sitemap America's Taboo Against Bicycle Driving (continued)

The Science and Politics of Bicycle Driving

America's Taboo Against Bicycle Driving (continued)

Even though bicycle driving is the safest and most efficient approach for cyclists, vehicular-style cycling techniques have been shunned by the majority of the US population (including government entities in charge of transportation safety) because they might create delays for motorists.  It is easy to see that the public's concern is not really safety for cyclists. If government wanted to save cyclists' lives, they would enforce laws such as those requiring cyclists to use a headlamp and rear light or reflector at night. Cyclists operating in the dark without proper nighttime equipment account for about half of all urban bicyclist fatalities. Most other car-bike collisions are caused by cyclists violating the basic Rules of the Road, which are almost never enforced for cyclists by police. (The main exception are discriminatory laws that prohibit bicycling on part or all of a roadway, and are designed for the convenience of motorists.) But rather than teaching cyclists how to negotiate traffic safely as drivers of vehicles, American cyclists have been taught that the only thing they can do to improve their safety is to avoid motor traffic at all costs.

British cyclists are more likely than Americans to operate in a vehicular manner because they do not share the American bicycling taboo.  Automobile use in Britain grew in popularity much more slowly than in the United States, mostly because the dense old British cities and narrow streets made bicycle travel convenient and motoring less so.  For nearly a century, many British cyclists of all ages and socioeconomic classes shared crowded streets with motorists, and it became obvious to nearly everyone that the most reasonable way to minimize collisions was for cyclists to obey the same rules of the road as motorists. Over time, more people could afford cars and fewer traveled by bicycle, but by then the tradition of vehicular-style bicycle driving was well entrenched in British culture.

In the United States, by contrast, the automobile was quickly embraced as the future of transportation destined to replace all other modes. New American cities, suburbs, and road systems were still being constructed as motoring grew in popularity, which allowed them to be designed for convenient use by automobile, and inconvenient for anyone without a car or at least a bicycle.  The automobile quickly became an important measure of socioeconomic status. Anyone who traveled significant distances without a car was obviously a lower class of citizen, and the bicycle was reduced to a mere child's toy. 

The boom of American automobile use in the mid-twentieth century was also a time of horrible bigotry and brutal treatment of minorities and non-conformists.  Too often, the motor vehicle was wielded as a convenient weapon against anyone of the wrong "kind" who got in the way.  No one would ever question the superior motorist's inability to avoid the victim who "appeared out of nowhere."  It is therefore not surprising that many of those who could not afford automobiles in the mid twentieth century (especially minorities persecuted by racists) were not about to turn their backs to motorists while bicycling in travel lanes - or worse, delay a motorist.  Americans  who learned the taboo against cycling in front of motorists later taught it to their children, and they taught it to theirs.  Furthermore, anyone who violated the taboo, and behaved in a socially unacceptable manner by operating a bicycle in travel lanes as an equal driver, became an object of harassment from bigots who believed it was their job to enforce their prejudicial view of the proper social order.

The taboo against vehicular bicycling encourages a different style of cycling by many American cyclists: the pedestrian-on-wheels approach. The taboo promotes cycling against traffic or on sidewalks and crosswalks, dodging pedestrians, dogs, fixed obstacles, curbs, debris, and broken pavement, while also dealing with the hazards of motor vehicle traffic crossing at every driveway and intersection. Pedestrians-on-wheels also operate at night without proper vehicle lights, because pedestrians rely on street lamps.  But unlike pedestrians, cyclists cannot stop quickly, and their speed gives them less time to see collision hazards, while also giving motorists much less time to see and avoid them at driveways and crosswalks. Ironically, the result of the taboo against cycling as the driver of a vehicle is a much higher car-bike crash rate and much higher injury rate for cyclists who act as pedestrians-on-wheels, while at the same time reducing the convenience of bicycle travel. This accident trend has been confirmed by every study of bicyclist injuries and car-bike crashes conducted in North America.