Roads are for cars. Roads are for people. No they're not. Yes they are. No they're not. Yes they are…

On Sunday I picked a fight with a stranger. It wasn’t a fair fight. My retelling of it won’t make it fair, and won’t make it right.

Our frequent contributor Tom Bowden posted this photo to Facebook:

Click to see the full size image, because, you know, it might not look big enough here.

The photo was accompanied by this bit of Bowden snark:

To those who say roads are for cars and trucks, for serious transportation, not for toys like bicycles or exercise or fun, I offer you this: When all drivers commit to driving only appropriate vehicles for the task at hand, and only drive for serious and necessary purposes, I will consider the argument. Until then, and as long as it’s legal to drive things like this to the convenience store for lotto tickets, smokes and a six pack, then just put a sock in it. Seriously.

And along clicks someone who I will call Bret Horton (thanks to the Fake Name Generator). Bret innocently took the bait, and replied with a fairly conventional view about roads and what they’re for:

I admire your passion Tom, but roads are primarily for cars and trucks. Not exclusively, just primarily.

Poor Bret.

I pounce first:

Wrong-o, Bret. Roads are for people.

Tom eggs me on:

Atta Boy Ted!

Poor Bret. Did I already say that? Does he know yet he’s being bullied? Will he receive some backup from some Facebook friends with more mainstream ideas?

No and no.


Wrong o Ted. Without cars and trucks, no roads.

Bret knows Tom, but not me. Bret doesn’t know he just pushed my troll button. I have one. I admit it.

In contrast to the pedantic pile-on Bret is about to receive from me, he might seem like he’s just nay-saying. But keep in mind that Bret didn’t know this exchange would turn into a blog post. I didn’t know it either — until I noticed how much of my Sunday I had wasted invested on Facebook.

Off I went:

Wrong-o-rooney, Bret. Without people, no paved roads.

Ugly Overpass | Photo: Tom Bowden
Ugly Overpass | Photo: Tom Bowden

Paved roads were originally advocated for and funded by cyclists (people). Motor vehicles and their operators (people) barged in on the idea.

Within cities and towns, privileging people in motor vehicles has been advanced more to promote the business interests of auto companies. The idea was sold to the world as “modernity” and “upward mobility.” In hindsight, the effect on safety and on communities can only be described as tragic.

I’m not talking about highways, which are primarily for fast-moving vehicles. But the privileging of motor vehicles in densely-populated areas destroys more than the aesthetics of these areas (case in point, the ugly overpass Tom posted). Roads that favor motorists slice and quarter communities as effectively as would rivers full of crocodiles.

Find a community where people know more than a few of their neighbors; where they feel safe and secure. You won’t find four- and five-lane wanna-be highways dicing up the place.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ve probably heard me blather like that.

Out of the blue came backup… but backup for Tom and me.

Someone I’ll call Cynthia brings up horses:

To be fair: About as many people drive trucks like this as drive tall bikes, but think of how many streets in Richmond were built pre 1920’s and you realize that roads were not built for cars. They were built for peds, horses, carriages, trolleys, buses, bikes, and cars.

And I, like a true troll, look that gift horse right in the kisser. Tall bikes are to bikes what monster trucks are to motor vehicles? How? In whimsical non-utility? Lethality? What? I sidestep that inquiry and continue my semantic nitpicking:

You mean they were built for people who use their feet, horses, carriages, trolleys, buses, bikes, and cars. Right, Cynthia?


Well, unless the horses just wander around on their own.

Fair enough. I click “like.”

It was now three against Bret. Cynthia brought horses. What would Bret do?


Ted, roads are primarily for cars and trucks, but thanks for the history lesson.

I thought I understood what Bret was doing. When my inner troll is unleashed, I’ll stick around when I’m outnumbered. It can be fun. But where’s the mean streak, Bret? That’s all you got? I don’t even think he was being sarcastic when he wrote, “thanks for the history lesson.”

I try to rattle Bret’s cage:

Without passengers and vehicle operators, there wouldn’t be much point in having roads. (Google Cars notwithstanding.)

In my writing about cycling, I am careful not refer to “cars” or any other inanimate vehicle when what I’m really talking about is the PEOPLE who operate these vehicles, while they are operating them. It’s a common trap to vilify “cars.” It’s also a common mistake/mentality to advocate for “cars.”

If it is someone’s orientation to promote infrastructure for “cars,” then they will reach different conclusions than if they are promoting infrastructure for people (and their vehicles, if any).

The economics and utility of public infrastructure shift dramatically when we stop thinking of ourselves as drivers and passengers bound to our motor vehicle masters (like tapeworms dependent on a specific type of host), and instead think about how infrastructure should serve people, communities, and economies.

I will never concede that roads are for cars — even if roads have been built as though that were true. I am not a tapeworm!

There you have it, Bret. Either I’m right, or you’re a tapeworm. Which will it be?


Agree to disagree then. Good luck to you.

What!? No! Agree to disagree!? That’s not how it works. How long have you been on Facebook? Like, ten minutes or something?

Tom can’t even stoke the dying flame of contentiousness when he adds this;

Bret: Let me put it this way: Roads, which were originally built for humans, in whatever form of conveyance they chose, have in the last century or so been erroneously designed to favor the most dangerous and inefficient form of transportation among all relevant choices. We who ride our bikes for transportation seek to correct this unnecessary and destructive mis-prioritization of public expenditures, with the attendant loss of life and long term adverse public health effects.

Ugh! It’s over.

Poor me.

Notice that in the whole conversation — it never really did escalate to a proper debate — that few facts are offered, and no legal facts. Mostly just ideological posturing with nothing offered as supporting evidence. Tom and I weren’t pounding the facts, we were pounding the table.

With a single fact, Bret could have changed the game. But what Bret was too polite to say was, I don’t care.

And what I imagine Bret was thinking was this: Everybody knows roads are for cars. Why am I wasting my time with these nuts?

I got up from my computer for the first time in a couple of hours, went to the front yard and pulled weeds for the rest of the afternoon.

A taunting thought whispered in my brain: Yards are for weeds.

Shut up.

The non-annotated version of the conversation is here.

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