Mailing ListForum
City Places for City People
Wheels of Civic Fortune

by Richard Risemberg

Mama's Hot Tamales crowded with cyclists during CicLAvia
June, 2011--With close to 200,000 Angelenos basking in the afterglow of CicLAvia (our brand-new local version of Bogotá's famous ciclovía), it is easy to forget that a diminishing but still significant number of Angelenos continue sharpening their tongues to shape a vicious spite campaign against any support whatsoever of practical cycling--as even a cursory exploration of the comments sections of blogs and newspaper article will clearly show. The ubiquitous Mr. Anonymous is ever ready to drop his cluster bombs of accusations, slurs, and imaginary factoids in an endless war designed to prevent even the cession of even the most minor smidgen of road space to cycling in a city whose roads are choked, not by bicyclists, but by drivers.

Sometimes even actual writers, who aren't afraid to post their names, publish anti-cycling screeds whose arguments are based on common assumptions about cycling that are almost invariably flat-out wrong--as well as often contradictory. Yet more and more middle-class Americans are taking to bicycles for transportation, in part because the recent surge of government support for cycling has made it less threatening to them. They are tired of having their lives dominated by their cars, and since 40% of trips made in this country are less than two miles long, why not make sense once in a while?

So, let us review the Four Fallacies of anti-bike vituperation, and see how they stand up against reality.

  1. The "scofflaw cyclists" argument
    It is grimly amusing that motorists are so affronted by cyclists who roll through stop signs and even red lights. Not because running stops on a bicycle is in any way righteous, but because motorists are so thoroughly addicted to the practice themselves--and so much more dangerous when they do it, outweighing cyclists 200 to one. It's a rare day when I don't see a driver blast through a red, and have often seen two or three in a row do so. And for laughs, I once spent a month counting the motorists who actually came to a full stop at a stop sign. (Answer: two.) In New York City, where a draconian crackdown on "scofflaw cyclists" is now underway, DOT and NYPD data for the five years ending in 1999 show the following:
    Pedestrians Killed by Bicyclists: 1 annually
    Pedestrians Killed by Motor Vehicles: 250 annually
    This in a city where few drive. It does indicate where any crackdowns should be focussed, though.

  2. The "cyclists don't pay road taxes" argument
    This is particularly rich in hypocrisy. As a matter of fact, according to numerous studies (my favorite being one by the DOT in good ol' conservative Texas), car and fuel fees and taxes never pay for more than half the cost of building and maintaining roads for motorists. In fact, since 1947, the shortfall in "user fees" for asphalt handouts has been $600 billion, making private driving the most socialistic program the US has ever seen. Those who drive less or not at all are overtaxed in every other aspect of their lives to pay for "free" roads, "free" ways, and "free" public parking for motorists. Cyclists just want the right to use a little of that road space that they have paid and paid for over the years, but keep getting shoved out of by self-righteous drivers.

  3. The "bike lanes cost too much" argument
    It's amazing how much confidence an aversion to facts can give a ranting motor addict. I'll quote but one figure, from Portland, Oregon, famous for its extensive (for the US) bicycle infrastructure: all of the last twenty years' worth of bicycle infrastructure put into place in Portland--including 300 miles of bike lanes, paths, and boulevards--cost no more than one mile of four-lane urban freeway, and now accommodates nearly 7% of all commute travel in the city.

  4. The "restraining driving kills business" argument
    Another knee-jerk reaction to the unfamiliar. An examination of past implementations shows otherwise: for most businesses, the addition of bike lanes and bicycle parking means better cashflow. Cyclists move slower than cars, can window shop as they ride, and can stop and shop on a whim. Twelve bicycles can park where only one car would fit. Even if every car were a van and arrived with a full complement of passengers, you still couldn't bring as many shoppers to an area by car as by bicycle. Shopowners in Portland clamor for more bike infrastructure, so that they can grab some of cyclists' loot. There's a waiting list for bike corrals in front of shops there--now that merchants have seen the effects of the first efforts.
Although Los Angeles is improving, however slowly, it is a backwards city in regards to support of cycling. Not only are New York, Portland, San Francisco, and Minneapolis ahead of us, so are local towns such as Santa Monica and Long Beach.

Instead of endlessly repeating past errors that have led to an inefficient, endlessly congested, tax-draining autos-only road system, let's ask that cities give themselves a chance to be fiscally and socially responsible by making room for cyclists on some of that asphalt riders have been soaked for all these years.

Even if you don't care about the environment, you can't argue with lower taxes, less congestion, livelier retail, and a healthier, happier workforce--especially in cities like Los Angeles, which are finding it hard to compete with their more progressive fellows for business and for businesses.

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the Los Angeles Business Journal.

Text & photo by Richard Risemberg