In the U.S. these days, more and more people are forsaking the automobile and other forms of transportation in urban areas, and taking to bicycles to get around (myself included). Many have achieved shorter commuting times or gained significant health benefits from riding, as well as saving themselves in commuting costs. (My ride saves me $100 a month, paying for my commuter bike in just four months… not to mention shaving 10 pounds off my weight and dropping my blood pressure by 15 points.)
All those cyclists have been noticed. It’s hard not to find articles, TV news stories, editorial comments and legal argument over the presence of bicyclists on America’s roads. Most of it is anti-bicycle: America’s motor vehicle operators have apparently decided that bicycles and their riders are hazards, to be removed from the landscape as soon as possible. And their voice is piercing—there are a lot more motor vehicle operators in the U.S. than there are adult bicyclists.
But if bicycles aren’t to be on the roads… where are they to ride? On the sidewalks, those much narrower spaces filled with pedestrians (another class that regularly argues with the motor vehicle operators over right of way), tree boxes, stairways and trash cans… where there are no rules of conduct and right-of-way to separate walkers and bikers… and which are not always available on every roadway? That’s crazy.
There are two hard facts to consider: One, that bicycles are wheeled vehicles, much faster than pedestrians, and so are better suited to the wider and smoother roadways than the sidewalks; and Two, bicycles are at a disadvantage on the roads, as the preponderance of motor vehicles on those roads has historically relegated everything besides themselves to last-priority status… second class citizens.
When automobiles were first introduced to American roads, they shared them with walkers, bikers, carts, trolleys and horse-drawn carriages… and other than their status as “rich man’s toy,” there was nothing to give them dominance of the road. But after World War II, the auto became synonymous with American recovery, growth and prosperity. The nation began to reshape itself as the Car Nation, and our roads and laws came to be optimized for speedy vehicles. And in the process, every other type of vehicle found itself removed from those avenues as much as possible, or segregated to lesser areas of the road, not unlike the social system that at that same time created “whites only” establishments and bathrooms. Into this segregated niche fell the bicycle.
Bicycles are treated by most major municipalities as the niggers of the roads. They are told to ride as close to the right of the road as possible, in lanes usually filled with parked cars, construction equipment, trash and sewer grates; staying out of the other lanes, even when they need to make a left turn (“Get off and walk with the pedestrians”). In roadway situations, they are expected to obey the same rules of the road as motor vehicles. Yet those motor vehicles, superior in size, weight and power to bicyclists, regularly ignore the rules of the road that give right-of-way to another vehicle like a bike, passing bikes in the same lane, cutting them off and turning into intersections that have bikes already in them.
Then, when a bike happens on a convenient moment and can claim his own right-of-way, he is vilified; drivers honk, yell, throw things and try to force the bicyclist off the road. The bicyclist is the villain, the one in the wrong, whereas the motor vehicle driver is the one being put-upon.
For the past few months, each time I’ve checked out the editorial section of my local newspaper, I’ve found at least one letter of an ongoing rant between drivers and cyclists, both accusing the other of being illegal, immoral or, at least, inconsiderate in their use of the roadways. When cooler heads assert themselves, they usually discuss segregated roads, and the idea that bikes should be treated just like cars. But these ideas are contradictory: Why should non-motor vehicles, on a segregated road intended for non-motor vehicles, follow the same rules as a motor vehicle?
Bicycles are not pedestrians. They are not motor vehicles. They are something in-between. They are a transportation device that was around long before automobiles came into existence. They are desirable vehicles, providing health benefits to the user, cheap transportation, being more efficient in energy use, taking up less traffic space on the roads, and contributing no pollution to the air. Bicyclists are more attentive of the road, as they cannot manage the multitasking (eating, applying makeup, games-playing, fighting with backseat children, etc) that have made motor vehicle operators more distracted and more accident-prone. There should be more bicycles in U.S. cities than there are cars. The U.S. should be encouraging the use of bicycles in everyday travel, as is the norm in most other countries. The U.S. should especially prioritize their use in cities, where we want less of the always-congested and polluting motor vehicle traffic, and more of the efficient and non-polluting pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
As bicycles are not motor vehicles, and are not pedestrians, they should have a set of laws designed for and applied to them, a mode of guidance that dovetails with the laws of motor vehicles and the laws of pedestrians (yes, they really have laws assigned to them too)… but that does not give bikes second-class status to the car, as modern U.S. law does.
In most cases it would be best for bicyclists to have their own lanes of travel, separating them from faster and more dangerous motor vehicles just as pedestrians are separated from motor vehicles by sidewalks. In areas where this is not practical, rules of the road should be clear as to the responsibilities of every vehicle type on the road.
In terms of priority: Right-of-way should be given to cyclists and pedestrians over the larger, heavier, more powerful and more dangerous motor vehicle. This is especially true in the city, where pedestrians and smaller vehicles can move much more efficiently than motor vehicles. Yes, I consider this important, as it would encourage more bicycle riding in congested areas, and discourage car use.
As you may have guessed, the real issue here is the priority given, at all times, to motor vehicles… a priority that needs to be altered or removed. Motor vehicles, by virtue of sheer number, have dominated our roads, our neighborhoods and our cities, forcing us to create living, working and shopping spaces designed for the car, and against everything else. And now, as other modes of transportation (especially bikes and foot traffic) demand their rights, they usually find themselves shouted down by the collective horns of motor vehicles.
Roads, laws and vehicles are specifically designed to give dominance to the motor vehicle. And the result of this dominance has been a breed of drivers who ignore road laws and other modes of transportation, have developed bad habits (like powering through stop signs and, when they do stop, blocking crosswalks and imposing themselves into opposing traffic), have been given slaps on the wrist for violations, and have become the result of more deaths in this country than any other single source.
We now know this to be a counter-productive trend, damaging to our living spaces, our social systems, our wallets, our environment and our lives. It’s time to take priority away from our least efficient, most damaging transportation options, and give it to our more efficient, more desirable modes of transportation. And of all possible modes of transportation, the bicycle should be at the forefront, the most desirable of all forms of transportation. The one that should lead all others.