Even though very nearly half the adults in Wisconsin ride bicycles every year, most people have misconceptions about where bicycling fits into the world, particularly related to riding bicycles for transportation and paying for bicycle facilities like bike lanes and bike trails. Perhaps it is because some people ride bicycles for transportation and others only for recreation, but there are a lot of inaccurate stereotypes and outright falsehoods out there.
To help spread the truth about bicycling, this article lists our top infamous misconceptions a list of short factoids with links to more detailed research to refute them.
1. Riding a bicycle on the road is dangerous. This tops the list of misconceptions that are held by people who ride bicycles and those who don’t. While it may not always be pleasant to ride a bicycle in traffic, it is pretty darn safe and has been getting safer every year for the last couple decades.
There are lots of ways to look at the statistics of bicycle safety. You can look at the number of crashes per exposure hour, per mile traveled, per trip, risk of death, etc. But no matter which statistic you look at, bicycling is a very safe thing to do compared to many other activities most people don’t think of as dangerous, like ice skating, swimming and driving. Factor in the health benefits of bicycling and it looks even safer. For a look at the actual statistics of bicycle safety, read my earlier post Fear Mongers Be Gone! Riding a Bicycle is Safe.
2. “Bicyclists” are a bunch of liberal tree-huggers. I’m not sure where this stereotype came from, but people who ride bicycles are no different politically than people who drive cars. They come from both ends of the political spectrum and many places in between. Tea Party members, Rockefeller Republicans, Centrists, Socialists and Anarchists, pretty much everybody has a pleasant memory of riding a bicycle, even if they haven’t done it in a while.
Believe it or not, people who ride bicycles are as likely to be Democrat as Republican and some of the strongest supporters of bicycling in congress are republicans. In our own state, Rep. Tom Petri is one of the most senior republicans in Congress and an avid supporter of bicycling. There are people on both sides of the isle who like bikes and people on both sides who don’t like bikes. There are even some Tea Party candidates who ride bicycles.
On a personal level I experience this stereotyping when people who know me through bicycling learn that I deer hunt. Most are really surprised, even though the two really have nothing to do with each other. I know lots of people who hunt and ride bicycles, but for some reason hunting is seen as conservative and bicycling as liberal.
For a deeper look at the politics of bicycling, read these previous posts:
2. The season for bicycling is 4 months long. I was up riding the awesome paved trails in Boulder Junction the last time I heard this comment. I asked a resort owner from Presque Isle, the next town north of Boulder Junction, if there were any plans to extend the trails from Boulder Junction north past his resort. He responded “Nothing but talk. And besides, the biking season is so short…” Short? It is a heck of a lot longer than the deer hunting season and even if you don’t bike in the snow, it is longer than the fishing season.
Besides, even in cities with really long winters like Minneapolis, more and more people are riding bicycles all year. In some ways it is easier to bike in the cold than the hot weather of summer. After all, you can always add another layer in the winter, but you can only take off so much before you get arrested. Most cities do an excellent job clearing snow and many even plow the bike trails. But even if you do get your bike stuck in a snowdrift, all you have to do is pick it up and get back on and ride. No need to call a tow truck or get round up good samaritans to push you out. One of my favorite winter commuting activities is helping people who got their cars stuck in the snow.
Finally we have the advent of the “Fatbike,” the local model being the Schlick Cycles Northpaw. These monster-tired beasts of burden are gaining in popularity because they are incredibly fun to ride and can’t be stopped by anything short of a blizzard. I just ordered one, so stay tuned for a review and ride report soon.
3. “Bicyclists” don’t pay for the roads. Guess what, neither do “motorists.” A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel had the headline “Gas Taxes Short of Covering Roads” and pointed out that property taxes and general fund taxes cover about 50% of the cost of roads because gas taxes and registration fees are not enough. Some interstate highways are even more subsidized by general taxes, which has prompted the so-called “conservative” Wisconsin Policy Research Institute to issue a series of studies advocating tolls as a way to pay for rebuilding the state’s aging interstate highways.
So “bicyclists” do pay for the roads since the vast majority of people who ride bicycles have jobs and pay income taxes and also own cars and homes and pay registration fees and property taxes. Take a look at this article to see how much (or how little) revenue the Hoan Bridge generates from gas taxes.
4. Bicycling is mostly for recreation. Not any more. According to the National Household Transportation Survey, utilitarian bicycle trips make up 52% of all trips and recreation is 48%. Recreation remains an important reason many people ride bicycles, but the majority of trips taken by bicycle in the United States are made for transportation, not recreation. You can see the actual statistics and more about how many people ride bicycles in this previous post.
5. Our roads are falling apart because we are wasting our tax dollars on luxuries like bike paths. This one is just plain laughable. Take a look at the graph and see if you can even see slice of the transportation funding pie being served to people who ride bicycles. Budget hawks won’t be able to trim much fat by cutting that slice of pie from your diet. Even if you took away all the funding for bicycles and pedestrians, it would not make a noticeable increase in the money available to fill pot holes and resurface bridges.
6. “Bicyclists are a bunch of spandex wearing Lance Armstrong wannabes who ride around in groups and clog the road. Nearly half the residents of Wisconsin ride bicycles and most of them are just regular folks out to enjoy a leisurely bike ride to run an errand, go to work or for recreation. While bicycle racing is very popular in Wisconsin, they make up a small percentage of people who ride.
8. Bicycles belong on the sidewalk, not in the road. In Wisconsin, the bicycle is defined as a vehicle. [340.01(5)] and the operator of a bicycle is granted the same rights and subject to the same duties as the driver of any other vehicle. [346.02(4)(a)]. Furthermore, because it is often more dangerous to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk, Wisconsin state law allows local municipalities to regulate sidewalk riding. Some, like Milwaukee and Madison, have made it illegal for adults to ride bicycles on the sidewalk.
9. Bicyclists need to start obeying the law. We would all be better off if all road users obeyed all the laws all the time. Unfortunately many people, regardless of their mode of transportation, choose to break the laws they can get away with if doing so gets them where they want to go faster. This means many people drive cars faster than the posted speed limit when the sheriff is not around, many people walk when the signal “don’t walk” signal if there are no cars coming, and many people run red lights on bicycles.
Studies show that people riding bicycles are no more likely to break the law than people who drive cars. It is just a lot more obvious when someone runs a red light than when everyone is driving 7 miles per hour above the speed limit. For a complete look at the statistics behind compliance rates with the rules of the road read:
10. What did we forget? What other bicycling myth would you like to dispel? Let us know in the comments below and the staff at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin will help those who once were blind to see the truth.