Shooting down misconceptions about bicycling

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.

Wisconsin deer hunting archery season (that is my green hunting tag in my map case) lasts from mid September into early January, four months. Wisconsin bicycle season is 12 months long.

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:

Can we please put the ‘conserve’ back in conservative 

A Schlick Northpaw in its natural environment.

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:

Scorchers and Scofflaws: Just the Facts Please

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.


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About Schlabowske, Former Exec. Dir.

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office in 2003. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

16 thoughts on “Shooting down misconceptions about bicycling

    • I’m dying to get mine out on the trails and beaches. Fingers crossed the belt drive comes in today or tomorrow and works without a big hassle. If it does, I will be out riding this week.

  1. “I know lots of people who hunt and ride bicycles, but for some reason hunting is seen as conservative and bicycling as liberal.”

    Yes, but deer hunting WHILE riding a bicycle is just plain dangerous.

    • Agreed, and probably illegal. Hauling your deer back to camp via Schlick Northpaw rather than dragging it is just plain smart though 😉

  2. Commuting and doing errands by bicycle is a viable option to driving everywhere in a car. One way to encourage more people to get around by bike is to hear stories from all types who bicycle. It is so true that it’s not for the elite…it’s for everyone.

    • The Bike Fed has been talking about this and posting regular “Member Profiles” that include commuters as a category.

  3. One of the more persistent myths out there is that biking is an “expensive hobby” enjoyed by affluent types who spend thousands on bikes and gear. In reality most of the bicyclists I see everyday are working people just trying to get from point A to point B. They’re not riding $5,000 carbon framed racing bikes, in fact many are riding $200 mountain bikes as a cheap way of getting around town.

  4. This is a great illustration that cyclists really come from all walks of life. Doesn’t matter who you are; anyone can be a fellow cyclist and that’s something we can all enjoy. At times I’m a spandex-wearing road bike racer, or a mountain biker, or a bike commuter. And, I frequently go for a slow cruise around the neighborhood with my young son in tow or run errands on the bike. So, yeah, what cycling stereotype am I? All of them I guess!

    Add that you scratched my itch for a fat-tire bike; I now will have to spend some time being beaten back by the checkbook-wielding-wife once again. Thanks for that 🙂 I”m sure the discussion will be short and very quickly decided not in my favor.

    I’d hate to try to get a deer back from my stand with a bike though (hunting on my parents’ farm in the driftless region near LaCrosse). Last year’s big buck was a tough haul even in the JD Gator. Good luck hunting this season Dave! Here’s hoping to some tasty venison in your freezer!


    • The land I hunt on in Ashland County is much more flat than the La Crosse area. But I promise not to complain if I get any sort of buck to haul back from the woods. Good luck hunting and safe riding to you too Eric.

  5. I would like to suggest the word ‘stereotypes’ in the title be changed to ‘misconceptions’ or ‘myths’ or the like. ‘Stereotypes’ suggests the article only talks about who uses a bicycle, whereas the article gives much more valuable information about false arguments given by those who don’t get it and who work to reduce funding for bicycle infrastructure. The current title might cause some to overlook the article to avoid another take on the overblown and pointless “Spandex: Pro or Con” debate.

  6. Excellent Post Dave! Reminding everyone that we are all people, some people operate bicycles and some people operate motor vehicles.

    Saw an article in the Journal today about the Hoan, interesting. As a bicycle biased geographer with an interest in behavior change, My radical solution is not spending any money on new transportation infrastructure and allowing motor vehicle traffic to congest. My thought is that people are so impatient to get places they will ultimately choose to ride a bicycle or utilize mass transit options because they are faster… (Ok, the Hoan is across a river and I understand that there is a justifiable need, so I do support.) YES, I do realize that this statement is ludicrous, however it may be crazy enough that is actually works!

    • Hey Justin, while I would love to see more people ride for any reason, I think that theory has a couple holes in it. First, traffic congestion has not increased in 10 years on the Hoan. Even during peak hours, traffic moves faster than the posted speed limit, so there will never be any inducement from congestion to get people out of their cars. Second, if we don’t build bicycle facilities, the roads that are congested just look scary and uninviting to most people who might try bicycling. It has been proven that if you build attractive, convenient facilities for bicycles, people flock to them. Even in places that were super congested like Manhattan, relatively few people rode bicycles until they started putting in protected bike lanes, colored bike lanes, etc. Once they did install those attractive facilities, people suddenly began using them and riding bicycles.

  7. Great article. I love commuting in downtown Madison and hope that routes and paths continue to grow (and get others out too!)

    “Transportation accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, so if we can swap bikes for cars, we gain in fitness, local air quality, a reduction in greenhouse gases, and the personal economic benefits of biking rather than driving. It’s a four-way win”

    • Thanks for the comments Alex. Madison certainly has made great strides in the last few years.

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