More of the Same: Reflections on Bernuth & Williamson’s “Perceptions and Possibilities” Study

Recently, the League of American Bicyclists commissioned a study (through consulting firm Bernuth & Williamson) about bike advocacy that was presented at the National Bike Summit. You can find it here (PDF; opens in new tab/window).

The findings are interesting, I’ll grant that. There’s also a lot of good stuff in this report — it does look like the opinions of policy-makers are slowly shifting in favor of bikes as a transit modality; it does recommend an advocacy strategy that involves using anecdotes about the success of cities and towns that have implemented bike-friendly changes.

However, an underlying current suggest that perhaps policymakers A) aren’t listening very well and B) don’t know what they’re talking about.

Major unifying threads include, “Stop being anti-car bike-evangelists and present your message in terms of multi-modal transit systems that benefit everyone, not just cyclists” (a solid message, but there’s a problem there) and “Bicycle people aren’t paying in to the system” (a persistent and troubling fallacy).

To address the first problem: unless there’s a huge disconnect between the bike-advocacy community as I know it and cycling advocates in DC (which is possible, but I know an awful lot of DC bike people: most of them also own cars and none of them represent the extremist point of view), the bike-advocacy community, with few exceptions, is already not anti-car and very vocally supports cycling as part of a flexible, multimodal transit system.

The vast majority of us would love to see better bus and train systems (I love trains, in fact!); we would also love to see better, more human-centric public space designs that put people first — which means employing human-scale development and small-but-important touches like installing a bench every so many meters so people with limited mobility can sit down and rest. Most of the cycling-advocacy blogs I read on a regular basis are as giddy about trains, trams, and buses as I am. We don’t want to run cars off the road; we just want to make it possible for more people to get around without relying on them.

Yes, there are some loud ‘n’ proud “bike supremacists” in the advocacy community who only seem concerned with bikes getting their fair share and who don’t seem to grasp the importance of other modalities. Here’s the thing, though: there are also tons of loud ‘n’ proud “automobile supremacists,” and some of them have high-paying jobs on Capitol Hill as auto-industry lobbyists.

Because they represent the dominant paradigm in this country, the auto-supremacists’ attitude is considered normal and acceptable, just as racist attitudes among whites were considered acceptable until only a few decades ago (for that matter, they still are, to an extent); just as homophobic attitudes among heterosexuals still allow people to believe that gay marriage is somehow a threat to the concept of heterosexual marriage.

In short, someone who claims that bikes should be banned from the roadways is perceived as a normal human being expressing her opinion, while someone who claims that cars should be banned from the roadways is perceived as a dangerous wacko with an anti-car (rather than a pro-bike or pro-flexible transit or pro-people) agenda.

It’s also considered acceptable to imagine bike advocates as a bunch of stinky, unwashed, raving, anti-car zealots. There are a few of those out there — I’m not denying that. The thing is, they’re a tiny sliver of the actual bike-advocacy community. Unfortunately, however, they’re the ones who get noticed: they’re the squeaky wheels, the sliver in the side of the auto-centric world, and — more importantly — they’re visibly and vocally out there. That’s how the human mind works. We’re wired to notice anything weird and fear it.

Unfortunately, we’re also wired to oppress out-groups and their members, which is to say that we’re programmed to defend our interests and our “turf.” This is less problematic when both out-group and in-group are tribes of roughly equal size using neolithic technologies to defend their hunting grounds. It becomes much, much more problematic when the in-group is enormous, the out-group is tiny, twenty-first century technologies are involved, and the very concept of “turf” is more philosophical than literal.

Moreover, the more normative-appearing bike advocates are essentially invisible. Simply put, we don’t think of the perfectly-respectable ladies and gentlemen over in Software Development or Rocket Surgery or the Mail Room who ride their bikes to work as cycling advocates. We don’t know them in that capacity. Thus, when we think “bicycle advocate,” we think “sweaty-toothed madman,” not “Jane, from Accounting.”

Thus, Jane-from-Accounting, Steve-from-the-Mail-Room, Betty-from-Surgery, and everyone else who advocates sensibly for a sane, multi-modal approach to transportation fades into the background, and Joe-the-Crazy-Bike-Dude comes to represent the entire bike advocacy world in the minds of those who aren’t already on the bus (so to speak).

Meanwhile, apparently, well-educated drivers who work in government still somehow believe that bike people aren’t paying into the system. To this, I can only say, “WTF?”

First: most cyclists also drive. Most of us own cars. Heck, my household has two! Most of us use gasoline. From what I understand, gasoline taxes do (in part, albeit possibly a large part) fund federal highways. Okay, fine: when I’m on a bike, I’m not paying for the Eisenhower Interestate system.

You know what, though?

I’m also not riding on it.

With very few exceptions, the high-speed roads of the Eisenhower Interstate system are explicitly closed to bikes, farm machinery, scooters, mopeds, “animals on foot” — basically, anything that can’t clock 55 MPH or better.

You know what else?

I’m perfectly fine with that. The Interstates were intended to be dedicated point-to-point roads for longer-distance travel. That’s not what most of us do on our bikes, and when we do, we tend to call it “Touring” and do it at a fairly relaxed pace.

Local roads, meanwhile, are mostly paid for out of general funds — and while state or local gas taxes may or may not toss a little into that hat, general funds largely derive from property taxes, payroll taxes, and the like. This is a big part of the reason that the roads in my neighborhood look worse than the ones in Beirut, while the roads in posh east Louisville neighborhoods are often like velvet carpets that beckon with their siren songs to the wandering wheels of the bike-riding public.

Here’s the thing: my household makes a lot more than the average household in my neighborhood. That means we pay a lot more in taxes than most of the people living here (indeed, we pay more than many of the people living in the aforementioned posh east-end neighborhoods). Properties on our little cul-de-sac also happen to be appraised at significantly higher values than most of the surrounding neighborhood, which again means we pay more in taxes. (For that matter, since Denis’ job means he drives all over creation all the ding-dang-darn time, we pay a heck of a lot more than average in gas taxes.)

Does this mean that I get to demand that all the people who live here whose taxes are not as high as ours pull over and get out of the way when I’m driving around with Denis or riding my bike? Does it mean I get to ticket them for parking on the street?

Um, no.

That’s not how taxes work. Taxes pay for public infrastructure. That means I have no more (or less!) right to it than the next guy.

So, basically, most bike people pay taxes. Most of us have jobs, and many of us have very good jobs (perhaps because the same character traits that make us willing to ride bikes in such a car-centric culture — confidence, self-reliance, relative fearlessness — tend to funnel us into leadership positions in our careers). We own property at the usual rates, pay property taxes at the usual rates, and so forth.

Moreover, by reducing wear-and-tear on roadways, we extend their lives, reducing their cost per unit of use. Since we can lock up our bikes just about anywhere, we also save money on the installation of parking meters and the building of parking lots and structures. We could argue, then, that not only do we pay into the system, but our dollars go further than average. We’re helping to keep costs down.

What troubles me is the persistence of the idea that the bike-riding public doesn’t “pay in.” We not only pay in, but reduce costs — so, no, we shouldn’t be subjected to “user fees.” We’re already paying them. They’re called “taxes.”

(Note: I wouldn’t object to occasional “user fees” for new bike- and pedestian-specific infrastructure — we use that approach to build bridges and roads all the time, only in that case we call the fee a “toll” — as long as the new infrastructure in question is actually useful, and not more recreational horse-hockey.)

In short, I don’t think the challenge, in reality, is one of toning down our evangelism or “paying in.” It’s figuring out how to exist in the mainstream without disappearing. Much as drivers in car-bike collisions tend to claim that they didn’t see the person on the bike, car-oriented people simply don’t see bike advocates unless they’re noticeable enough to seem weird.

Meanwhile, most of us in the bike-advocacy world aren’t about “critical mass and kicking ass” (except in races; those of us who race totally want to kick ass, even if it’s only our own asses). Most of us are about sensible plans that make things better for everyone. We get concerned about funding because, quite frankly, when it comes down to a decision between funding unnecessary, redundant, poorly-planned car infrastructure that causes more problems than it solves or funding useful, innovative bike or transit infrastructure, the car-oriented infrastructure tends to win automatically simply because the people making decisions are more likely to drive cars than to ride bikes (meanwhile, useful local roads that serve both bikes and cars quite well fall into disrepair through budgetary neglect).

I am, I suppose, cautiously optimistic about the future of cycling and transit in the US. Frankly, rising gas prices mean that drivers will feel the pinch sooner or later; meanwhile, we younger types are trending towards urbanism and choosing to eschew car ownership and surprising rates. Bike advocates are well aware that these changes have little to do with our efforts, but we’re grateful for them.

I, for one, would love to see better mass transit; things like high-speed trains (or any trains, honestly) for long-distance travel; trams and electric buses at local levels. My feelings about dedicated bike infrastructure, meanwhile, are mixed — I think well-designed roads are very capable of serving bikes and cars at the same time without everyone jockeying for space. I also think better enforcement of traffic laws — with fair-but-certain penalties — for both drivers and cyclists is a critical piece of the puzzle — and I really think those laws need to acknowledge that cars don’t maim and kill people, reckless drivers do (right now, reckless driving is under-penalized in part because we don’t blame drivers; we blame cars).

At the end of the day, the same people who kvetch about spending money on bike infrastructure are the people who whine about job creation: well, building infrastructure creates jobs. So does building a police force capable of actually enforcing traffic laws.

So, for that matter, does commissioning studies. I’m glad that the LAB funded this one. It’s important, if a bit discouraging, to know what people think.

Yes, we need to find a better way to communicate: we need to find a way to make Jane-from-Accounting, not the “sweaty-toothed madman,” the symbol of bicycle advocacy.

I guess that’s it for now. Race day tomorrow! Woot!

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2013/03/08, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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