The Libertarian case for cycling

I recently read a widely criticised article on Spiked attacking the emphasis on cycling in London transport policy; and also noted a number of commentators with a right wing, somewhat libertarian persuasion making similar remarks, including Tom Conti. This made me ask why they are they missing a very obvious libertarian case for cycling.

I am not a Libertarian, but I sympathise with their skepticism about state intrusions and their emphasis on individual liberty. I might disagree with other aspects of their thinking. But let’s leave that aside.

I once encountered a green discussion on transport where a contributor made the remark that greens should object to private, personal transport, and emphasise public transportation instead. This made me ask: surely aircraft, like buses, are a form of public transport, albeit privately owned? And bikes are private transport? The person in question couldn’t get their head around this and insisted that air travel was private and bikes were public. This was a shame. I think we can all do with a sense of paradox, and should see the humour in some of the potential contradictions in our positions.

So let me respond to Spiked, the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Tom Conti to set out a Libertarian case for the bicycle. For a start, state regulation of bicycles is virtually irrelevant. The consequences for the individual of operating a dodgy bike are almost all for them themselves; any accident on a bike is likely to rebound most heavily on the rider. Even if someone is unfortunate and stupid enough to ride drunk or without working brakes, collisions are most likely to cause injury to one’s self, rather than others.

Thus most bike regulations, even where they exist, can be handled in a reasonably light touch way. Over time, self enforcement of the necessary regulations is likely to emerge, such as a culture of using bells, signalling appropriately, giving way and looking out for pedestrians. Not everyone will do so, but most will.

What better Libertarian lesson for society, than that people will self regulate, without the need for police to constantly crack down, fine and surveil?

The second lesson for Libertarians is that cycling is personal transport, that moves people from any two points. Even road infrastructure, traffic jams and other state interferences can’t stop them. Rules and lanes can help bikes, but they cannot corral them.

The third big point is the effect on the economy of cycling. Cycling encourages a great deal of small scale enterprises, from repair shops to specialist bike manufacturing. It encourages smaller shopping trips in small, competitive enterprises more likely to be run by their owners. Done well, it encourages small scale deliveries and distribution at low costs, enabling other kinds of local enterprise. What better Libertarian result from transportation than to spread entrepreneurship throughout society?

I know that people will object that most people won’t or can’t cycle. From a Libertarian stand point, this ought to be irrelevant. What individual people want is most important (and given the option, a great number do want to cycle). As we know from the Dutch and Danish examples, once an economy for cycling is enabled through infrastructure, options for cycling and ultra-light vehicles will emerge that can service the needs of almost every situation, including IKEA shopping and house moving. Truly; but also, optionally.

Cars have their place, for sure. But the kind of libertarian individualism they might encourage will always be plagued by heavy handed state regulation, not least because they are quite dangerous and moreover expensive objects, meaning that they will attract taxation for real and less real objectives. They are subject to innovative means of state and insurance industry surveillance to assess drivers according to where they travel and how safely.

Even the cars themselves are increasingly controlled by the companies that produce them through locked-down technologies. Intellectual property, proprietary designs and software constrain the physical good so tightly that it is merely rented out to the user. The modern car gives new meaning to the phrase dependency culture.

Bikes won’t be subjected to this kind of state or corporate interference. It would be pointless. They are too cheap, too easy to resell or steal, to be subject to the kind of regulations that motor transport suffers from. They are a Libertarian’s dream: an almost unregulatable technology that belongs to individuals and produces an entrepreneurial economy that supports them. Bikes are a lesson in liberty for all those who use them. 

Libertarians who jump on an anti-bike bandwagon, imagining anti-car crusades, are really missing the point.

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