One of the oldest tropes in letters to the editor columns—and more recently, your Facebook news feed—is the anti-cyclist screed. Typically arriving in summer (peak riding season), this missive advances Bold Thinking and Incisive Logic in arriving at the obvious conclusion that cyclists should not be on the roads.
If you grind your molars to powder every time a group of credulous rubes and softheaded reactionaries employs this benighted collection of straw-man arguments, this list of handy cut-and-paste responses to anti-cyclist arguments will to save you time and still allow a rebuttal.
Cyclists are a bunch of freeloaders who don’t pay to use the roads!
Response: Road taxes don’t even pay for these roads. My property, income, and sales taxes do.
The Lowdown: The entire “cyclists don’t pay road taxes” argument rests on a gigantic myth: that somehow, cyclists are monolithic automatons who do nothing but ride bikes. In this caricature, we are not also business owners and workers, homeowners, consumers and, often, car owners who pay all the taxes that fund roads.
First, let’s tackle how we pay for roads in America.
Automobile “use taxes,” like registration and gas taxes, go almost entirely toward funding state and federal highway expenses. But the Federal Highway Administration trust fund is busted—the gas tax hasn’t risen since 1993, and since then, the FHA’s purchasing power has dropped 28 percent. By 2007, highway spending exceeded use-related revenues by $600 million a year, according to the Public Interest Research Group.
Total user fees (including tolls) account for only 50.4 percent of all road funding in the US, according the non-profit Tax Foundation. When you consider that the money predominantly goes toward highways, you realize local city and county roads—the ones most used by cyclists when we ride—are barely funded this way. Moreover, the figure itself is misleading, since it’s an average across all 50 states: Only 20 states are above that 50.4 percent average. In 10 states, user fees account for a third or less of total road funding.
So where does the rest of the money for all roads, and the majority of funding for local roads, come from? Two broad sources: general taxes and bonds. General taxes include things like property tax, income tax, and state and local sales taxes. So if you own a home, have a job or buy, well, anything, you contribute to road funding whether you have a car or not. Bonds are repaid out of either general tax revenue or specifically-earmarked income, property, or sales taxes levied to support that particular bond.
Even if the money did come from road taxes, most cyclists own cars. We may not drive them quite as much because we use bikes for some errands, but we still pay registration fees like any car owner, and we still pay gas taxes when we fuel up.
Bonus zinger: Since a significant amount of road funding is devoted to maintenance, it’s worth noting that bicycles create wear and tear orders of magnitude less than automobile traffic, which itself is an order of magnitude less than truck traffic.
So the next time someone says cyclists should pay taxes, tell them you already do, and far from being a freeloader, you’re subsidizing them.
Roads were built for cars, not bikes!
Response: Bike access is a big reason why we even have paved roads—and it’s the law to maintain them for cyclists.
The Lowdown: Since roads predate even the wheel, that’s pretty much flatly false. Roads are built for transportation, period. Important, though, is that some of the first real road improvements in the US were created by and for… cyclists.
In 1896, roughly a decade after Karl Benz built his first automobile and long before they were widely adopted, a group of almost 100,000 cyclists in San Francisco staged a massive demonstration in support of what was called the Good Roads Movement to repave Market Street.
The Good Roads Movement itself dates to 1880, an outgrowth of the founding of the League of American Wheelmen, which still exists today as the League of American Bicyclists. The idea was that, as in Europe, governments should pay for the construction and upkeep of roads, via taxes.
In the 1910s, the growing automobile industry and organizations like the Automobile Association of America (AAA) began surpassing cyclists in advocating and organizing for better roads, culminating in funding the first federal highway in 1916.
Though cars have long since assumed primacy in road design, the US Department of Transportation’s official policy is to accommodate bike and pedestrian use. The policy statement, last updated in 2010, states it pretty clearly:
“Every transportation agency has the responsibility to… integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems.” The upshot, as memorably enshrined in the Critical Mass motto: We’re not blocking traffic; we ARE traffic.
Bikes should be registered with a tag, and cyclists should take a road test!
Response: Cyclists already get ticketed regularly—and it’s barely worth traffic cops’ time.
The Lowdown: The mandatory bike-registration thing goes partly back to the “Cyclists don’t pay taxes!” argument; we already pay taxes.
There’s another rationale: catching scofflaw cyclists. But no license plate appropriately sized for bikes is going to be useful for law enforcement, since the letters are illegible from more than a few feet away—and you can imagine how much money would need to go toward (and be condemned by drivers for) creating and maintaining size-appropriate ID chip technology. Cyclists get ticketed regularly and, considering how much risk bikes pose to the population relative to cars, cyclists don’t have to pay as much for comparable traffic infractions; police make more money ticketing cars.
As for the road test, let’s first answer this question: Since children down to toddlers ride bikes on public streets, what age would you like to start the test at?
Cyclists are a bunch of scofflaws!
Response: No more than anyone else—and you don’t like us when we follow the rules.
The Lowdown: Yes, cyclists break traffic laws. So do redheads, Methodists, white suburban dads, and municipal bus drivers. We—people, that is—break traffic laws every day by bike, foot, and car. For instance, a study by the Society of Automotive Engineers found that in 2012, the nation’s 200 million drivers [now 210 million] use their turn signals just 48 percent of the time.
Running red lights is one of the most common cyclist-scofflaw complaints. That’s an entirely valid point; we do. But it’s not exclusive to cyclists. A 2003 article by New York’s Transportation Alternatives, using 2000 figures by the NYC comptroller, estimated that motorists (mostly passenger cars) blew red lights a collective 1.23 million times per day in NYC.
The questions are of severity and consequence. Failure to use a turn signal isn’t itself a major offense, but if you fail to signal while changing lanes and end up merging just as another driver does (who assumed the lane was clear since you didn’t signal), you’ve got an accident, and you’re at fault. Basic physics tells us that a 3,000-pound car has a lot more potential for human and property damage than a 170-pound cyclist and 20-or-fewer-pound bike.
Frequency and context are also of concern. A recent University of Colorado survey of 18,000 respondents suggests cyclists and motorists break traffic laws at similar rates: 8 to 9 percent for drivers, and 7 to 8 percent for cyclists. But lead study author Wesley Marshall told Science Friday that the difference in red-light running is that drivers and pedestrians do it to save time, but cyclists do it for perceived safety—they often run a red light when there’s no cross traffic to get ahead of overtaking traffic.
The upshot—yes, cyclists break traffic laws, but no more than any other group of people, and with less serious consequences. More pointedly (and for harassed cyclists, hilariously), a recent demonstration in San Francisco showed what happens when cyclists do religiously follow traffic rules: Stuff grinds to a halt.
All these Lance Armstrong-wannabes in their spandex are clogging up the roads!
Response: Not any more than NASCAR-wannabes in their mom jeans with double-wide SUVs. Feel like funding some bike lanes?
The Lowdown: We’ll be the first to admit that some cyclists are completely oblivious to other road users and seem to think they’re racing on closed roads. But as we’ve noted, it also seems like drivers are proportionately oblivious. Mindlessness is mindlessness, regardless of transportation modality. While the proportions might be similar, there are also many more drivers than there are bike commuters; a US Census Bureau survey found that in 2013, about 882,000 people consider themselves bike commuters . Also, you know what clogs the road least? Concentrated public transportation, right after thin, small bikes.
But this argument really pivots on one word: Spandex. Our nation’s puritanical roots irrationally encourage a certain slice of our citizenry to fear and dislike healthy people in tight clothing. This is the same strain of thought that leads to letters to the editor decrying the scourge of women grocery shopping while wearing yoga pants. In full view of the children!
Lighten up, Francis, it’s just clothing. And Lance? That’s so 2005.