There are two schools of thought on bicycle infrastructure and the promotion of bicycling. Vehicular Cycling, promoted by the U.S. beginning in the 1970’s, and Segregated Bicycling, promoted by Amsterdam beginning in the 1970’s.
The results quite loudly speak for themselves and that should be the end of the story.
Let’s take a closer look though because public officials and others still hear support for both of these somewhat diametrically opposed messages.
From Vehicular Cyclists they hear the mantra “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” This group opposes most segregated bicycling infrastructure and believe that all cyclists, 8-year-olds included, should ride in the roadways intermixed with auto traffic, should learn to be comfortable ‘taking the lane’, that cars should only pass them when they have a clear 3’ and can use the opposing lane, and that proper education of motorists and cyclists will make this all safe and practical.
From Segregated Bicyclists they hear the opposite – Intermixing with auto traffic is more dangerous than segregated facilities, makes riding uncomfortable and stressful, and is an annoyance and PITA for drivers of motor vehicles. Segregated bicyclists say that we need to segregate slower cyclists from faster and more deadly motor vehicles through the provisioning of protected bike lanes, side paths, and properly designed intersections.
Not desiring to get embroiled in an internecine battle among the cycling community, these engineers and politicians often choose the easy option—do nothing. The 98% who want segregated facilities loose and the 100% who want safer laws for vehicular cycling loose.Both ideologies do have their place. Sort of.
When it comes to having to ride on the road intermixed with motor traffic due to a lack of safer segregated facilities, vehicular cyclists are somewhat correct—operating similar to a vehicle is usually safest. However, our roads themselves aren’t safe. They’re not safe in steel caged cars and are no safer on a bicycle. Countries like Sweden, The Netherlands, Finland, and others with roads two to three times as safe as ours don’t consider their roads safe for bicycling, but we do?
Bike Meets Car
There’s an aspect of physics that I don’t expect to change in my lifetime. When a 3000 pound car collides with a 3000 pound car, they make a great noise, both lose, and sometimes people are killed. In 2011, the safest year on record in the U.S., people driving cars killed 27,158 other people in cars. In most of these the people killed were not at fault and even their being in 3000 pound steel cages did not protect them from death.
We can’t make our roadways safe for people in steel caged cars, what chance do bicyclists have? Relatively good actually.
Riding a bicycle safely among motor vehicles is little or no more dangerous than riding in a car. A bicycle rider taking care to avoid crashes is about as safe as a car driver doing the same.
Still, when a 3000 pound car collides with a 200 pound cyclist, the cyclist loses. A careless bicycle rider is at much greater danger than a careless car driver and it shows in statistics. And while a bit of styrofoam on your head might keep you from getting scratches if you fall over in your driveway, it won’t do much against a car. Otherwise everyone riding in cars and walking along a sidewalk would be wearing helmets.
In 2011, people driving motor vehicles in MN caused about 70,000 crashes, killed 271 people riding in cars, 40 pedestrians, and 5 riding bicycles.
In 2011, people riding bicycles in MN killed zero people as far as we know.
In 2011, people walking killed? I’d guess about zero.
Two cars collide, great noise, injuries and maybe death. A car and bicyclist collide, bicyclist looses, high likelihood of serious injury or death.
Two bicyclists collide, apologies or harsh words ensue, injury beyond minor scrapes and hurt feelings unlikely (unless cyclists are clipped in to their pedals) and even scrapes are rare.
The common denominator in every death above is motor vehicles. Even Sweden, the country with the safest roads in the world, has 270 fatalities per year. If we could make our roads as safe as Sweden then 16,000 fewer Americans would die on our roads every year. Still, any way you slice it, motor vehicles are dangerous.
Which of these sounds best to you? Would you rather ride amongst other bicycles or amongst 3000 pound speeding bullets driven by people talking on their cell phone?
Earlier I said that bicyclists have a relatively good chance on our roads with motor vehicles. Relative to how dangerous our roads are for people in cars they are about as safe for people on bicycles, maybe only slightly more dangerous. From this perspective vehicular cycling is relatively safe.
However, relative to much safer segregated cycleways and properly designed intersections, our roads are quite dangerous, whether you’re in a car or riding a bicycle.
When our roads are as safe and comfortable as The Netherlands segregated bicycle system then I’d say that vehicular cycling is a viable alternative.
 Just as with politics there is a range of beliefs with some against any bicycling infrastructure and others desiring some limited infrastructure such as painted ‘bike boxes’ at high traffic intersections.
 I may have lied earlier. Many public officials only hear from one side—vehicular cyclists. And when others in the community begin to get interested in cycling, the people they talk to are the ones they see riding around on road bikes in lycra shorts because that’s who they think know cycling the best. And, these lycra-clad folk are often vehicular cyclists who convince these potential new cyclists that “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” For many this alone ends their desire to ride a bike. A few others will try it and after experiencing vehicular cycling for a brief period, hang it up (quite literally, they hang their bike up in the garage and there it stays for the next decade). But this is another story.
 Note that Dutch are very quick to point out that Amsterdam has the worst bicycling infrastructure in the country.
 Based on 3.2 fatalities per billion vehicle km driven. U.S. is 8.5 fatalities.