Confessions of a Conservative Cyclist

Earlier this week, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen asked a provocative question on his popular economics blog: “Should we ban bicycles in major urban areas?”

You might think calling for a new regulatory prohibition to be an odd question for someone who also leads a libertarian research organization known as the Mercatus Center. Mr. Cowen was calling attention to recent figures showing that 14 cyclists have been killed in New York City this year alone and asking whether urban cycling would pass a hypothetical Food and Drug Administration test of safety. He added that he often sees bicyclists breaking traffic laws, adding (perhaps a bit trollishly), “why should we allow technologies that seem so closely tethered to massive law-breaking?”

Mr. Cowen is not alone on the right-hand side of the political spectrum in calling fire down upon urban cyclists. In the Wall Street Journal, P.J. O’Rourke described a spreading “fibrosis of bicycle lanes” that threatens “the well-being of innocent motorists.” Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby says that “busy thoroughfares”— by which he means four-lane roads in congested central Boston, not limited-access highways — “aren’t meant for cyclists.” Commentary’s Abe Greenwald says “bikes don’t belong in cities.” And Sonny Bunch, late of the Washington Free Beacon, has called for a ban on bikes, insisting that “bicyclists are terrible.” In his more lighthearted moments, he may demand that “bike lanes be ripped up and the streets repaved with the bones of bicyclists.”

In many cities, cycling and the infrastructure that supports it have become culture-war battlegrounds for larger issues like gentrification or climate change. But as a daily commuter cyclist, I’d encourage my fellow conservatives to consider three key ways urban cycling aligns with their own principles.

First, biking addresses a key right-wing economic concern. In his post, Mr. Cowen urges his commenters that any effort to assign blame to drivers for car/bike collisions “will fail to pass the Coasean symmetric externalities test.” But there’s a more basic economic principle at work in cycling: moral hazard. In the wake of the financial crisis, many on the right opposed bailouts of consumers, companies and even countries on the grounds that this would exacerbate “moral hazard” — the temptation to take on greater risks when the risk-taker doesn’t fully internalize the downside.

Driving a car creates its own kind of moral hazard. The driver is protected by tons of steel and glass, insulated from weather, pollution and noise. (In fact, the seatbelt is considered a classic example of moral hazard, as belted drivers are shown to compensate with greater risk — endangering others while protecting themselves.) In fact, as cars have gotten safer for their drivers, U.S. pedestrian deaths in 2018 reached their highest level since 1990. Many factors are cited, including driver and pedestrian smartphone distraction and denser urban populations, but among them are drivers of moral hazard, including larger and taller cars, which do a better job of protecting their occupants but are more likely to kill a pedestrian or a cyclist in a collision.

Cycling, meanwhile, reduces moral hazard to virtually nothing. Cyclists bear almost fully the downside of the risks they take. I’m a conscientious cyclist, but if I were to run a red light or stop sign, I would personally feel the impact of a vehicle with the right of way. A driver running a light might walk away from a collision unharmed. If conservatives care about aligning risk incentives properly and reducing moral hazard — and we should — they should embrace cycling.

Second, urban cycling increases the efficiency and resiliency of the urban traffic grid. For all their value — and there has never been a more remarkable advancement in affordable, efficient human transport than the personal automobile — cars are limited in their mobility in cities. Even well-designed and smooth-flowing roads can become gridlocked by an unexpected event such as a bad car wreck or two (or, in downtown Washington, a presidential visit or passing motorcade). A transportation system that cannot handle frequent surges in demand lacks resilience; it undermines travelers’ ability to plan and causes similar dislocations as predictable or constant congestion.

This is where bikes come in. A bicyclist takes up less than one-tenth the space of a driver. (Three-quarters of U.S. commuters drive alone.) Thus, a bike can maneuver through tight spaces and around obstacles. In a pinch, a rider can move onto the sidewalk or up onto a curb or through grass. A rider can instantly turn around or reroute if traffic is blocked. On my commute home in Washington, I routinely pass, at normal speed in a bike lane, several blocks of solidly stopped car traffic. In short, riders have vastly more flexibility to move. And as the late Bob Galvin, a former CEO of Motorola and a longtime supporter of research on mobility at the libertarian Reason Foundation, noted, traffic congestion and the thousands of wasted hours and gallons of fuel it causes represent a massive economic tragedy.

Biking is just one of an exploding array of “last-mile” transit solutions. The choice used to be some combination of personal car, subway, bus and taxi. Now the mix also includes ride-hailing, e-bikes, micro-car-rentals and, yes, the annoying electric scooter. And this brings us to the third reason for conservatives to welcome the bike. This array of increased choices is something conservatives should celebrate. It may look confusing and complex as it is rolled out, but if you look closely you can see an emergent order that enhances choice and maximizes freedom.

Ultimately, bikes are about the freedom to move in a way that works for individuals. I choose to bike commute not for environmental reasons but because it’s fast (as fast as driving and 20 minutes faster than the Metro) — and also because I have three kids under the age of 5 and it’s my only exercise time. Others choose it for their own reasons, but whatever their reason, that’s a choice we on the right should respect.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Times.