Pedestrian and Cyclist Rights Are a Horse of a Different Color

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Micah lives in Arlington, Virginia. He has been a transportation-cyclist since 2007 and is a senior civil-engineering student.
June 4, 2013

I’m going to be writing a series this summer focusing on cultural attitudes towards various transportation methods and how this impacts individual mobility. I’ll save the U.S./Europe comparisons for a later post because there is a wealth of information to extract there. For this first entry, I’d like to start with a basic assessment of the level of freedom of movement that our society considers to be a basic human right.

A good entry to this topic comes from this tweet posted during the 2013 Midwest Regional Bicycle Safety Summit (held only a few weeks after the National Bike Summit here in DC!) quoting Officer Danny McCullough of the Three Rivers Park District: “To drive on the road is a privilege – to bike on the road is a right.”

I’m sure this line caused more than a few quizzical stares. It seems wrong to American ears. I can’t even count the times that drivers have shouted at me to “get that bike on the sidewalk!” And yet it’s true: driving is a privilege. Walking and biking, on the other hand, are unlicensed (though certainly not unregulated) activities. While cyclists can be ticketed for breaking traffic laws, there are no legal statutes in this country that impose a suspension or revocation of “bicycling privileges” for any crime. This is actually an important point and provides the first step in defining freedom of movement.

While this next point may seem a bit esoteric, I think it’s also important to address horses in this discussion. In rural parts of Virginia and Maryland, near the D.C. metro area, horseback riding is a popular sport. However, if you go just a few miles further south-east towards the Shenandoah Valley or north into Pennsylvania, you’ll soon see the horse-drawn buggies of the region’s Mennonite and Amish communities sharing the roads with cars. I love this regional feature because it’s such a poignant reminder that while cars may be the norm and horses seem like a relic of ancient history, there was never actually a point where riding horses on public roads became illegal. Rather, it just faded (tremendously) in popularity.

Equestrians in the state of Virginia face the same traffic regulations as cyclists – “follow all the same rules as cars” – and are similarly prohibited from controlled-access highways such as interstates. Remember that turns can be indicated with hand/arm signals and there is no minimum speed limit except on certain controlled-access highways that prohibit bikes, pedestrians, and horses anyway. I would *love* to see some of our local equestrians riding in the road, just as a “flexing your rights” exercise.

Getting back to the point: roads do not exist for cars. Say it out loud, “Roads do not exist for cars!” Roads exist for people because people like to move about freely.  Overwhelmingly, of course, people choose to move about in cars. It is important to note, however, that motorists only provide 51 percent of funding for roads, despite causing 100 percent of wear-and-tear (ever seen a potholed cycle track?).

At this point we have established a reasonable idea of the boundaries of individual freedom of movement: a citizen is free to travel as they wish by any human- or animal-powered conveyance within the boundaries of their home country (passport control is beyond the scope of this discussion). That sounds fantastic! I happen to live in a very large country with a plethora of exciting destinations and an extensive network of roads, maintained with my tax dollars, to guide me to them.

So I should be able to grab my trusty horse, bike, or boots and go exploring, right? Of course we know it’s not quite that simple: our transportation infrastructure caters to one customer, the motorist. Pedestrians and cyclists (and equestrians too!) frequently face danger and difficulty getting around on our roads, and motorists are rarely punished for causing injury or death. In a nation founded on ideals of “inalienable rights,” it may seem stunning that the preferences of motorists are given such higher priority than the most basic rights of non-motorists.

The remaining posts in this series will seek to examine the attitudes embedded in our culture that have led to this condition.

This article was originally published at The Mechanic Speaks.

Photo by Elvert Barnes

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