Bicycle Law Reform
As we look at the map of the US as it stands at the beginning of 2012, we can see that, over the last century, cyclists' freedom to ride on US roads has been, to a large extent, undermined in 46 of the 50 states. 18 states have oppressive laws requiring slower vehicles to operate as far right as practicable and for cyclists to use bike lanes, paths or shoulders where such facilities exist. Another 28 states require slower vehicles to operate far to the right. These laws effectively prevent proper and safe access to the road: they increase the chances of turning conflicts at intersections by forcing cyclists to the side of the road (or off the road altogether), which makes us less visible and therefore more vulnerable to collisions.
Alaska is arguably the least bike-friendly state in the union in terms of road access, due to its oppressive state laws. This state not only requires cyclists to ride far to the right, but also requires cyclists to give way to motorists when the motorist honks at them! Effectively, Alaska legalizes road rage against cyclists. Alaskans who choose to cycle are also required to use a shoulder where one exists. One suspects that the only reason cyclists are not required to use bike paths or bike lanes is that Alaska is so oppressive to cyclists that no one in government believes cyclists would ever attempt to ride on the road if a 'friendlier' alternative exists. In Alaska, cyclists are third class citizens (and only barely that) on the road.
Idaho, often given good markings by bicycle advocates thanks to its reverse-discriminatory 'Stop as Yield' law, receives only an amber rating here, due to its 'far to the right' law.
Colorado is also often cited as a bicycle friendly state. I don't see it that way, since it has a 'far to the right' law. Also, the cycling ban in Black Hawk is rightly regarded as an embarrassment to the state.
On the other side of the equation, only four states (Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) and the District of Columbia have no seriously oppressive or discriminatory laws.
Indiana: Other than limitations on riding two-abreast, road usage law is no different to that which applies to motorists. This state has to be seen as the least oppressive of any in the Union.
Massachusetts: The most recent law passed in Massachusetts covering cycling was the 2008 Bicyclist Safety Bill. This law allowed cyclists to ride two abreast, repealed bicycle registration and mandated police training in bicycle related laws. The only other Massachusetts law that affects cyclists right to the road is the law that states that cyclists may overtake on the right - this is effectively reverse discrimination, since it seems to be beneficial, but it actually reduces cyclist safety by making us more open to intersection conflicts and dooring. Still, Massachusetts cyclists are not 'forced' to overtake on the right.
District of Columbia: DC has the same reverse discrimination as Massachusetts, allowing cyclists to overtake on the right. Other than that, DC cyclists are unencumbered by discrimination under the law.
North Carolina and Pennsylvania also offer no seriously discriminatory laws, although their statutes regarding slower vehicles staying right must be seen, in practical application, as being unfairly biased against cyclists, since, in many cases, cyclists cannot travel as fast as motor vehicles, yet they often have a need to control the lane that is made illegal by such statutes.
Still, these are just a few small islands in a sea of red and amber. As such, these states can be seen as the last bastions of cycling freedom, and are illustrative of how far cycling rights have been eroded in this country due to motorist pressure to get us off 'their' roads, due to the apathy of government, and due to poor leadership and corruption in cycling organizations like the League of American Bicyclists. To see how bad things have become, we need only consider that in the 1890s, the map of the US was a sea of green. Cyclists have fought to retain their rights all the way, but we are a long way from those heady days when cyclists, who effectively pioneered transportation law, successfully lobbied for good roads.
The League of American Bicyclists can be seen in some ways as being complicit in the marginalization of American cycling. In pursuing a single-minded and myopic strategy of advocacy for off-road infrastructure and on-road bicycle lanes, the League has effectively given up on supporting road cycling. Last year the League granted Alaska 29th place on its Bicycle Friendly America map. When a state as cycling-unfriendly as Alaska achieves an average grade, one has to wonder what the League's criteria are for 'bike friendly status'. But it's not a huge secret - the League is very open about the fact that its focus is on bike lanes and bikeways. The League's criteria for a bike friendly state show clearly that cyclists' rights to the road are a minor consideration.
The League, by the way, lists Washington - a state which requires cyclists to position themselves far to the right while using the road - as No.1 in bike friendliness.
The lowest point in the League's history has to be in 2010, when in Texas, the League failed to support Reed Bates, a cyclist who, as far as I can see, broke no traffic law. Prosecutors initially floundered about what violation to charge him with, but the eventual result was that Reed Bates ended up serving 18 days in jail. The League, which claims it exists to protect cyclist’s rights, does not seem to believe in protecting the rights of cyclists to the road.
It should also be noted that the US legal system itself tends to favor the motorist when accidents occur. Typical is the story of Nathan Krasnopoler, a Maryland cyclist and sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, who was struck in February 2011 while in a bike lane, and who eventually died after spending six months in a coma. At first, police didn't even charge the driver and said they did not expect to, though eventually charges were filed and Nathan's killer was convicted of negligent driving and failure to yield. She was fined $220 - the price of a pair of shoes. And that's when the law is (grudgingly) observed by police and the courts. Often in such cases, police don't even mount an investigation and many drivers who seriously injure or kill cyclists are not even charged. Many times, cyclists are charged with failure to yield when the driver who hit them was clearly at fault. In some cases, cyclists are even charged with nonexistent laws.
Added to this, the Federal Highway Administration, the US Department of Transportation and state and local authorities that implement road infrastructure cannot be seen to be blameless in the marginalization of cycling in the US, as these organizations seem to have an uncanny ability to install dangerous, if not deadly, bicycle-specific infrastructure. Many, if not most, transportation engineers who design cycling infrastructure, and many of the government officials who oversee and approve bicycle facilities, do not commute by bicycle and may never have ridden a bicycle since childhood. The FHA and DoT relate to cyclists in much the same way as the 19th Century 'Office of Indian Affairs' related to Native Americans - with condescension and (when criticized) with indignation - FHA and DoT are organizations of drivers, run by drivers, for drivers. As such, even though they are tasked with doing so, they cannot adequately serve the needs of cyclists and even if they could, it is by no means certain that they would want to.
What does the future hold for cyclists? In my view, cycling will only become popular enough to radically change road culture in this country if a large proportion of drivers give up driving and start cycling. Despite the optimism of bicycle infrastructure advocates and their blind belief in the ability of cycling facilities to attract non-cyclists to cycle, I don't think a quantum leap in cycling is likely anytime soon. One ray of hope is the price of gasoline, which has risen steadily in recent years and which will probably continue to rise unless the economy is completely in the tank. If the world is at the peak of world oil production, as many knowledgeable observers seem to suggest, and if the situation in the Middle-east deteriorates still further, as seems likely, the monetary cost of driving will rise to heights not seen since 2008. As prices rise and more and more people choose their bicycles for local travel, we may see a resurgence of bicycle culture in the US. More likely, though, motorists will allow their cars to drive them into bankruptcy, and will still continue to drive, either until they can no longer afford to buy even a drop of gasoline, or until their car keys are taken from their cold, dead hands. The US has been a culture that has worshipped the car since the 1920s - people will not give up their automobiles until they simply cannot afford to run them anymore - and even in the most dire projections of the peak oil devotees, that time is a long way off.
So what do we do in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds? We do what we always do - we continue to cycle on the road and defend our right to do so. We do this even in the face of motorist anger, government incompetence, the corruption of bicycle advocacy groups, and the misunderstanding of our fellow cyclists. We do it because however bleak the situation gets, we know that we will win in the end. Unlike the automobile, the vehicle we choose isn't dependent upon fossil fuels. The bicycle was here before the automobile and it will be here long after the automobile has gone the way of the Dodo.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.