The blog

Personal transportation devices need the right to roam, or they die

In December 2001, the “tech world’s most-speculated-about secret” was a personal transportation device. Costing $100m to develop, the inventor said the device – codenamed Ginger – was to be “to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” Silicon valley bigwigs said it was going to be the Next Big Thing.

Time did a major feature on the product:

“As big a deal as the PC, said Steve Jobs; maybe bigger than the Internet, said John Doerr, the venture capitalist behind Netscape, [and]…”

Jobs gushed: “If enough people see this machine, you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it; it’ll just happen.”

Ginger’s inventor, a hugely-rich, highly-successful medical and robotics innovator, said:

“I would stake my reputation, my money and my time on the fact that 10 years from now, this will be the way many people in many places get around.”

It’s now December 2011, ten years since that prediction by Dean Kamen. The product was the Segway. The company still exists, the product still sells but, when I just looked out of my window a moment ago, cars have not been displaced. The Segway did not sell to the consumer market in huge numbers.

Why did the Segway flop? There are precious few places to ride them, that’s why. In a piece I wrote for The Register in 2002, I pointed out that Kamen worked hard at the federal level to make sure ‘Ginger’ would be classified as an access-all-areas device, allowed on both roads and sidewalks. At the state level, 32 US states rushed through legislation to allow use of Segways on sidewalks, bike paths, and certain roads.

But then came the backlash. Matt Smith, a columnist on San Francisco Weekly, called the Segway “the ultimate American doomsday machine.”

He said it was a “high-technology lard-making device introduced at a moment when America is suffocating from obesity.”

A device that stopped folks walking or bicycling was not welcome, he opined. Americans, he wrote, had:

“Fat, rosy cheeks. Ample alabaster bellies. Arms that flap, legs that waddle, bodies by the million shaking like bowls of jelly.”

In 2003, civic leaders in San Francisco voted 8-2 to bar the use of Segways on sidewalks and cycle paths.

A mayoral spokesman sniffed at the ban. It “sends a defeatist message from San Francisco to the rest of the world. We’re going to be the first city in the country to send out the message that we’re afraid of this product, rather than embracing new technologies and new forms of transportation. It says we’re so fearful that we don’t even want to contemplate its use.”

The ban is still in place (although flouted by Segway guided tour companies). In the UK, Segways are allowed to be ridden on private land but not on roads or other public highways such as footways and footpaths. In Canada there are many similar restrictions and many US municipalities followed San Francisco’s lead and banned the device from sidewalks.

Users of public highways have rights and responsibilities. Users are defined in law. Fall on the wrong side of these laws – as Dean Kamen found out – and you can kiss goodbye your right to use the public highway.

In the UK, Segways remain banned via the use of the 1835 Highway Act.

This act said:

If any person shall wilfully ride upon any footpath or causeway by the side of any road made or set apart for the use or accommodation of foot passengers; or shall wilfully lead or drive any horse, ass, sheep, mule, swine, or cattle or carriage of any description, or any truck or sledge, upon any such footpath or causeway; or shall tether any horse, ass, mule, swine, or cattle, on any highway, so as to suffer or permit the tethered animal to be thereon; every person so offending in any of the cases aforesaid shall for each and every such offence forfeit and pay a [fine].

This act didn’t mention bicycles (pedal propelled bikes weren’t developed until the late 1860s) and so bicycles had no legal status, no legal right to be on either roads or footpaths. Since its foundation in 1878, Britain’s Cyclists’ Touring Club has fought tooth and nail to secure highway rights for cyclists.

The CTC was founded to:

“secure a fair and equitable administration of Justice as regards the right of bicyclists to the public roads. To watch the course of any legislative proposals in Parliament or elsewhere affecting the interests of the bicycling public, and to make such representations on the subject as the occasion may demand.”

The council of the CTC wanted cyclists to be seen as responsible citizens and it invoked the “golden rule”, the do-unto-others prescription:

“[We] specially urge on every individual rider the desirability of extending to all that courtesy which be would have shown to himself. The present prejudice against bicycling has been partly caused (and cannot but be fostered and increased) by a disregard to the feelings of other passengers on the road; and although the right of the bicyclist to the free use of the public highway should be at all times maintained, any needless altercation should be studiously avoided.”

Cyclists were the newest user of the public highway and could easily be banned, nationally as well as locally.

In 1878, the year when the CTC was founded, the case of Taylor v. Goodwin was pivotal. Mr. Justice Mellor and Mr. Justice Lush, sitting in banco in the Queen’s Bench Division, held that bicyclists were liable to the pains and penalties imposed by the 1835 Highway Act.

The case had been brought against a Mr Taylor who had been charged for “riding furiously” down Muswell Hill in London, knocking down a pedestrian in the process. His defence argued that as a bicycle wasn’t defined as a carriage in the 1835 Act there was no case to answer. The plea was disregarded and Taylor was fined. The case was appealed and justices Mellor and Lush ruled that bicycles were henceforth to be considered carriages under the law.

This was bad for Taylor, good for cyclists in general. It meant bicycles, for the first time, had a legal status. Described as carriages, they had full legal rights to pass and repass along highways (and highways are not just ‘roads’, they’re carriageways, footpaths, bridleways, everything).

The legal definition of bicycles as legitimate highway users was further strengthened in 1888. The Local Government Bill of this year created County Councils. The Cyclists’ Touring Club formed a committee to oversee the progress of this bill through Parliament. It was feared that if County Councils were given powers to create their own bye-laws such bye-laws would be used to prohibit bicycles. The CTC had political clout: it asked one of its members – who just so happened to be an MP – to lodge an amendment to the Bill. Sir John Donnington “won a brilliant victory for the Club,” wrote James Lightwood, the author of a 1928 history of the CTC.

When the Act – with the critical amendment – was duly passed, a writer in the Law Journal said the Local Government Act of 1888 was the “Magna Carta de Bicyclis.”

Lightwood said:

“As a result there disappeared…every enactment which gave to Courts of Sessions, Municipal Corporations and similar bodies in England and Wales power to resist and hamper the movements of cyclists as they might think fit. The new order of things established once and for all the status of the cycle.”

The status of a bicycle as a “carriage” is an important legal one but the terminology did not follow through to popular use, as shown by the words of Henry Dacre’s music hall song Daisy Bell which emphasises that carriages and bicycles are two different things:

It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle made for two.

Nevertheless, the legal definition of bicycles as carriages allowed cycling to prosper. Without a clearly defined and nationwide legal status, it would have been easier for localities to ban the use of bicycles.

In the US, the League of American Wheelmen fought battles similar to those fought in Britain by the CTC. In 1883, legislators in Ohio sought to protect horses from the “birotate chariot.” The Wheelmen, organised and rich, contested legal cases all over the nation, and were mostly successful. And they weren’t just fighting for road rights, they fought for use of paths in parks, too. In 1883, the commissioners of New York City forbade the use of bicycles in Central Park. The League of American Wheelmen eventually overturned the ruling.

The League of American Wheelmen also lobbied for bicycle-specific infrastructure and was successful. America had bike paths before the Netherlands had bike paths. Brooklyn’s Coney Island Cycle Path, a leisure route split from the five mile Ocean Parkway of 1874, was constructed in 1894. Within a month the 14-ft wide path needed repairs and resurfacing such were the numbers using it. Six months after its opening it was widened by an extra three feet.

Importantly, the early bicyclists pushed for rights to both the road (which they argued ought to be better surfaced to cater to cyclists) as well as cycle-specific leisure paths. It was never either/or, it was always both.

The right of cyclists to use roads is often called into question. Recently, the head of the Road Haulage Association in Scotland repeated the words of a New Zealand motoring journalist who had written:

“A public road with motor vehicles is no place for a cyclist, no matter how they bleat about having every right to be in the same place as a car.”

This was picked up by yesterday. CTC called the views “unbelievably ignorant and grotesque.”

Many motorists feel that roads were built for cars, that roads belong to cars, and that bicycles have lesser rights on roads, or perhaps even no rights at all. When such views are put into print, or espoused by a shock-jock or a columnist seeking instant notoriety, the offender is soon hauled over the coals by cyclists.

But some cyclists are also ignorant of how the highway rights of cyclists have been long fought over, and how any erosion of those rights could see bicycles classified as vehicles with lesser rights.

Yesterday, Brown Girl in the Lane of San Diego wrote:

[Some cyclists spout] their bullshit “rights to the roads” nonsense and you know why they will do that? Because their idiotic crazy fetish to “take the lane” is a religion and a fetish. And I don’t use the term fetish lightly. It is how they get off, especially considering that they don’t get laid. At all.

How do I know they don’t get laid? I’ve studied them, very carefully, for the past three years. I have studied their online posting habits.

[They are] numbnuts…they are all baby-boomer/middle aged. And I am looking forward to the day they just keel over and die…

They just want to “preserve the rights to the road”. What the hell does that mean? Allow me to explain.

They believe, and I am not making this up, that a bicycle is the same as a car or an SUV or a semi or a minivan. And they believe, and I am not making this up either, that a bicycle is a vehicle and thus ought to be treated as such. Where this analogy begins or ends is up for debate. Actually I am not sure there is any point of discussion, because only a moron would conflate a bicycle with an automobile…”

With friends like these, who needs enemies? And, as the Segway example at the top of the page shows, be careful what you wish for. Bicycles are defined as carriages in law for good reason.

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