America’s Taboo Against Bicyclist


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.

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 things 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.

The Evidence Against the Taboo

While most American bicycle owners operate as pedestrians-on-wheels, some cyclists (especially those who participate in cycling clubs) continue to operate on US roads as drivers of vehicles. Recreational and competitive club cyclists avoid using sidewalks and most multi-use paths because they know from experience that reasonably fast and efficient cycling is impossibly dangerous on such facilities. Many of these cyclists ride in urban areas with high volumes of motor traffic. Although these cyclists represent a minority of bicycle owners in the United States, they represent about 80% of bicycle miles actually traveled. Their use of roadways allows us to judge the relative danger of bicycle driving according to the Rules of the Road compared to the taboo-based pedestrians-on-wheels approach.

In 1996, a survey of avid adult cyclists to determine their riding habits and crash statistics. The survey corroborated other scientific studies that showed the dangers of pedestrian-on-wheels behavior. Although most cyclists worry a great deal about car-bike crashes, especially those from behind, the vast majority of injuries to cyclists involved falls and crashes with stationary objects. These include many serious injuries (such as broken bones) and some such accidents do cause fatalities. Only 11% of crashes involved moving motor vehicles. The survey revealed crash rates for different facility types as follows:

Table 1: Adult Bicyclists’ Crash Rates for Various Facility Types in Survey

Facility Type

Crashes per Million Kilometers

Major road without bike facilities


Minor road without bike facilities


Road signed as bike route only


Road with on-street bike lane facility


Multi-use trail (not alongside street)




Other (most often “sidewalk”)


This data suggests that the crash rate for regular adult cyclists operating on sidewalks is twenty five times that of regular adult cyclists operating on major roads without bicycle facilities.