Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

60 thoughts

  1. Interesting point.
    Concerning traffic laws: in part this is reality in Germany and I guess other European countries. Depending on region/city etc… , going against the traffic in a one-way street is allowed for bikes.
    And concerning the crossroads… well I just do exactly that. Coming from a country where traffic is much more aggressive (and more complexly regulated) than in the U.S., the “everybody has to stop at stop signs and crossroads”-thing is just an invitation, and people in cars even stay friendly when I take their “right of way”… try that in Germany and you die.
    On the other hand biking on larger roads is tricky, primarily because of car driver’s a lack of attention…

  2. The rule against riding on the left side of the road isn’t about the oncoming traffic: When someone turns right, their last glance before committing will typically be to their left; whereas, if you are riding on the “wrong” side of the street, you will be approaching them from their right — which makes it easier for them not to see you, and for you thus to be run over by them.

  3. I linked to this Department of Transportation Report in a recent post complaining about Amtrak. It shows that cars have a negative subsisidy (i.e. aren’t subsidized at all) whereas all other forms of motorized transport are subsidized heavily. I think that accounts for the “pro-car centric” view of many libertarians.
    Perhaps bikes don’t receive the same sorts of subsidies, but my anecdotal experience in Chicago suggests otherwise.
    That being said, I agree with the broader point that there are good arguments for rules of the road that treat bikes differently than cars.

    1. most roads are funded locally or by states. moreover, things like parking lots are mandated by zoning laws and subsidized by tax-paying, god-fearing businesses.
      amtrak is funded nationally.
      this report doesn’t tell you anything, unless you really want to believe that we’re making money by building roads.

      1. It is true that the report talks about the net subsidy at the level of the federal government. But this relationship also appears to hold up at the state level (see for example, this report on California.)
        The reason cars show a negative subsidy is not that we are “making money by building roads” (although that proposition can be defended at some level of abstraction!), but rather that the costs associated with roads are more than covered by taxes on drivers (like gasoline taxes).
        Sure, this analysis may not be perfect, but I don’t think there are good reasons to believe that cars are not one of the least subsidized form of transportation out there.

  4. Yes! It’s flat crazy that bikes are supposed to follow the same traffic rules as cars. In a street environment populated with cars and bikes, bikes have to worry intensely about getting killed by a car, but it’s not the other way even a little. (Where pedestrians are concerned, that changes the calculus a bit.) A further point is that bikes are ten times more maneuverable than cars, so again should be allowed much greater flexibility.

  5. The whole “cars emit less carbon than cars” thing is bunk anyway, unless you get %100 of your calories from factory-farmed meat, and wouldn’t replace biking with any other form of physical exercise (such as going to the gym… in your car). It’s doubly bunk if you buy groceries with your bike, since _all_ transportation, including that from the store to your house, is included in the food carbon footprint figures.

  6. Pedestrians have a right to expect that they can cross when they’ve got the light, or at a stop sign. They cannot do that when bicyclists violate the law. I don’t see how complicated it is. I’ve yet to hear any mass transit-supporter offer to totally do a way with subsidies of any kind to transit. Let’s sell off the highways. Offer curb rights on streets. Who knows? Maybe a private market would result in elevated/protected bike paths? Somehow it’s always about pouring lots more cash into buses and rail. Not my idea of a good time.

  7. But I never get a clear sense from many libertarians that they grasp the extent of the subsidies,
    I never get a clear sense from many bike-loving or car-disliking libertarians that they grasp the true extent of the subsidies, either. They tend to assume that the subsidies must be huge (perhaps because they don’t like it), but the numbers just aren’t there. Please take a look at the BTS report linked earlier in this thread.
    Certainly not federally. State and local, some states get lots of road funds from gas taxes, but others do subsidize by using federal funds. However, I’m not enamored of an argument built around state and local funds subsidizing roads either– to me, it doesn’t speak well for transit when local and state governments refuse to spend on them without massive federal subsidies, especially since the net federal subsidy on cars is slightly negative.
    There are exceptions, of course– North Carolina is spending money on rail upgrades because the SEHSR is actually definitely worth it. The EIS is still holding them up, though.

  8. One of the biggest “subsidies” to roads is the National Environmental Policy Act. It takes ten years to get the Environmental Impact Studies done for any major changes. Upgrades, like adding a lane to an existing road, requires less study. In addition, there’s an existing pipeline of already studied road additions just waiting for construction, but less so for rail.
    So everyone continually faces the question of being able to upgrade existing roads now, or studying a new rail line for 10 years and opening it 3-5 years after that. The NEPA makes it really hard to change old infrastructure decisions.

  9. Oddly enough, Chinese bikers don’t seem to feel the need to follow traffic laws either, but since they are the majority of vehicles on the road here, it tends to yield a giant, dangerous mess. I think that your flagrant disregard for traffic laws is only workable in an environment where biking is comparatively rare.

  10. R Pointer – Currently a graduate student at the University of Toronto. My interests are varied. I love reading and playing chess. Both are addictions. And I am trying to find a way to make a living from both.
    Richard Pointer says:

    Having looked at the subsidies chart it becomes clear that it is meaningless without absolute expenditures.
    In fact, one could imagine the government actively sponsoring urban sprawl to inflate was is clearly a money making operation. If every year more roads are built and expansion leads to greater inlays, then the government has an incentive to continue this cycle.
    We would have to look at miles per capita, and see if that is expanding.

  11. Also, bikes. People complain about bikers breaking traffic laws. Well, I’m guilty, and I’m damn well going to keep doing it.
    After my brother was in a bad cycling accident (a van turned right in front of his bike, even though he had right of way), I started looking out with deep suspicion for cyclists and found myself amazed at how many cyclists don’t have lights or even reflective clothing on at night and in heavy rain.

  12. In fact, one could imagine the government actively sponsoring urban sprawl to inflate was is clearly a money making operation. If every year more roads are built and expansion leads to greater inlays, then the government has an incentive to continue this cycle.
    What, you’re claiming that it’s inefficient because it’s profitable? Of course the government has an incentive to continue to build roads if people pay more in taxes to use the roads than it costs to build them. That doesn’t mean that it’s inefficient, or a subsidy, though. By contrast, that’s an argument that it’s efficient and the best use of resources to build roads; that’s what being profitable means. Absolute expenditures has almost nothing to do with whether or not it’s efficient at the margin to choose transit or roads, or nor with who is subsidizing whom.
    If you want to make an argument that there’s somehow a subsidy, you would be better off arguing that there are externalities– that somehow the additional roads make non-road users worse off but additional transit makes non-transit users better off. There is a real argument there (the Onion’s take makes the point amusingly), and that’s where the small absolute amount of transit miles makes a difference, as a small increase in benefit changes the subsidy ratio a lot.

  13. There are some other reasonable pro-transit and train arguments. Things like “Well, if the government actually funded them where they were useful (like SEHSR) instead of not (Buffalo light rail, long distance trains) it would look a lot better,” “Well, additional transit makes the entire rest of the transit system more valuable, so perhaps if you built more it would pay for itself/decrease the relative subsidy,” or the combined argument, “It’s politically necessary to have a national train system with long distance trains connection everywhere, but don’t worry, since we’re past that fixed cost any additional spending would go into the actually fairly efficient corridors.”
    In other words, various arguments about increasing returns together with an assumption that the government has funded less efficient routes first for political reasons but “it’ll all be different this time.”

  14. Of course, note that just because the road system isn’t overall federally subsidized doesn’t mean that the method of revenue collection is the best. Taxes that hit just drivers are a good start, but taxes on gas and congestion are better than, say, property taxes and registration fees on cars that hit people regardless of how much or even if they drive and create traffic.

  15. I’d like to add two more layers to this.
    Cyclists tend to be physically fitter and healthier than their car-driving neighbours. Surely there are economic benefits to costing the health-system less because of their healthier lifestyles. I ride my bike to work every day (in Canada this can be a challenge sometimes) and the 40 minutes (20 minutes each way) of exercise I get drastically reduces my likelihood of developing heart disease or diabetes.
    Secondly, think of the economic real estate that parking lots occupy. Let’s say you can park 5 bikes in the space it takes to park 1 car. Imagine what a congested centre like Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston or San Francisco could do with the space created by bulldozing a few parking garages.
    Just my two (Canadian) cents.

  16. Hey Fysh – I agree totally with your pro bike stance, but gee what a Canadian you are. When you mention that bike riding “drastically reduces” your likelihood of developing heart disease or diabetes, the reason you think that’s a benefit is because then it costs the “health-system” less.

  17. The “rules” are there as much for your safety as they are for the safety of car drivers and more importantly the poor pedestrian who runs the risk of injury if you happen to be riding in their area.
    Living in San Francisco I have witnessed more pedestrians being injured by bike riding fools who believe the side-WALK is intended for their bike riding. I’ve also witnessed serious accidents caused by bike riders ignoring the rules of the road thus causing injury and death to those who happened to be in their path, and following traffic laws.
    So many folks now-a-days think the rules only apply to others, yet scream bloody murder when others ignore those same rules. Another sad effect of the “ME ME ME Society”.
    Well, if you have no regards for the law regarding bike traffic laws, please ask your family members to be aware of that fact and to not sue the poor fool who runs you over and kills you. I also hope if you are ever disabled or injured by a motorist while you are on you bike, that they don’t have a copy of this article that states you disregard the laws. I doubt any jury or court would find in your favor.

  18. I commute by bike in Los Angeles and almost never come to a complete stop at a stop sign. I treat them as yeild signs. Of course, that means that I yeild when it’s someone else’s turn to go through the interesection. I hear a lot of anti-bicycle people complain about the lawless bikers. “They’re always running red lights!” Really? I hardly ever see that happen. You’d have to be crazy to run most red lights in Los Angeles. Experienced bikers know better. I’ve been doing 20- and 25-mile round-trip commutes by bike in L.A. for about eight years now. No sense in waiting for bicycle Utopia with elevated bike paths and other such infrastructure. I try to find routes with bike lanes or streets that are wide enough to accommodate bikes amongst the cars (i.e. Santa Monica Blvd.), or I try to find side streets to ride on. Follow Liz Taylor’s advice to young starlets: “Take Fountain”.

  19. I commute by bike just about every day, rain or shine. I’ve been hit twice and narrowly missed numerous times. I think the biggest problem for cyclists is our lack of legitimization as a road vehicle. If we want to be considered a vehicle rather than some pedestrian/vehicle hybrid, we need to go the whole nine yards. Register with a license plate, get insurance, be accountable, don’t hop on and off sidewalks. Sure, our commutes might take a little longer, and we might be a little inconvienced, but the more we become a regular part of the legit traffic flow, the more other vehicles will learn to deal with cyclists.

  20. If you want to ride a bike on the road and be treated like a real vehicle, it’s not too much to ask that you also follow traffic laws. Otherwise, don’t complain when a car passes too close to you or runs you off the road for slowing them down.

  21. I blow through stop signs, go the wrong way on one-ways, etc.
    Fine, then I won’t give a fig about running you over

  22. Dear Will: I have sent a memo to every insurance defence firm in the Balt/Wash metroplex with a copy of your post. No need to thank me–I know you won’t want to sue when your skull gets cracked open.

  23. I’m a biker and driver and agree that bikes should have a separate set of rules. I will guess that Howard (who says it’s not too much to ask that bikers follow traffic laws) doesn’t bike very much. On the other hand, “blowing through stop signs” is not the right approach either. One would think logical grown-ups could reach a sensible compromise. The first step is respecting your fellow human beings.

    1. I disagree. I think the first step is acceleration.
      I lost ALL sympathy for whining bikers when I got trapped for 45 minutes in a “Critical Mass” rally in downtown San Francisco on my way to reach my sister in the emergency room. Bikers could see my anguish. They literally laughed in my face and gave me the finger.
      Bikers’ self-righteousness combined with their lack of concern for others on the road makes them prime targets in my book.
      Fuck you. Go ahead and blow a stop-sign when I’m crossing the intersection. Hope you’re wearing a quality helmet.

      1. I’m a biker and once went to a CM ride in Philly with a friend out of curiousity. Those people do their level best to antagonize people in cars, and one of them rear ended a bike, just enough to knock a guy over.
        Critical Mass might have been a good thing if the people who took part actually had some sort of civic-mindedness, but they are all just assholes who want to take out their misplaced rage against “the Man.”

  24. I don’t give a fig about accellerating just a bit as I obliterate your bike when you blow a stop sign and I don’t have one.
    Ha-ha, I win!

  25. You know, there is a certain sort of minority entitlement that I hate, even from fellow gays–I get to have my feelings and you don’t get yours–don’t call me fag but I’ll call you breeder.
    Bicyclists have the same thing, in spades. We’re so put upon we should be exempt from following the rules designed to protect, among others, PEDESTRIANS AND BICYCLISTS.

  26. As a pedestrian who was recently bruised up when a bicyclist crashed into me while i was walking on a sidewalk (on 14th Street which has a bike lane), I respectfully dissent. There’s a huge potential for bike-symapthy welled up inside me that is sapped by reckless and rude bicyclists who too often are just unbearably smitten by their own importance.

  27. One thing Will (and Sullivan) seem to ignore in their mockery of everyone too stupid to see their gay -eco-saintliness is that car owners have to buy insurance. It costs the most in cities with the highest population densities, which happen to have the most bicyclists for obvious reasons.
    If you know an insurance defense lawyer, ask him if the insurer has ever *not* had to pay out on a bike claim, even when the driver isn’t at fault–the answer will be no, since the plaintiff’s bar is so desperate, and defending a case is so expensive, that just paying them to go away saves money.
    Until they pass a law exempting me from liability for your uninsured ass when I hit you while following the rules, I’m not going to feel the least bit sorry for your problems. In fact, this makes me a lot less sympathetic.

  28. So Will; can I assume that you won’t mind when I’m in my car, stop at the intersection of two one way streets, check for traffic in the “right” direction, and hit you coming the wrong way because I assumed that no one would approach from there?

  29. One of the greatest things about blogging is that it occasionally gives evidence of just how stupid, self-centered and oblivious we human beings can be.
    I can’t imagine anyone writing a letter to the editor or standing up in a public meeting and essentially saying “I’ll violate traffic laws any damn time I want and fuck everyone else”.

  30. I’ve never read this guy before, but geez, what a smug, fart sniffing a-hole. I mean, it doesn’t make sense for my car to stop at a red light at 3am when I can see a mile in every direction, but I do it anyway. Put on your grownup pants and follow the rules. You’re not special.

  31. At the risk of joining a pile-on: I completely agree that certain laws would be better applied if they differentiated in some ways between cyclists and vehicles. But you know what? They don’t. And following the laws that are there is 100% better than just disregarding the ones that make your commute a little longer.
    I’m fine with bikes treating Stop signs like Yields. I bike a lot, I do it to. I get it. You’ve got momentum, you’re still looking, whatever. It’s fine. But if you blow through a sign without looking, sporting iPod buds in your ears (or, a cell phone, which seems to be the big thing now) and the car that has the right of way hits you, that’s it. You’re dead, or maimed, or whatever, and the driver of the car has to live with something that isn’t his/her fault.
    Same thing with One Way streets. It’s easier? Congratulations, we’re all proud that you’ve found a secret short cut. But when the driver pulling out of his parking space and looking over his shoulder for traffic coming from the proper direction has you go flying over his hood, it’s the same deal: he’s fine, you’re not, but he’s got to live with it. This is all leaving out the very real threat to pedestrians that careless bikers cause.
    Honestly, I can’t fathom the tantrum-like hand crossing of “The laws don’t work for me, so I don’t follow them. Hmph!” You want change, change the law. And obey the ones that are there in the meantime, because bragging about how flagrantly you violate them sure isn’t helping the cause.

  32. As a biker,a pedestrian and a driver, I’ll admit to being a bit ticked about Will’s attitude. I have no real desire to hit anyone. BUT, I had a number of near misses as a pedestrian in NYC (and had no car, so didn’t drive) when I stepped off the curb and was almost hit by bikes going the wrong way or blowing through stop lights. I’ve had some recent near misses in Minneapolis where I live now for the same reason and have just missed a couple of bikers with my car.
    Some bikers don’t seem to have thought through the safety reasons behind traffic laws, apparently thinking that they’re just about regulating traffic flow. They’re about safety as well. And while I know that bikers who break them think that they’re in control of their risk, raising your level of risk on a daily basis simply makes it more likely that someday you’re going to lose that bet.
    My first two vehicles were motorcycles. One of the things I learned passing on the right and lane splitting was that I was assuming that no one I was passing was going to make a mistake that I would have to pay for with my health if not my life. I stopped riding all together when finally figured out that I had given up far too much control over my safety to total strangers. I ride my bike these days with those lessons in mind.
    Everyone who bikes would be wise to do the same. After all, the driver who kills you is likely to go uninjured, and the question of who was at fault will be moot for one of you.

  33. After reading the comments here I can only conclude that Will’s post on biking is a very subtle, wry satire on deregulation and public policy: a “modest proposal” of his own to reduce urban traffic congestion. Will clearly recognizes that traffic laws by design regulate all vehicles, not just cars, and that they serve a necessary public good by reducing costly accidents and providing a framework for assigning blame in the event of a collision. Really, the frightening thing here is how many of Will’s readers actually take these silly proposals seriously.
    Bravo, Will! Well done indeed!

  34. Out of curiousity, what wrong way street do you bike down? I have seen cyclists hit going the wrong way both down T and Q by cars who turned right onto a different street or turned ONTO the street, not anticipating a bike. And yes, this has made me hate bikers with a heated intensity, which, as a non-car owning pedestrian who thinks anyone who takes the metro to chinatown from dupont is lazy, you’d think is surprising.
    Also adding to this hatred is watching the bicyclists speed down 18th street zooming through the T street stop sign even though that is a busy intersection and at the speeds you gather on that hill, there is no way to stop if a cab comes into the street, which I’ve also seen happen, and it was the bicyclist who screamed at the cabbie about not being careful. Oh, but wait, you’re more “mobile”. Well, my legs are pretty mobile, too, but that doesn’t give me the right to walk in front of moving vehicles.
    Also, get the hell off my sidewalk. If you can ignore stop signs and walk signs, then don’t get huffy about my jaywalking ass. And if you injure me, will your insurance pay my hospital bill— oh yeah, you don’t assume responsibility for others, unlike motorists.

  35. Some states — well, Idaho definitely, and probably Montana in 2009, not sure if there are others — require bikes only to yield at stop signs and red lights, rather than stop. Seems to work pretty well, though obviously there are less people out here.

  36. I really like the people who think because Will is a smug asshole that it’s okay to run him down with a car, and then call him childish.

  37. As a lifelong cyclist, I will only say that I think there’s a Darwin Award in Will’s future. Even if he has already removed himself from the gene pool.

  38. I bike to work every day (don’t own a car), but after a collision with a pedestrian (in which I think I was hurt worse than the pedestrian) who unexpectedly turned on the sidewalk, I’ve been much more careful to ride on roads, and I’ve changed my route slightly (going a little bit out of the way) to go the right way on one-way streets, etc.
    What I *really* *really* hate is smug motorists who honk at me and tell me I’m an idiot when I’m *right* in the middle of traffic on the street, going as fast as any car there at that time, and obeying *every single traffic rule*. It makes me want to scratch their car.

  39. Jeezum! Such hostility. I wonder if those of you busting wills chops never, ever exceed the speed limit. Do you come to a complete stop before making a right on red? Do you yield to pedestrians at the crosswalk? Do you come to a full stop at stop signs. Ask yourselves. Hypocrites.
    The answers are simple. Everybody: slow down, pay attention, and show the other guy just a little consideration.

  40. Why so smug about breeding? And, anyway, shouldn’t ecofootprints be per capita anyway, so what exactly gets you off the hook simply for not breeding?

  41. I lost all sympathy I ever had for bicyclists when one ran over my foot on the (fairly crowed) sidewalk while going at moderate speeds and made no attempt to stop, forcing me to body check him or else jump into traffic to keep him from doing it again with his rear wheel. He then had the audacity to call the police, and scream and curse at the cop when he was ticketed for riding on the sidewalk. To say nothing of the other times it almost happened, but I was able to jump out of the way. You cyclists want sympathy, try doing some self-policing. Otherwise, expect pedestrians like me to keep secretly cheering when a smug cyclist gets paid for their carelessness.

  42. Perfectly understandable that you think that you should not abide by the same laws, however by that same token since you aren’t following laws I expect you will be understanding that I will not treat your bike like a real vehicle unless you do so. Many a time I’ve seen smug bikers who choose to ignore all the traffic laws, so hav come to the conclusion that unless I see them obeying traffic laws I will ignore them. True they have more manuverability (I butchered that word i think) this does not give them the right to blaze through the center of traffic lanes, run lights or ride wherever they please. Last time I saw a biker doing that I simply opened my door, and the biker was outraged. Apparently its my fault he may have been injured because he was riding between two rows of cars locked in a traffic jam.

  43. Can’t these motorists remember riding bikes when they were kids? How could you possibly get angry at a cyclist when as a proud car owner, you assume responsibility for road safety. Defensive driving, much? *Gah* Haters.

  44. bikes. People complain about bikers breaking traffic laws. Well, I’m guilty, and I’m damn well going to keep doing it. A lot of traffic regulations make sense for cars, but just don’t for bikes

  45. Another note on bikers. If you use bike you are already putting you right foot over your grave. I see many bikers don’t know how to follow traffic rules. I don’t say cars are all good but if you handle you car with care you will be better than riding a bike.

  46. In Japan, there are very high tolls just for driving on the freeway. So though I am a car dealer, I often ride bikes when I go long distance. However, riding bikes is considered dangerous in Japan as the motorists don’t care a fig about them, so one has to be extra cautious.

  47. I like biking but I will still use car. I usually use my bike going to mall half an hour ride but I always use a car going to work 2hrs ride. But I always play safe when I use a bike or a car. Always do read traffic rules.

  48. It’s a good idea to get a bike for the simple pleasure of riding a motorcycle. Insurance is ridiculously cheap (unfortunately when it comes to ‘car vs. bike’ in a wreck, cars usually win – so be VERY careful).

  49. Indianapolis Fire Fighters Union says a new survey shows Marion County voters will support fire consolidation if they get all the facts. The April poll was conducted in Washington township where a survey of 400 registered voters showed them supporting fire amtrak promotion code consolidation by 46 to 11 percent. 30 percent said they didn’t think it would

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