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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16 thoughts on “Roads are for cars. Roads are for people. No they're not. Yes they are. No they're not. Yes they are…”

  1. Tom Bowden says:

    Ted, in practicing law, I try to avoid fair fights at all costs – too chancy. Only fight when you have overwhelming superiority.

  2. Tom Bowden says:

    By the way, New Improved SHIMMER IS a Floor Wax, not a desert topping.

  3. BluesCat says:

    Something tells me that good Ol’ Bret is one of those who thinks that his gas tax is what builds the local roads; so if bikes and pedestrians use them they are some sort of freeloaders. That is a common misconception. Unless there is some federal money involved, the vast majority of local roadways are paid for by property and sales taxes. This means EVERYBODY pays for them, not just those who buy gas.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      And unless cyclists and pedestrians don’t purchase any food or goods transported by truck, they are paying the Federal Gas tax too.

      But Bret is more like someone at a party who meanders up to a conversation with two wild-eyed zealots, loses interest in the topic of discussion, but can’t find a tactful way out short of feigning narcolepsy.

  4. Bharat Singh says:

    Right and Wrong discussions will seldom change perceptions, they might even end up polarizing opinions to even harder extremes. Recently David remarked in his recent blog post:

    If we can engineer roads in a way that takes human failings into account and which results in crashes, injuries and deaths being less common then this is a far more reliable way to improve safety than any amount of punishment after the event.
    (original post:

    I tend to agree with him on this.

  5. Ray Lovinggood says:

    Disclaimer: I work for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Division of Highways, and I commute to work via bike and bus.

    Thought I would pass along the “Mission Statement” for the NCDOT:

    Connecting people and places safely and efficiently, with accountability and environmental sensitivity to enhance the economy, health and well-being of North Carolina.

    Note that the words “cars” or “trucks” or “buses” or “trains” or “planes” are not included in the statement.

  6. The #1 trip undertook when one gets in a car is the ego trip. Motorized vehicles in the US have for years been the favored way of intellectual/emotional “little people” to try and be bigger, higher, faster, and louder than those around them. Watching traffic in a city is like watching temperamental toddlers shriek and stomp in an attempt to get all the attention in the play room.

  7. Jeff Gardner says:

    Ted –

    The highway tradition has been clear from the beginning.

    “A publick passage for the King’s people, for which reason it is called the King’s Highway.” Law Dictionary Explaining the Rise, Progress and Present State of English Law, v1 (1797) “A free and public road, way, or street; one which every person has the right to use.” Black’s Law 3rd (1933)

    In my own state, “Highway” or “street” means every way or place generally open to the use of the public as a matter of right for the purpose of vehicular travel, even though it may be temporarily closed or restricted for the purpose of construction, maintenance, repair or reconstruction. NMSA 66-1-4.8(B) This is the general tenor for most states, if not all.

    So you win the point, Ted. Nowhere does law or history give greater weight to “cars and trucks” for highways as ‘Bret’ said, or for” fast-moving vehicles” as did you.

    Tom’s point about that monstrosity photo not being “serious transportation.” I know he was making a point, but he is also probably technically correct. The term ‘transportation’ has an even more precise history than does “highway”, as I have argued before. “Transportation, of goods and merchandize, is allowed or prohibited, and many cases by statute, for the advantage of trade.” Law Dictionary Explaining the Rise, Progress and Current State of the British Law, v3 (1836) “The removal of goods or persons from one place to another, by a carrier.” Black’s Law, 1st ed. (1891); 3rd ed. (1933)

    ‘Transportation’ means commercial transport. Period. I doubt that the truck in the photo is used in commerce.

    Notice, above, that highway travel is a matter of right. (Travel: “To go from one place to another at a distance; to journey; spoken of voluntary change of place.” Black’s Law, 3rd ed. (1933)) ‘Transport’ is, as a legal term of art, a matter of privilege – thus, motor carrier and commercial licensure.

    Soooo…you were right again to assert that motor vehicle use is privileged, albeit not only for the benefit of auto companies as you state. “The word “vehicle” includes every description of carriage or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on land. Rev.St. U.S. 4” Black’s Law, 1st ed. (1891); 3rd ed. (1933)

    Moreover “traffic” to which you eluded was “Commerce; trade; dealings in merchandise, bills, money and the like.” Black’s Law, 1st ed. (1891); 3rd ed. (1933) (Although by then some state courts also stated “Traffic includes ordinary uses of the streets and highways by travelers.” Black’s Law, 3rd ed. (1933))

    And, a motor vehicle was first “…every device in, upon, or by which any person or property may be transported or drawn upon a highway except devices moved by human or muscular power…: Black’s Law, 4th ed. (1968). Your point about roads in the 1920’s is still part of many, many ‘motor vehicle’ definitions to this day.

    Why is all this stuff important enough to post? Firstly, because the legal and historic foundations of roads and travel go Way Back. Nice for history maybe, but essential for the understanding of current law, now. Secondly, because very often the govt (federal) funding discussions here mix apples and oranges – citing privilege as right or right as privilege. The distinction is far from unimportant, and cannot be mix-and-matched to achieve a parochial purpose; i.e; bicycle funding. Lacking these fundamentals, otherwise common sense arguments can move from correct to misguided very quickly.

  8. Tom Bowden says:

    Thanks Jeff – I concur with the sentiments in your comment. Of course, vehicular law in the US is primarily state law, embodied in the motor vehicle codes of each state, and Black’s is not binding precedent, but it is highly instructive as to the origins of the terms we throw around so lightly. In most state vehicular codes, there is a definition for a “vehicle” which may or may not bear some resemblance to the Black’s definition. That highway travel is a matter of right while “transport” being commercial, is subject to greater regulation and restriction is something well worth reminding legislators and operators of heavy vehicles from time to time.

  9. Ted Johnson says:

    More importantly, Tom and Jeff, is the demonstrated fact that I can pull opinions out of my butt and be mostly right.

    I am a god. Not The God, I don’t think.

    Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

  10. Jeff Gardner says:

    You are spot on as usual, Tom. My handicap here is space, hence too much unforgivable brevity. I think you’d surely agree that anyone who followed out all of the capillaries in history, fed law & regs, and their own state law would find a solid cornerstone for what may now be some unfamiliar principles.

  11. Tom Bowden says:

    Well said Jeff. For example, most people don’t read the Constitution on a regular basis, and they are shocked and surprised to hear that it embodies the quaint notion of limited government based on enumerated powers. Take Nancy Pelosi for example. She was absolutely perplexed that anyone should even ask where in the Constitution the government could find the power to enact Obamacare. Justice Roberts showed them where to find it, but it was not where they thought it was. In other words, most people (regardless of political orientation) draw conclusions about what should be based on the difference between what is and what they want, not based on history, critical thinking or anything resembling analysis.

  12. Matt says:

    I think NPR is doing a story on this topic tonight on “All Things Considered.” I hope they interview Ted!

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Nope. They didn’t interview me. Cut NPR’s Funding!

      Just kidding. I love NPR — even if it’s not mentioned in the Constitution.

  13. Tim Sherman says:

    I’m commuting by bicycle to back up our military family members. My son-in-law is working hard every day as a part of the UN service people that try to stop people from blowing up people on the roads and I will ride to work each day safer than he is. This land and other lands and the roads are for you and me. I commute by bike like a lot of people. Joe is an awesome runner and also likes to travel in a car throughout the states. We can do both. Can’t we? Appreciate your form of transportation and respect each others.

  14. Jeff Gardner says:

    Most people don’t read the Constitution on a REGULAR basis? Seems to me that the large majority do not read it at all. Some of the rest read parts of it, once. Your observations on critical analysis &c could not be more accurate, Tom. I often wonder how you manage in or close to DC.

    It will be a very long time before I can be gracious with CJ Roberts as you are. Taxation and the Spending Power are, once were, an inseparable part of enumerated powers. Brave new world ahead…I’m glad we’re on bicycles!

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