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Comment highlight: Thoughts on getting a “free” ride

Posted by on August 29th, 2012 at 9:53 am

A family ride to IKEA-8.jpg

Free riders.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s a common refrain during civic debates about bicycling: People on bikes get a “free ride” and it’s just “not fair” that any public subsidies should go toward making bicycling better because people who ride “don’t pay their way” and they are scofflaws to boot. It’s that type of perspective that led to my thoughts last week on how we should approach the licensing discussion from a position of reform, not revenge.

That post has led to some excellent ideas and thoughts from the community and the comment section is still alive and well five days later. Last night, frequent commenter El Biciclero shared his thoughts on this concept that people on bikes are getting a “free ride.” I’ve pasted his entire comment below…

It is my firm belief that nowadays, most folks who call for licensing/registration of riders/bicycles do so with a revenge motive. A lot of people see cyclists just as you describe–as somehow cheating the system. They don’t think it seems “fair” for cyclists to get a “free” ride.

I’ll tell you about “free”.

“Free” means inhaling the exhaust and dust spewed or kicked up by drivers. “Free” means drivers frequently coming within seconds or inches of killing or injuring me, and having such a cavalier attitude about it as to be considered contempt. “Free” means paying in time and physical effort for what drivers pay for in cash. “Free” means getting roasted by the sun and drenched by the rain. “Free” means taking a longer (often MUCH longer) route–even though I am already also going slower–than I would take in a car because it is “safer”, or because the direct route is literally and legally off-limits to bicycle travel. “Free” means having my spouse come nearly to tears when I mention trying a new route to work that involves an unprotected left turn. “Free” means having other people consistently think they need to act like my parent and tell me where I “should” or “shouldn’t” be. “Free” means observing 10 to 15 serious traffic violations by auto drivers in one trip home from work–two or three of which directly endanger me–while knowing most folks consider me to be the scofflaw menace. “Free” means reading comments on “news” articles by troglodytes who think it would be funny to watch me die. “Free” means that were I ever to be involved in an altercation with a driver in which police were involved, my story would likely be automatically discounted/disbelieved because I was not also in a car. Oh, and “free” means I still pay taxes that contribute to the construction and maintenance of roads that are destroyed by cars.

“Free” also means that I can hear birds singing and the actual flapping of ducks’ wings as they pass over my head–on the way to work. “Free” means I can tell what most of my neighbors are having for dinner by the smell as I glide along the street. “Free” means “no gym membership necessary”. “Free” means I can feel the thermal micro-climate fluctuations as I sweep past low-lying woodsy areas. “Free” means I can hear the leaves crunching under my wheels in the Fall. “Free” means I only fill up the car (if I have a car) once a month or less, rather than every week. “Free” means I can do much of my own vehicle maintenance, rather than pay a mechanic the cost of a brand new bike to fix some car problem. “Free” means that I can still feel strong, even as I get older. “Free” means I can stop and chat with friends I might see walking along the sidewalk. “Free” means I care more about the weather report than the traffic report. “Free” means that if I ever do need to take the car (if I own a car) in for repair, I can leave the car and don’t have to get a loaner or bum a ride to get home. “Free” means that using my vehicle often feels more like playing a musical instrument than operating a mechanical device. “Free” means I might avoid a lot of the prescription drugs and healthcare costs associated with sedentary lifestyles. “Free” means I have a much lower chance of backing over my own kid in the driveway. “Free” means I know how to drive a car, but if I don’t have one or the one I have is broken down, I don’t necessarily care. “Free” means that even when drivers yell or rev their engines or attempt to guess my sexual orientation, I know I don’t need to do any of those things to other people to make myself feel big and strong; I am strong.

Thanks El Biciclero, I could not have said it better myself.

See the original comment here and read the full discussion about bicycle licensing here.

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  • Ron August 29, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I didn’t see his original post, so thanks for reposting. Beautifully stated!

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    • A.K. August 29, 2012 at 10:34 am

      Yes, thanks for posting this! I had missed the original post, but El Biciclero is one of the most thoughtful commenter here, rarely or never posting snark (which I’m certainly guilty of) and providing constantly thought-provoking comments. Cheers.

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  • takeaspin22 August 29, 2012 at 10:13 am

    This is an eloquent summary of not only the issues we face, but the reasons why we ride.

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  • thefuture August 29, 2012 at 10:21 am

    If one does not already exist, it’d be great to have a simple webpage that lays out the facts about how people who ride bikes do in fact pay for roads, infrastructure, etc. That way, when false articles or comments on articles are made, its easy to direct them to a link stating these facts. Perhaps also include facts on the bike plan (that it is not actually 600mil) or anything else relevant to bikes that is often falsely stated in the media, blogs, or generally online.

    Anyone know of an existing page? If not could be something to add here on BP or BTA’s website?

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    • Alan 1.0 August 29, 2012 at 11:17 am

      I’ve collected quite a few references on the “who pays for roads” topic in this BikePortland forums thread:

      A key piece of research which I’ve not yet found is an analysis of Portland’s PBOT funding comparable to Josh Cohen’s article “We All Pay For The Roads”” about Seattle’s DOT budget.

      Thanks for that post and many others, El Biciclero.

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      • davemess August 29, 2012 at 7:12 pm

        yes, I always link people to the Seattle article.

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    • Cim August 30, 2012 at 9:13 am

      It’s not exactly “simple”, but is a great wiki resource that probably has a lot of the information you’re interested in. I think this was mentioned in a bikeportland story this spring.

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  • NW Biker August 29, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Fabulous. I wish there was a way to get those comments in front of motorists who aren’t also cyclists. If they’d even listen.

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    • Psyfalcon August 29, 2012 at 11:06 am

      Can we rent the front page of the Oregonian?

      Take some of these posts and comments, turn them into fact filled columns and deliver them to the people.

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  • Aaron August 29, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Here’s a better argument: this country spends billions upon billions of dollars subsidizing automobile transportation, both through explicit subsidies – building roads – and implicit subsidies, such as minimum parking requirements in zoning laws. Estimates for the total economic value of the subsidies runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Only a tiny fraction of that, less than 1%, is spent on bike transportation, and it’s really scattered at that, since most municipalities couldn’t care less about bikes. If anyone’s getting a free ride in this country, it’s car users, every time they drive on roads or park anywhere outside their own driveway.

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    • Pete August 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm

      Saved me typing, thanks. When some politician has the balls to raise the federal gas tax to even pace inflation let alone cover the billions of dollars of deficit the federal highway trust fund is in, then maybe I’ll pay heed to one of these pathetic rants on the “free” ride we get.

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    • chucklehead August 30, 2012 at 9:28 am


      by your logic, so do cyclists. Whatever infrastructure they are using is not funded directly from their pockets, either.

      Also, look up “public good”. It’s something the government provides for the betterment of society, not because it is “market efficient”.

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  • Sarah H August 29, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Even before we get to all of the externalities produced by these car roads built all over our collective public space, the idea that non car drivers aren’t paying, strictly in a financial sense, for this infrastructure is patently untrue as all readers of this blog almost definitely already know, but it bears repeating over and over and over again. Just the cost of providing parking alone is at least as much as we all pay for Medicare, according to Donald Shoup’s awesome study. Private autos are *by far* the most publicly subsidized mode of transport there is. As thefuture says, I would love for a succinct and definitive outline of the data to exist somewhere on the internet to easily refer to in times like this (perhaps I’ll work on creating one myself).

    And then there are all the externalities, which El Biciclero gets at very nicely. Thanks for posting this. His words nicely point out that we “free loaders” didn’t agree to having our public space overrun with what is essentially private space used in a way that is hazardous to the public – space we can’t use, either because it’s illegal for us to do so (freeways) or because it’s far too dangerous – that cuts us off from other neighborhoods and spaces and fills our air with harmful particulates. If people want to build highways within their own yards, by all means, go for it… make your own space uninhabitable, and drive around in circles in your back yard.. but the roads are public. They shouldn’t be subject to one segment of the population’s whims and wallets alone.

    One externality that doesn’t get a lot of airing is simply how far apart everything has to be in a world where we insist private autos be able to access everything, meaning that as someone on foot or on a bike, I have to travel 10x the distance I would otherwise have to in order to get to my destination. Our cities are now laid out in a way entirely unfriendly to anybody not in a car. That’s “free” the same way slave barracks are “free” for the use of their captives.

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  • Randall S. August 29, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Speaking of a free ride, when do I get my taxpayer-funded storage unit? Everyone I know who has a garage uses it to store their private goods, and then stores their private automobile on the publicly-funded roads. Seems to me like I should also get a city-paid storage unit.

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    • Pete August 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm

      To heck with storage, I’d like a refund for each of the compainers’ children I’ve put through our public school systems.

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      • Brian August 31, 2012 at 8:06 am

        Maybe you went to a Private school and you hate paying taxes? Or, do we not have a debt to repay to society after graduating from public school?

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        • Pete September 2, 2012 at 12:06 am

          I went to a (terrible) public school before putting myself through college(s) – had to pay for private college prep courses to get in, basically because my high school guidance counselor f’ed up. And no, I’m not a fan of paying taxes I have no control over. I own several properties in two states and the *majority* of my property taxes go to schools (they are broken down on the bills). The neighborhood I live in now (in California, no longer Portland) has one of the lowest crime rates in the country yet the county continues to pay to fly a helicopter over my backyard several times daily, just outlaid a bunch of cash to put in unnecessary curbs (but not sidewalks) along a nearby expressway, built a nice water fountain in front of the courtroom two years ago, and laid off several teachers due to budget cuts. Yet the same people who don’t dare complain about expenditures for police, fire, or roadways (and would fight like badgers against a rise in gas taxes) are the ones telling me I don’t spend enough for either their children or my bike lanes.

          Let’s quantify what you think I’m *supposed* to be repaying to society and compare it against what I’ve already paid – and I expect the return on my investment to be impressive test scores at the very least.

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        • Pete September 2, 2012 at 12:17 am

          Incidentally, nowhere did I imply that I don’t believe I should be paying for public schools, regardless of whether I have children or not (I do not). If you still don’t get it, my point is one doesn’t have the right to claim they shouldn’t be paying for services I use while I am paying (significantly) for services they use.

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    • Spiffy August 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      I believe you’re free to park your bicycle on the street…

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  • Paul August 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Who was that masked man?

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  • Spiffy August 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    the average newspaper web site commenter should take the time to Google “do bicycles pay for their share of the road” instead of posting their hateful thoughtless comments…

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  • JRB August 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    I see the debate over cycling trending much like the debate over the use of the death penalty in this country, except cycling is like 10-15 years behind. Regardless of your personal feelings about the death penalty, I think the experience of the abolition movement is illustrative.

    When I first started working on death penalty abolition over 20 years ago, most people thought you were crazy to campaign against the death penalty because there was no chance of changing the broad majority’s support for it. But the abolition movement kept talking, protesting and educating people and gradually the wheel turned to the point where the trend in the country is toward abolition now. In the last ten years we’ve had seven states abolish completely, several more, including Oregon, institute moratoriums on execution, and the Supreme Court continue to limit its application, citing “evolving community standards.” We never could have got here without changing minds.

    When I think about where we were and are in getting cycling accepted as a legitimate form of transportation by the majority non-cycling public, I see a parallel. I think attitudes are changing bit by bit everyday. I am not dismayed by the negativity directed towards cycling in the mainstream media, because I see change happening everyday on the streets. As tough as it can be at the moment, and as frustrated as we are at the pace of change, we will eventually see broad acceptance of cycling because it simply the right thing for our society as a whole, and I think that majority of people are rational enough to come to that conclusion.

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    • 9watts August 29, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      And don’t forget other (physical, environmental, economic) constraints that are going to overtake automobility probably before attitudes flip.

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  • Madeye August 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    Beautiful! I got chills reading that. Thanks for re-posting.

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  • kww August 29, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    We need solid data as to how many bicyclists also have a car and pay registration fees. We already pay for the roads and want discretion on how they are used!

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    • 9watts August 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      “We need solid data as to how many bicyclists also have a car and pay registration fees.”
      I disagree. You’re idea (perhaps unintentionally) reifies the ‘only those who drive cars pay their way’ line of reasoning.

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  • Travis August 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    All these data requests…. I’d rather see data on where direct motor vehicle fees / taxes are spent. Is it on I-5, 28, 84, etc… Could it be, a great deal of the roads cyclist use are largely cared for out of home owner fees? Could it be that a great deal of the roads motorist use aren’t paid for with registration fees, but subsidized by federal income tax? I have no idea, which is why I ask. For the matter of educating cyclist, that’s another issue. But, as many have pointed out, 10 year-olds ride bikes and the laws are largely common sense. Bike accidents and stupidity will still occur as they do with cars too.

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  • Brian August 29, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    If we’re going to require licenses from cyclists, than we should require that pedestrians have a license too. We spend millions making intersections safer for pedestrians, and what do we get in return? Nothing. Pedestrians don’t pay vehicle registration taxes. These freeloaders do nothing but impede traffic and force engineers to spend countless millions on safety improvements without contributing to the system. Require bicyclists to buy a license plate and have a license and you should require the same of people on two feet too. Just saying…

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    • Randall S. August 30, 2012 at 10:16 am

      And that’s not all! You know how many pedestrians I see wearing helmets? Zero. I have literally seen zero pedestrians in my life wearing helmets. With over 4000 deaths a year (as compared to a measly 650 cyclist deaths) and person walking without a helmet is just asking to be killed.

      And none of them obey traffic laws. You know how many pedestrians I see come to a complete stop at stop signs? Plus, I see people jaywalking, running, walking the wrong direction.

      And every time I use my bicycle in a shared pathway, pedestrians just slowly amble along and hold up traffic. Since cyclists are expected to “get out of the way” for faster moving traffic in car/bike shared areas, it’s only logical that pedestrians need to “get out of the way” in bike/ped shared areas.

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  • Michael C. August 30, 2012 at 7:36 am

    Read this article by Todd Litman which outlines how bicyclists actually pay their fair share or more on road construction and maintenance. In fact, we pay for roads that we don’t even use: FREEWAYS.

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    • 9watts August 30, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Thanks for linking to that excellent report. Very interesting to read. I recommend it.

      I only found one statement in the report that I think would benefit from qualification:
      “Vehicle user fees would need to double to fully fund roadway costs.”
      Although the author does not intend this, the statement comes pretty close to suggesting that if vehicle user fees were twice what they are (something that I think the Europeans have done a much better job of arranging) detractors’ arguments about non-motorized users’ rights to the road would have greater validity. I don’t think the data he summarizes support this but I think we need to be vigilant when articulating hypothetical scenarios.

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  • cw August 30, 2012 at 10:54 am

    what about a simple $1 or $5 tax (or fee, since we don’t have sales tax in Oregon) on purchase of new bikes in Portland? I would happily pay an extra $5 everytime I bought a bike if I KNEW it was going to support bike infrastructure. People could still purchase used bikes and not have to pay, so it wouldn’t unduly burden people who couldn’t afford it.

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    • 9watts August 30, 2012 at 11:10 am

      Wait! Why are you folks so ready to pay a fee? I think this willingness is based on faulty premises.

      – are you conceding the ‘we don’t pay our fair share’ argument? Because the report by Littman linked to above handily dismisses that (see in particular Table 4 on p. 13)

      – or are you eager to pacify the detractors without conceding their claims by making a symbolic payment to ‘shut them up’?

      As George Lakoff has noted in his writing, we frequently lose the debates because we unwittingly accept the framing of the issue put in place by those who disagree with us.
      “one of the reasons liberals have had difficulty since the 1980s is that they have not been as aware of their own guiding metaphors, and have too often accepted conservative terminology framed in a way to promote the strict father metaphor. […] Lakoff insists that liberals must cease using terms like partial birth abortion and tax relief because they are manufactured specifically to allow the possibilities of only certain types of opinions. Tax relief for example, implies explicitly that taxes are an affliction, something someone would want “relief” from. To use the terms of another metaphoric worldview, Lakoff insists, is to unconsciously support it.”

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      • cw September 7, 2012 at 11:18 am

        no, i’m not conceding that we don’t pay our fair share already. i’m just acknowledging the reality that funding for bike infrastructure projects is always in jeopardy of being cut, particularly when budgets are tight. if we paid into a dedicated trust that could ONLY be tapped for bicycle infrastructure improvements, it would bring more stability to funding. we pay through general taxes, which can be reappropriated to whatever the politician of the day’s pet projects are, has the greatest public outcry, has the biggest corporate donor, whatever.

        how cool would it be if there was a trust that was dedicated to biking infrastructure? that will never happen when these projects are funded out of general obligations…

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      • cw September 7, 2012 at 11:21 am

        ps… my “acceptance” of fees is very much different than your interpretation. i’m not “accepting” the framework that you reject, i’m trying to proactively reframe the discussion into providing a dedicated, stable source of funding for projects that are important to me. if i’m crazy because i’m willing to pay for that, then i’m ok with being crazy. we’re always bemoaning the lack of infrastructure, or bike lanes, etc, and are always fighting for funding. how many times have we been disappointed that transit and bike related projects have been cut from DOT funds? Accepting the current funding scheme means that YOU are buying into the wrong framework.

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        • 9watts September 7, 2012 at 12:59 pm

          “my ‘acceptance’ of fees is very much different than your interpretation. i’m not ‘accepting’ the framework that you reject”

          Not so fast.
          You like the things that could conceivably be built with the money you’re talking about raising. Fine. You’re willing to contribute this ‘user fee’ or ‘infrastructure fee.’ Fine.
          But the whole idea that each mode, each tribe, each interest group contribute funds to build out or maintain their share of the public infrastructure undermines & contradicts our notion that this is public infrastructure, and whether you like it or not plays into the hand of those who believe, counterfactually, that right now all of our transport infrastructure is paid for out of fees paid for solely or disproportionately by licensed car drivers. Did you read that report Michael C. linked to above? What conclusions did you draw from it?

          “Accepting the current funding scheme means that YOU are buying into the wrong framework.”

          Criticizing the philosophical underpinnings of your fee idea does not equate to acceptance of the current funding scheme.

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          • cw September 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm

            ” undermines & contradicts our notion that this is public infrastructure, and whether you like it or not plays into the hand of those who believe, counterfactually, that right now all of our transport infrastructure is paid for out of fees paid for solely or disproportionately by licensed car drivers. ”

            Ummm… I never said nor hinted that transport infrastructure is paid for “solely or disproportionately by …drivers.” And I don’t think anyone actually educated and knowledgeable about public works projects actually thinks that. So strenuously rejecting a framework before the lowest common denominator of the least educated is not a really great way of moving a debate forward, IMHO.

            As someone who has spent 15 years working in government (and 10 years working with municipal budgets in financial management), I actually know where funds for public works projects come from, and how they are spent. I think it’s a totally unrealistic to think that the current state of public budgets will allow for the type of infrastructure that cyclists need for a world-class transit experience to be built. Fine, in your utopian ideal, cyclists, who bear less burden on the roads, and (according to the report, which yes I did read) pay a disproportionate share of roadway build and maintenance costs, should get fantastic cycling infrastructure handed to us. Unfortunately, THIS IS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN!!! Seriously, as much as I, too, would love that, it’s just not realistic given the state of the economy and public budgets. I know, because I spend most of my day working with state officials trying to figure out how NOT to cut funding for life saving programs. Literally, we are letting kids die because there is not enough funding for Medicaid programs; bike infrastructure is just not even going to make the agenda for increased spending in most states.

            Have you ever taken the subway in NYC? You pay a couple dollars for the privilege. It’s call public transit, and it is *heavily* subsidized by the city and the state, but you still pay user fees for the right to use the subway system. Ever taken the metro in DC? the tube in London? These are all examples of excellent public works projects that are primarily paid for by taxes, but still collect user fees.

            Cyclists in Portland already pay for streets through the (very minimal) taxes was pay on income and real taxes for bond levies. So what? I’m happy to pay taxes, and as a homeowner, vote to increase taxes every single time a referendum is brought up. I’m also happy to kick in a couple of extra dollars to help fund infrastructure and projects that I’d like to see happen within my lifetime.

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  • El Biciclero August 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Gosh, Jonathan–thanks for the compliment of re-posting my comment. I often worry that I sound like a grumpy old man–I nearly clicked the “Post your comment” button after writing just the first part of this comment…but after thinking about it, added the second part for some balance. I often wonder why people (including me) seem to participate in “who’s got it worse” contests more often than counting our blessings. I’m sure all of us could add our own items to either list–I’d be curious to know what little details other folks love about riding, in spite of the “hardships” we all face out there. The trickle of sweat running down your temple? Smell of blossoms in the Spring? Those times at stops when you somehow manage to get perfectly set up for a nearly motionless faux trackstand? The sound of scarf or coattails flapping in the breeze? Always knowing exactly which way the wind is blowing?

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    • 9watts August 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm

      “I’d be curious to know what little details other folks love about riding, in spite of the “hardships” we all face out there.”

      Separate topic? I think it would be a great and very therapeutic discussion.
      I’ll just say that for me it is that the bike fulfills many of the promises car manufacturers make in their ads but the reality of traffic makes nearly impossible. Getting around by bike is so much more convenient, easier, quicker, simpler, more joyful, less stressful, repairable, expandable, versatile, durable, pleasurable. It is compatible with other modes (fits on Trimet, can be carried into buildings, and up stairs), modular (I can attach any of dozens of trailers to it); it is impossible not to take in one’s surroundings, use one’s senses, breathe in the neighborhood, the river, the city, the weather.

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    • OnTheRoad August 31, 2012 at 6:35 pm

      I thought your enumeration of all the positives of bicycling was quite eloquent and comprehensive.

      One not so poetic plus I would add is that being a bicycle commuter allows me to be able to drink beer without getting the belly. Mundane sure, but definitely a positive.

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  • Joe August 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    @El Biciclero legit write up. dang….

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  • Beth September 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    All this lovely, eloquent language, profound and thoughtful as it is, will do little to keep the legislature from tossing the idea of bicycle licensure around in Salem. It will do next to nothing to keep the legislature from actually passing such a law, if only to shut up the loudest, angriest motorists who will demand such a measure be taken.

    What I would like to know is: how loud and angry can bicyclists get if this becomes law and is shoved down our throats?
    There are thousands of people in the Portland area alone who ride their bikes every single day.
    How many of us actually would take to the streets in prolonged and disruptive (note I did NOT say “violent”, just “disruptive”) protest and declare ut loud that they absolutely will not buy a license to ride their bicycles?

    When that question is answered then we’ll have an idea of just how many people really mean what they say here.

    I, for one, am quite willing to become non-violently disruptive if it comes to that. And I would suggest that because this possibility is very real, others who rely on bicycles for transportation should be aware and get ready to figure out where and how they stand on the matter.

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