Refereeing the Raging Debate Over the “Specialness” of Cyclists

There’s a tussle going on right now about how cyclists should ride on city streets. Yesterday’s Streetsblog Network post took a snapshot of this debate, excerpting the WashCycle’s response to a Sarah Goodyear piece in Atlantic Cities.

Wrong-way cycling isn't the way to assert cyclists' rightful place on the streets. Photo: Big Shot Bikes

Sarah wrote that cycling is no longer a mode for daredevils and mavericks weaving through traffic. Some cities now have street infrastructure that accommodates cyclists and guards their safety. Bicycling is increasingly incorporated into the transportation system in these cities, and as such, cyclists need to follow the rules.

Few people would contest the idea that for the transportation system to function well and safely, drivers need to abide by the rules of the road. It’s obvious that when drivers break the rules, the consequences are dire, since they’re operating a heavy vehicle capable of high speeds.

But safety isn’t the only issue. The orderly functioning of our streets is also a priority of planners, and should be a priority for all of us. When the signal says walk, we ought to know that we can walk without being hit by a motorist — or a cyclist — who’s decided that the rules don’t apply to him.

“I am truly sick, at this late date, of people wanting to have it both ways: calling for protected bike lanes and a bike-share system, demanding that cops step up enforcement when it comes to cars, and then blithely salmoning up a major thoroughfare and expecting everyone look the other way,” Sarah writes. “It makes all of us look terrible and it’s a real hazard.”

She also claims that cyclists aren’t special and don’t deserve their own rules. I part ways with her there. Riding a bike doesn’t make you special because it’s badass or good for the environment. It’s special because roads designed exclusively for automobiles don’t work well for cycling. And we should advocate for rules and infrastructure that safely accommodate sustainable and efficient modes of transportation at least as much as destructive and polluting ones.

Just as cities increasingly have infrastructure tailored to bicycling, we also need rules that make more sense for the way people ride bikes, rather than just applying all automotive rules to bicycles. The Idaho stop, allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, is a good example of a way that road rules can safely be tailored for cyclists.

But when people complain about “scofflaw” cyclists, a lot of the time they aren’t referring to people who approach stop signs slowly and defer to others who have the right of way. They’re referring to people who blow through intersections without yielding. That’s not an Idaho Stop. That’s recklessness.

If we want the transportation system to respect us when we’re biking, we have to respect the system. On the road, the system is enforced with tickets. I agree with Sarah that it’s fair for cyclists to be subject to that enforcement.

I disagree with her when she says, “Is it fair if bikers get tickets when motorists don’t? Nope. You know what else isn’t fair? Everything. Deal with it.” The entire point here is that we’re striving to build a system that is fair, and above all, safe. Enforcing cyclist behavior more than motorist behavior is ludicrous. I don’t think people should “deal with it” when reckless drivers get off scott-free. I think they should clamor for justice when people put others at risk and turn our transportation system into a danger zone.

But neither can cyclists claim to be completely outside the reach of enforcement.

In his piece on WashCycle (which also appeared on Greater Greater Washington), David C writes that cyclists need to ride safely and courteously “whether or not cycling is mainstream.” But he also says the “great cycling cities in Europe” don’t have ticketing blitzes to enforce good behavior. And he makes the somewhat convoluted argument that “increased enforcement is [not] needed to keep growth going.”

Well, that’s true. No one’s saying that biking tickets will spur more growth in bicycling rates. But as more people bike, cycling has a greater impact on everyone else on the road, and we need that impact to be perceived in a positive way. Higher rates of bicycling can reduce congestion and pollution, lower health care costs for everybody, encourage human interaction, benefit local businesses, and free up public space for better uses than car storage. But if people associate cycling with wrong-way riding and blowing through reds, they won’t perceive the positives.

It’s not about holding cyclists to a higher “squeaky-clean” standard of behavior than everyone else, as David C alleges. It’s simply about acknowledging that we’ve fought for our seat at the table, and now that we’re there, we have to stop throwing food.