Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

Infrastructure As “Human Rights?”

Yesterday, at the Pro Bike/Pro Walk Conference in Long Beach, the closing session was presented by a militant anti-car crusader, Mark Gorton. He was the founder/funder of the Streetsblog Network. Such speaker selection is pretty common — conferences of this type are typically filled with true believers, and there’s no point in taking a center path.

However, this very sense of extremism is the very thing that makes many cycle advocates completely out of tune with the communities they allegedly serve. One key statement in his talk, reported by multiple attendees and thus to be considered accurate until proven otherwise, shows the level of disconnect:

To be absolutely fair to Gorton, many of his points were spot-on, without any sense of extremism:

  • Cars are the most expensive form of transportation available in terms of both infrastructure, individual cost, and environmental cost.
  • Our transportation policy limits economic mobility.
  • What cars need is different from what people need.

However, to claim that transportation policy is a human rights violation cheapens actual human rights violations, and to claim such is the sign of entrenchment in first-world privilege. Limited options can restrict people’s access to their human rights, as described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it’s certainly no North Korean prison camp, either. Civil rights violations? Yes. It’s well-documented how frequently transportation policy flips the bird to civil rights, from bulldozing Rondo to USDOT finding that WisDOT ignored civil rights in 2012 Milwaukee.

As well, many of the principles of car-free living are very oriented to the urban environment. Unless we move to a post-apocalyptic, Hunger Games setup, where humans live in enclaves with broad, vacant expanses between, a fully blended policy is necessary. Many European countries held up as examples also fit within mid-size American states. You can certainly build walking-friendly county seats in rural America, and you can build rational road networks, but pure human-powered transport simply does not work to drive agricultural production.

The political divide in this country is pretty vast. Moving transportation planning to a more integrated model is long overdue. But this kind of talk is borderline offensive and is not going to do much to win over opposition. Strong economic arguments exist. ROI arguments exist. There are even some arguments that take advantage of the political divide that can be constructed (for instance, “building roads is another form of government subsidy for General Motors!”). But to claim full-blown human rights violation gets everyone precisely nowhere.

(There is another argument that the human rights claim also reflects the very white, very male nature of bicycle advocacy, which was also commented on at the Pro Bike/Pro Walk Conference — one attendee pointed out that “Not all poor people who can’t afford cars are Hispanic immigrants,” but that apparently they are the only low-income people PWPB know how to discuss. Women’s cycling was largely addressed in a 4-hour “addendum” to the conference. But that’s a different rant for another day.)

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.


  1. It sounds like some of these people bike (or promote biking) out of guilt.

    I’d rather listen to people who, like me, ride for the joy of it.

  2. I don’t consider myself a bicycling and/or pedestrian extremist — I just want to be able to feel safe and be safe getting from point A to point B.

    But when I read, “Walking hostile standard road design a violation of basic human rights”, what came to mind for me was how walking-hostile standard road design tends to end up with more pedestrians and bicyclists being killed (motorists, too, oftentimes).

    Life being a basic human right, it seems like a defensible statement.

    Mind you, it’d be much better stated in the positive — Being able to get from place to place safely, without being forced to spend thousands of dollars on a car, should be a basic human right.

    That said, I imagine your point is a bit like how people shouldn’t compare things to WWII/Hitler/Nazis/etc. — you’re saying advocates shouldn’t talk about transportation being a human-rights violation because people will immediately compare it to the evil in China or North Korea, as it’s obviously on a whole different scale.

  3. Well, beyond that, the idea that government should be obligated to provide certain things of this nature is a bit off to me. I’m not a private enterprise at all costs person, nor am I wholly collectivist, but the question of controlled infrastructure really gets into concepts of what government should and shouldn’t provide, and it’s debatable if government itself is necessarily a must-have, as it were.

    Is public right of way really a human right? What does that do with concepts of private and public lands?

    It’s just hyper-messy.