Melissa Carter’s op-ed on February 15th, “Cars aren’t the problem with ‘Share the Road,’” generated quite a stir throughout the state. Fans of the piece applauded her targeting of people on bikes, while those who ride bicycles (or support those who do) expressed outrage at many of her opinions.
I’d like to set the record straight and discuss the facts about bicycling in Georgia.
First off, Ms. Carter says she does not “believe in sharing the road.” With all due respect, it’s not a matter of belief. As in every state, bicycles are recognized as vehicles in Georgia. Sharing the road is a legal responsibility as well as a basic act of courtesy.
Georgia Bikes responds to Melissa Carter’s column on sharing the road with cyclists
Ms. Carter goes on to observe that “the burden of traveling safely together ultimately depends on the driver.” I couldn’t agree more. Motor vehicles are large, complex, and dangerous machines, and their operators must exercise special caution on the public roadways, especially when they are operated near other, much more vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and people on bikes. That motor vehicles are inherently dangerous and complicated to operate are the reasons we require licenses to operate them. Licenses grant people the privilege to operate a complex machine. Licenses do not grant people the right to dominate and hoard our public spaces.
Bicycle riders, like drivers of farm equipment and equestrians, are bound by the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicle operators. They must ride with traffic – not against it – and obey all traffic control devices, including stop signs and red lights. As a daily cyclist, an advocate, and a certified safe cycling instructor, I say without hesitation that cyclists who disobey the law should be stopped and ticketed by law enforcement, just like motorists who disregard traffic laws should be.
With respect to scofflaw cyclists (who, like misbehaving motorists, are in the small minority), it boils down to education and enforcement. Citizen advocacy organizations throughout the state conduct outreach and educational campaigns for improved bicycle safety. Through Georgia Bikes, the statewide advocacy group, I conduct free training courses on state bicycling laws for traffic enforcement officers across Georgia. We have produced radio and television PSAs emphasizing cyclist rights and responsibilities which have been broadcast in multiple markets in Georgia since 2010. Education and consistent enforcement are ongoing challenges, but they are challenges that citizen groups and state agencies like the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety are actively addressing to improve roadway safety for all Georgians. If you want to see better informed motorists and people on bikes, join or support Georgia Bikes or your local bicycle safety organization.
Now I’d like to address Ms. Carter’s pleas for fairness on our roads. In 2012, bicyclists and pedestrians accounted for over 15% of all traffic fatalities in Georgia, yet as a state we only spend about 2.5% of our allotted federal transportation dollars on better bicycle and pedestrian facilities. In a truly fair world, we would proactively address our dangerous road designs by setting aside a fair share of funding to build safer places to walk and ride a bicycle. Fortunately, this past September, the Georgia Department of Transportation unanimously adopted a forward-thinking “Complete Streets” policy, which states that all road projects built with federal or state dollars will include safe accommodations for all users whenever appropriate. This will lead to better, safer facilities for people on bikes as new road projects follow the policy. We applaud the state DOT for recognizing the value of addressing roadway safety for more vulnerable users. Now we need state leaders to step up and implement this vision with a fair share of funding for safe transportation choices.
Finally, let’s debunk, once and for all, the pernicious and persistent notion that people on bikes don’t pay for the roads and so don’t deserve to use them (no matter what state law says):
Almost every person who rides a bike also drives a car. The “cyclists vs motorists” idea is nonsensical. There are simply Georgians who sometimes drive a car and other times ride a bicycle. I am one of these Georgians. I pay plenty of taxes, car-related and otherwise, and I don’t mind paying them so long as they’re used to build an equitable and safe transportation system for everyone to use.
So-called motor vehicle “user fees,” such as for licenses, tags, and gasoline, only pay for around HALF of all roadway construction and maintenance. If anything, people who drive very little – or never at all – subsidize motor vehicle use through income, property, and sales taxes. Transit users, pedestrians, and bicyclists pay a grossly disproportionate share for the construction of traffic-clogged, dangerous roadways.
A major reason we’re constantly spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on re-paving and maintenance is that constant car and truck traffic cause major damage to road surfaces. It would take a thousand bicycles a thousand years to match the wear and tear imposed by a single car in one year. Maintenance is expensive and Georgia is severely backlogged on maintenance projects. User fees come nowhere close to covering these expenses, so everyone subsidizes them.
If we include even conservative estimates of the hidden costs created by our car dependent communities, we would see even more galling proof that everyone – whether they drive or not – pays through the nose to support a tunnel-vision dependence on the automobile. We’re forcing ourselves to drive by creating roads and communities that offer no safe alternatives to driving. The health consequences are dire and very real. Far too many Georgians are obese and suffering from inactivity-related health issues like diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension. Long-term, the economic impact of our sedentary lifestyles will make today’s healthcare costs seem impossibly cheap by comparison.
Look around at the sprawl we have created. We can’t pave our way out of traffic congestion, as the last 50 years of highway engineering and policy all too depressingly demonstrates. The bigger and wider our roads, the more people will drive and the more we have to repair and maintain. Half of all trips people take are less than 2 miles in length, a very bikeable distance for most people. Statewide surveys show a clear demand for better options for bicycling, but our built environment hasn’t caught up. We hope that GDOT’s “Complete Streets” policy and similar local resolutions will address this need in the years ahead. When you get down to it, why wouldn’t we promote cheap, healthy, and sensible alternatives like walking and biking? Bikes aren’t the problem. They’re part of the solution.
Instead of blaming and targeting the most vulnerable people on the road, we should be encouraging, promoting, and advocating for more opportunities for safer bicycling at every opportunity. Even if you never ride a bicycle, roads that are safer for cyclists are safer for everyone. Contact your local elected officials and request more bike lanes and multi-use paths – their presence reduces crashes and provides both motorists and cyclists a more enjoyable traveling experience.
Look at that person on a bike not as an obstacle but as a neighbor who’s 1) saving you a parking space, 2) reducing your gas costs by lowering demand, 3) keeping the air clean for you and your children, and 4) lowering long-term road maintenance and healthcare costs for everyone.
Our roads are public spaces that we all pay for and deserve the right to use safely, no matter our vehicle of choice. I hope Ms. Carter and her readers will consider the facts I have presented and make a commitment to keeping our roadways safe for all users.