The biggest argument in urban cycling of the last 20 years is pretty much settled. So why are we still arguing about it?
After last week’s post about the ways Montreal managed to become one of the continent’s most bike-friendly cities, that old saw fired up again. Much of the commentary focused on the perceived shortfalls and benefits of vehicular cycling, which is a a philosophical and practical guide to getting around a city on a bike, described by its chief proponent John Forester like this: “Cyclists fare best,” he wrote in his 1976 book Effective Cycling, “when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”
For a long time, this was a dominant idea among North American bike advocates, but over the last 20 years, a counter theory grew that was, in some ways, the polar opposite. Rather than accepting bicycles as vehicles on a road, the new idea has cyclists being accommodated with dedicated infrastructure that keeps them segregated from cars.
Cue the bicycle culture wars, with factions on each side battling it out like Buckley versus Vidal (or, perhaps more accurately, Hitchens versus Hitchens) to the bafflement of outsiders who could never seem to understand why people who all loved bikes hated each other so much.
Today, the debate is pretty much over. There’s a winner, which means there’s also a loser. Vehicular cycling is dead. As an overarching theory designed to guide the way our transportation system develops, vehicular cycling is a mastodon. Bike lanes are being built everywhere in North America, and civic politicians are tripping over themselves to be seen as bike builders.
So why does vehicular cycling still have its defenders? I think it’s because in our nascent bike cities, vehicular cycling as a personal tool for getting around remains very much alive.
There’s a distinction that needs to be made here. Vehicular cycling is more than just a style of riding. It was a theory of transportation that was never fully adopted anywhere. Treating cyclists as vehicles on the road required more than just cyclists to take the lane. It required equal treatment by motorists and the law. It required mutual respect, the development of better skills among both cyclists and motorists, and the end to what Forester still refers to as the motorist-superiority/cyclist-inferiority complex. That didn’t happen.
What happened instead was some hearty bicycle lovers adopted the tenets of vehicular cycling in the way they got around cities. They started riding in the centre of lanes instead of cowering in the gutter lane. They asserted their rights to the road, and made those cross-traffic left-hand turns that make less confident cyclists gasp in horror. All of which pissed off those drivers who thought they owned the road.
And guess what? This works. This is the part of vehicular cycling that remains alive. If you have the skills and confidence to ride this way, it’s probably the best way of staying safe on the vast majority of North American streets. And even though bike lanes are being built all over North America, it’s going to be a long while before you’ll be able to get to all of your destinations exclusively on safe, separated bike routes.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in bike infrastructure, and I think it needs to be built faster and more extensively in every North American city. I think vehicular cycling has failed, and it failed because it doesn’t work for the vast majority of people interested in cycling. I was almost giddy when I realized that, during a recent trip to Montreal, decent bike infrastructure meant I almost never had to make one of those hair-raising left-hand turns across rows of cars.
Yet, my city remains far from that state. So while I look forward to the day when I no longer have to rely on the tenets of vehicular cycling I have picked up over the years, I know that, from time to time, I’ll still be taking the lane.