Cyclists Don’t Contribute to Philly’s Economy

And other urban biking myths, dispelled.

“Get out of the road!”

“Get off the sidewalk!”

These are the kinds of things people who ride bicycles in the city are quite accustomed to hearing. They’re also the kinds of things people who write about bicycles in Philly get quite a bit of as well.

The last time I wrote in this space, I discussed the existential crisis of the 10th Street bike lane in Chinatown (Now I’m here! Now I’m not! Now I’m here again!), concluding that it’s ultimately not great policy for bike lanes to be made subject to the fickle whims of populism.

A reasonable, non-incendiary position, I thought. But even the best-intentioned discussions of locomotion can prompt spirited discussion. After receiving and responding to a couple of perturbed emails from readers, at the prompting of my editor, I reached out to Facebook for some other common bike vs. car tropes. Let’s dispel some myths:

I received an email from a self-described “irate driver” whose commutes are now 15 minutes longer, stating, essentially: They should get rid of all bike lanes because bikers do not obey traffic laws.

This common argument does not take into account that motorists and pedestrians also disobey laws. Constantly. I think all users of city streets should obey the law. Some cyclists do not. Some motorists do not. Some pedestrians do not. If the highways and bi-ways were reserved only for those who’d never bent the law, rush-hour traffic would be a breeze! Seriously, the scofflaw cyclist argument is a strawman: Access to and safety on the city’s streets (which were built for pedestrians and first paved for bikes during the cycling boom of the late 1800s) is a right, not a motorist’s privilege.

The email continued, accusing cyclists of impeding “tax-paying car drivers” on their way to and from work, then referred to drivers as “real people” who support the economy by buying gas and paying for parking.

The cyclist who doesn’t contribute to the tax base/pay for roads is also largely a fiction. Cyclists bike to jobs (sometimes cycling is their job) where they earn wages and pay taxes. Because cyclists tend to live in the city, they keep that income here (rather than fleeing to the suburbs on taxpayer-funded escape chutes), bolstering the tax base. Because they’re not forking over $100 a week to some multinational, corporate welfare-receiving oil conglomerate, they’ve got that much more to spend at local businesses (which are also much easier to patronize when one doesn’t have to circle the block looking for a spot large enough to dock an SUV).

Another emailer wondered: Shouldn’t cyclists be required to carry insurance like drivers?

I think the simple answer to this is that if there were a market or need for bicycle insurance, there probably already would be one. As to why there isn’t, I suspect it’s because, unlike cars, crashing bicycles generally doesn’t cause property damage. Sure, there’s bodily harm, but that is covered by health insurance, or the insurance of an at-fault motorist. (Which raises the issue that some people don’t have health insurance, but that is another can of worms entirely.)

A commenter on Facebook suggested that cyclists who run red lights and stop signs without stopping is a huge problem and that their bikes should be confiscated.

I agree that this is a problem, though given that all a motorist gets for committing the same offense is a ticket—and that at least one state in the union, Idaho, has actually condoned such activity—impounding a bike seems a little extreme.

A commenter on Facebook offered: Take the damn headphones off!!!

This is an interesting one, as griping about headphone-wearing cyclists is as old as portable stereos themselves. Some argue that the decision to wear or not wear headphones is analogous with the decision to forego a helmet (and, as a libertarian might argue, who’s to tell someone they’re not allowed to be a moron?). Some studies have suggested that a cyclist listening to an iPod hears as well a motorist listening to nothing. Me, I prefer to maintain my hearing advantage and never bike with headphones. If we’re being honest, I think people who bike with headphones are morons.

And to that age-old question of street or sidewalk?

If you’re older than 12, the law says you must ride on the street. Which, to some, is terrifying given the frequency with which motorists blare their horns at cyclists they deem to be “in their way” (a.k.a. taking a full lane, following the letter of the law). But statistically, riding on the sidewalk is more dangerous—not just for pedestrians, but for you.

Well, that should clear everything up. But if you’ve got more questions, observations or simply something you’d like to express in ALL CAPS, please drop me a line at [email protected], Tweet me @brianghoward, or contribute to the discussion already in progress on Facebook.