The Appropriate Double Standard

Properly balancing the responsibilities of bicyclists and motorists

By Jeff Balch

Few principles have stronger appeal than the uniform standard.  Employees should receive the same pay for the same work.  Sprinters should toe the same starting line; none should jump the gun.  Students in the same class should be graded on the same scale with the same deadlines.  A parent probably shouldn't shout at a kid to Stop The Damn Cursing!  A uniform standard feels like a cornerstone of fairness.

But in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.  The effort to treat everyone the same can do harm by oversimplifying.  A uniform standard isn't always wise.

Consider two examples from the world of transportation.

You're probably familiar with various public transit systems, and with arguments about Amtrak funding.  Legislators opposing what they consider bailouts argue that Amtrak must balance its budget.  No bailouts!  Make Amtrak pay its way!  Sounds fair at first.  The problem is that this ignores the structural advantages of other transit systems.  For example a highway, though nominally funded by fuel taxes (i.e. by highway users), does not truly pay its own way.  Taxpayers fund highways more than they fund railroads.  Nor does the highway pay the freight later, on carbon clean-up linked to exhaust.  For these reasons and others, to apply the "uniform standard" of budget-balancing is to penalize train service.

A similar imbalance shows up locally, in the world of automobiles and bicycles.

We read, in the *Evanston RoundTable* and elsewhere, that cyclists should obey the same rules as motorists.  Well, yes.  Cyclists should not ignore rules.  But does it really make sense to apply standards uniformly?  For example, should we penalize a motorist and a cyclist equally for rolling through a stop sign?  No.  Why not?  Because the purpose of a penalty is to reduce danger, and the danger posed by a cyclist is minimal compared to the danger posed by a motorist.  A motorist who blows a stop sign can kill.  

The state of Idaho recognizes this basic risk differential between cyclists and motorists.  So do Delaware and parts of Colorado.  They allow cyclists to treat Stop signs as Yield signs.  Evidence indicates that this approach benefits both cyclists and motorists, increasing safety by reducing roadway frictions.  (We must distinguish here between the typical cyclist, a non-jerk, who rolls through without interfering or after getting cued by a driver, and the jerk cyclist who flies through and forces others to yield -- and who should be liable for a ticket.)

None of this discussion is about seeing bikes as "better" than cars.  It's not about playing favorites.  It's about acknowledging that a bike is less "impactful" than a car -- in terms of damage done in a collision, as well as in terms of environmental effect.  It makes sense to hold cyclists to a different standard.  To cite another obvious example:  cars get parking tickets; bikes do not.  The uniform goal of this non-uniform approach is to free up space, and perhaps to discourage unnecessary driving.  As with traffic enforcement, a wise double standard should apply.  With this approach we can more safely accommodate everyone on the road.