I’m going to catch an enormous amount of flak for this one, but here goes…
Like everything else that is good for the environment, cycling has morphed from being a mode of transport into a weird annoying cult full of pious missionaries spreading the good word. As a driver, I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been held up by a cyclist (usually with no helmet) taking up the center of the road and holding up traffic. Honk your horn and they’ll erupt in a fury of indignation. “I’m a cyclist dammit! I’m special!”. And there’s not much you can do about it, other than wait patiently until they turn off. Or run them off the road and face jail time…
Like vegans, cyclists want everyone to know that they’re cyclists. The wear cycling t-shirts, post pictures of themselves cycling on facebook, visit cycling website, and even start their own annoying blogs about cycling and how great it is. Cyclists also hate motorists, and make a point of giving drivers dirty looks if they get too close or try to engage them in debate. Motorists are dirty, evil environment killers and are not worthy of talking to. Drive a car to work? Screw you, baby seal killer.
A couple of days ago, a cyclist was killed outside my office in DC. Why? Because he ran through a red light, wasn’t wearing a helmet, and got hit by an oncoming car. He spent a few hours in hospital in critical condition, then died from his injuries. It was a terrible tragedy, but if you’re going to cycle with no helmet and break laws designed to stop people from getting killed, there is a limit to how much sympathy you are entitled to.
In DC, it’s pretty common to see cyclists speeding through the streets without helmets (around 25%, according to the data). The capital’s bike sharing program is increasingly popular, and as a result, increasingly dangerous. Many incidents go unreported, and when they happen, the results are more often than not, pretty horrific.
Hyperbole aside, cyclists do have the right to use their bikes on public roads. In America, most funding for roads comes from general tax, and if anything, cyclists subsidize drivers, and not the other way round. Cycling is good for many reasons: It reduces congestion, is good for the environment, and it keeps riders healthy, lowering health care costs. Which is great.
But let’s be honest here – roads, at least in their current incarnation, are designed for cars and not bikes. And when they share, it can be pretty dangerous, and mostly for the cyclist. The average US car weighs 4,000lbs, while the average American weighs 177.9lbs. If they hit each other at speed, well, you do the math…
Safety issues aside, it isn’t actually all that clear whether cyclists provide much benefit to the environment when sharing roads with motorists. From EnvironmentalResearchWeb.org:
Encouraging people onto their bikes can reduce costs for all users by reducing congestion. But perversely, increasing bike use can actually add to pollution and greenhouse emissions if roads are not updated to accommodate these bikes. “Cities cannot hope to significantly increase cycle ridership without negatively impacting traffic unless they build bike facilities,” said Clarens. In particular, the researchers show that bikes can significantly slow traffic down on steeper sections of road and where roads narrow. The findings are published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).
Clearly cycling is a good thing, but not when using roads that weren’t designed for it.
I’m all for ripping up current roads and making them bike friendly. In fact, I’d even get behind banning cars in all urban city centers to make them more livable places. Bring back rickshaws, bike taxis and trams, and limit car use to suburban areas and cross country travel.
But until then, cyclists need to accept the roads as they are. If you’re going to use the same space as motorists, don’t act like you own it, because physics dictates you clearly don’t.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.