Over the past few years, many “urbanists” have taken to advocating for bicycle supremacy.
They demand existing urban and suburban roads be narrowed to make way for bicycle lanes; that new infrastructure be provided for the exclusive use of bicycles; the demolition and prohibition of public parking lots; and that the rest of us be forced via increased taxes, fees, and a public shaming campaign to change our car-driving ways.
Enough is enough. As someone who hasn’t ridden a bicycle since earning my driver’s license 15 years ago, I’m choosing to fight back against what I am calling the cycle supremacists.
Bicycles, and cyclists generally, should be shunned for four reasons. Here they are:
- Bicycles are toys. A toy is something that is generally enjoyed by and accessible to children, and is virtually harmless. Any child who can walk and run, can also learn to ride a bicycle. Furthermore, with the exception of gross malice or negligence, it is virtually impossible to kill anyone with a bicycle.
Motor vehicles, on the other hand, require a focus and dexterity that drivers must be post-pubescent in order to operate safely. They can also serve as weapons of mass destruction; to drive a car is to truly empower a person in a way that can only be rivaled by arming them with a gun. This makes motor vehicles the transport of choice for adults.
- Bicycles are unhealthy. The bicycle seat is a universal symbol of discomfort. The hunched-over position necessary to operate most bicycles is also unnatural. There is also the obvious case that a bicycle leaves the user completely exposed to the elements: wind, rain, snow, or the relentless beating of the summer sun.
Modern motor vehicles are luxurious in every sense of the word, even at the very low end of the market. Cushy seats, adjustable steering wheels, a radio and other personalizable entertainment, and — perhaps the most human, and most underrated feature of the car — its ability to carry your friends and family. You can share your journey with loved ones, have conversations with them, and enjoy other benefits in a private, enclosed space that is also portable.
Cars are also obliquely pro-natalist. Many children were made possible by the existence of the backseat of the automobile. The alleged romanticism of tandem cycling aside, it’s safe to say that very few children were conceived on two wheels. In fact, it’s possible that cycling may be responsible for fewer children, and lower quality children, overall.
- Bicycle supremacy hurts the poor. The worst feature of the bicycle supremacist movement is the push to limit roads (and to generally isolate cities) from motor vehicle traffic. They whine about the noise, the pollution, and the space that cars take up, and convince councillors that streets should be “for the people” instead of “for cars”.
As if cars are some kind of alien species. They miss the fact that cars are driven by people, too: low income people who can’t afford to live in the city due to restrictive zoning bylaws, or people who live outside of/can’t afford to live near public transit routes, or people who don’t feel safe using public transit, or people who are carrying goods into the city for the purpose of commerce. By limiting transportation options, the cycle supremacists limit the number of people who can work, do business, visit, or otherwise enjoy the city. This makes them, and everyone else, poorer and worse off.
- Bicycles are symbols of communistical poverty. Back when I was a kid in the 90s, I saw many documentaries about life in China. Many of those films were probably made in the ’80s. And one thing that not only struck me, but was highlighted frequently by the videos as well, was the sheer prevalence of bicycles in the big cities. Scenes of hundreds of cyclists peddling down major avenues.
The key with these shots was that they were always meant to demonstrate how poor Chinese society was. They could not afford their own personal cars, so they had to resort to bicycles. As China is much, much richer today than it was in the 1980s, it should be no surprise to learn that cars have taken over the scene.
What’s interesting to me is that we did not see the same evolution of transport in the West. Although the bicycle was invented several decades before the motor vehicle in the 19th century, Americans and Europeans went straight from horse-and-buggy to internal combustion engines right away. We can see this transition on the many old timey videos taken in highly dense urban environments like Paris and New York City throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. North America and Europe did not embrace the bicycle until well after the Maoist Revolution.
In response to my list, I can hear the lamentations from cyclists now. Each one has a simple response.
- “Bicycling is good exercise!” So what? If I wanted to exercise, I’ll choose to go to the gym or otherwise do it on my own time. Anyway, you burn twice as many calories walking the same distance as you do riding a bike (assuming you’re not just coasting on your bike, that is!), so if you’re really concerned about the exercise, ditch the wheels.
- “Bicycling is twice as fast as walking!” And city driving is twice as fast as biking. And drivers can carry more stuff, and end up less sweaty, muddy, and breathing in fewer fumes.
- “Bicycling is more environmentally friendly than driving!” Walking is even more environmentally friendly than biking, so get off your high horse.
- “Bikes take up less space to park!” Once again, walking takes up zero space to “park”, plus I don’t have to look at ridiculous piles of bikes on the sidewalk tied to trees, street signs, .
- “Aren’t gas prices too damn high?” Isn’t the cost of buying a fancy lock, and the burden of removing your uncomfortable bike seat, only to come back after work to see your seatless bike and your lock has been stolen (again!) too damn high?
- “Why don’t you take the bus?” Why don’t you take the bus? Probably for the same reason as me: you want the freedom of when, where, and with whom you get to travel with.
- “The Europeans bike around just fine!” Think of Missouri. As one of the bottom 10 states in the union in terms of income, you probably think of poverty, squalor, social strife, and poverty once again. Now consider the fact that Missouri has a higher per capita income than every country in Europe. What I’m trying to say is that doing something just because the Europeans do it should be viewed with the same suspicion and weight as repeating the policies of Missouri or some other poor American state. Doesn’t sound so great now, does it?
Motor vehicles provide flexibility, comfort, style, and overall enjoyment of use that bicycles cannot match. Their ability to take on heavy loads, carry multiple passengers, protect riders from the elements while offering a smooth ride is clearly of such paramount importance that consumers choose them again and again. Any attempt to fix these obvious shortcomings with bicycles only serves to make them more and more car-like.
Do I pretend that cars are perfect? No. Perhaps there is too much room for human error in driving, and so AI ought to play a larger role going forward. Are our roads as currently designed perfect? Certainly not; more than 30,000 people are killed by vehicles in the US each year, and I view this as largely a failure of road design (my solution: privatize the roads, and let road operators bear some responsibility in ensuring road safety). Do I think bicycles should be prohibited, or subjected to ridiculous taxes and levies? No; I think they have their place as children’s toys and objects of interest for peculiar hobbyists. They also can be interesting as a sport, both in street racing and mountain biking.
Finally, do I think street parking should be free and also cars should be parking on huge lots? No; cars, like anything else, need spaces to park. In the past, when land in the cities was cheap, it paid to pave over huge swaths of it and charge a few bucks for people to park all day. Some municipal governments also tried to buy votes by offering free street parking. Now, municipalities are trying to buy votes with bureaucratically-managed “congestion charges” and getting rid of street parking.
My view is simply to let entrepreneurs use their own money to determine what business services to provide. However, since most roads are publicly owned, the problem is “letting” anyone do anything with them becomes a public decision — liable to all the trappings of democratic decision making. Some have proposed alternatives to this.
The bottom line is this: of course, bikes can be fun and practical. But we shouldn’t build our cities around them. Cars are great liberators of movement, family fun, and economic opportunity even in the city. It’s time we recognize them as such.