Is cycling a civil right?

December 1, 2014 § 30 Comments

Although legally accorded the right to ride in the roadway, bicyclists are hardly treated equally by motorists, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, or legislators. It is a commonplace that, as with the Olin Milton case in Los Angeles, egregious acts that result in the death of a rider are simply not prosecuted. Daily harassment, violence in the form of being hit by motorists, verbal assaults, physical confrontations, and the low-level hatred spewed out by cagers and non-cyclists give the conflict distinct similarities with the way that white society interacts with black.

Many cycling advocates have noted the similarities and have framed the right to use our roadways without fear of harassment and death a civil right, one on the order of the right to vote and the right to participate in society without being attacked because of the color of your skin. Freedom of movement is one of the most important civil rights, and a society that restricts it and punishes those who choose to get around without a car is, the argument goes, as egregious as being deprived of the right to vote.

Other similarities abound, one of the biggest being the “separate but equal” doctrine of those who support bike lanes. Reminiscent of Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark Supreme Court case that permitted racial segregation as long as the facilities were equal, bike segregationists promote the idea that it’s okay to keep bikes out of the roadway as long as they have a separate “bikes only” place to pedal — no matter that the bike lane is filled with debris, doesn’t go where the roads go, is inconvenient, and doesn’t keep cars from swiping in and killing you.

So it’s persuasive to say that the right of cyclists to use the roads is on a par with the civil rights movement, especially when cyclists die on what is almost a daily basis.

It’s persuasive, but it’s wrong.

The civil rights movement did not stem from a narrow denial of a single right such as the right to freely use the roadways. It stemmed from a comprehensive system of oppression, originating in the slavery of millions of people that deprived U.S. citizens of the right to vote, to marry, to receive an education, to work, to receive equal pay, to receive health care, to travel, to obtain accommodations, even to use public toilets and public drinking fountains. These wrongs were not based on an individual’s choice of transportation, i.e. bike v. car. They were based on the color of your skin.

If you were born black, you were denied equal protection of the laws — of all laws. If you were white, as Bill Broonzy sang, “You’re all right.” If you’re black? Get back, get back, get back, get back.

Whereas cyclists, state by state, try to affect their rights on roads via legislation, the wrongs that were fought against in the civil rights movement were the continuation of a war that killed 600,000 people and destroyed the lives of millions. The movement itself had to oppose and defeat state sponsored violence, lynching, the murder of children, the bombing of churches, and the killing of activists who simply sought the rights they were guaranteed under our constitution.

It damages cycling advocacy to try and claim parity with the civil rights movement, just like it damages people who protest modern wars to compare them with the Holocaust. By appropriating the language of such seminal events, you expropriate them as well. Your tragedy, however tragic, is not and can never be the Holocaust. Your death at the hands of a careless texter is not and can never be the enslavement of an entire race.

At the same time we can and should use the lessons of those who fought in the civil rights movement. They looked to David Thoreau and his theory of civil disobedience; we can look to the united front of civil rights marchers as we refuse to accept the slaughter in the streets and the separate, unequal facilities being foisted on us. By honoring the struggles of others and learning from them, without stripping away their hard-earned denominations and claiming them for ourselves, we do the right thing and actually give ourselves a chance.



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§ 30 Responses to Is cycling a civil right?

  • Ken says:

    Well said. Another cyclist down in Paso Robles this weekend thanks to 18 year old fooling with his phone.

    • fsethd says:

      Unbelievable … except, so believable.

    • deb says:

      “No charges have been filed.” If he’d hit a car and killed someone, would charges have been filed? Is there not something called negligent homicide, or is that just on TV?

      • fsethd says:

        I think we’ve seen from the Olin Milton case that if you’re on a bike, you’re fair game with no criminal penalties to fear by he who kills you.

    • Emacdo says:

      How is what he did not reckless driving and/or negligent manslaughter (at least)? Except that there is no such thing as ‘legal principle’? (to wit: the Black experience in America…) I bet if he’d hit someone in a Mercedes there’d be hell to pay.

      • fsethd says:

        That’s exactly right. Witness what happened when the cyclist in San Francisco killed the pedestrian. It was national news.

        Get back, get back, get back.

    • Tom says:

      Generally you can avoid DUI drivers if you stay off the highways between, say, 11pm and 4am, especially on weekends.

      With the damned texters and emailers, the risk is 24/7.

      The severity & punishment for “distracted while texting” ought to be at least as great as DUI … which maybe isnt saying much.

      Those convicted of DUI rarely receive huge punishments, especially if they can pay the $10K-15K needed for fines and lawyers.
      Seems more often than not, the DUI convicts are repeat offenders. I suspect most are never “rehabilatated” or deterred.

  • Brian in VA says:

    Well said, Seth. Totally agree that cyclist rights are not civil rights.

    Although, it is right to be civil! We’ve had a recent run in with a gun waving motorist with no charges made until the cyclist swore out a warrant. Trial is in January.

  • A-Trav says:

    Thanks for that most succinct encapsulation of a complicated issue. Most appreciated.

  • Serge Issakov says:

    Analogies are never perfect. That doesn’t mean they’re not useful. Whether cycling on public roadways is a civil right in a strict legal sense is not really the issue.

    The point is the irrational anti-cyclist bigotry that is ultimately at the core of the intolerance, hatred, rage, legal injustice and violence that cyclists experience has similarities to racism. Being a cyclist has helped me, for example, as a white male, gain an understanding for what is happening in Ferguson that I would not otherwise have.

    • fsethd says:

      Yep — the anti-cycling bigotry — that’s exactly what it is, shares the core qualities you mentioned. And I agree that when you’re the one being shoved around, it makes the abuse suffered by others real.

      Like the old saying goes, “Nothing ever happens ’til it happens to you.”

  • Eli Damon says:

    As you say, every such analogy is limited, but I see parallels between the treatment of cyclists and that of a number of minority groups. I think that cyclists’ right to the road is tied to several well-accepted legal principles and one that I think I made up myself. The well-accepted ones includes the right to peaceably assemble. Travel is critical to assembly, and any restriction on the right to travel also restricts the right to assemble. There is also the right to equal treatment under law and the prohibition on laws that are unconstitutionally vague. Cyclists often don’t enjoy these rights due to prejudicial and discriminatory laws and law enforcement.

    Then there is what I call “the right to engage in neutral activity”. That is, I believe that a more extreme activity should never have legal priority over a more neutral activity. Legal restrictions should always be proportional to the activities they restrict. This goes totally against the staus quo in pretty much every legal realm in this country, but I think it makes perfect sense. When it comes to roads, the most neutral activity you can engage in is standing still. The greater your speed and the bigger and heavier your vehicle, the less neutral your movement. The law should never single out and restrict more neutral activity while permitting a more extreme one.

  • Patrick says:

    Not sure if you saw the article in the LA Times on Saturday about hit and runs on cyclist. There was a quote in the article (can’t remember who said it) that read, “if you want to murder someone, make sure they are on a bicycle. Run them over and you’ll never see jail time”.

  • Serge Issakov says:

    It’s easy to discount the civil right to use your bicycle for recreation, but what about people who must rely on bicycling for transportation? Is it not a civil right for them?

    • fsethd says:

      In its legal sense, the right to use the roadways free of discrimination is a civil right. Whether it’s a necessity or a hobby, when the law allows you to do something and people arbitrarily restrict that right, most often in flagrant violation of other laws, criminal and civil, then your civil right to the use of the public roadways has been infringed.

      The next step, that it is analogous to the civil rights movement, is one that I refuse to take. This doesn’t mean we can find the parallels and utilized the lessons, but we’re not free to expropriate certain words for ourselves. In fact, by creating our own language we strengthen our attempt to get justice, and make no mistake about it, when you’re killed by a careless or intentionally evil driver, there has been great injustice. I’d even argue that the simple restriction of the roadways and illegal harassment/discouragement of cycling is a greater injustice because cycling has the potential to keep so many people healthy.

      • darelldd says:

        This I find to be right on the money:

        “In fact, by creating our own language we strengthen our attempt to get justice”

        It is both lazy and contrary to our purpose to fall back into the language and work of others who have suffered different injustices in the past. We need our own words to describe the unique set of injustices we’re working against today.

        Still, Rosa Parks wouldn’t have ridden in the gutter. 🙂

  • Peter says:

    One of my favorite blogs of all time. Thank you.

  • sibex9591 says:

    We lost a local this weekend. I know the area where the incident took place. As always there is detritus along the edge, and pot-holes, and man-hole covers. More than likely here the driver was not going to give a safe passing buffer, and when the cyclist changed his line, the buffer was gone.

  • Martin Ward says:

    Two friends lost to cars. Almost every weekend some blowback from drivers.
    Our club tries to ride safely and with regard to all ” Rules of the Road” , trying to buffer ourselves from harm. This is, however, an inherently dangerous sport. Heck, we take each other out .That happens way more often than car/motorcycle conflict. Deadly consequences there as well.
    We all have stories about dangerous encounters with those with whom we share the roads. If you think about it, you can also recall acts of regard and respect. Mostly its just us doing our thing, and traffic doing its thing, with really little regard for the others experience either way.
    That’s a loooooonnnnggg way from institutional prejudice where choosing to have a restaurant meal gets you jailed or worse.
    We choose. We decide if the choice is worth it. In my mind the occasional knucklehead( On four or two wheels) is worth dealing with to continue in a sport that has brought me many friends and years of pleasure.

    • fsethd says:

      “That’s a loooooonnnnggg way from institutional prejudice where choosing to have a restaurant meal gets you jailed or worse.”


      There’s no mortgage redlining for cyclists, no towns where if you’re a cyclist “they better not catch you there after dark.”

  • Les.B. says:

    I agree that cyclists’ present predicament does not compare in magnitude or scope to what the Afro-American culture has and is being subjected to in America; but then there is the concept of degree. The Civil Rights Movement does not have exclusive rights to the words “civil” and “rights”, even when the words are juxtaposed to each other.

    So what is the definition of those words so juxtaposed? Not to claim that Wikipedia should be considered reliable authority on any issue, however I like this line from the “Civil and political rights” page:
    “Civil rights include the ensuring of peoples’ physical and mental integrity, life and safety”.

    Going by that unnamed Wikipedia author’s opinion, it seems to me that we have a civil rights issue here. If not, I would like to know where in the real definition we are excluded.

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