Roads and paths as common-pool resources, and the problem of governing them

Lynne Kiesling

Yesterday at Reason’s Hit & Run Tim Cavanaugh wrote about something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time: the institutions we use for governing the shared use of paths between cyclists and motorists on roads, and among cyclists, walkers, runners, rollerbladers, etc. on multi-use paths. Tim’s starting point was Christopher Beam’s article in Slate on the same topic. Beam frames the question as “How do we get bikers to obey traffic laws?”, and classifies cyclists into two categories: vehicularists and facilitators:

What to do? Today’s cycling activists generally split into two groups: “vehicularists” and “facilitators.” Proponents of “vehicular cycling” believe bikes should act as cars: occupy full lanes, stop at red lights, use a hand signal at least 100 feet ahead of a turn. That’s the best way to make cars—and policymakers—aware of bicycles and to respect them as equals on the road. When it comes to making roads safe for bikes, vehicularists tend to favor training, education (most cities offer bike safety classes), and enforcement. Cyclists should not grouse about moving violations, the vehicularists argue. It is a sign that they’re being treated as equals.

Facilitators, meanwhile, say we should change the laws and the environment to recognize the innate differences between bikes and cars. That means special facilities like bike lanes, bike paths (elevated trails separate from the road), and even Copenhagen-style traffic lights for bikes. It would also mean changing car-centric laws that don’t make sense for bikes, like the rule that says you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

I agree with Tim that the best response is to be part vehicularist and part facilitator; I figure my split is about 80/20. When I am on my bike I am a vehicle. I think that when I am on my bike I am dangerous to pedestrians and they are dangerous to me because their behavior can be unpredictable, and thus I should be on the road and not on the sidewalk. On the road I ride single file with other cyclists (I generally don’t do group rides), I stop at red lights, I don’t weave in and out of traffic, and I use hand signals. I do not, though, stop at stop signs unless there are other vehicles approaching the intersection; as both Tim and Christopher note, keeping your inertia up is really important on the bike, and stopping at stop signs when there aren’t any other vehicles present is an unnecessary reduction in my inertia that does nothing to improve safety. In other words, I adhere to the Idaho stop law, under which Idaho cyclists are allowed by law to treat stop signs as yield signs in the absence of other vehicles. I am a “facilitator” to the extent that I believe we should amend existing traffic laws to enact the Idaho stop law more widely. In general, I behave the same way, and for the same practical and philosophical (i.e., anarchist) reasons as squarooticus voiced in his/her comment on Tim’s post:

Anyone who advocates that bikes (or all cars!) obey every traffic law has bought into the modern statist notion that laws are ends in themselves. The rest of us (especially the anarchists, who hate unnatural laws) understand that laws are a means to an end. In this case, that end is safety.

How many of you come to complete stops in a car when you get to an intersection in which you have 100% visibility in all directions and there is nothing coming? I certainly don’t, and I don’t know many people who do.

When I’m riding my bike, have perfect visibility, and am not in a position to surprise a driver, I will slow down at a stop sign or light, look in all directions, and proceed through if it is safe to so. I would actually be in favor of car drivers doing this as well, eliminating the need for most traffic control devices, if I felt that most car drivers were capable of doing so safely. Since half of them are yakking on a cellphone wedged between their shoulder and ear, smoking a cigarette with one hand, holding a coffee with the other, and driving with the left knee while the right foot actuates the velocitator and deceleratrix, it seems pretty clear that this isn’t the case.

SAFETY. That’s the point. Not blindly following rules for the sake of following rules. Follow the rules during situations in which predictability is integral to safety, but bend the rules when safety would not be an issue.

Similarly, when I am on the bike path in Lincoln Park I am constantly saying “on your left!” and making sure that the other users of the path are aware of my presence, since as a cyclist I am the fastest and most dangerous type of user on the path. But I avoid paths whenever possible, because the way I ride is more incompatible with paths than it is with roads.

I do find the hostility between motorists and cyclists disturbing, and the anger and attitude on both parts in the comments to Tim’s post show some examples of why it’s so disturbing. But it’s not as one-sided as Beam’s “how do we get cyclists to obey traffic laws?” headline suggests. Not surprisingly, I think of the cyclist’s dilemma on both roads and paths as a problem of common-pool resource governance similar to those that Elinor Ostrom and other new institutional economists study.

Let’s start with the path. This, for example, is my path, downtown near Ohio Street beach, although I spend most of my time on it up north, between Belmont and Foster, where I run. Note the ease of access and many multiple uses of the scarce common-pool resource (and if you look carefully you’ll see a swimmer there too!):


Moreover, when the path is congested, these uses can conflict. In particular, rollerblading and cycling conflict the most, because a rollerblader’s leg stroke is wide and his/her speed can vary widely, while a cyclist takes up less width, but is moving quickly. The potential for a serious accident is high. The institutions used to govern our shared use of this resource are mostly informal and grounded in common sense — cyclists are expected to have a bell and/or say “on your left”, pedestrians are expected to look both ways and yield to cyclists and rollerbladers before crossing the path, and runners are expected to run on the gravel path where there is one (and runners who love their knees are going to benefit from doing that anyway!). Path users generally evolve patterns that serve as a compromise with the other users; for example, cyclists doing fast (>16m.p.h.) training rides know not to expect to do so after 10 AM on summer weekends, and rollerbladers learn that they should coast when they hear “on your left”. It’s not perfect, and things happen that inject noise into the system (such as having a toddler dart out unexpectedly from a beach onto the path, or a volleyball bouncing in front of you, or a cyclist or rollerblader with earphones in when they should not be), but in general, the informal institutions that have grown on top of the formal legal requirement that it be a multi-use path keep things both safe and civil.

The economic logic of governing the commons also applies to the road as a common-pool resource shared by motorists and cyclists. It’s really only when there is congestion of traffic among the two types of users that their use rights come into conflict, although in some situations congestion kicks in early — for example, some of the smaller “B” roads I’ve been on in England would hit congestion with one car and one bike and a curve in the road! The institutions used to govern the uses of the shared resource here are a mix of formal (traffic laws) and informal (courtesy).

More so on the road than on the path, the formal institutions and the informal institutions interact. Here’s an example of what I mean: cyclists weave in and out of traffic and generally ignore stop lights, which angers motorists and makes them more disinclined to treat cyclists with courtesy, which angers cyclists and makes them more disinclined to obey traffic laws or to treat motorists with courtesy, etc. etc. Or let’s start from the other side: some motorists don’t like having to share the road with cyclists, even those who ride safely and generally obey traffic laws, so they don’t treat cyclists with courtesy (drive too close to them, honk at them, etc.), which angers cyclists and makes them more disinclined to obey traffic laws or to treat motorists with courtesy, which reinforces the motorists’ preconceptions and angers them further, etc. etc.

My view of the road as a common-pool resource governed by a combination of formal and informal institutions is why I’m 80% vehicularist/20% facilitator. The stop sign law for cyclists is excessively costly without increasing safety for either cyclists or motorists, and its stringency induces cyclists to ignore that law, which erodes the respect for bike laws more generally. However, it’s also true that most motorists don’t understand the physics and the dynamics of cycling. That’s why my general recommendation about formal governance in this case is two-pronged:

  1. Implement the Idaho stop law.
  2. Require all drivers to undergo bicycle training and pass a cycling test in order to get a driver’s license.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for cyclists weaving through traffic or people in cars throwing things at cyclists other than more strict enforcement and penalties …

As for the issue of separate bike lanes, I’m not sure that the costs outweigh the benefits in all cases, so in the spirit of Ostrom’s polycentric and organic institutions, I would recommend continuing to evaluate them on a local basis. If the combination of amending the traffic laws and taking measures that will increase the likelihood of courtesy makes both cyclists and motorists happier and safer without the expense, that would be a good thing.


4 thoughts on “Roads and paths as common-pool resources, and the problem of governing them

  1. I currently live in a rural area with moderately hilly and winding roads. It is quite common, particularly on the weekends, to come around a curve or over a hill and discover a cyclist moving at 40 fewer mph than the speed limit and my speed. It is often a mile or more before it is safe to pass the cyclist. That is most dangerous at dusk, or after dark, if the bicycle does not have lights. However, the cyclists are no more threat to me than the deer, who also do not have lights. 🙂

    I do object to the groups of chatty cyclists who insist on riding at a very leisurely pace, two and three abreast, on hilly, winding roads posted at 55 mph. Their behavior makes it far more difficult to pass safely. Even the deer have the sense not to walk down the road three abreast.

  2. How about a tax on everything Bicycle and use the funds for bike paths or other things to make biking more useful and safe.
    Seems to have worked, somewhat, for cars.
    Ed Reid: I share your experience. What I don’t understand is the calculation that bicyclists make when they take to the road that is not safe for bicycles and cars. They have lots of downside risks and other ways to get exercise safely.

  3. Informal institutions evolving to govern group behaviors, for the benefit of all parties? Without a central planner? Are you kidding – you would have to believe in spontaneous order or some equally discredited theory for that to happen… 😉

    You know, I never actually thought through my riding pattern in the way you describe – but now that I am forced to do so I probably come out about where you do: 80/20 or so.

    My primary objective when I am on 2 wheels, especially at intersections, is to behave in such a way that requires the least accomodation from drivers. So depending on what I see approaching an intersection will govern how I respond. I guess I agree with the “means to an end argument”, though until now I never thought of myself as having anarchist tendencies.

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