who live in suburbia were forced to live there, against their will, by a conspiracy of oil companies, motor manufacturers, highway builders, and real-estate developers; mass transit systems, particularly heavy rail, perform a great public benefit and must not be criticized; if I thought for a few more minutes I would probably remember others being argued.

Therefore, there is no reason to be surprised by the vehemence of the controversy; indeed, considering the facts above, nothing but nasty controversy could be expected.