Should the driving rules favor cars or bikers?

by on July 10, 2008 at 6:40 am in Law | Permalink

Not everyone likes DC drivers and more here, both from Megan.  I am more sympathetic to the position of cars and their drivers (NB: I don’t ride a bike.)  I see two major arguments:

1. Riding a bike is dangerous no matter how considerate the drivers, at least in the car-intensive cities of the United States (maybe not in Amsterdam).  Furthermore accidents and potential accidents impose costs on both parties and more generally Coasian externalities are symmetric.  The first best equilibrium involves less mutual contact and the cheapest way to bring that about is probably to discourage biking.  (After all, they’re the ones who can be scared off with risk of death and dismemberment.)  That means road rules which discriminate against the interests of bikers.

2. If a bike has to stop and wait ten seconds for a car, that biker loses ten seconds of travel time.  If a car has to stop and wait ten seconds for a bike, the driver loses ten seconds of travel time.  The expected loss in distance traveled is much greater for the car, especially in areas where cars are going fast (i.e., the disputed areas when safety is a concern).  Furthermore the cars are more likely inhabited by people with a higher value for their time, at least on average if not for every biking blogger. 

The case for favoring the bikes is that taxing the privileges of cars will lead to truly safer behavior through greater driver caution.  Maybe.

Will chimes in, Arnold too.  Arnold is unhappy.

Vroom!!!

Jason July 10, 2008 at 7:29 am

Per #2: I’m not sure loss in distance traveled is they main concern for the cyclist. I might argue that loss of momemtum is the key. The cyclist probably expends more “personal” energy (in a physics sense, the car does more work) getting back up to speed after a stop, not to mention a buildup of cars to contend with.

After reading all the associated links, I think the poorly behaved cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians are all deserving of some sort of incentives (besides reduced risk of dismemberment) to change their behavior. Drivers have every right to be mad at cyclists who are not obeying traffic laws, and cyclists who do (me) should be furious at those (expletive) cyclists for giving us a bad name and fueling the anti-”equal road rights” movement.

Alex July 10, 2008 at 7:43 am

“Furthermore the cars are more likely inhabited by people with a higher value for their time, at least on average if not for every biking blogger.”

I would dispute such a claim. I reckon that my commute is shorter on a bike than it would be in a car. In fact, I would venture that this is the case for most commuters.

chug July 10, 2008 at 7:46 am

I ride a large scooter (highway capable, top speed is almost 80 mph), a bicycle, and drive a car (and drove a cab full time for 6 years).

When riding a motorcycle or a bicycle, the good riders assume car drivers do not see them. Don’t assume car drivers are ignoring you – they often don’t see you. It is common after a car hits a motorcycle that the car driver says something like, “I never saw him!” That is one reason many motorcyclists like LOUD exhaust pipes and LOUD horns. What might be mildly annoying when you are driving a car can be life threatening when you are riding a motorcycle or bicycle.

Drivers in the DC area are from all over the world and come with many bad driving habits from all over the world. (For what it’s worth, I am always VERY Careful around any car with a Maryland plate.) (For the many delightful cuisines these folks from all over the world bring with them, see Tyler’s Ethnic Dining Guide.)

I have no problem with bicyclists not stopping for stop signs and red lights, if they can do so safely, especially in regards to pedestrians.

When vehicles collide, they are not “accidents” they are crashes.

Most crashes are preventable by 1) slowing down, 2) not tailgating, i.e., following the car ahead of you by at least 2 seconds (yes, even in rush hour and too bad if someone cuts or merges in front of you – no need to drive like an aggressive 6-year-old bully who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way), and 3) minimizing distractions when driving (pull off the road to read, apply makeup, use your cell phone, yell at your kids, etc.).

Did I mention to watch out for Maryland drivers?

Brutus July 10, 2008 at 7:58 am

I ride my bike with the paranoid idea that I have a large bullseye on my back and every driver is looking to take me out. I’m the interloper on the road, so it’s my responsibility to keep myself safe. When I’m driving, I have no problem driving 2 inces away from a cyclist NOT obeying the rules of the road. It might teach them something.

With his attitude, if ol’ Will lived in Boston, he’d be dead.

paul July 10, 2008 at 8:28 am

I don’t think cyclists are poorer than drivers on average. Most of the bike commuters I know have cars at home, but prefer the convenience and fitness of cycling. On my morning commute, arguably when there is the biggest competition for the road, almost all of the cyclists are white collar professionals, and I would bet their median salary is higher than the median driver’s. Granted this is probably not true in DC.

But why do we have to choose bikes over cars or the other way around? They can coexist. As the number of cyclists increase, it needs to be less of a free-for-all – cyclists need to be fined for riding recklessly, because the bad ones make it worse for everybody. Drivers need to be trained that cyclists are allowed to be on the road, just like pedestrians and slow-moving construction vehicles.

And drivers need to relax a little. You don’t fume when you lose 10 seconds waiting for an old lady to cross the street, so why do you fume when there’s a cyclist in your lane for 10 seconds?

It seems like people are offended just by the idea of cyclists. I ride faster than most of the cars on my commute so I definitely use less of people’s time than cars. And still the irritated honkers.

londenio July 10, 2008 at 8:32 am

As a sidenote to those that are bringing up the beneficial health effects of biking, I would like to remind them of Ulrich’s paper on the environmental paradox of biking:

http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/~ulrich/documents/ulrich-cycling-enviro-jul06.pdf

In other words, if you bike more, you live longer, which is bad for the environment.

As someone who only recently moved to the Netherlands, let me say that one of the greatest fears I have in my everyday life is to be rolled over by a bicycle. They are silent, fast, and they have all the privileges. By the way, for those that never lived in The Netherlands, multiply your stereotypical image of bikers in Dutch cities by a factor of 5 and you will have a realistic image of how bike paths look in the morning. And a final comment that will make all libertarians out there happy: **nobody** here wears a helmet.

Mike July 10, 2008 at 8:55 am

I ride my bike with the paranoid idea that I have a large bullseye on my back and every driver is looking to take me out.

Also known as the Zodiac approach: always assume the cars can see you perfectly, and are trying to kill you.

cf: jwz

liberalarts July 10, 2008 at 9:02 am

Paul and others above who argue against the opportunity cost hypothesis are probably correct. Most bikers who I know are educated and financially comfortable. Google up a few on-line biking supplies catalogs to see the very high prices all the gear. Many riders, especially outside of city centers are not commuting and are riding for fun, but that recreational biking carries time opportunity costs that track their income levels.

Michael Foody July 10, 2008 at 9:18 am

I don’t bicycle but I am sympathetic to bicycles. I think 1 is just stupid, doing something dangerous doesn’t just mean dangerous to the person doing it, for example firing a machine gun with your eyes closed is very dangerous not because of bullets ricocheting and hitting the person firing the machine gun but because it is dangerous to other people. In this sense cars are more dangerous than bicycles because a collision of two bicycles is safer than a collision of two automobiles. Additionally drivers being courteous makes riding a bicycle safer at the margin.

KRM July 10, 2008 at 9:37 am

The second point is incorrect because in most major metropolitan areas a biker can actually beat a car to where they’re aiming to go. Bikers actually value their time MORE than drivers. That is one major reason people DO ride bikes in the city. For an more entertaining exposition on this idea see: http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2008/05/bsnyc-interview-great-nyc-commuter-race.html

Pat Mathews July 10, 2008 at 10:05 am

Separate dedicated bike paths and walking paths, paralleling the major roads. There are a few ways this can be done:

On Tramway Blvd in Albuquerque there is extensive landscaping on off-road and the paths wind through there.

We also have a bike path that cuts diagonally through the city and crosses the streets but does not parallel them.

In some neighborhoods we have a network of alleys the garbage trucks used to use decades ago. Those could be turned into bike paths in those neighborhoods.

There is a quiet street one block south of Central and north of the busy one-ways, called Silver Ave. There is talk of making this a bicycle street. Whether this means banning cars, or whether it means permitting cars but with a very low speed limit, I’m not sure.

IN one of Gordon Dickson’s novels, set in the sort of place where tech levels varied enormously with region and affluence or poverty, there was a multi-lane set of roads leading out of the airport: a high speed lane; an ordinary freeway land by our standards; a lane reserved for farm vehicles; etc.

odograph July 10, 2008 at 10:14 am

I, like many(?) drive cars and ride bikes. Like a few in SoCal, I sometimes walk a few miles across town.

My first comment is that with proper design it isn’t either-or.

My second comment is that safety issues are much more subtle than a non-rider is likely to get, and vary much more with location to location that you might expect. Not only does bike planning vary, but the aggressiveness of car drivers toward bikes (and rarely vis-versa) matters greatly.

In general, a town with a high percentage of bike riders has more bike-friendly car drivers, and a smoother flow all around.

Student July 10, 2008 at 10:30 am

Reduce carbon footprint and therefore favor cars! When cars have to wait an extra 10 seconds the carbon footprint is higher. Lovely

M1EK July 10, 2008 at 10:34 am

Separate bike paths are a horrible idea unless they’re running through an area where grade separation is common (such as a creekbed or rail corridor). The reason? Every single driveway and every single intersection becomes a danger to the cyclist – and the regulatory response is either indifference or slapping up a bunch of extra stop signs (for the cyclist) – meaning that you’ve just further disincented cycling.

The way they get away with this in Europe? Some innovative treatments at intersections, but mostly: hardly any driveways and strict rules about when drivers must yield.

Traffic engineers in the US have a pretty good handle on safe bike facilities these days – the challenge is often in things like getting neighborhood reactionaries to give up parking, in order to create bike-friendly routes which serve as alternates to nearby major arterials. Some early bike lanes were striped poorly, but there’s a good sense now when they should start and stop; when they should go dashed; etc.

Milan July 10, 2008 at 10:52 am

“Riding a bike is dangerous no matter how considerate the drivers.”

There is an element of danger, yes. At the same time, heart disease is the top killer in the US. Trading a higher risk of accidents for a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes might be a good deal for most people.

jim July 10, 2008 at 11:27 am

People who bike to work tend to be the same insufferable jerks who brag about not owning a TV. Unpleasant people who demand the world be designed around their snobbish hobbies. Feh.

David Zetland July 10, 2008 at 12:15 pm

“Furthermore accidents and potential accidents impose costs on both parties and more generally Coasian externalities are symmetric.”

Are you kidding me? Car + bike = dead biker and “inconvenienced” driver. Further, dead people do not make Coasian bargains.

Tyler — get a bike and ride around Virginia. You’ll quickly see the asymmetry.

Aaron Kangas July 10, 2008 at 12:37 pm

Biking is way safer than driving. It’s a bunch of bunk, if anyone tells you otherwise.

http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/health/risks.htm

Yan Li July 10, 2008 at 12:47 pm

In the short-run, there may be efficiency gain from favoring cars. But in the long run, a city favoring bikers almost always have more charm and is more livable than one favoring cars.

RyanA July 10, 2008 at 12:51 pm

Interesting points Tyler, but on 1 you’re really missing the point, and on 2 I think you’ve conceptualized the problem wrong, and thus ending at the wrong conclusion.

1. It’s true that riding bikes around cars is dangerous, and that if safety is the only concern, the cheapest remedy would be to favor the existing hegemony of the car. But safety is a secondary concern of the relevant social policy being promoted. Biking advocates argue that biking is better for the environment, our cities and our citizens. A shift toward biking would greatly improve the health of all citizens – even those who don’t bike.

Megan certainly didn’t discuss that point, but it’s the relevant context. We don’t need safety regulations to favor bicycles because it’s the cheapest way to address the narrow issue of safety, but because it promotes a behavior – bicycle riding – that’s cheaper for society as a whole once all the costs of car culture are considered. [You may disagree with that statement, but that's where the meaningful argument would be.]

2. You’re leaving out capacity. From a policy perspective, we shouldn’t simply look at who could go farther in 10 seconds – 1 bike or 1 car – but at how we can maximize the number of people getting to their destination as quickly as possible. So the relevant actor is a person, not a car. The question we should ask is how many people-miles do you get in 10 seconds of car traffic vs. bike traffic? Especially in congested urban scenarios like DC, the bike wins out.

As to time value, I think you’d want evidence to support that claim. Anecdotally, the Mayor often bikes to work, but your plumber always drives, and biking is actually quicker for me than taking a car. This doesn’t address the average value bikers or drivers assign to their time, either, but I don’t think it’s obvious that drivers assign a higher value.

And, as Felix Salmon pointed out in comments over on Ryan Avent’s blog (not me, just same initials):

I’m not convinced about the time cost of commuting argument either, given the number of extremely wealthy people with 60-minute commutes. People just don’t value their commuting time as a cost to be deducted at their hourly rate. Some of them probably value it, or at least *think* that they will value it when they buy that place in Connecticut.

http://www.ryanavent.com/blog/?p=1205

Jon Kay July 10, 2008 at 1:37 pm

I would dispute such a claim. I reckon that my commute is shorter on a bike than it would be in a car. In fact, I would venture that this is the case for most commuters.

There are billyouns and billyouns of people out there, each with a different story. I’ve been on both sides of the fence – I’ve had jobs just like that. One was so close that it was faster to walk than bother with any kind of locks. Right now I work from home, but my last job outside the home had a 25-min car commute, and an 1 3/4-hr bike commute. I was also too tired to work for most of 2 hours the two times I tried it. I had to wake up REALLY early to make that work, something I’m bad at.

Biking has no special privileges wrt to the universe. It’s really unsafe when you start, and gets safe when you’re used to it, just like cars (the study was done of bike club riders, who probably were on the experienced side). Nor does physics allow biking to take less energy than in a car. You just pay at the lunch counter instead of the pump. Lunch at that job was on the expensive side; it ended up being a clear loser vs the pump. You really only win if you can completely avoid having a car atall.

I’m pretty dubious that more than a handful of bikers are discouraged by priority laws. Is anybody in the thread a counterexample?

Carla July 10, 2008 at 2:33 pm

So Jon Kay, you don’t eat lunch when you drive to work? I’m confused! I eat the exact same thing now (22 mile round trip commute daily), then I did when I used to drive to work!!

DK July 10, 2008 at 3:35 pm

On water, there is a “pecking order” of boat right-of-way based on maneuverability and speed — 1st out of control boats, then boats at anchor, then rowboats, then sailboats, then motorboats, then seaplanes.

At a minimum bikers should observe the same thing. Don’t whine about cars not watching for you if you’re going to bully pedestrians out of the way. And please, stop breaking the speed limit in my residential neighborhood, it’s designed for walking, not for either cycling or driving as fast as you can.

Aaron July 10, 2008 at 4:16 pm

I think that Tyler has never seen the terrified looks in the faces of young parents who grab their children away from the street. I have several times seen a person on the sidewalk who quickly became someone I had to react to on the street. But because I do see them, it’s not a dangerous situation.
Tyler may never have seen the signs that I’ve seen posted on dozens of streets pleading to drivers to slow down.
Tyler has also probably not had someone drive out of control and crash into his backyard.
Being insulated from (or unaware of) how the road looks to a pedestrian, a child, a pet, etc may be comfortable, but also presents a skewed perspective.

spubble July 10, 2008 at 4:24 pm

cars are more likely inhabited by people with a higher value for their time
Depends which metric you use for ‘value’, surely.

Dan Q. Public July 10, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Mark’s response is as reductive as he claims Tyler’s is skewed. Specifically, if we wish to reframe it, it’s not ‘inattentive/aggressive/obnoxious/reckless drivers vs. everyone else’, but rather i/a/o/r drivers vs. i/a/o/r cyclists vs. careful drivers vs. careful cyclists. As posters on this thread have demonstrated on both sides of the issue, drivers have no monopoly on arrogance.

That said, and having delved deeper into Megan’s posts that spawned the above, I find it distinctly amusing that the traits in drivers that cyclists so hate are the same traits that cyclists evince when it comes to pedestrians.

SK July 10, 2008 at 5:40 pm

“So Jon Kay, you don’t eat lunch when you drive to work? I’m confused! I eat the exact same thing now (22 mile round trip commute daily), then I did when I used to drive to work!!”

Say you want to bring home cooked food to your work, it’s not convenient if you are on a bike. Say you want to stop somewhere and pick something up…or go out with a friend after work, bike? can’t do!

Biking to work doesn’t make sense, for these and several more obvious reasons.

Bike Bubba July 10, 2008 at 6:06 pm

This is an interesting thought, but completely without relation to reality. I can think of few (no) scenarios in which riding would cost drivers an extra 10 seconds as compared with my driving, and I can think of no way you could prefer one mode of transport over the other without completely screwing up both.

Besides, since when is it the government’s job to decide that my time is worth more than yours, or vice versa, when we’re both paying taxes to keep up the roads? This isn’t a matter of maximizing utility, but rather of rights. We both pay taxes, we both have a right to use the roads in any lawful manner. End.Of.Story.

d July 10, 2008 at 7:32 pm

I wish when people wrote comments such as “Biking to work doesn’t make sense” they would add “for me.” For a whole lot of people, biking makes a whole lot of sense. It does for me.

m July 10, 2008 at 11:46 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of a “smart” person using his “expertise” to reach an utterly imbecilic conclusion.

1) Granting your facile premise that the goal is to “solve” traffic accidents at the lowest collective dollar cost, clearly the cheapest way is more bikes. For a real-world demonstration see China, where the clog of cyclists tends to slow everyone to the point where accidents are rare (per-capita) and low-impact.

2) This is nearly so stupid as to be irrefutable, but guess what: it’s totally irrelevant that the bike delayed by 5 seconds would have gone 20 feet and the car would have gone 100 yards, because both the driver and the cyclist will get to work the same 5 seconds late! Back in the real world, the driver who waits for a cyclist shoves his foot to the floor and he’s going fast again. That’s a hardship? At least the cyclist has to work to make up the time.

You are stupid in the same precious way that high school debate nerds are stupid.

odograph July 11, 2008 at 12:47 am

“The very manner in which Tyler frames the question distorts the inquiry hopelessly. The tension is not cars vs. bikes. It’s inattentive/aggressive/obnoxious/reckless drivers vs. everyone else who happens to be in their path; that includes not just cyclists, but also pedestrians and even other drivers.”

There is a lot of strange aggression out there. It’s true.

d July 11, 2008 at 11:08 am

Um, anti-d, that’s why I ended my post with the sentence “It does for me.”

jsl July 11, 2008 at 11:30 am

SAME ROADS, SAME RIGHTS, SAME RULES.

Ak Mike July 11, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Let me back up Tim and a number of others who point out that Prof. Cowen has got the time value backwards. By taking a bike to work, I lose 20 minutes (total, counting both ways) in longer commute time compared to driving, but gain a one hour aerobic workout. My time is too valuable to drive when I can bike.

Adam Bee July 11, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Has Tyler acknowledged that his analysis was jacked up in #2?

Even accepting the specious assumptions that an interaction would cost both parties equal time, then what’s the relevance of converting that to distance if the domain of the agents’ utility is over time and NOT distance?

Can we at least all agree that the distance argument is total BS, no matter how you look at it?

Patrick B. July 11, 2008 at 3:10 pm

†¦funny, though. You could probably use the same argument in favor of cars waiting for buses!

W Bush July 11, 2008 at 5:12 pm

So 10 seconds equals .50(.50 cents for every second wasted)x 10 seconds divided by the difference of fuel consumption (average say is 19 mph) over the percentage of acceleration (depending on speeds average is 30%).

.50 x 10 / 19
—————– = X
30%

I think you forgot to include the cost of the vehicle left standing at idle for 10 seconds. The vehicle loses the highway mile calculations thus depreciating in value further adding more cost to the driver.
30K value 60% depreciation

X /.10 = N

At this rate, the cyclist will throw off the calculated timing of stop lights forcing the vehicle to be forced to idle once again until caught up with the timing of stop lights (typical lights 2 minutes).

N x 180 = Cost to driver.

Wouldn’t be cheaper to ride your bike?

ZBicyclist July 11, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Jason wrote: “You really only win if you can completely avoid having a car at all.”

I’m guessing Jason is single; the same “one less car” advantages accrue in changing from a 2 car to a 1 car family, and this demands less behavioral change by your spouse and children. These advantages are substantial, and mean that the argument “cars are more likely inhabited by people with a higher value for their time” is less likely to be true.

Add it up. (your costs may vary)
Car payment $500/month
Insurance $100/month
Gas $80/month
Maintenance $70/month
minus bike cost of $50 per month

OK, we are at $700 per month. (Put another way, that’s 1400 miles a month at $.50 a mile.) If it takes half an hour a day longer for 22 working days a month, that’s $64 an hour. Lots of people make less (probably not Tyler, though).

But don’t we just drive the one car into the ground? Surprisingly, no. After a while your habits change; we’ve got only 13,000 miles on remaining car in TWO years (nearly all by the nonbiking spouse).

erghammer July 13, 2008 at 2:44 pm

I am the occasional bike commuter who has had his life put in jeopardy way too often by bad drivers. “Biking is way too dangerous!,” screamed a driver to me once. “You shouldn’t even be on the road!” The lack of self awareness in this comment is stunning.

I remember watching old film of a civil rights demonstration from the 60s. “Your march is illegal because it could result in violence,” announced the racist cops. The march, of course, continued. The cops proceeded to beat the sh*t out of the marchers. “See, we told you that violence would result from this march!” Well yeah, but whose fault was that?

Brutus July 14, 2008 at 7:54 am

Cyclists do NOT pay the same taxes for the roads here in Massachusetts; the state gasoline tax goes to the roads, which cyclists are not paying.

Same roads/same rules folks: fine, obey the minimum speed limit and I’ll have no problem with you.

beeemtee July 14, 2008 at 12:13 pm

riding a bike is a matter of pride, here in europe, and not money.. all the dangers of traffic are introduced by cars, and not bikers and pedestrians, so they are the ones to protect and encourage and not the car drivers. by the way you spend that “valuable” time of yours to earn money to pay for and to feed your beloved piece of metal and platic (which weights at least ten times more than you). dull post. very dull and totally lack of respect to other people..

Richard July 17, 2008 at 11:07 am

Sorry if I didnt make myself clear.My point is bicycles cannot follow the same rules as cars because its to dangerous for the cyclist life threatening even.The thing is a cyclist breaks a rule what happens?Your sitting in your car saying look at that asshole.A driver breaks a rule someone could be sent to the hospital mainly the guy on the bike.Another thing I noticed is why is it the women are the ones making the accidends happen?They cant drive to begin with but then they go out and purchase the biggest heavies piece of metal on four wheels and to top it off they multi task,talking on the phone or whatever.Then when the accident happens what do they always say?”I didnt see him/her.People are dangerous.

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