American Bicycle Politics

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Any effort to reform the American policy and practice regarding bicycle transportation must consider the various political groups that are active in this field. The groups are best considered according to the views that their members hold, the results they desire, and the actions they take..

Political Views Regarding Bicycle Transportation

General Public

General public opinion holds that bicycling is a good activity, but it also holds that cycling on roadways is difficult and dangerous while cycling on bikeways is easy and safe for both children and adults. While general public opinion  holds that it knows all that is necessary to know about traffic cycling, a scope that excepts the special skills used by those daredevils who do it, it has no accurate knowledge of the subject. General public opinion has an exaggerated fear of same-direction motor traffic, which it holds is the major danger to cyclists. While general public opinion is very strongly attached to the views described above, general public opinion cares very little about bicycle transportation and does not think about it. While the general public will vote for bikeways as the means of reducing motorist congestion on the roadways, its members do so in the expectation, even the hope, that the actual bicycling will be done by other people.

Motoring Organizations

The motoring organizations view motoring as a good activity and want to make it better. The automobile clubs reflect the opinions of the general public, except not the anti-motoring part of the general public. Concerning bicycle transportation, they usually express the view of parents with bicycle-riding children, which is the extreme of the incompetent cycling on bikeways range. The professional motoring organizations advocate the interests of their members, which generally consist of advocating better and stronger roads while diluting the proportion of highway cost allocated to heavy vehicles. They rarely consider bicycle traffic except as a bothersome nuisance that ought to be off the roadways.

Militant Motorists

Militant motorists hold the same opinions about bicycle transportation as do the general public (in other words, ignorance of cycling), with the addition  that they object to the presence of bicycles on the roadways. They hold that the roads were built for cars and paid for by motorists, and that the presence of any slower traffic delays those who rightfully should be proceeding at motoring speed.


For a wide variety of reasons, anti-motorists disapprove of private car motoring and want to reduce it. Anti-motorists are very similar to militant motorists and equally ignorant of cycling; they hold exactly the same beliefs regarding roads, motoring, and bicycles, except that the anti-motorists hate motoring instead of worshipping it. Anti-motorists advocate any mode of transport that is not motoring; since bicycling is the nearest competitor to motoring, they strenuously advocate bicycle transportation. Since they fear and hate motor traffic, they are even stronger advocates for bikeways than are the militant motorists, arguing that because motor traffic frightens cyclists from the roads, safe and wonderful bikeways are a prime part of their anti-motoring strategy.


The legislative branch enacts the laws, the executive branch implements the laws, and the judicial branch interprets the laws. All three have effect upon bicycle politics.

In highway affairs, the predominant influence upon the legislature comes from the motoring organizations, with subsidiary influences from those who find their local concerns affected by highway planning, and still more subsidiary influences from the anti-motorists. The motoring organizations consider bicycles to be a nuisance and a child-safety problem that should not be on the roadway. The local influences are usually the same. The anti-motorists not only feel that cyclists should be off the roadway, but they insist that their anti-motoring agenda requires that government have a bicycle transportation program that directs cyclists off the roadways. The bikeway program is a way of satisfying both of these constituencies. The anti-motorists expect that bikeways will persuade many motorists to switch to bicycling, while the motorists recognize that bikeways clear bicycles from their roads while being utterly impotent to reduce driving by those who want to drive. The legislators satisfy both the motorists and the anti-motorists with a bikeway program, while the legitimate interests of lawful, competent cyclists are ignored.

The highway authorities implement the legislative decisions regarding highways. Highway engineers find the space and provide the sound and smooth surface, but it is up to traffic engineers to decide how traffic should operate on that surface. The legislators required bikeways, therefore the traffic engineers should produce bikeways. But there is a problem. Traffic engineers, so it is said, pay attention to motor traffic, not to bicycle traffic. And traffic engineers are not the smartest of engineers. Many of them paid no more attention to bicycle traffic than do the general population. So, designing bikeways was easy; just keep bicycles at the side of the road. But those traffic engineers who thought about their profession realized that this contradicted the basic principles of traffic engineering. What with this and other problems, the legislators required special bicycle plans, prepared by bicycle planners.

The judiciary interprets and reviews the laws. When controversy about an accident involved the application of the traffic laws to cyclists, the courts had to consider the extent of the application, whether it promoted safe operation or expressed discrimination. When the proper traffic-engineering evidence was placed in evidence, the courts had the opportunity to correct problems. Sometimes they did.

Bicycle Planners

The bikeway program required not only standard bikeway designs, but plans that described where to put which designs. Planning was based on the assumption that roadways are unsuitable for bicycle transportation. According to this assumption, a bikeway system had to be planned so that bicyclists could travel wherever they wanted to go, and that task required bicycle planners. Bicycle planners did the job because they were both anti-motoring ideologues and ignorant of the traffic-engineering knowledge that, if they had known it and had they the ethics of professional engineers, would have prevented their efforts. Some of the bicycle planners recognize that vehicular-style cycling is the proper method, because they choose to use it themselves, but still produce plans and bikeway designs that are based on the anti-motoring policy of incompetent cycling on bikeways.

Urban Planners

Urban planners can be divided into those who accept the dominance of motoring for personal transport and those who oppose it.

 Motor-minded planners tend to not only accept motoring as the dominant form of personal transport, but in many cases they assume that it is the only form. However, they respond to the dominance of cars by designing to prevent through travel on local streets. In some modern situations, they design superblocks within the squares of half-mile (or even mile) arterial grids, with access to each superblock only once on each bounding arterial, at midblock, thus requiring a mandatory right turn at every exit. Another design, for smaller superblocks, has only a single-point access onto a main arterial. Both of these designs require that travel between superblocks be on the main arterials. That should not be a problem, but in too many cases ignoring bicycle traffic forces bicyclists to occupy the full right lane, which angers motorists and frightens many cyclists.

Anti-motoring planners tend to making motoring slow and difficult, which makes cycling slow and difficult. Of course, these planners don't recognize their mistake, for they frequently praise their designs as bicycle friendly, and even add bikeways that are equally bad for cyclists.

Urban planning that works for bicycle transportation is the older style, the grid street system, which allows travel between areas both by arterials and by local streets, so that the cyclist can choose.

Transportation Engineers

The transportation and traffic engineers who pay attention to their profession consider that they are responsible for designing for the safe and convenient movement of persons and goods. They do not judge the contents of the truckloads, just the need expressed by the owner to move N truckloads from A to B. They do not question the need of a person to travel from C to D, or his decision to use a bicycle, motorcycle, horse-drawn wagon, private car, or bus-sized recreation vehicle. The transportation engineer's service is to design for safe and convenient transportation of all of these items. Such professionals are unimpressed by claims that safe bicycle transportation  requires designs that contradict standard transportation knowledge, be it traffic-engineering designs that create traffic conflicts or insistence that bicycle traffic along Highway 126 ought to be ten times higher than it is.

Vehicular Cyclists, Populist

Vehicular cyclists recognize that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. However, there are two groups of vehicular cyclists. The populist group aims to make bicycle transportation much more popular than it is, and done in the vehicular manner. They believe that vehicular cycling is so obviously right that some significant groups in society will recognize that fact and switch their support from bikeways to vehicular cycling, and thus reform the governmental program for bicycle transportation. The two key groups are the environmentalist anti-motorists and the general public. The expectation that these two groups will produce sufficient political power to switch governmental and societal support from bikeways to vehicular cycling compels the populists to refuse to criticize these groups for the errors of their views and their ignorance of cycling, although they will permit criticism of particular obvious dangers that they have caused cyclists. Controversy is anathema in this respect.

Vehicular Cyclists, Pragmatic

The pragmatic group of vehicular cyclists uses a different strategy. They accept that cyclists have to operate in a motoring society, that the private automobile provides very useful flexibility in transportation, and that most things done for motorists are also good for cyclists. They consider the problem to be, how best should cyclists be treated in a motoring society. In general, the answer is, for cyclists to act and be treated as drivers of vehicles. But since they recognize the general utility of private motor travel, they also recognize that bicycle transportation will be used by only two groups. The first is those who cannot drive a car and have little political power. The second is those who so enjoy cycling that the enjoyment repays the sacrifices in utility that they have made to use it. They recognize that vehicular cyclists will always be a minority group that is unable to acquire the political power to change the societal and governmental views of cycling through political action. On the other hand, technological knowledge supports vehicular cycling on roadways and contradicts incompetent cycling on bikeways. Therefore, they are outspoken critics of the technological errors of the present governmental program and of the attitudes that allowed those errors to be made. Their aim is to discredit the system of incompetent cycling on bikeways, and advance the system of obeying the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles, in order to limit the anti-cyclist aspects of the present governmental program regarding bicycle transportation and to preserve their right to cycle properly and the facilities that encourage it.

The Motorist/Anti-motorist Divide

The previous discussion demonstrates that practically all considerations about bicycle transportation revolve about a great division in American public opinion. That is, the division between those who accept the dominance of the private car for personal transportation and those who oppose that dominance. This division cuts across the divisions of political party, socio-economic status, and educational level, although it is likely, were the appropriate study to be done, that the division would not proportionally divide each of the groups mentioned. I know, though, that there are significant numbers on each side of the motoring divide within each of these groups. I think it likely, also, that such a study would show a very strong correlation between a person's position regarding the motoring divide and his or her position regarding vehicular cycling. Not that many in any group would support vehicular cycling, but of the few who would, I think that disproportionately more would be those who accept motoring dominance.

The Pragmatic Strategy

Identification and evaluation of the groups active in the bicycle transportation controversy lead me to conclude that the strategy of the pragmatic vehicular cyclists is the one strategy that has any hope of success. It is possible to preserve the rights and legal status of vehicular cyclists by concentrating on the technology of traffic cycling, because that unequivocally supports vehicular cycling and contradicts the policy of incompetent cycling on bikeways. Traffic engineers and those in similar professions not only have the professional training to understand the technological issues, but they have the professional ethical responsibility of seeing that, for the safety of the public, proper design standards are developed and implemented. The object of the strategy is to inform professionals in this field and to persuade them to change the present standards that contradict technological knowledge. This requires the combination of presenting the valid information while also discrediting the misinformation that has produced the present system. Both actions are required.

This strategy is aided by the conclusion, supported by the present facts, that bicycle transportation will not occur in sufficient volume to present a traffic problem. In other words, making the few changes that are required to properly facilitate vehicular cycling will not present a highway problem, and the volume of bicycle transportation will not present a traffic problem. America can live comfortably with vehicular cycling by those who choose to cycle.

All other strategies rely on generating public support for bicycle transportation; not merely that, but public support for vehicular cycling. We have had public support for bicycle transportation for the last thirty years or so, and that has produced the policy of incompetent cycling on bikeways. We have that because that policy satisfies the militant motorists, the general public, and the anti-motoring public, which form the great majority of the population. The policy and practice that this combination has produced is unacceptable. For any strategy to turn this around through political power requires that the anti-motorists be brought to recognize that incompetent cycling on bikeways is a failed strategy, that vehicular cycling on roadways is the best strategy for cyclists, and to believe that vehicular cycling is so wonderful that it will cause a politically significant proportion of motorists (largely members of the general public) to switch to vehicular-style bicycle transportation. The present traffic statistics demonstrate that even the anti-motorists have not taken to bicycle transportation in politically significant numbers, not even where bikeways have been provided. There is no sign that the general public has made any switch from motoring to bicycling over the past thirty years of the present policy (though it must be admitted that the implementation started slowly). In short, both the general public, as to be expected, and the anti-motorists, contrary to their claims, consider that bicycle transportation is an admirable activity that should be performed as a public service by other people.

For these reasons, I advocate the pragmatic vehicular-cycling strategy.

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