Cycling Myths Debunked, part I

by Bill Oetinger
Column reprinted courtesy of BikeCal.com

I generally try to steer this column in a happy, non-confrontational direction, confining myself to subjects that make me smile and (I hope) make my readers smile too. Fortunately, cycling is a topic that provides many smiles per mile, so it's easy to be upbeat about it.

But every so often, I start thinking about some aspects of our chosen avocation that get me a little bit riled up. You can guess that these dark thoughts will have something to do with the conflicts between bikes and cars. No surprise there. There are many little troubles that beset cyclists from time to time, from bonks to breakdowns to black ice, but the ones that upset us with most regularity are the ones that involve confrontations with motorists who challenge our right to be on the road, or who question the legitimacy of bikes as transport.

I haven't had any recent run-ins with road rage to focus my fury. Most of the time, my relations with my fellow road users are cordial. These are just some thoughts I've been kicking around for some time, and as a therapy for myself, I want to get them off my journalistic chest, once and for all, and then go back to happy-talk columns once again.

If you listen to enough discussions between cyclists and non-cyclists about the legitimacy of cycling, you will hear two opinions, passed off as fact, which are used to marginalize cyclists as second-class citizens of the road...

  1. Most cycling miles are "recreational" — people out playing around — and are thus somewhat frivolous and of a lower order of importance than real road-user miles (car miles), which involve working or commuting.
  2. Cyclists don't pay their own way on the road because they don't pay registration fees or other use fees such as gas taxes.

Both of these notions really bug me, not only because they're wrong, or at least flawed logically, but also because they have such widespread credibility, even among the ranks of cyclists. My goal here is to debunk these myths so that you won't ever believe them again, and so that, when someone throws them in your face, you can throw them right back.

No offense to you the reader, but the conventional wisdom is that folks reading copy on the web have the attention span of a gerbil, so in order to keep this short, I'm going to address the first issue this month and the second one next month.

Okay...first myth first. We had a little survey in our club this year to determine how many of our collective miles were something other than recreational: commuting, running errands, or in some way using a bike in place of a car. Even riding to recreational rides would count, as opposed to driving to the ride starts. Implicit in this survey--or so it seemed to me--was the idea that non-recreational miles on a bike are more virtuous than recreational miles, as if the only legitimate use of a road is for work, or getting to work.

I know the club members who came up with the idea of the survey would deny this. They would say they were only trying to point out how many car-miles were being replaced by bike-miles. Nevertheless, the idea persists--in the minds of most motorists and many cyclists--that no-fun miles are more legitimate than fun miles. I take exception to this.

Now don't get me wrong: I love the idea of cycle-commuting. I did it for many years and the only reason I don't do it now is because I work at home. I try to use my town bike for errands, and I ride to club rides whenever it's practical, which in my case means almost any time the ride start is within 20 miles of my house and when the total miles for the day, including "commute", don't exceed around 100 miles. (I'm sure my friends can point out lots of rides I've driven to where I've violated that rule, but in general, that's my goal.)

But do I think those working miles entitle me to a larger chunk of the moral high ground in the debate over road rights, and that my recreational miles are less worthy? Hardly.

First off, let's look at who's using the road and how legitimate their uses are. I will accept all freight hauling and delivery work as worthy, along with such services as meter reading. (Even though a lot of meter reading could be done easily on a bike, and at a fraction of the cost and pollution, and that some freight hauling could be better done by rail, etc.) I will also accept errands such as grocery shopping as legitimate, as only the hardiest cyclists are going to pack a week's worth of food into their BOB Yaks to pull home behind the bike.

But commuting miles? Where is it ordained that living an hour from work and chugging back and forth in a single-occupant vehicle is legitimate? Sorry... commuting doesn't compute. I'm not saying we have to radically reinvent our society, but we do need to consider all the alternatives to long commutes in cars: living closer to our jobs; telecommuting; mass transit; AND cycle-commuting. And while I'm not saying everyone who commutes by car has to stop doing it, I am saying that anyone who is doing it has no room to criticize anyone else for taking up space on the roads...especially cyclists.

Now, about those recreational miles... While in most of the world, the bicycle is a primary form of working transportation, it is true that in highway-happy California, most bike miles are recreational. But then, how many car (and truck and SUV) miles are also recreational? How about the soccer mom hauling the kids to the playground, or to ballet or piano lessons? How about the family driving to Disneyland or Yosemite? How about the ski weekend? How about Billy Bob hauling his ski boat or bass boat up to the lake? How about the Sonoma County couple driving to San Francisco for a Giants game or a night at the Opera? How about the San Francisco couple driving to Sonoma County for wine tasting? How about equestrians hauling their horses to the trailhead or surfers heading for the beach or teenagers cruising the drive-in? How about the folks in their sports cars and motos, ripping up the country roads, just for the fun of it?

What about those gas-guzzling RVs? They actually call them "recreational vehicles"...at least they're honest! (An aside: motorists are forever getting stuck behind dawdling, waddling RVs. They may fume and fuss while they're stuck, but do they lay all over the horn and scream and flip the driver the bird when they finally go by, as so many motorists do with cyclists? I don't think so. Why cyclists and not RV drivers?)

I'm sure if I dug around on the 'net long enough, I could find statistics that tell us what percentage of total miles in this country is working miles and what percentage is recreational, but I'll bet it's close to 50/50. Check out the monster traffic jam on the south-bound approach to the Golden Gate Bridge on any Sunday afternoon, and consider that probably 90% of those vehicles are logging recreational miles... returning to the city after a day of play in the country. And consider further that not only their miles to and from their recreation use energy, but in many cases so does their recreation itself: running the boat or jet ski at the lake or the quad runner or snow mobile in the woods or the golf cart on the links; powering the ski lift; lighting the score board, stadium, or concert hall, etc.

By comparison, a cyclist's use of the road for recreational pursuits looks positively clean and green, even when it involves a little drive to and from the start. If legitimacy is enhanced by generating less pollution, causing less congestion, consuming fewer resources, and doing less damage to the infrastructure, then cycling--for work or play--deserves to be ranked at the top of any highway pecking order, not at the bottom.

Next: paying your own way.