Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bike Me

The city of Los Angeles recently passed a law protecting bicyclist's rights. It's a pioneering law, to be sure, but it's probably pioneering in the wrong direction.

The law has two major components: it is now a crime to threaten (either verbally or physically) a bicyclist, and it allows cyclists to start a civil suit before the city even presses charges.

The first part, of course, isn't horribly controversial; it should already be against the law to physically threaten anyone, more or less, regardless of who they are. The verbal part, on the other hand, seems ripe for abuse. Of course, the question is: will cops also police the road rage incidents of physical and verbal abuse of car vs. car? Probably not.

The second part also seems sketchy. A civil suit without any criminal charges 1) probably won't get anywhere, but 2) will still allow bicyclists to sue more or less at will, creating what I am sure will be their own form of legal harassment against vehicles.

I guess I'm not a big fan of specific activities getting special treatment based on the group itself. Had this been laws about safety or zoning or other things to encourage or make biking safer--though more about that in a second--then I probably wouldn't care. But when you give legal protection to people in a voluntary activity like this that are not afforded to others, it smacks of 1) bad policy and 2) potential fraud and abuse.

[And, yes, before we get too far into this analysis, I realize that this applies to many other parts of our society. Farmers play by different workplace and tax rules as the rest of us. Religious groups, like the Amish, get all sorts of exemptions that aren't necessarily in the public good. I don't dispute that, and I believe some are legitimately necessary; this probably makes me at least in some form a hypocrite. But making a policy of granting "extra" rights to specific voluntary groups just seems like the wrong direction to go.]

I'm also not a fan of bicyclists in general. Not that I want to deprive them of their activity, but, while laws vary from state to state, many have a "share the road" policy. In this case, bicycles and vehicles are treated largely the same when on the roads. I think that this is a horrible policy. Having multitudes of individuals driving at high rates of speed in huge steel boxes that weigh a ton cannot simply "share the road" with someone riding on three pounds of light aluminum with no other protection than a helmet and their own sense of self-importance. It's not possible, no matter how many laws you have in place, to prevent accidents from happening under these conditions.* And when an accident does happen, it will always be at the expense of the bicyclist. There is just no law in the realm of physics that this can be reconciled to the bicyclist's benefit, and unfortunately physics trumps legislation, despite centuries of trying. [Bike paths aren't perfect, but I think they afford the best cost vs. benefit solution than anything else. I'm not sure it should be a high priority, but it's enough of a public good that I'm not opposed to them.]

Of course, my own empirical evidence is that while many bike riders are fine, a vast majority do not share the road in the sense that they actually follow any of the traffic laws. (We will leave aside the moment that since car > bike, bike > pedestrian, and bicyclists seem to have as much regard of pedestrians as cars have for them.) I don't want to generalize too much, since I know most bicyclists are decent people, but far too many of them give everyone a bad reputation. (Bicyclist "activists" who do things like clog intersections during rush hour are not helping. Those people need to be hauled off to jail, just as if anyone had deliberately caused a stoppage of traffic during rush hour. One of these days an ambulance won't be able to get through, and I sure hope the shit hits the fan then. I want to see blood on the spokes.**)

Perhaps this is all an irrational reaction. My existing bias against the "bike vs. car on the road" debate probably doesn't help, nor does the behavior of most bicyclists. And I have a negative gut reaction when any group is afforded special rights for a voluntary activity.

The Pledge: Bicyclists don't have to get off the road, but they have to realize that the rules are different for them, regardless of what the law says. If you fail to recognize that, I'll see you in the hospital.

*The main problem, of course, is speed. Bicycles can only go so fast, so if you are in a car driving in a 45 mph zone, that bike may only be going 20. When you pass, you're creating all kinds of dangerous situations, since you're not going in the passing lane. Couple this with hills and curves and you can easily see how frequent accidents can be. Of course, in town where speed is less of a concern, the main problem is traffic laws that don't get obeyed by either party, and as noted, anyone who thinks their side is blameless is a moron.


  1. Better rights to voluntary groups than INvoluntary groups; at least that way I can join the group and claim the rights.

    You rightly blame scofflaw cyclists, but then you allow drivers off the hook by claiming that the fact their car is SO big accounts for them using it improperly. Public rights-of-way are for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars, and too many drivers think, "If you want to ride a bike, go to the park." Just because the maximum allowable speed is, say, 45 mph, doesn't mean drivers HAVE to drive 45. Drivers can't plow through slow-moving auto traffic by claiming right to a higher posted speed limit, and so they shouldn't be able to do the same to bikes.

  2. I guess my point is that public right-of-ways are ill-equipped to handle both cars AND bikes without there being an eventual showdown. I don't have a problem with accommodating bikes so that they may (though I'm sure our priorities differ) but the fundamental design of infrastructure in the suburbs and older cities is that cars will always trump bikes. Trying to shoehorn bike traffic in a system ill-equipped to do so is bad policy.