The Danger to Cycling of Anti-Car Advocacy

by John Finley Scott, Yolo County, CA and Gardnerville, NV

John Finley Scott is Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of California, Davis.  He served as president of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations in 1976-77 and served also as its legislative liaison and as CA State Legislative representative for the League of American Wheelmen.

Mixing bicycle transportation advocacy and anti-car ideology is more likely than not to damage the cycling cause.  I see this as potentially a serious problem for the League of American Bicyclists (LAB), even apart from whether it returns to its historic mission of supporting the best practices of cycling, often called Vehicular Cycling.

I see the beginning of a backlash against anti-car agitation.  If bicycle transportation advocates tie themselves to anti-car advocacy, they risk having bicycles banned from the roads.

Vehicular Cycling means operating a bicycle according to the standard rules for drivers of vehicles, on the same roads and with the same rights.  This is the safest and most efficient way to operate a bicycle.

The risk of damage does not result from conflicting goals: Vehicular Cycling is compatible with both conventional middle-class and countercultural lifestyles and, with certain qualifications, both anti-car ideology and indifference to widespread auto use.  The problem arises because Vehicular Cycling – or any cycling doctrine – is not a “fighting faith” for more than a very few people.  But opposition to cars is very much a “fighting faith,” and for large numbers of people.

Anti-car ideology has been growing in the USA since WW II, and it was voiced before then by many European intellectuals.  As the automobile sweeps all other transport modes from the field (except air transport for long-distance travel), beleaguered opponents of cars sense a crisis.  In their view the auto is reshaping cities and destroying the urban heritage.  They also see it as an agent of the class system, as supporting an offensive form of conspicuous consumption, as rendering non-drivers dependent and immobile, and as damaging to the environment.

Mass auto use also produces what its critics see as a hyper-democratic “Hobbes War,” a war of all against all — where reckless bullies dominate the flow of traffic, where meek and courteous citizens risk injury, delay, and status insult.  Hence the call arises to restrict auto use, especially in urban areas, and to advance the use of collective transit, bicycling, or walking.

The reason I see for not mixing Vehicular Cycling advocacy with anti-car ideology in the same organization is that because the anti-car fervor eventually captures the organization.  This has happened already in several bicycle-advocacy organizations, where what began as bicycling advocacy ended up as anti-car advocacy.  And because auto use is massively popular, anti-car advocates find it prudent to disguise their opposition to cars by calling for measures for which some other goal can be claimed — saving old cities, preserving the environment, encouraging cycling.

One sees this often in proposals for new wide bike lanes on existing streets where the real underlying motive is not to aid cyclists but to impede motor traffic (such as by reducing 4 traffic lanes to 2, as proposed for Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, CA) or by installing speed bumps or other traffic calming measures, some of which are a greater safety hazard and inconvenience for cyclists than they are for motorists.

If anti-car doctrine were to carry the day and auto use were somehow to recede, a close link between Vehicular Cycling and anti-car doctrine would not be a problem.  But that is not how things are working now: auto use is not expanding much in the USA only because so little use remains by other modes.  Attempts to “get people out of their cars” are almost complete failures both in this country and throughout the world.  Cars simply do transport work better for most people and most journeys than the alternatives that are offered as replacements for them.  And auto use is rising throughout the world — most rapidly in India and especially in China, where annual auto sales are up about 80%, as these two economies modernize.

Additionally, I see the beginning of a backlash in this country against anti-car agitation, and this backlash may well grow.  If bicycle transportation advocates, including LAB, tie themselves to anti-car advocacy, they risk having bicycles banned from the roads in a backlash against car-hatred and as a reaction to depicting road cycling as dangerous.

Editor’s note:  For other ideas on the relationship between cycling and reducing car use, see
Who Really Benefits From Bikeways? by John Forester
Cycling for Conservation by Fred Oswald.

© Copyright 2003-8 John Finley Scott and LAB Reform.  May be reproduced, with attribution.

Minor revision 6/ 7/08.