Bike You!

The City of Pittsburgh appointed a bicycle czar the other day, whose job it is to make the city a bit more cyclist-friendly. In principle, this seems non-controversial.

Bram Reichbaum posted a reaction that was skeptical of doing much to help scofflaw bicyclists -- which in his experience, means all bicyclists. The comments at The Burgh Report are incendiary, on both sides.

Chad Hermann piled on, proposing that bicyclists be licensed before they are allowed on paved roads. He gives away his post by teeing up the "silliness, of moral relativism and ethical obfuscation, from the (for lack of a better term) pro-biking commenters."

Can't we all just get along?

The claim that "bicyclists break the rules that the rest of us have to obey" is a red herring. I have no idea whether "all" or "most" bicyclists obey Pennsylvania traffic laws. Many certainly don't. But be careful which "rules of the road" are invoked in this argument: the anti-cyclist commenter's rules, or PA rules. It turns out that bicyclists have to obey some, but not all, Pennsylvania traffic laws. Cyclists can ride in public streets, and they don't have to keep up minimum speeds, for example. Here's an explanation from PennDOT. Where the rubber starts to meet the so-called road: The "cyclists are a menace" crowd should ask the same question of itself: How many drivers are religious about following PA traffic laws? I didn't think so. But that conclusion doesn't end the conversation.

The argument that cyclists don't follow the rules (and the argument that they do) isn't very strong. How about the safety-related "cars were here first" argument? The streets were made for driving; drivers pay for them; drivers have to pass competency tests and be licensed to use them, and so on. This doesn't get us much farther. Were the streets made for driving? As Bram indirectly captures in his note about "ancient streets," many of our streets were made (if not necessarily paved) initially for other things, and most of them weren't made for the kinds of driving and kinds of motor vehicles that we see on them today. Claims from priority, in other words, are weak, because the facts are pretty complicated. Do we break down priority on a street by street basis? What about streets that were bricks, then paved with asphalt? And so on. Moreoever, driver licensing was initiated decades ago as a revenue-collection measure, not as a safety measure. Competency tests only came later. So, license bicyclists if you must, but don't require that they take safety exams. Tax them. Tax the kids, too, since lots and lots of kids ride bikes!

That's neither here nor there in the end, and I don't really want to tax kids. If bicycle safety really impinges on driver safety, and if we're serious about safety on the roads, then we should ask what makes merely driving in Pittsburgh so dangerous. The answer: other drivers, also trying to drive. Many pro-safety, anti-bicyclist arguments are undermined because they're far broader than they need to be. Consider this:

My life as a Pittsburgh driver would be far less stressful and less dangerous if those other drivers would just get off the road. They're in my way. They go too slow. When they're aren't going too slow, they go too fast. They dart in and out of my field of vision. They break traffic laws all the time. They cut me off. They run red lights and stop signs. They do this crazy thing called a "Pittsburgh left": they turn left unexpectedly when I'm trying to go straight through an intersection. When all is said and done, it's all I can do to keep one hand on my cell phone and another hand on my Big Gulp, and still steer the car with my knees.

[Chad considers a version of this argument. He agrees that the "drivers are unsafe law-breakers, too" defense of cyclists is factually correct, but he denies that it's a defense. That's fair enough. He jumps incorrectly, however, to the conclusion that cyclists are in the wrong as a result, essentially putting the burden of proof on them when it's by no means clear that the burden rests on either side.

Both the law and common sense dictate that both communities are entitled to use the road. The cyclist/driver issue is a cooperation problem, not an advocacy problem.]

As a least one commenter at The Burgh -- Agent Ska, I think -- captures the real source of conflict here: Pittsburgh drivers are scared of bicyclists. To engage in a generalization that is simultaneously radical and entirely ordinary: Pittsburghers are scared of the unfamiliar. People on two wheels in Pittsburgh are strangers in this strange motorized land. Because Pittsburgh has lots of hills and few shoulders, historically there haven't been many cyclists out in traffic throughout the region. That much is clear. But those numbers are growing.

The "fear" argument offers a pair of hypotheses:

First, people who learn to drive here and who have driven here most of their lives don't, as a rule, learn to look for bicyclists. Relatedly, people who bring driving experience from regions with more cyclists get out of the habit of looking for bicycles, simply because there aren't very many of them here.

Second, people who are adopting bicycles as their preferred forms of urban transportation in Pittsburgh similarly fall into one of two groups: There is a group that learned to cycle in a city -- not Pittsburgh -- where vehicle/cycle relations are comparatively harmonious, and who therefore expect that drivers in Pittsburgh will be as comparatively respectful as they are back "home." And there is a group that is mostly native to Pittsburgh, and that no more understands how to cycle respectfully with traffic in an urban environment than Pittsburgh drivers understand how to get along with cyclists.

Take those out for a drive, or a ride, depending on your taste. What's the data?


8 Responses to "Bike You!"

Denovich said... 8/17/2008 12:49 PM

Here's why drivers are never going to be happy...

Drivers see no real benefit from cyclists, but clearly are inconvenienced by them.

That's about all there is to it.

Bicyclists need to somehow compensate drivers for the "externalities" related to their decision to cycle.

Bram Reichbaum said... 8/17/2008 3:48 PM

We'll see if you've managed to concoct the post that will start forging peace, or if you have only volunteered yourself as another good target!

Since my name appears near the top of your essay, I'd just like to stress for the 1,000th time (and in contrast with some who agree with me about the scofflaws) that I am IN FAVOR of cycling, that I am in favor of sharing the road, that I am in favor of preserving fossil fuels and saving the earth and saving lives and getting exercise and living more simply. I am just frustrated by gratuitous anarchy while doing it.

Hopefully the bike czar and the bike-ped program will provide good and effective "education" and other efforts to make it all better, but I suppose my fear is the possibility that the "education" will be delegated to two or three reps from the hardcore biking constituency that have the most juice, and it will be left at that.

Thanks for the link to the Penndot rules of the road -- and I think your last paragraph is very insightful.

Jefferson Provost said... 8/18/2008 3:21 AM

Apparently Bram took some video while he was counting lawbreakers. Skip to about the 1:00 mark to get to the start of the good part.

Ben Stiglitz said... 8/18/2008 4:12 PM

I’m glad you pointed out that many of PIttsburgh’s streets are not well-suited to either vehicle or bicycle traffic, let alone a combination of the two. It would be a great help to drivers and cyclists if the new Czar designated some of our larger streets as biking-friendly, diverting longer-distance bicycle travel away from narrower streets where conflict is more likely.

EdHeath said... 8/18/2008 4:54 PM

Well, the way I see it the discussion on the Burgh Report started with an indictment of cyclists as law breakers. Surprisingly the cyclists readily agreed, but offered various defenses of the “I’m careful and I make sure I hurt no one” type. Actually I possibly contributed as much as anyone in terms of escalating the discussion. The thing is, to me, to talk about how bicyclists strictly break the law without acknowledging that drivers regularly speed and roll through stop signs is to single out one group and demand they shape up or get off the road. This is where I was annoyed with John McIntire, Chad Hermann and Bram. I probably took the "strictly legal" arguement too far, as it really doesn't matter (people are going to do what they will until someone stops them, they won't slow down or stop jumping red lights out of a sense of obligaiton/guilt).

Ultimately, we need to have a realistic discussion about how to better share the road. Bicyclists, especially older ones who actually use the thing for commuting, need to stop breaking obvious laws (like rolling through stops or jumping red lights), as an example for other cyclists and for drivers. Licensing bicyclists may be part of an answer, but I think that casual riders and poor riders will be resistant to that. Bike lanes would be wonderful, but I am not going to hold my breath. In fact, I think the hostility factor would only be increased if drivers lose a lane on Negley or on any of the bridges.

I think the only thing that will help ameliorate the hostility between bicycles and cars/SUVs/motorcycles is when more bicycles get on the road. Which could happen, but probably not until the next oil shock.

Jefferson Provost said... 8/18/2008 6:11 PM

(At the risk of moving us farther from cyclist/driver detente...)

A lot is made of the unreasonablness of cyclists' arguments in this debate, but the car drivers are equally unreasonable. They are rarely able to point to any real harm caused by careful cyclists rolling stop signs or jumping red lights, and they are unwilling even consider the notion that maybe the rules should be different for cyclists. Their stock answer is always some form of "The Law is The Law" which simply begs the original question.

The harm of a cyclist jumping a red light when no traffic is coming is equivalent to the harm of a pedestrian doing the same thing. It's no different than jaywalking. Yes, jaywalking is also technically illegal, but it's also the poster child for unenforced laws. Just look back to the public reaction to Pittsburgh's attempted jaywalking crackdown in 2000.

I think that the people bitching about scofflaw cyclists actually understand that the real harms are negligible. What they're really saying is, "Hey! Those guys on bikes keep getting ahead of me!"

J. Kersting said... 8/19/2008 5:02 PM

It's great to see a dialog on this subject matter! I'm an avid cyclist and some-time bike commuter and it's been great seeing more folks out on their bikes commuting or just getting exercise.

Many cyclists are deathly afraid of sharing the roads here in Pittsburgh. Many drivers are downright careless when "sharing" the road. Some intentionally seem to cause danger by passing too close, yelling out the window, etc.

I've been cycling and commuting for about 15 years and have developed a callous to most of it. I've had quite a few close calls. I do run red lights and stop signs carefully, but never with reckless abandon. There is a sliver of cyclists that ride very dangerously, blowing through red lights and cutting in and out of traffic sporadically.

In fact, I'd say most cyclist tend to obey the traffic laws. It even sort of annoys me sometimes. It's like "Go ahead and roll through the empty intersection...I won't turn you in!"

For me, it boils down to the fact that as Pittsburgh develops more of a cycling population it will bump heads with motorists not accustomed to folks traveling by bike. People will break traffic laws while riding bikes and driving cars.

If Pittsburgh can keep the up positive momentum it gained over the past couple of years and get more folks outside enjoying the great terrain of Pittsburgh, we'll all become accustomed to one another and not make such a big deal out of this.

It's great to see that the city is making steps toward making it safer for cyclists.

By the way, if you want to ride your bike and not deal with any traffic, Pittsburgh is the starting/ending point of the Great Allegheny Passage/C&O Canal trail that connects to Washington, D.C.

Venture Outdoors is holding the 250 Bike Tour Sept. 27-Oct 4. to open the complete route. The Pittsburgh Technology Council is participating.
Check out the blog at

Jefferson Provost said... 8/19/2008 7:04 PM

At least some places helpfully remind drivers to watch for bikes.

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