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The Science and Politics of Bicycle Driving

America's Taboo against Bicycle Driving

American society circulates many negative messages about bicycling in traffic. Bicycling in traffic is considered by many to be reckless, foolhardy, and sometimes rude. The most common advice given to cyclists is to avoid busy roads that provide convenient access to important places; presumably cyclists should only go to unpopular destinations on undesirable and inconvenient roads. Another popular idea is that cyclists should stay as close to the edge of the road as possible in order to stay out of the way of cars. Getting in the way of cars is supposedly an invitation to certain death, because car drivers are often expected to run into anything that is slower or more vulnerable. The rules of the road that apply to bicyclists are considered obsolete because they involve merging with motor traffic, which is thought to be suicide. Roads are believed to be designed for cars and not for bicycles, which are tolerated at the pleasure of motorists, who really own the roads. Inferior bicyclists may have an obsolete legal right to use the road, but they had better stay out of the way of superior users or they will be "dead right."

As a result of these "common-sense" beliefs, American bike-safety programs developed by motoring organizations and "pedestrian-style" bicyclists during the twentieth century attempted to teach cyclists to provide a clear path to motorists at all times by hugging the edge of the road, riding on sidewalks where present, and even riding facing traffic so cyclists can see when to get out of the way.  Some towns and states tried to prohibit bicyclists from operating on important roads or roads without shoulders. Engineering projects designed for "bicycle safety" have usually involved construction of mandatory sidepaths to get cyclists off of roads and mandatory bike lanes to keep cyclists out of the way of motorists.  The publicized benefit of these efforts is to protect cyclists from collisions from behind, which are widely believed to be the greatest danger to cyclists and caused by cyclists' sinful failure to keep up with the desired speed of motor traffic. This is the taboo that afflicts American bicycle transportation policy: that bicyclists must be kept out of the paths of motorists or they will surely be killed.

From Webster's Dictionary:

Taboo: -n 1. a. A prohibition excluding something from use, approach, or mention because of its sacred or inviolable nature. b. An object, word, or act protected by a taboo. 2. A ban or inhibition attached to something by social custom or emotional aversion. 3. Belief in or conformity to religious or social prohibitions. 4. A proscription devised and observed by a group for its own protection. -adj. Excluded or forbidden from use, approach, or mention.

We can see that the fear of bicycling in traffic meets all the definitions of a taboo. Like most taboos, it is not based on scientific understanding. Some taboos provide protection to those who cannot comprehend the complexities of the issues involved. Young children are often given bicycles as toys long before they develop the perception and judgement necessary to negotiate traffic. Teaching young children to fear traffic and get out of the road when they see cars is probably the safest way to address their cognitive limitations. This is acceptable because young children's travel privileges are restricted to very short distances by their parents. But older children, teenagers, and adults can develop sufficient understanding of traffic principles to follow the rules of the road. They do exactly this when they learn to drive cars. Why then is the taboo allowed to persist among older cyclists, motorists, and transportation professionals? Because American bicycle transportation policy is not about improving the safety and efficiency of bicycle travel. Bicycle driving is taboo in American society because it involves occupying lane space on roadways. Failing to provide a clear path to faster motorists has become a social taboo in our pro-motoring society. This selfish interest is so powerful that promises of certain death were invented as punishment for its violation. Almost everything taught to cyclists by those who do not use bicycles for transportation has been based on reinforcement of this taboo to support the convenience of motorists.

Taboo continued…