Vehicular Cycling: If It Worked, It Wouldn’t Work

Part I – Promote Vehicular Cycling. Really?

Part II – Who Wants Vehicular Cycling?

National Bike Challenge Update: Fledgling team is in 59th place in MN, MNDOT is 61st and BikeMN is in 32nd. Team is open to all. More info here.

Terminology: Given some comments two weeks ago, I thought a quick attempt at some definition might be in order.

Vehicular Cycling (now renamed Bicycle Driving) Advocates and Segregated Bicycling Advocates will both say that vehicular cycling technique is best for riding on roadways with motor vehicles and that segregated bicycling facilities are ultimately the best option.

In a recent discussion with John Forester, the ‘father of vehicular cycling’, he told me that “RRDV cycling will continue to be the best available until the utopian bikeway system appears.“ RRDV is Rules of the Road for Drivers of Vehicles or, vehicular cycling. ‘Utopian bikeway system’ is John’s term for the Dutch style segregated bicycling facilities I advocate. BTW, I largely agree with him on this statement and was quite surprised by this apparent change in perspective.

However, John’s belief is that the implementation of segregated bicycle facilities is a conspiracy of ‘motordom’ to get bicycles off the roads, not desired by bicyclists, and that in any case the U.S. will never achieve anything remotely close to the segregated system of The Netherlands. Thus, according to John, our efforts are all best focused on making improvements to vehicular cycling. And this is what we see from the vehicular cycling community.

So, the difference then is perhaps on emphasis, one focusing primarily on vehicular cycling as has been the case in the U.S. for the past 40 years, the other focusing on the expansion and improvement of segregated facilities as has been the case in The Netherlands for the past 40 years.

Vehicular Cyclist, Bicycle Driver or Vehicular Cycling Advocate – Someone who believes that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. Whose primary advocacy or emphasis is for vehicular cycling and improvements to vehicular cycling. Who advocate that vehicular cycling is good enough or that it is the only viable option or that it is anything other than a stop-gap measure until better physically segregated facilities are implemented. Who prefer riding with traffic to riding on segregated bicycle facilities[1].

Vehicular Cycling or Bicycle Driving Facilities – Facilities intended primarily to support vehicular cycling. Bike boxes or advanced stop lines at junctions are key examples. Unprotected bike lanes, sharrows, and ‘share the road’ signs on roads with speed limits over 15-30 mph or heavier traffic are generally vehicular cycling facilities.

Segregated Bicyclist or Segregated Bicycling Advocate – Someone who prefers or advocates for bicycle facilities that are well designed, physically segregated from motor traffic, have safe segregated crossings at junctions, and that serve a broad spectrum of able-bodied and disabled users. Who believe that bicyclists fare best when they are protected from harm by motor vehicles. Note that segregated bicyclists will often utilize vehicular cycling techniques when riding on roads intermixed with motor traffic due to a lack of safe segregated facilities.

Segregated or Protected Bicycling Facilities – Bicycle facilities that are physically segregated or protected from motor traffic such as side paths, cycletracks or many protected bike lanes. Some preferred methods of protection include cement curbs, planters, a row of parked cars, k-rails or jersey barriers. Junctions that safely segregate bicyclists in space or time and make right-of-way clear to all users.


And now, the final installment (I promise) on Vehicular Cycling.

Even as an advocate for bicycling I get frustrated when I’m driving and am considerably slowed by people riding bicycles.

Hiway 244. The shoulder completely disappears just over the hill. Note the shoulder on the opposite side. The speed limit is 35 mph but 45-50 is not unusual.

Hiway 244. The shoulder completely disappears just over the hill. Note the shoulder on the opposite side. The speed limit is 35 mph but 45-50 is not unusual.

On MN 244 a hilly and twisty road along the NE shore of White Bear Lake I once found myself driving 13 mph for about a mile because of no safe chance to pass the people riding single file in front of me. The increasingly long line of cars behind me wasn’t so patient and later, in my mirror, I noticed that a few chose the 3” rule instead of the 3’ rule. There have been a number of riders hit along here and one acquaintance was killed not long ago.

Recently, I was driving north up Hodgson Road in Shoreview. There were dozens of people on the path along the west side, many riding bicycles, a few walking, and my favorite of all, a mother portaging a canoe while her grinning son wore both of their vests and carried their fishing poles and other stuff. His mom’s vest was keeping a good beat on the back of his calves. You couldn’t help but be cheered by it all[2].

Then came the cyclist. He was in the lane in front of the car in front of me—riding a fairly brisk 17 mph (in to a headwind). With cars coming from the opposite direction we couldn’t pass him so we all did 17 mph for the next couple of miles. When the car in front of me honked to get him to move over they were rewarded with a middle finger.

If it worked, it wouldn’t work

Vehicular cycling poses an interesting conundrum—if it worked, it wouldn’t work.

I am far from the only person who gets frustrated driving behind slower cyclists[3]. There are growing complaints from motorists and from some, like radio host Michael Gallahger, quite open contempt and hostility.

Doug at Brooklyn Spoke recently said “There is literally nothing I can do that makes people madder than just riding my bike the way I am supposed to.”

What will happen when cycling in the U.S. increases from its current 1% of trips to 5% or 10%? Or 25%? When many more people begin bicycling to local stores, restaurants, and schools? Imagine all of these cyclists, three to ten times as many as today, most traveling about 12 mph, on the roads mixed with and sometimes blocking motor traffic[4].

This is fine on local access streets where cars should drive slower and where most drivers have the patience to do so since it is for a very short distance and only at the beginning or end of their trip. Most people riding bicycles want to go more than two blocks from home though so they will need to ride on numerous non-residential streets and roads.

But Wait, There’s More.

Vehicular cycling advocates, led by John Forester, are fighting laws that in any way restrict their use of the road. In Minnesota they want to eliminate or significantly modify keep-as-far-right-as-practicable laws and laws limiting riding on the roadway to two-abreast.

Are these really the things we should be focused on? Or should we be working to get more and better physically segregated infrastructure for all bicyclists and disabled?

Imagine five times as many bicyclists on the road as today with a bunch riding in the middle of traffic lanes and others riding three or four abreast.

Recipe for success?

The only way that vehicular cycling can be successful is if it fails. If the number of cyclists does not increase much beyond current levels. In whose world is failure considered success?

Bicycles and Motor Vehicles are not compatible.

On a study tour in The Netherlands last month David Hembrow said “Shared Space only works when there are no cars to share with.” Sadly, I think that sums things up quite well. Sharing is a great idea, but in reality doesn’t work. Drivers of 300hp cars don’t like having it reduced to the 0.02hp of a bicycle.

Anyone who thinks that we can change drivers behavior so that they’re happy driving 11 mph behind a bunch of cyclists is smoking something that they probably shouldn’t. It hasn’t worked in The Netherlands (they’ve tried) and I’d don’t expect it to miraculously work here.

Likewise, we’ll not get parents comfortable with their 8-year-old riding to school and sharing the road with cell phone texting drivers in jacked up Ford F350 pickups.

It is illogical to take an extremely safe mode of transportation, bicycling, and make it less safe by placing it in a less safe space, our roads.

40 years ago the U.S. and Netherlands made different choices and took divergent paths. The U.S. chose vehicular cycling which has led to one of the most dangerous bicycling environments in the developed world and vehicular cycling advocates want to continue on this road.

Today The Netherlands has a much safer road system with about one-third as many fatalities per capita as the U.S. The Dutch are healthier, live longer, and are less likely to die or suffer a degraded lifestyle from preventable diseases.

Vehicular cycling will always be for a tiny minority. We must begin to focus on a network that supports all users.



[1] Personally I believe that the term vehicular cyclist should mean only someone who rides on the road using vehicular cycling techniques. However, it is very commonly used to refer to vehicular cycling advocates. In the future I will attempt to to use the term vehicular cycling advocates rather than vehicular cyclist.

[2] This Multi-Use Path or MUP is getting crowded enough on some sections that separate pedestrian and bicycle paths will soon be needed.

[3] Interestingly, one reason I think that The Netherlands works so well is that drivers are much more accepting of having to stop at crossings than being slowed to 11 mph for any distance. Mentally, it is less tiring to stop than to drive very slow or have to pass someone riding a bicycle.

[4] While many bicycle riders do take care to not block traffic, this is sometimes at their own peril. When we must ride on the roads with traffic I am all for taking the lane when necessary and being legally allowed to do so. However, we need to do everything possible to make this unnecessary.

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, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN