Bicycles Vs. Cars on Knoxville Roads

Who were our roads designed for, anyway?

As bicycles start blooming in chained clusters all around town, I'm obliged to offer a historical amplification. A reader whose letter recently appeared on our letters page claimed, as many motorists do, that our roads were designed for cars, not for bicycles.

Some roads were, certainly—especially interstate highways, which are unsafe for anything other than cars. It's also likely some postwar suburbs were designed with only automobiles in mind. Pedestrians may be allowed on some of them, but only if they behave and get out of the way.

However, most streets in the older parts of town, including downtown and adjacent neighborhoods—as well as several of our longer roads, including all the ones known as "Pikes"—were laid out and used for multiple forms of transportation before automobiles were invented.

Bicycles arrived in Knoxville about 30 years before automobiles did. The first automobile ever seen on Knoxville's streets was built by bicycle hobbyists, in a bicycle shop on Vine Avenue, ca. 1899. By then, bicycles had long been a popular means of practical transportation. A large photograph of Gay Street recently installed in the lobby of the Burwell building shows streetcars, automobiles, horse-drawn buggies, pedestrians, and bicyclists. This one random shot, from about 1915, shows five forms of transportation, all sharing the same pavement.

Most of the streets of central Knoxville were originally designed for pedestrians and various animal-drawn vehicles. Later these streets admitted bicyclists and electric streetcars. For the most part they all coexisted gracefully. Only after that did all these forms make room for the rich sportsman's novelty, the automobile.

Within a generation, the automobile, larger, louder, heavier, and more dangerous, took over our once versatile old roads like a crow in a birdfeeder. All other forms of transportation, even the ones with seniority, lost their tenure.

Doubtful of the Distinction

It's not fair, I agree, but it's the reality in almost all American cities. As a practical bicycle commuter of 30 years standing, I'm as skeptical as many non-cyclists about the philosophy that bicycles are Vehicles, therefore coequal with automobiles, with exactly the same rights and responsibilities. A lot of well-meaning bicycling promoters insist on that equation. I think the philosophy can be dangerous, and may even discourage bicycling.

To begin with, the premise isn't true. Rights, as represented by laws, aren't the same. Bicycles aren't allowed on many highways. Cars aren't allowed on greenways. Bicycles don't need license plates, for a relevant reason. Governments require automobile licensing of both drivers and vehicles, and have from early on; it took only a few hit-and-runs for us to understand the urgency. Bicycles have been in Knoxville since the 1860s, but even in 2009, they have exactly the same licensing requirement that pedestrians do. There's been no urgent need. A bicyclist's ability to cause harm is closer to a pedestrian's.

As machines, bicycles and cars aren't comparable. In total weight, top speed, and, most important to me, vulnerability, a bicyclist is much more like a pedestrian than a motorist.

The standard speed limit, the default limit if you don't see a sign, is 30 mph. Driving a car, that's damnably slow, even if you're an old lady on your way to Sunday School. Traffic's rarely patient enough to keep it down to 30.

I don't know any cyclists who can sustain that speed; 30 mph is a winning speed for a professional racer.

Some cyclists on some streets in some circumstances can indeed keep up with traffic, "control their lanes," as they say. I ride like that when it seems appropriate, but that's not very often.

The unified-field theory of bicycling, the one-size-fits-all ethic, is most appealing to one demographic of bicyclist. It's touted by, and implies, the young, athletic, well-equipped, and fearless.

I'd prefer to think practical bicycling can be an option for everybody: old ladies, fat people, shy people, children. People with saddlebags loaded with groceries or newspapers. Or me. I'm a middle-aged asthmatic with a 20-year-old bike built more for durability than speed and, often, a satchel loaded with books. We don't all come with a coequal capacity to control a lane—or to avoid infuriating the driver behind you, who maybe had counted on being able to pick up her daughter at school on time.

I may not fit some definitions of "cyclist." I've never owned any garment made of lycra. I've never owned a bicycle that cost more than $200. I have no knack for working on bikes, and after years of screwing things up, always take my bike to a shop even to get flats fixed. For recreation, I prefer the simplicity of a jog or a good walk.

But I've ridden maybe 50,000 miles on bicycles, most of it back and forth to school or work. I've been bicycle commuting about 100 days a year since the Carter administration. I've ridden my bike to doctors' and dentists' appointments, and to give lectures at the University of Tennessee or luncheon talks to Rotary and Sertoma clubs. I've ridden it to visit family in hospitals, and to turn in a manuscript on deadline. I've ridden my bike to graveside ceremonies. I rarely grocery-shop on a bike, but I've done so.

But I average—don't laugh—about 9 mph. That's about twice as fast as a brisk stroll. I used to ride faster, when I was younger and more certain that nothing would ever kill me. Now it's a speed I'm comfortable with. I would hate to be behind me in a car.

So I stick to bike paths, side streets, shoulders, and every once in a while, after dark, or if it's pouring rain, a sidewalk. If you're serious about practical bicycling, you'll find yourself accepting conditions unlike the Apollonian ideal represented in Cannondale ads.

Bicyclists are in the right when they demand some kind of accommodation on our public roads. But after too many close calls over the last 30 years, I'm not going to demand it, myself, without a good army.