Sorry, Urbanists, But
Bicycles Will Never Save The Planet
Steven Greenhut | December 4, 2024
SACRAMENTO – After my recent column chiding urbanists for their visceral dislike of suburbia and cars, I’ve been bemused by posts from a subset of their movement: hard-core bicyclists. Lots of people, myself included, enjoy an occasional bicycle ride, but I’m referring to the zealous ones who think that bikes can “save” our society. They have a missionary zeal about them.
If average Christians spent as much time proselytizing as these bicyclists spend touting pedaling, then we’d be a very religious society. Many cyclists aren’t just happy riding. They want others to do so, also. It’s not hard to follow their argument, given that bicycle evangelists believe emission-less travel will stop the Earth from boiling over.
They inhabit an insular subculture that views cars as a scourge. One poster on X noted: “Wiser person than me said ‘Car ads falsely promise the kind of freedom that only a bicycle can give you.’” My snarky response: “Well, except for the freedom to go to the grocery store, take the family, go places in winter, commute decent distances, go to the airport with luggage and go out of town for the weekend, but other than that, sure.”
I was informed by another that, “you can bike to the grocery store, with your family (they also ride bikes). you can bike in the winter. Wear a coat like you do to walk to your heated oversized SUV. don’t live 45 miles away from work. my bike commute is 11 miles. easy. take an Uber to the airport. anything else?” Sure, I just need to move and change my entire lifestyle.
These bicyclists don’t want much – only the total rebuilding of our communities to adapt to their transportation choice. For example, a column by George Monbiot in the Guardian makes one simple request: phasing out cars within 10 years.
“Transport, mostly because of our obsession with the private car, is now the major factor driving us towards climate breakdown,” he wrote. “As we jostle to secure our road space, as we swear and shake our fists at other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, as we grumble about speed limits and traffic calming, cars change us, enhancing our sense of threat and competition.”
Cities already are building bike lanes, which isn’t a bad idea. If some people bike to work, then it takes a few cars off the road. Bicycling is fun and promotes exercise, so why not cost-effectively accommodate this pastime? Yet the idea that biking-plus-transit can replace driving is unrealistic – and would require extensive social engineering.
Bicycle urbanists don’t even like electric vehicles. They mock them as subsidized toys for the rich. They aren’t happy with the new bicycle lanes. They want – no, demand – lanes that are cordoned off by barriers and reconstruction of intersections (not just painted lanes). Some bristle at the idea that bicyclists should follow traffic rules or stay off sidewalks.
They are right to be concerned about shocking increases in pedestrian fatalities, but advocate a dramatic reduction in driving rather than some modest infrastructure and traffic-enforcement changes
One of the scariest places I’ve crossed the street was Saigon, where streams of bicyclists and scooter riders covered the streets. I saw bicyclists precariously balancing boxes and construction materials on their bikes. There’s a reason car ownership is soaring in Vietnam. As societies become affluent, people naturally choose cars.
Despite recent investments in bike infrastructure, not many Americans outside Manhattan commute by bike. “The 0.54 percent of US commuters who usually made the trip by bike in 2022 was the same as in 2019 but well down from 2014 and not far above the 0.5 percent measured in the decennial census way back in 1980,” writes Justin Fox of Bloomberg. One bright note: e-bikes are growing in popularity.
Bike advocates take the “if you build it, they will ride” approach, but even if the number of bicyclists tripled it wouldn’t make a dent in traffic or climate goals. Bicyclists also love transit, but despite a post-COVID uptick, transit ridership is at dismal levels. So, urbanists often tout reductions in lanes and shutting streets to traffic. Some cities previously shuttered downtown streets to cars and it created ghost towns.
Bike enthusiasts often complain about car subsidies, but don’t tell the full story. Drivers pay gas taxes/user fees and other forms of general taxation subsidize roads. Nevertheless, Cato Institute noted subsidies are 1.5-cents per passenger mile for automobiles compared to almost 90-cents per mile for transit. Bicyclists pay nothing. They are the ultimate free riders.
My transportation preference is a Kawasaki, but you don’t find motorcyclists demanding the world be rebuilt to cater to our somewhat-dangerous hobby. Then again, we don’t believe that our preference is Earth saving. We simply adjust our riding to fit the world as it exists. Bicyclists should take a lesson, thank taxpayers for the new lanes and stop hectoring us.
Steven Greenhut is director of Pacific Research Institute’s Free Cities Center. This column was first published in The Orange County Register.