Vehicular cycling is dead, just don’t bury the body yet

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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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.


Also published on Medium.

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26 Comments

  1. Well put. On one level, I am not hostile to the idea that everyone should share the road, as they did for for several millennia BC (Before Cars). Ideally, we will get back to a place where it won’t be so contentious or dangerous to share streets. But on the other hand, until such a time comes, separate cycling lanes and other safety infrastructure are key to getting more people on bikes.

  2. Ramon

    I appreciate that you separate vehicular cycling (the method of cycling within existing laws and infrastructure) and vehicular cycling (the planning philosophy). The vast majority of self-identified vehicular cyclists identify with using the methodology but don’t necessarily fight against the creation of bicycle infrastructure unless they would be mandated to use that separated infrastructure or the infrastructure is of poor design.

    “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.”

    You can replace “skills and confidence” with “education” and you’ll absolutely change the way this part of the article reads. Vehicular cycling is an entirely taught and learned methodology. No one is born with the knowledge. Most learned via the League of American Bicyclists’ curriculum or from those who went through the class. The curriculum teaches bike law, mechanics, best practices, bike handling, hazard avoidance, and role models safe bicycling on the road. It’s a fully transformative experience for most people who go through it– regardless of their previous bicycling experience.

    I’m a vehicular cyclist (and League Certified Instructor) and, personally, I like bike lanes (without on-street parking) and don’t like physically separated infrastructure. I prefer to be able to leave the bicycle-specific infrastructure as necessary (passing slower riders, avoiding hazards, going straight through intersections via the general travel lane to avoid right hooks, making left turns). Moreover, I prefer bike lanes over physical separation because it proves to be more financially equitable (you’re going to help more bicyclists with paint on 100 miles of street than brick-laden cycletracks through 2 miles of downtown).

    I see the use of of physically separated bicycle infrastructure akin to spending all your savings remodeling the bathroom of a 40-year-old home with all the best accoutrements while leaving the rest of the home with all the same flooring, cabinetry, and appliances. Ya, the few minutes you spend in the restroom will be as good as a bathroom can be, but the rest of the home will never compare.

    • The huge amount of money put into auto infrastructure could easily pay for all cycling infrastructure with money left over. The solution to adding more auto lanes is to shift more people to less expensive cycling infrastructure which also reduces congestion and delays the need for more lanes and tax dollars.

      • Ramon

        But that literally will not happen. It’s a genuine, 100% guarantee that the United States of America (or the voters within) will not approve the halting of the building/maintenance of automobile infrastructure in favor of bicycle infrastructure without the onset of a massive economic disaster (as happened in the Netherlands). The reduction of the use of the personal automobile is a long, long endeavor. It will happen at the speed of generations. It will not happen overnight.

        And this is where vehicular cycling (the method, not planning philosophy) comes in: You ride according to what’s available now. You keep working towards whatever safe, efficient, tested, and cost-effective bicycle infrastructure you want, but ride according to what’s on the road now… because if you don’t, there will be insufficient justification for any effort to be made to improve the roads for bicyclists.

        No one’s going to build/fund/paint anything for the idea of potential bicyclists.

        • And you fight like hell against ecocide.

        • Anonymous

          The motor vehicle infrastructure, including many highways and bridges, is deteriorating nationwide, because the cost of building/maintaining it is unsustainable, given existing budgets and taxation. The silver lining is that this may ultimately influence more people to consider other transportation options.

  3. sabina Edwards

    I don’t go into the downtown core enough to really comment on how well the bike lanes are working or not working (they’re new to our city , think most went in last yr) but what I do find really bad, is in the winter time, the bikers just driving across walk lanes and not even paying attention to traffic…I actually had a bike hit the back end of my car as he was zooming out from an uncontrolled walk way that had piles of snow that had to be 2 feet high on both sides. Its dark by 4pm and 22nd street Saskatoon is a hugely busy street and there are signs up about pedestrians and high collision areas, and we know pedestrails and NOT barreling down fast, so having bikers not walk their bikes in walk lanes is a serious problem where we are

  4. Stu

    I can barely remember 1976, but what I do remember is that I could bike down most streets and not encounter a motor vehicle. Today it is the oppose, no matter how “residential” the street, the chance of not meeting up with a MV is slim. Times have changed, everyone seems to own a car or two and they use them for even the shortest of trips. If vehicular cycling was ever workable it no longer is. The irony, if the days of low MV use should return it would be at least partly because more people choose a bicycle. For that to happen, separated cycling infrastructure is essential.

  5. Elias

    If you ride anywhere where there is no 100% protected bike lane (including interactions at intersections) and you’re not on the sidewalk you’re riding with cars. And thus need to know how to interact with them. Especially intersections. Is this “VC”?

    And even if there was 100% dedicated bicycle infrastructure, you need to know how to deal with other riders, e.g. how to pass safely, maintain speed, and deal with pedestrians and other conflicts.

    And even if there was 100% dedicated bicycle infrastructure, you aren’t also going to get more riders. The real reason people don’t ride bicycles isn’t because they are scared of cars, but driving (or walking or taking a bus) is simply easier, faster, and more convenient than bicycling. Bicycling isn’t for everyone, sorry.

    Getting rid of free parking, charging more and bigger tolls for driving, and in general making driving more expensive will drive up cycling rates more than making so-called protected bike lanes.

    And once self-driving cars make their way into the world, then I would imagine that bike lanes and the like would become obsolete as well. What would the fear of taking a lane be in this situation.

    I know John Forester is considered an asshole but the fact of the matter is there’s not enough money in the world to pay for dedicated bicycle facilities for every street. So you’ll just have to deal with cars, sorry.

    • kagi

      “there’s not enough money in the world to pay for dedicated bicycle facilities for every street.”

      Not even close to true. Bike facilities are way cheaper than car facilities, which would undoubtedly be the alternative. CPH and AMS are saving money by putting bike infrastructure on every street.

    • Devin Quince

      Perhaps we need to stop looking at ourselves at second class citizens and start sorry cars you will just to deal with us.

    • No, you aren’t remotely sorry. If we ditch cars and devote our money to efficient public transport and cycle infrastructure, there will be plenty of money. (I am discussing urban areas and the cancerous suburban sprawl that surrounds them, not the countryside or wilderness). It is that mass of motor vehicles that are killing our planet, not a few rural ones).

  6. Good article. I was expecting a tirade against VC but instead read a nuanced article that makes a lot of sense.

    VC should not be seen as a religion but as a set of skills, as taught by the major bicycle education programs in the US. I think people who ride should develop significant cycling skills, but we should also be building infrastructure that makes cycling more than a niche activity in cities. Meanwhile, in many locations, if one wants to get around town with full flexibility, one has to share normal roads. In those cases, understanding and using vehicular cycling techniques are practically requirements for rider safety.

    • mike

      I think it’s a lot cheaper to invest in education and the skills to VC _anywhere_ than to spend money on “Bicycle Infrastructure” which can at best cover a limited range.

  7. ibc

    I think this article is a bit disingenuous. Vehicular cycling was never “an overarching theory designed to guide the way our transportation system develops”. It was a set of rules prescribed to allow cyclists to operate safely in an environment largely hostile to cycling.

    “Cyclists fare best,” he wrote in his 1976 book Effective Cycling, “when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”

    How on earth is this incompatible with dedicated cycling infrastructure?

    The *only* reason cities are scrambling to build bike infrastructure is that there are cyclists clamoring for that infrastructure. The *only* reason there are cyclists clamoring for infrastructure is that VC made it possible to build a critical mass of cyclists in incredibly hostile environments.

  8. Josh

    “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.”

    Just ask the Dutch about that one — for all the attention their separated facilities get, the vast majority of their bicycle infrastructure is shared lanes, and they don’t have any plans for that to change. The Dutch plan that you will *never* get to all your destinations on separated paths.

    The difference is that their planners, unlike American engineers, have taken on the harder work of making bicycles equal on shared streets.

    Their motorists learn the rights of cyclists in much more intensive training than American licensing requires. Their residential streets have low speed limits and traffic calming. Signalized intersections are rare and getting rarer — instead, drivers are required to actually pay attention and share the street with other drivers as well as other types of traffic. Motorists are presumed liable if they hit vulnerable road users.

    Just copying Dutch separated facilities without studying their much larger network of vehicular cycling facilities will not achieve the same results they’ve seen. That last mile connection, on safe, shared streets, is critical to getting people actually riding. A backbone network of cycletracks is convenient for riders who don’t mind sharing the street with traffic, but until the connecting streets are safe for all ages and abilities of riders, less-confident riders are as connected as freeways without onramps.

  9. Artio

    Everybody loves the nice new asphalt, but nobody’s paying for maintenance. Where I live, we are likely to see several feet of snow each winter. We barely have enough money to plow the roads, do you think for one second that separated facilities are going to get the same treatment? Hardly.

    Also, your myopic vision does not account for the millions of Americans who bicycle daily in small cities and rural areas. When do you think the separated facilities will be built there? (Hint: the answer begins with “never.”) So, until infinity arrives, cyclists had best learn how to deal with other road users. And that means vehicular cycling.

  10. May be you are right….. 😉

  11. luis

    Segregated infraestructure is unsafe, expensive and will never be available for all destinations in a city. We already have the best possible infraestructure. We just need to put some money on education and promotion of respect between all road users. And most important: segregation of cyclists consolidates car supremacy.

  12. Josh

    Vehicular cycling is alive and well in the Netherlands, though of course they just call it riding a bike.

    The Dutch have >10X as many shared-lane miles as they do separated facilities. But they don’t see this as a contradiction or a war between facility types, it’s a continuum. Where bicycle volume and traffic speed are high, separation is the default. Where bicycle volume is moderate and traffic speeds are slow, shared lanes are the default.

    If you told the Dutch that vehicular cycling had to go away, they’d think you were delusional.

  13. Though there are so many problems, but being a regular cyclist, I do always think and search a solution of the problem faced by the cyclist in the snowy winter all over the world. In that condition, it’s really tough to achieve the goal of vehicular cycling.

  14. AlainCo

    I was a vehicular cyclist for 2 decade, up to using trailer for baby and cargo.
    It is the safest way to ride in france whatever says the clowns.
    Anyway the war is lost for adult riding, and the victimizing cycling is king.

    basicaly victimization have won everywhere.

  15. MIchael

    I guess it’s my nature to find the middle ground, but I see both approaches as complementary, and VC seems far from dead even in terms of civic planning and law.

    At the same time cities are experimenting with cycle tracks and separated infrastructure, cities and states are rewriting their laws to protect cycling on the roads, such as safe-passing laws, and increasing “share the road” signage and other public education campaigns.

    The latest version of my state’s driver’s manual includes greatly expanded information on cycling, including the rights and responsibilities of cyclists and how drivers should interact with them.

    Bike advocates are also working with police to increase knowledge and enforcement of the laws that protect cyclists and other “vulnerable road users” (an area where we have a LONG way to go, although it would be a huge boost to safer cycling).

    On a more big-picture view I see our highly car-centric streets not as a foregone conclusion but as a historical anomaly that happened for a variety of economic/social/political reasons. I hope for a future where a rich variety of infrastructure and transportation options contributes to vibrant, safe, human-centered public spaces.

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