Why Everyone Hates Cyclists

In America cyclists are the scourge of the road. The rage is nearly universal. Pedestrians. Drivers. Even other cyclists. Click any news story even vaguely talking about them, then look at the comments section. Go ahead. I dare you.

But…that’s not the case in other places. Indeed, in many countries in Europe and Asia cyclists aren’t the bane to the existence of everyone on the move. They are, so to speak, closer to “mode neutral”. Cyclists are not lower in the natural hierarchy of right-of-way uses, but have a more equal footing in transportation decisions.

What makes the US different? Why is anti-cyclist rage so powerful and widespread? There is a credible class argument, that cyclists are either wealthy, yuppy semi-recreational users, worthy of derision or people too poor to own a car. But the story could certainly be deeper, dealing with the very nature of property rights in transportation infrastructure.

The story goes like this: Property rights to transportation rights-of-way evolved in a way that gave primacy to pedestrians and automobiles. The sidewalks were for pedestrians, roads were for cars. Property rights to street space were allocated politically to these two groups through government monopoly on road provision, mostly decades ago. Users feel like they have a property right to, effectively, free reign in their respective right of way. Cyclist claims to segments of the right-of-way, even if simply along the sides of the road, feel like a transfer of property rights in the zero-sum allocation of road space. Nobody likes having their rights transferred to others whose claim is perceived to be no stronger than their own. Yet changing this equation runs into problems of intractability, because cyclists were not particularly accommodated in the past, how can we accommodate them now that, at least in some places, their numbers are rising? It may well be that this intractability cannot be changed. Anti-cyclist rage may be here to stay, at least in the medium term.

This framework is not novel. It was laid out by Cato Institute regulatory economist Peter Van Doren in his 2003 piece in Regulation magazine entitled Letting Environmentalists’ Preferences Count.

Van Doren’s short piece sought to explain why environmental disputes are particularly vicious and intractable. But, more broadly, it laid out a framework for analyzing disputes over policy questions which have a number of particular qualities.

  1. Zero-sum games: Claimants on different sides differ on policy preferences, and they are broadly exclusive of each other. The options are build or keep the environment untouched, or use a piece of electromagnetic spectrum for one purpose, or another, or you allocate a particular foot of road space to cars, or bikes, or pedestrians.
  2. Irrelevance of ‘scientific evidence’: These aren’t situations where there’s a “correct” policy answer, even if “science” says there is. Van Doren cites Peter Huber’s famed book Hard Green to note the example of fluoride in drinking water. Even if it helps people, if it’s unpopular to put “chemicals” in the water, that doesn’t matter. The fact that preferences of some, even a majority, are unscientific or unsophisticated does not make these preferences invalid. In this case, there is no scientifically “correct” allocation of road space, even if traffic engineers may claim otherwise.
  3. Club Goods: Club goods “local” public goods. Because they’re local public goods, it means there’s a single outcome that everyone in the area must consume, or move to a place with a different policy outcome. If one doesn’t like the particular blend of club goods, but has other location preferences which are more important, they’re stuck with a sub-optimal outcome regardless of how powerful their demand for a particular club good is.
  4. Lack of robust markets: If goods are easily traded, they flow to the highest-value use naturally, no matter the initial allocation. This happened with auctions of the electromagnetic spectrum, but does not happen with many other similar goods, road space being one of them. When markets are not robust, allocation of these goods becomes a product of the political process, which leads to waste as groups lobby for politically-allocated property rights to things like road space.
  5. Path-Dependence: After property rights are initially allocated, they are challenging to reallocate when doing so means running through a political process. When threatened with loss of property rights, people don’t just go along politely, they go kicking and screaming. Changing the property rights allocation in these hyper-local all-or-nothing games is so hard that not much change actually happens. Like wilderness land or the right to pollute the air to a particular degree, most road use only gets reapportioned occasionally, once every few years, if not decades.

While there’s more to this story, these five points cover most of it. Remove one, and the problems would naturally get solved by standard market processes. If there were robust markets in infrastructure goods, or if personal policy preferences took a back seat to technocratic road management, or rights-of-way were not club goods all of these issues evaporate in the short term.

But they’re not.

The initial allocation of rights-of-way has already happened in the vast majority of areas where people live, the only exceptions being new residential developments and the occasional infill road.

Van Doren argues:

…[T]he main impediment to the creation of environmental markets may be the unwillingness of the participants to accept any definition of initial property rights. Instead, they prefer to use the political system to engage in continuous wealth and property rights disputes.

So, in this case, to end the disputes, markets in right-of-way must be allowed to develop. Until that point, cyclist rage will endure.

What would such a market look like? That, my friend, is a topic for a separate Medium post.

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