Who Wants Vehicular Cycling?

Part I – Promote Vehicular Cycling. Really?

Part III – Vehicular Cycling: If It Worked, It Wouldn’t Work

There are a few reasons that vehicular cyclists give for their opposition to segregated bicycle facilities; they can’t ride fast on them, they have to stop too often, there are too many bumps and too much road furniture (signs, mailboxes, etc.) in the way, they are more dangerous than the road (like bike lanes in door zones), and sharing with unpredictable pedestrians and dogs is dangerous.

I mostly agree.

These though are issues of bad design, not of segregated bicycle facilities themselves being problematic. This is like saying that we don’t like cars because the Trabant we once had broke down every two days.

The bicycle network designed by Dutch Engineers generally doesn’t have these problems, except on some very old facilities. Riding 20-25 mph is not often a problem. There are actually fewer stops than on the motor network thanks to bicyclists ability to negotiate with each other through their own intersections. Pathways in The Netherlands are wide, smooth, unobstructed, exceptionally safe, and generally free of pedestrians, who have their own safe sidewalks and crossings.

Most bicycle facilities being built in the U.S. are not ‘best practice’. Even the newest recommendations of NACTO, AASHTO, and in MUTCD include designs that Dutch and other engineers abandoned years ago as dangerous or impractical. As well, these newest U.S. standards leave out many critical elements.

That cyclists don’t want poor designs is understandable. The answer though isn’t to accept a worse and more dangerous option that serves a minority quite poorly, but to strive for something better that serves everyone and serves each much better.

Reasonable people don’t like to tangle with 3000 pound cars.

I ride my bicycle a lot and have for my entire life. I was taught to ride as a vehicular cyclist in the 70’s, have taught people to ride as a vehicular cyclist, and have testified before government committees on the benefits of vehicular cycling. I still ride as a vehicular cyclist today when necessary.

I am in many ways a poster boy for vehicular cycling. I can ‘take the lane’ (or block the lane?) with the best of ‘em if required.  I know that, statistically, riding safely on the road is little or no more dangerous than doing so in a car. But I still have a very strong preference for much safer and well-designed segregated paths.

handcycle, wheelchair, bicycle, netherlands, assen

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of good segregated bicycle facilities isn’t bicycle riders, but disabled folk. Bicycle riders often have other options, many disabled do not. Even the best ADA facilities in the U.S. are third-world compared to The Netherlands where disabled folk have smooth level paths to quickly take them anywhere they want to go without curb cuts or other dangerous impediments. Maybe we should call these Alternate Transportation Facilities instead of Bicycle Facilities.

If I, a frequent, confident, and bold cyclist doesn’t like vehicular cycling, what about the 98% of people who are not as confident and bold? Those who can’t or don’t want to ride 20 mph and make quick lane changes in front of faster and heavier cars? Who are nine years old and want to ride to school? Or eighty and want to ride to a cafe? Or a mom who wants to ride to the grocery store with her children? Or disabled and use a powerchair or handcycle?

Consider my neighbors. From a walking or cycling standpoint, my neighborhood is an island. There are four ways out of our 211 house neighborhood and all are on to Ramsey county roads with cars traveling in excess of 40 mph (64 kph) in 11’ (3.4m) wide lanes with no bike lane or cycle track, only a two foot (0.6m) wide potholed shoulder with mailboxes jutting in to it. These roads are posted for 30-35 mph, but the design says 45 mph.

Most reasonable people do not want to ride in such conditions. Nor do they want someone they love to do so. Riding on these roads with cars speeding by, often very close, is quite unpleasant. As one neighbor told me “I’d be a nervous wreck by the time I got to the restaurant.”

It’s Complicated

Having a cappuccino or online discussion with a bunch of vehicular cyclists is interesting. The primary topics are complaints about drivers, how awful it is to be on the road with them, and how cyclists can try to make themselves safe on the road. The basic requirements are a theatrical display of obnoxious bright flashing lights, monkey lights, special hi-viz clothes, cameras to catch scofflaws, helmets with more lights on them, multiple mirrors, flags, air horns, and other stuff.

It gets complicated. And what happens if you forget to charge your half dozen lights?

Even the cycling itself is complicated. When do you ride strictly as a vehicle and when something slightly different? Which cars will you cross in front of when you need to move over three lanes to get in a left turn lane? Which roads are safe and which not? At what age are you comfortable with your child riding to school by themselves and ‘taking the lane’ in front of a Ford F-350? What do you do about right and left hooks?

Life is much simpler in The Netherlands where paths and crossings are well marked, right-of-way is clear, and bicycles often have their own signals. School children ride independently by 9-years-old and even first time visitors figure things out quickly.

Winter Bicycling

Vehicular Cycling gets even more complicated in winter. Segregated paths are easily kept clear, on-street not so much.

Vehicular Cycling is quite non-inclusive. In The Netherlands you see a broad cross-section of the population on their segregated bicycle network; every age, gender, and ethnicity, along with able-bodied and disabled. In the U.S., not so much.

Which brings up another favorite topic of vehicular cyclists—”how can I get my wife to ride on the roads with me?” Sexist? Reality.

If only there were no drivers on the road then vehicular would work and all these complications wouldn’t be necessary. And that is the point of segregated bicycling. In The Netherlands, Denmark, and elsewhere everyone rides their bicycles in normal everyday clothes and without a bunch of extra complications. It’s much simpler, safer, and enjoyable.

Workcycles Oma

Vehicular cyclists say that safer, more reliable, simple, and comfortable upright city bikes aren’t appropriate since you can’t ride and maneuver fast enough to deal with motor traffic on them. That sounds fun.

Interestingly, segregated bicycling will do more to help vehicular cyclists than promoting vehicular cycling will. In The Netherlands, Denmark, and countries with developing segregated bicycling infrastructure, nearly everyone rides bicycles at least occasionally so every driver knows about bicycling and is more aware of bicycle riders and more considerate of bicycle riders—including vehicular cyclists. Segregated bicycling will promote this environment, vehicular cycling will not.

So, while vehicular cycling may seem great for the confident 2% (minus one—me), it is not for 98%. It is wholly inappropriate for the average person riding 11 mph to the grocery store or children who want to ride to school. It leaves out the 12% of our population who are disabled and will benefit immensely from safer segregated facilities.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN