The war between cars and bikes has a half-life

Apple’s 1984 ad launched the Mac vs. PC war (later Mac vs. Windows)

War! What is it Good For? Absolutely something, sorting out the technological future.

Standards and technology wars can be brutal. Edison characterized electrocution as “Westinghousing”, to promote his preferred (but doomed) DC transmission system as safer than the shocking AC alternative promoted by Westinghouse and Tesla.

The Minicomputer vs. Mainframe platform wars took years to resolve, but the personal computer vs. Minicomputer wars resolved more quickly. Everyone knows the Mac vs. PC wars have filled many screens of Usenet postings .

All of those however are today meaningless, and one wonders why people were so religious about a technology standard with the rise of mobile computers (smartphones), which most of you are holding right now right around the corner.

Moving from electrical engineering/computer science to civil engineering, my really old readers will remember the wars between turnpikes and the canals. (Well, okay, remember is probably not the right word, will recall history tell of). Both modes were largely deposed by the new steam train, and neither has many flag-bearers today.

Horsescars were replaced by electric streetcars (trolleys/trams). The streetcars were, with post-bellum nostalgic bitterness, replaced by buses, but buses, like the streetcars before them, were kicked over to the sidewalk by the automobile.

There was great rivalry between electric, steam, and the internal combustion engine, but we know how that turned out. We almost all drive ICE cars with small electric systems with very large batteries driving the starter and the other appliances (radios, lighting, etc.). It’s just an everyday case of technological endosymbiosis. This will likely get reversed in coming decades with the rise of the modern electric vehicle, but it hasn’t really happened yet.

There has long been a war on walking, waged (and mostly won) by motordom, as described by Peter Norton in Fighting Traffic. I still think the US needs radical pedestrian advocacy organization (Jaywalkers United … Will Never be Divided) rather than orange flags of surrender. This war is not just over convenience or user interface preference. Lives are at stake. Not too many motorists are killed by pedestrians.

Lately there has been a highly vocal and occasionally violent modal war between cars and bikes. (just Google War on Cars or War on Bikes).

  • They compete for market share (though not much of a competition in most of the US).
  • They compete for mindshare, which explains all of the religious advocacy to partisans assuring themselves of their rightness within their bubbles.
  • They compete for public funds.
  • And, this is where it matters from a transport planning perspective, they compete for roadspace.

What does the future look like though? If we assume transportation gets smarter (I know, a stretch, but bear with me), and follow paths from other technologies, we will get waste out of the system. To quote myself describing the sources of waste:


  1. Most roads are under-utilized most of the time. We have plenty of capacity outside the peak.

  2. Most of the pavement is unused even at peak times, there are large gaps between vehicles both in terms of the headway between vehicles [1] and the lateral spacing between vehicles (we drive 6′ wide cars in 12′ lanes, often on highways with wide shoulders).

  3. Most seats in most cars are unoccupied most of the time.

  4. Most cars are carrying around far more weight than required to safely move the passenger. While bigger cars tend to be safer for the occupants, they are less safe for non-occupants. This is an inefficient arms race.

  5. Most roads are so wide we use them for storage of vehicles most of the day.

  6. There is a tremendous amount of excess delay at traffic lights, especially at off-peak periods, wasting time (and space).

  7. Most trips during peak periods are not work trips and have temporal flexibility, yet these trips travel in the peak because they are underpriced.

  8. Most trips produce negative externalities (pollution, congestion, noise, risk of crash) in excess of the price paid by their driver. They produce so many of these externalities because they don’t pay for their full cost.

In short, if we do eliminate this waste, vehicles will be the right size forToyotaiRoad the job,  and trips will only be made when they are worthwhile, each trip-maker paying for the cost that trip imposes. We will recognize that road infrastructure has been largely overbuilt. This implies we will generally have ample capacity for both “cars” (which will be narrower and automated and electric and seat a single passenger and far less a danger than now) and “bikes” (which may have electric supplements built inside the frame), as well as, on selected corridors,  “buses” (which will have the right number of seats for their passengers). When capacity is scarce, the road owner will allocate capacity based on value using prices.

All of which is to say, this war between cars and bikes probably has a half-life of about 10-15 years as this technological transformation of the car and roads takes place. This is not to say that fighting the good fight doesn’t have some value – bike lanes now are better than a 50% chance of a bike lane 15 years from now, and will save lives in the interim. But the faster the systematic switchover takes place, the sooner there will be safe transport everywhere.