The Scourge of False Equivalence

Not your choice

Two things are falsely equivalent when some common aspect(s) link them, yet in reality the two things are actually nothing alike. The most egregious false equivalencies, in my opinion, are those of magnitude. One little thing (a Chihuahua) has something in common with one big thing (a Golden Retriever, they both are canines with four legs), therefore we can draw equivalent expectations in terms of performance (retrieving game). Clearly a six-pound Chihuahua is not going to bound through a marsh and secure a 3-pound duck in its jaws as effectively as a golden.

That false equivalence of magnitude is on full display right now in the Australian state of New South Wales, where new state laws have increased requirements and penalties for cyclists. In a really sad example of inferiority complex, members of a local cycling advocacy group are actually praising the new rules.


Before we dig into what is happening in NSW, why it is bad and why support from local cycling advocates is at best bad and toxic at worst, let us get the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front):

Bicycles and cyclists are not the same as motor vehicles and drivers. A bicycle and a motor vehicle may both be machines resulting from engineering processes, and a cyclist and a driver may both be humans who employ a conveyance on the road for transportation, but the similarities, the equivalences end there.

Any viewpoint that both these classes should be subject to the same level of regulation is simply not borne out by the twin logics of physics and road usage; physics because a negative outcome by a driver (i.e., personal injury or property damage) is orders of magnitude greater than the same negative outcome by a cyclist, not to mention a bike is responsible for a negligible fraction of the road wear and tear of a motor vehicle, and road usage because in most of the developed world, bicycles make up 2-5% of road users at best. That means for every bicycle you see on the road, there are 20 to 50 times more motor vehicles, each with the capacity to create orders of magnitude more havoc than a bicycle.


Out in New South Wales, it is now a state law, along with mandatory helmet use as is the case in all Australian states, for all cyclists aged 18 and older to carry photo identification.

In addition, fines for traffic infringement by cyclists are skyrocketing:

* Running a red light, or failure to stop at a pedestrian crossing: Was AUD$71 (~US$50), is AUD$425 (~US$300), that is an increase of 6x.

* Failure to wear a helmet while riding: Was AUD$71, is AUD$319, a 4.5x increase.

* Holding on to a moving car: Was AUD$71, is AUD$319, 4.5x.

* Riding dangerously (however that is defined): Was AUD$71, is AUD$425, 6.x.

* Not having an ID (presumably this is a secondary offense, else it gives rise to papers-please checkpoints): Was NOT AN OFFENSE, is AUD$106 (~US$75).

These new rules do nothing for road safety and in fact give authorities financial incentive to expend enforcement resources targeting cyclists, when no credible entity anywhere in the world attributes major disruption of society or loss of life to riding a bike. Anyone that knows anything about the economics of anti-cycling will recognize these new rules as a continuation of discriminatory policies that punish non-drivers seeking equal access to the roads, ultimately putting downward pressure on cycling uptake.

The new laws are not all without merit, NSW will now have a required one-meter buffer for cyclists by motor vehicles traveling less than 60 kmh (~40 mph), and a 1.5-meter buffer by vehicles traveling faster than 60 kmh. So there’s that.

Duncan Gay, the Road Minister for New South Wales actually said these new laws are about “striking a balance for everyone on the roads and footpaths.”

There is your false equivalence, or more specifically in the Minister’s own words, your false balance. Drivers and cyclists both use the roads, so they should be identifiable the same way, adhere to the same laws and pay the same fines as drivers.


The part that gets in my craw is even a single well-intentioned and serious cyclist / cycling advocate believing these new laws (the fines, not the mandatory space laws) will in any way change driver behavior. It is a common discrimination of Committed Drivers and the anti-cycling to ascribe the sins of any cyclist to all cyclists. As in the comments section of any story about cycling, some mad driver refuses to ‘give’ cyclists any more lanes or ‘concessions’ until ALL cyclists start obeying the rules. Or that mad driver that got cut off by a cyclist once in 2011 and now has a seething hatred of all cyclists as he sits in stop and go traffic.

Doug Draper, the president of the Western Sydney Cycling Network, actually believes the roads will be safer for cyclists now that they are required to carry ID and pay up to six times what they used to for moving violations. In his mind, and in the minds of other cyclists in support of the new falsely equivalent treatment on the roads, drivers will see a cyclist taking the lane in traffic and say, Ahh, I get such comfort knowing that cyclist is required to have a photo ID on him, and that he is now economically incented not to run that stop sign.

And that is why it is an inferiority complex. Such intense feelings of inferiority by some cyclists in comparison to drivers push them to accept standard anti-cycling arguments and advocate for them. In this case, this group has accepted the driver trope that cyclists should have the same requirements to use the road as drivers, and now that they have, the driver community will not in fact welcome cyclists onto the road with open arms and say, Welcome to the community of justified road users. Instead, the Committed Drivers and the anti-cycling will move on to the next irrational argument (The roads are just too dangerous to share!), unattainable goal (We will spend the next 100 years building a network of bike lanes!) or economically useless requirement (Registration! Insurance!).

Equal access to the roads by all users is a civil rights issue. Until the very powerful, with nothing to gain and everything to lose by angering drivers decide culture change is needed, nothing can change.



Image credit: Eliot Philips Flickr via cc.

About Ben Folsom

Ben Folsom is a founding member of the Bike Commuter Cabal, a worldwide group of transport cyclists dedicated to protecting the rights of all road users and to encouraging people everywhere to ride more. Ben and his bikes live with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.