Bicyclists need to pay their fair share for roads

The presence of bicycles on streets and highways on the Eastside has become just another fact of life, and rarely is a new road built (or an old one resurfaced) anywhere in King County that does not have either a shared bicycle-automobile lane or a bike-only lane.

With even more forced integration of the roadspace barreling down the pike, now is the time for state and local government officials to deal with the elephant in the room: how to ensure that cyclists using our public roads are responsible and are paying their fair share.

As commuting by bicycle becomes more commonplace, and Schwinns and SUVs are each claiming ownership of the pavement, inequities continue to exist that have serious potential implications for drivers and cyclists alike.

Though motorists have long been required to meet minimum standards before obtaining the privilege of using our roads, cyclists continue to enjoy a pass when it comes to validating their place on the street. Cyclists using the roads – not those who stay on marked trails and sidewalks – should be required to apply for and obtain a license that includes an examination on traffic laws for bicycles.

In order to legally take to the road, motorists demonstrate they know the rules and pass a road test. They also purchase insurance to cover damages from any accidents they may cause.

This system of responsibility functions like white noise in the background, giving each driver incentives to be safe. In the event that a driver ignores those incentives, their privilege to drive can be revoked, thus removing a potential danger from the road we all share. There is no such mechanism to govern the actions of cyclists on the roads, but it is time to have cyclists participate fully in the community of responsible road users.

A Washington state driver must demonstrate that they understand the rules of the road; cyclists have been allowed to slide by, pointing to rider education programs conducted by club-like organizations as proof of competence, the equivalent of receiving a driver’s license with the purchase of an AAA membership. Giving cyclists free use of the honor system is not enough, simply because it offers no incentive for cyclists to meet the minimum standard we all rely on for safe roads. (Those who work or live in downtown Seattle can observe a wide deviation in the understanding and application of even the most basic traffic laws by a large number of cyclists.)

But even before a license exam could be given to pedal-pushers, a critical question needs to answered. Namely, what are the traffic laws for bicycles? It’s a valid query and it may not be as simple as concluding that cyclists follow the same laws as motorists, only at lower speed.

For example, consider that you are driving and a cyclist is riding beside you in a bike lane to your right. You are approaching an intersection and you wish to make a right turn. Do you have the right-of-way — thereby cutting in front of the cyclist — or does the cyclist?

To my knowledge, this is just one real-world shared road dilemma not addressed by current law and one that could prove damaging or deadly to the cyclist. If shared roads are our new reality (though I argue it is a reality that is so inherently dangerous as to be ridiculous), a thorough audit and rewriting of state and local traffic laws should also be undertaken.

There is also the issue all motorists contend with and that is the rising cost of even having roads to use in the first place. Cyclists need to participate more directly in the financing of the roads they enjoy using. In our society, space has value.

Powerful groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club enthusiastically lobby to add costs to transportation projects for bicycle commuting accommodations, depriving space from automobiles in ways that arguably increases overall congestion. It is the time for them to pay for their seat at the planning table.

Whether through requiring a road-ridden bicycle to display a license and pay a nominal annual fee or some other means of assessing a user-specific fee for the privilege to roll on the street, it is inequitable for cyclists to duck making their fair share of necessary investments in our roads.

After all, what if transportation planners are successful in creating a cyclotopia in King County? Increasing the percentage of commuters using bicycles also creates a decline in the revenues from gas taxes and fees related to motor vehicles. Without a replacement revenue source, even cycling would become quite difficult without the funds to build and maintain roads.

Use of public roads is neither a right nor an entitlement. It is a privilege. In adopting a comprehensive licensing regime and a consolidation of our rules of the road, our civic leaders could blaze a trail for others by truly integrating our local roadways and not affording any special status to one particular group of users.

Bryan Myrick, a lifelong resident of the Eastside, has a degree in political science and communications from the University of Washington and currently publishes the Northwest Daily Marker, a blog on local and national politics.


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