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Holiday reader: The war on bikes

"Is it okay to kill cyclists?" That's the question an op-ed in the New York Times asks. It's not, but if a spate of other op-eds are any indication, it's sure okay to hate them and the facilities they ask for in a quest for safety.

Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

As Daniel Duane explains in the Times, most crashes involving a cyclist never lead to any charges or other consequences, no matter how egregious the circumstances:

But studies performed in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you're driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you're not obviously drunk and don't flee the scene.
When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it's like there's a collective cultural impulse to say, "Oh, well, accidents happen." If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, "Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that," that will most likely be good enough.
The same applies to pedestrians, and in 2010 we had an article with a title quite similar to Duane's: "You're free to mow down pedestrians in Prince William" County. On the other hand, TheWashCycle actually manages to think of one example (but just one) where a driver, in Montgomery County, did get prosecuted and convicted.

To a lot of people, though, the problem in our society isn't that those who hit and kill cyclists face no consequences; the problem is that those damn cyclists are in the way of driving faster. Like on King Street in Alexandria, where a potential bike lane has driven GMU law professor Frank Buckly to unload on cyclists and the "preening activists" who want to make the road safe to ride on in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The article is behind the WSJ paywall, but WashCycle has the choice quotes along with good rebuttals.

And Christopher Caldwell writes in the Weekly Standard that "Bicyclists are making unreasonable claims to the road—and winning." Caldwell admits that "Bicyclists sometimes do require the middle of the roadway," and "Almost 700 cyclists died on the road in the United States in 2011," not to mention "the environmental, aesthetic, and health benefits of cycling."

Except, Caldwell argues, since our transportation system is over capacity, that means we can't afford to give up a single square foot of asphalt to cyclists or let them slow down drivers. Never mind that you can move more people in less space when some drive and some bike, as opposed to all driving; a bike lane would "place drivers in a position of second-class citizenship on roads that were purpose-built for them."

Caldwell must not know that roads were originally paved to accommodate bicycling, not driving. People using any mode of travel very naturally feel irritation toward those on other modes if they get in the way. That psychological inevitability leads to this constant drumbeat of op-eds bemoaning cycle advocacy.

But, as many have said many times before, if there is a war on cars, why are cyclists the casualties?

Update: "M.S." at The Economist compares the American system ("it's probably the cyclist's fault" to that in the Netherlands:

[I]n the Netherlands, if a motor vehicle hits a cyclist, the accident is always assumed to have been the driver's fault, not the cyclist's. ... The driver of the motor vehicle is liable for the accident, unless he can prove he was overpowered by circumstances beyond his control ...

[C]yclist fatalities in America were estimated at somewhere in the range of 58 to 109 deaths per 1 billion kilometres cycled in the early 2000s. ... In the Netherlands, ... there were 12 deaths per billion kilometres cycled in 2010, down by a third since 2000. So I guess it depends on how much one values human life, as against the inconvenience of having to look in the rearview mirror more often.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Bike Snob does a nice deconstruction of the NYTimes piece:

The thing that bothers me the most about his piece was that it promotes the notion that cycling is more likely to get you killed than driving a car. We know that cars kill thousands of people a year. Although a death rate to miles driven comparison might not be apples to apples because of the shorter distances bikes are ridden, I suspect car driving is equally if not more dangerous.

by fongfong on Nov 11, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

>Never mind that roads were originally paved to accommodate bicycling, not driving.<

That point in David's piece prompted me to take a quick look for supporting evidence. The AAA, was founded 1902, but before the AAA came along to advocate for improved roads, there were bicycles.

You can find wonderful things, very quickly, at

This is from the Evening Bulletin, Aug 29, 1896, a newspaper in Kentucky.

It's titled: "The Bicycle Day"

It begins:

"Rarely has any product of the machinist's art worked so rapid a revolution, or exerted so decided an influence upon our manner of life as is now witnessed in the case of the bicycle. This simple machine has for the first time really put the human race upon wheels; its relative cheapness, its ready availability, its exhilarating influence and general all around usefulness making it one of the most popular vehicles ever devised."

Regarding road building, the newspaper reported this:

"One of the most striking effects of bicycle riding is to be seen in its effects upon road building and improvement, and this matter of road improvement is so important in its effects upon society as to be a surprise to those who investigate it for the first time. It is declared that improved roads were the direct result of wheelmen's efforts, nearly doubled the value of the land lying along the improved roads..."

by kob on Nov 11, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

It's a fairly incoherent opinion piece.

On the one had, it calls for stiffer penalties and new laws imposing penalties. On the other, it says police and juries are reluctant to impose the penalties they now have. And on the third hand, it proposes to separate cyclists from other traffic, so that drivers will never get used to bikes being part of the mix, and we never get the safety in numbers effect we absolutely need. And it's all based on some anecdotal evidence about his friends and acquaintances-actually, his father's acquaintances.

When an opinion piece about cycling states "very few roads are designed to accommodate bicycles", you know it's being written by someone who has never really used a bike as a form of transportation and for whom cycling is an exercise in looking over his shoulder. Most roads in the denser core are just fine for cycling. And if you ride as if you belong there, which you do, they are perfectly safe.

by Crickey7 on Nov 11, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport


I think it was too ambitious. He appears to be trying to thread what is a default polarizing and anger-fueled discussion with an appeal for reasonableness in attitude. It's a point to make, I guess. But I would have preferred a more forceful conclusion that the roads are to be shared, and governments are under obligation to move swiftly to make it happen.

by kob on Nov 11, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

I don't like feeding the meme that cycling is akin to playing Russian Roulette with one's life. It's a perfectly normal, safe activity that tens of millions of people aroung the world do every day without incident.

by Crickey7 on Nov 11, 2013 2:58 pm • linkreport

To be accurate, I know of 5 incidents where the driver was charged even though they had not been drinking and they stayed on the scene.

1. Driver sent to prison for 3 years
2. Driver fined $140
3. Driver fined $400
4. Driver sent to prison for 14 months
5. Driver fined $170

Still, it's not that common.

by David C on Nov 11, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

I think he has a good point when he just asks that no matter what the collision there is a proper and just investigation. Everyone has a right to the law and I don't think the police do their due diligence when the collision is between a car and a pedestrian, or a car and a bicyclist. That's not a lot to ask for. I mean, if the investigation is proper, and the cyclist is at fault then it would come out. But when there is no investigation because it's a pedestrian or bicyclist, there is something really wrong there.

by dc denizen on Nov 11, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

I agree with bikesnob's point, but I do think he's a little hard on the guy. Maybe I've just been beaten down over the years so that an article that is mostly good even if it has glaring bad spots in it is still something to celebrate.

According to most of the data I've seen, biking is slightly more likely to get you killed than driving a car. It's comparable to walking. But the health benefits more than make up for that. So if you bike commute, your life expectancy goes up even though your odds of dying in a traffic fatality goes up too.

And, I'll point out that "very few roads are designed to accommodate bicycles." That many roads accommodate bicycles anyway is really a testament to bicycles than a contradiction of this fact. But that is getting better.

There are two seemingly contradictory points that an article like this needs to make. One is that biking is still reasonably safe (like walking) but the other is that there is much more we could do to make it safer, and more we can do to punish those who kill vulnerable users. Most roads are "perfectly safe" unless a distracted, drunk or negligent driver comes up from behind you and hits you. No amount of biking like you belong there will save you in that situation. And when drivers do that, we need to throw the book at them.

The driver who killed a cyclist in Maryland and paid the $170 fine listed above, was driving a car with frost all over the windshield except for a small opening they had cleared before getting behind the wheel. As long as there are drivers like that out there, no road is PERFECTLY safe.

by David C on Nov 11, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport

There are some decent points but unfortunately they are buried within the same usual apologist BS about how if only cyclists obeyed the law and OMG bicycling is so dangerous! Also his route to those conclusions is just wrong - he doesn't like that police and drivers treat cyclists like crap, and his proposal is that cyclists should just obey all laws because that will magically make police take bicyclists seriously?

There are many factors that drive the non-serious treatment of bicyclists by police - the fact that officers don't bike, the fact that they spend lots of time driving a car, etc. People see bicycling not as serious transportation, or people trying to get things done in their day, but as recreation. Nobody wants to fill out an accident report if you wreck your knee playing basketball or fall while ice skating, and they see bicycling the same way. A bike is a toy to them - if it is broken, what's the big deal? It certainly isn't important like my car, which if it goes into the shop means I can't get to work!

by MLD on Nov 11, 2013 3:29 pm • linkreport

I forgot to add, that while those two points are seemingly contradictory, they aren't. But it's a fine line to walk. It's hard to say "This is really safe, but we need to move right now to make it safer" without sounding hysterical. I've been accused of overstepping it in one direction or the other from time to time, and so I'm sympathetic when someone misses the envelope.

by David C on Nov 11, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

I agree with MLD's first point. He is implicitly endorsing the idea that cyclists have to earn their right to ride on the roads.

Y'all know I'm down on cyclists who break the law. But I would never, ever suggest that cyclists need to earn respect by following the law as some kind of quid pro quo for being permitted to use the roads, or to use the roads without being harassed. There is simply no such connection.

by Crickey7 on Nov 11, 2013 3:33 pm • linkreport

The driver who killed a cyclist in Maryland and paid the $170 fine listed above, was driving a car with frost all over the windshield except for a small opening they had cleared before getting behind the wheel. As long as there are drivers like that out there, no road is PERFECTLY safe.

If we can't throw the book at people who do obviously negligent things that everyone knows you shouldn't do, what hope is there?

by MLD on Nov 11, 2013 3:42 pm • linkreport

Well, the law has changed since then and it should be easier to prosecute that the next time. So, that's the hope - better laws. (JimT played a big part in getting the law changed, I'll note).

by David C on Nov 11, 2013 3:47 pm • linkreport

Also the "cyclists should behave if tey want better infrastructure" argument seems to ignore the fact that most cities that are good at installing bike infrastructure clearly aren't relying on it. There wasn't some some law obedience threshold that got us the bike lanes and cycle tracks we have. It was a combo of other factors.

by Drumz on Nov 11, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

Although there were several helpful thoughts in the NY piece, the author totally douched himself right off the lede.

by Greenbelt on Nov 11, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

Can we please get away from the 'war on ...' rhetoric?

It's a cliche, tired, old and not true - cyclists have not been killed by drones. It also puts the problem immediately on antagonistic terms. That is never a helpful starting point for a discussion.

by Jasper on Nov 11, 2013 4:49 pm • linkreport

It may not be a war but between antagonistic responses from authorities and feet dragging on installing basic cycling infrastructure sure makes it feel like cyclists are playing against a stacked deck in more places than not.

by Drumz on Nov 11, 2013 5:06 pm • linkreport

As both a biker and a driver, I can see both sides. As a driver, I've learned to be aware of bikers around me. As a biker, I've learned to avoid doing stupid things like riding too close to parked cars, salmoning, etc.

The only time I came close to hitting a biker occurred when I was making a legal turn onto 11th St from Florida, only to be confronted by a biker coming south in the northbound bike lane. And then I got verbally accosted for "driving in the bike lane", even though it's a dashed line to accomodate turning vehicles.

If we all start acting like adults and not territorial morons, we might actually find that traffic for all will move more smoothly, and fewer accidents will occur.

by Chuck on Nov 11, 2013 5:30 pm • linkreport

I think part of the reason drivers act like the road is there for them and any space for other users comes from their generosity and the availability of extra capacity is the mistaken belief that roads are entirely funded by gas taxes. A significant portion of roads are built using general fund money and it be worthwhile to emphasize that point.

by Falls Church on Nov 11, 2013 5:33 pm • linkreport


no one has ever said all the capital costs, nor the OM costs were 'entirely' funded by gas taxes. However, 60-65% of every road and highway built or maintained in the past 50 years has been, and it isn't like the 40-35% that remains is funded by taxpayers who are all cyclists, so yes...the roads, and bike lanes that cyclists enjoy is funded primarily by those drivers you dislike so much.

and i find it hilarious how much folks here will 'poo-poo' the term 'war on cars', but then use the same terminology for bikes.

by roads on Nov 11, 2013 6:24 pm • linkreport

You miss the point. Each driver is subsidized for theri use of roads, and that subsidy rises with the numebr of miles driven. If we get that number to drop with a subsidy that is a fraction of what we pay a person to drive the same number of miles, then society benefits. That is why we build bike lanes. And even though a cyclists gets a small subsidy, they are still in a net loss situation with respect to the tax dollars they pay in that get devoted to transportation, and the amount they get back in infrastructure (even accounting for the fact that the food they eat gets brought in on trucks, yadda yadda).

by Crickey7 on Nov 11, 2013 6:33 pm • linkreport

It's not the amount of subsidy any mode in particular gets. It's the effectiveness of moving people with limited space. Bikes can move a similar amount of people with far less space than you need for cars. Add in the health and environmental benifits and it should be a priority for DOTs and cities to figure out how many people they can get to ride.

by Drumz on Nov 11, 2013 6:58 pm • linkreport

no one has ever said all the capital costs, nor the OM costs were 'entirely' funded by gas taxes. However, 60-65% of every road and highway built or maintained in the past 50 years has been, and it isn't like the 40-35% that remains is funded by taxpayers who are all cyclists, so yes...the roads, and bike lanes that cyclists enjoy is funded primarily by those drivers you dislike so much.

Do you have a cite for that?

According to this report ( ) gas taxes account for only a third of state and local spending.

Gas taxes primarily go for interstates and expressways that are off limits to cyclists. For the local roads that cyclists favor, the primary funding source is local sales and property taxes.

by contrarian on Nov 11, 2013 7:01 pm • linkreport

Iow, if you're gonna compare costs you've got to compare benefits.

by Drumz on Nov 11, 2013 7:01 pm • linkreport

Roads: it isn't like the 40-35% that remains is funded by taxpayers who are all cyclists,

First, I think you vastly underestimate the number of cyclists. 60% of people in the US own a bicycle and about half of those people ride their bike at least occasionally. Granted, they don't ride their bikes on busy roads with lots of cars all that often, but that's a chicken-and-egg issue. If it was safer and more convenient to bike on roads with cars, far more people would do it more often.

Second, I'm certainly not arguing that cyclists should get a disproportionate share of road space. In fact, what this article is primarily concerned with is not road space but equality in legal protection and social acceptance. Whether the share of people on roads is 3% or 30%, whomever is cycling on those roads has an equal right to be there and should be afforded equal protection under the law.

Let's say 3% of road users are cyclists. Based on your math, those cyclists have paid for 3 * 0.4 = 1.2% of the road. However, each cyclist takes up far less space than a driver and causes far less damage to the road. Hence, the 3% of cyclists are likely overpaying for their use of the roads by paying 1.2% of their cost. Pedestrians are also similarly overpaying.

by Falls Church on Nov 11, 2013 7:17 pm • linkreport


I think this table uses a more accurate methodology because it recognizes that federal gas taxes fund a significant portion of state road spending:

by Falls Church on Nov 11, 2013 7:24 pm • linkreport

It sounds like it might be a good idea to assign all members of all police forces in the country, for at least perhaps a year or two, to bicycle patrol duty. And then foot patrol. After proper instruction in ALL the traffic laws as they pertain to everyone - pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and all others. Plus required interaction with organized non-motorized user groups. That way they hopefully will not have as much of a car-centric attitude. And they should then be expected to seriously enforce the law as far as ALL road users go. But I'm still for the Idaho Stop :-)

by DaveG on Nov 11, 2013 7:50 pm • linkreport


I'm not sure assigning cops to bicycle beats would even matter. The vast majority of bike cops I see ride on the sidewalks.

by Eric on Nov 12, 2013 1:46 am • linkreport

Nobody breaks the rules more than bicyclists and I’ve been slammed in to by full speed by bicyclists while walking and received no more than a hand up while national stories about permanent injury and death from stoked-up 50-MPH bicyclists are surfacing more and more frequently. There is no “war” on bicyclists – all roads are too dangerous for anyone.

by AndrewJ on Nov 12, 2013 7:56 am • linkreport

"Nobody breaks the rules more than bicyclists"

While there are few reliable statistics on bicyclist lawbreaking, the ones there are suggest a rate about half of the well-documented rate of driver lawbreaking.

by Crickey7 on Nov 12, 2013 8:46 am • linkreport

"Nobody breaks the rules more than bicyclists"

Outside of traffic jams, does any driver ever obey the speed limit?

by Mike on Nov 12, 2013 9:24 am • linkreport

Regardless of which user group actually breaks the traffic laws the most, there's no reason not to continue installing bicycle infrastructure, conducting public education campaigns for overall traffic safety (why do we never see ads promoting this on tv?) and otherwise making the roads safer for all users.

by DaveG on Nov 12, 2013 10:01 am • linkreport

What's needed are more road and sign improvements that protect everybody.

To AndrewJ's point about bikers hitting pedestrians, here's a problem area that I like to see the District address.

Bicycle riders on Calvert who are heading toward Columbia and 18th, will approach a bus stop and crosswalk at the point where Lanier Place/Adams Mill Road enter Calvert. The intersection is a little complicated, but because there's no curb cut as you head toward Columbia, most bikes sail right through without slowing down. They do so at some risk because of the crosswalk and pedestrians milling around for the bus stop. I don't know if they factor in the risk they face of striking a pedestrian. Pedestrians take risks as well and often ignore the cross-walk signal because the wait can be long.

I'd like to see signs directed at bicyclists urging them to proceed with caution through this area. It is a risky for bike riders, and pedestrians, because the odds of collision seem high, especially at night where it seems as if large numbers of bike riders do not have lighting of any kind.

I firmly believe that with continuous improvements in bike lanes and signage, and increasing focus on safety, all these problems are solvable.

by kob on Nov 12, 2013 10:16 am • linkreport

Outside of traffic jams, does any driver ever obey the speed limit?

Puh-leeze! That doesn't count because everybody does that!

by oboe on Nov 12, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure assigning cops to bicycle beats would even matter. The vast majority of bike cops I see ride on the sidewalks.

That hasn't been my experience in DC.

I do think assigning cops to bike and foot patrol would be beneficial. Roughly 60% of all DC employees live outside of DC. My guess is that for cops, that number would be a bit higher. It's likely most of these officers live in traditional non-walkable, non-bikeable suburbs. They commute to work by car. They are going to fault a cyclist for an accident nearly 100% of the time because, for most suburban car-commuters, operating a bicycle in traffic is the equivalent of operating a pogo-stick in traffic: it's dangerous, and not legitimate. Sure, you can exploit whatever existing legal loophole allows you to ride your bike in traffic, but you've got a legal right to jump headfirst off a step-ladder, too. It's your funeral.

As someone mentioned up-thread, the only way to combat that ingrained mentality is to make foot and bike patrols mandatory, and to make them a recurring part of the job.

by oboe on Nov 12, 2013 1:08 pm • linkreport

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a pretty definitive piece on this general problem, of how the US treats driving "accidents" in 2001:

Unless you're drunk or high, pretty much the law treats "accidents" as not being malicious and not worthy of "criminal" treatment.

I agree that the Dutch law making the motor vehicle "more responsible" for driving safely the default position vis a vis peds and bicyclists the better course, given that a car is inherently more dangerous being bigger and faster.

by Richard Layman on Nov 12, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by throwsatfeet on Nov 12, 2013 4:44 pm • linkreport

Ah yes nothing like wishing physically harm and possibly death on people.

Maybe try this approach instead of explaining your position?

by BTA on Nov 12, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

I wish I were playing a "bike meme" drinking game right now.

dear throwsatfeet

no matter how tempting it is, parodying the anti bike stuff is just silly.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 12, 2013 4:53 pm • linkreport

I am a big proponent of Netherlands' way of thinking about liability on our streets. The person operating a motor vehicle should be held responsible if he hit a cyclist just as if a cyclist should be held responsible if he hit a pedestrian. The burden of proof should be on the person who is more protected.

Cities are for people and the ability to use machines, human or gasoline powered, to facilitate ease of travel and commerce, is a privilege, not a right.

by cmc on Nov 13, 2013 8:19 am • linkreport

The current system didn't come graven on stone tablets. Under common law vehicles were liable for injury to pedestrians unless the pedestrian was shown to have been negligent. The automobile industry lobbied to change that in statute, to limit pedestrian right of way in order to make it easier to sell cars. (Motorists wouldn't have to worry so much about being careful as the pedestrian could now be assumed to have been negligent by statute.) There's no reason why we shouldn't lobby for statutory changes if we think the pendulum has swung too far against the core public interest of free use of public roads. "That's not how it works" is a silly argument against a suggestion to change the law. A liability regime in which the larger vehicle is assumed to be liable in the absence of evidence of negligence on the part of the smaller would simply restore some balance to the system. If a bike/pedestrian actually does something negligent to cause the collision, then the motorist isn't liable. But in the absence of evidence that the pedestrian/cyclist did something specifically negligent to cause the accident, yes, we should expect that the motorist is exercising a high level of care and hold them negligent if they are not (as demonstrated by the fact of the collision).

by Mike on Nov 13, 2013 9:38 am • linkreport

Maybe I should start subscribing to this logic... that means it's time to start shooting motorists then...

Maybe open-carry isn't such a bad idea after all... anyone who encroaches on my bike lane will get a few .40 cal slugs in them.

by Heinz Doofenshmirtz on Nov 13, 2013 7:34 pm • linkreport

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