How to overcome common objections to bike lanes
In my 3+ years of local advocacy I’ve heard every objection under the sun to putting in safe bike infrastructure. It seems that no one objects to bike lanes themselves, but they object to the reallocation of space that make safe bike lanes possible. Drivers seem to view roads as exclusively for them, and that any other proposed use is blasphemy. Note that most of this is specific to LA, but the objections (and retorts) are usually the same everywhere. Also, while I focused on bike lanes below, many of these same arguments can be made for bus lanes or neighborhood traffic calming. Here are some objections I’ve heard and how to overcome them:
1. “You’re putting in bike lanes that no one uses anyway.” This is probably the most common thing I hear — that no one bikes in LA, so why bother putting in bike lanes. First, it’s not true that no one bikes, but it is true that most people don’t. The reason for this is that we have had a scattershot approach to adding bike lanes, and they don’t connect to each other, and are usually in the door zone. Therefore, they don’t form a safe network and don’t take people to where they need to go most of the time.
THE RETORT: It’s likely not true that “no one” uses the bike lanes — but bikes are much quieter than cars and take up less space, so it’s easier to miss them go by. Also, since the city doesn’t have a network of bike lanes that actually make people feel safe (protected bike lanes), most people aren’t willing to risk riding their bike only for the lane to magically disappear, forcing them to share the road with speeding cars. By supporting more bike lanes, we can create a network of protected bike lanes, which once created, will be used by many more people that would otherwise likely be in a car.
2. “LA is too spread out, it won’t work here. This isn’t Amsterdam.” This one is easy to talk to, as the statement assumes that every trip must start on one side of Los Angeles and end on the opposite side (and yes, that is likely too far to bike for most). But the vast majority of trips are possible.
THE RETORT: While it’s true that not every trip in LA could be done by bike, 50% of car trips every day are going 3 miles or less (less than a 15 minute bike ride), 66% of car trips every day are going 5 miles or less (less than a 30 minute bike ride). People don’t need a to drive a mile to the grocery store, or two miles to run an errand — they do it because they feel like they have no safe alternative. Most people don’t like traffic or having to look for a parking space, and a bike solves both. But people are only going to use bikes if they feel like they’re not going to die in the street with poor infrastructure.
3. “No one is going to ride to work, they don’t want to show up sweaty” or “no one is going to ride up a big hill,” or “no one is going to ride to carry heavy groceries home.”
THE RETORT: E-bikes. E-bikes are the solution for those that live up a hill, or have a hilly commute, or need to carry something heavy. And with major e-bike manufacturers now offering e-bikes under $1,000, they can be true car replacements in hilly or heavy cargo situations.
4. “You’re going to make pollution and traffic worse with idling cars stuck in gridlock if you take away a traffic lane.” This is a very common one, the myth that by giving people infrastructure for alternatives to the car, you’re just making pollution worse.
THE RETORT: It’s true that if we put in non-car infrastructure and no one uses it, then traffic may get worse. However, case studies from around the world have shown the opposite. When cities make cycling safer and more attractive, a subset of the population decide to use the infrastructure, replacing a car trip. Over time, traffic actually gets better than before the change, with people doing a mode shift to a something that causes no pollution, is healthier, doesn’t wear down the road, and is much safer for those around them in the event of a crash.
5. “There’s been no outreach on this project.” I think I’ve heard this line every single time I’ve been involved in a project that is even a little controversial. Here’s the hard truth: there will NEVER be enough outreach for people opposed to change. Usually, “outreach” is code for “I don’t like the project and want to use process to kill it.
THE RETORT: In Los Angeles, thanks to NIMBY lawsuits against the City’s Mobility Plan 2035, the city is actually required to do a ton of outreach when considering a road reconfiguration on a major corridor. This usually results in multiple community meetings (both online and offline), tabling farmers markets, and sending mailers to homes near the street in question.
6. “Bike lanes will mean emergency services can’t get through.” When the outreach excuse doesn’t work, some go to this one. It’s also completely false.
THE RETORT: In cities with huge bike networks — many of which are in Northern Europe — you don’t hear of buildings burning down because the fire truck can’t get there fast enough, or of people having heart attacks and the ambulance not being able to get through. And these cities often have narrower streets than we do. In an emergency, it’s possible bike infrastructure could be used by an ambulance or fire engine — and in some parts of the world, there are bike paramedics that can arrive faster than their vehicular counterparts. In fact, LAFD even has a bike medics program. Bike lanes don’t stop emergency services.
7. “You’re going to kill local businesses if you take away car space/parking.” People often protect parking spaces as if it’s their god given right to have free parking exactly in front of where they need to go at any time of day. But it’s not.
THE RETORT: Study after study has shown the opposite — that when you calm traffic down, widen a sidewalk, add a bike lane, add trees, and make a street feel more like a Main St and less like a highway, people want to be there more and therefore businesses get more foot traffic. Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica is a great example of this. Here’s another recent study from New York City.
8. “No one is going to bike when it rains / when it’s cold / when it’s hot.” LA has some of the most temperate weather in the world, so this is really a dubious excuse. Kids in Finland bike themselves to school on safe infrastructure in the snow! But when people are used to being ensconced in a vehicle, anything other than a controlled 72 degrees with no wind or sun can seem daunting.
THE RETORT: The places in the world with the highest percentage of people riding bikes — Denmark, The Netherlands, France, Germany — have some of the worst weather in the word. In the words of one of my European friends, there is no bad weather, just bad dress. One of my favorite things to use in the rain is a Cleverhood — for the ~2 weeks a year it rains in LA. In the sun, I use a hat and sunscreen, and a newly purchased neck/ear protector. It’s all very doable.
9. “I have kids, I can’t bike.” A very common one is that taking kids around by bike is impossible.
THE RETORT: Electric cargo bikes solve this. Radpower has a large range of cargo bikes that accommodate one or two kids on one bike. Bakfiets — cargo bikes with the cargo in front — are also great. I personally have a Load 75, and it allows me to take my kids around pollution free, traffic free, and stress free. It has seats with seatbelts for 3 kids, a rain/sun shade, suspension, and up to 100 mile range. I also threw in a Bluetooth speaker and a fan into it, so they have “A/C” on hot days and music.
10. “Cyclists don’t pay to use the road, I shouldn’t have to subsidize bike lanes.” This is one of my favorites — the idea that, because cyclists don’t, for example, fill up with gas and pay the associated sales taxes, that they don’t pay for their road use.
THE RETORT: First, gas taxes alone don’t cover the cost of road maintenance. How is the difference between gas taxes and the true cost of road maintenance bridged? By general taxpayer dollars — through bonds, sales tax measures, property tax measures, and other general fund expenses. In other words, people that’s don’t drive subsidize road maintenance for those that do drive. To put a fine point on it, as cars have gotten heavier (both due to increase in size as well as batteries from electric vehicles), the roads have had to be repaved more often, making that gap even larger. Someone who bikes is actually doing drivers a favor — their tax dollars go towards repairing the road damaged caused by their heavy vehicle, while not contributing themselves to any wear and tear.
11. “There’s no space for bike lanes.” This one is interesting, as humans decide how to allocate road space. If you went back 150 years ago, there’d be no such thing as space for cars — it would’ve been a mix of streetcars, horses, pedestrians, and cyclists. If you go back 100 years ago, the majority of space still wasn’t for cars. It was only post World War 2 that cities began to deconstruct their streetcar systems and the federal government began plowing highways through cities — all Destruction For Nada. This question was inspired by Evan Meckelnburg’s tweet about a county traffic engineer explaining why there wasn’t enough space for safe bike facilities on a street.
THE RETORT: When someone says “there isn’t enough space” what they really mean is they don’t want to reallocate the existing space to another use. So then the question becomes, what percentage of the street is for cars? If it’s like most streets in most American cities — 100% — then the next question is, is that fair? Why should pedestrians and cyclists be pushed to the margins or be forced to share space with quickly moving 2 ton metal boxes? Why should the bus — which is far more efficient at moving people — be forced into sitting in traffic with private vehicles? Usually by asking these questions — if the person on the receiving end is honest about it — they will reflect and perhaps realize the inequity.
12. “By taking away car space, you’re hurting disabled people that don’t have the luxury of biking.” This one has had a resurgence lately, especially with some of LA’s newest bike lanes. I was at an event last week celebrating the new parking protected bike lanes on San Vicente with Mayor Garcetti and two of my kids (on our way to biking to school) when a woman came up to the Mayor and starting telling him how the new bike lanes were a disaster for disabled people. But LADOT designs these facilites with ADA compliance in mind.
THE RETORT: Not everyone has to bike or bike for every trip— and that’s ok! If someone is physically disabled so they’re unable to ride a bike, no one expects them to use a bike lane. The engineers that are designing the facility need to make sure they are designing it in a way that is compatible with disabled people’s needs. For example, with a parking protected bike lane, they should make sure any blue painted parking spots have curb ramps across the bike lane, and signage/paint in the bike lane so cyclists know to watch out for people crossing there. The two things aren’t incompatible, the bike facility just needs to be implemented thoughtfully. This question was inspired by Dan Federman’s tweet.
The bottom line is that most objections to bike lanes are a result of uneducated opinions. It’s hard for people to imagine a different built environment than they’re used to. As advocates, instead of just yelling back, it behooves us to stay calm and give facts. It won’t win everyone over, but over time it will win the day.