Skip to content

Cycling is not a public policy panacea, but neither is it childish

Millions of people find cycling to be a pleasurable activity, and some even find it a useful supplement to (or even replacement for) a car. Still, it’s easy to overstate cycling’s value as  transportation tool–call it biking zealotry for the moment–and people who point out that fact do a great public service.

On the other hand, the essay “Four wheels good, two wheels bad” is an example of how not to respond to biking zealotry: Call all cyclists children, and cycling itself childish.

There certainly are legitimate questions to ask about bikes and public policy. Should a portion of gasoline taxes be used to build bike paths, and if so, why? Should governments encourage employers to offer subsidies for bicycle riders who commute to work? Should governments encourage recreational bike usage? Should the law treat bicycle riders in urban areas as pedestrians or as vehicles? The list goes on.

My preference, in looking at bicycles and public policy, is to look at the facts: How often will people actually bike, what can you do (or not) on a bike, and so forth. And I conclude that official enthusiasm for cycling is overdone. Given human desires for comfort, we’re not going to see large numbers of people commuting by bicycle, regardless of how many bike lanes we pave. In most of the country, it’s either too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, or both, for that to happen. It’s hard to take four bags of groceries home from the store by bicycle. The list goes on. Cycling will take care of only a tiny percentage of what we might call “utilitarian” trips–to work, school, the store, and so forth. So it’s very easy to let enthusiasm for cycling get the best of us.

The essay in question does touch on these facts, and it has a good quote from one man who studies transportation for the Cato Institute: “I don’t think encouraging cycling is going to reduce congestion or significantly change the transportation makeup of our cities …. There really is very little evidence that any of [these efforts] are reducing the amount of driving.”

Fine. I agree with that. But the essay’s power is weakened by its mean-spirited (and illogical) condescension towards anyone who rides: “While kids sit at home texting their friends and slaying computer-generated monsters, a growing number of their parents and grandparents are clogging the roads atop a contraption that was once considered a child’s toy. … Bicycles are wonderful, of course. For children.”

Why the junior-high treatment? I don’t know. It’s possible that our policies and laws towards bicycle usage are wrong. It’s possible that  some cyclists are obnoxious lawbreakers, or have drawn wrong conclusions about global warming, “oil addiction,” and so forth. If so, the best response is to explain why it’s wrong to divert gas money to bike usage, why global warming is not a problem (or if it is, why “ride your bike” isn’t a solution), and why cycling will always make an insignificant contribution to the relief of traffic congestion.

UPDATE: Come to think of it, “Bicycles are fit only for children” isn’t an argument; at best, it’s an assertion. At worst, it’s an irrational prejudice.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] “Policy Guy” LaPlante focuses, unsurprisingly, on the policy side of things, for the most part, in his response to […]