Bikes are vehicles. Deal with it.

Very interesting article over at Slate on getting cyclists to obey traffic laws, and in particular the two main cycling philosophies that tend to compete with one another: “vehicularists” and “facilitators”. As the article explains:

Proponents of “vehicular cycling” believe bikes should act as cars: occupy full lanes, stop at red lights, use a hand signal at least 100 feet ahead of a turn. That’s the best way to make cars – and policymakers – aware of bicycles and to respect them as equals on the road.

Vehicularists tend to focus on training cyclists to ride safely and effectively in traffic, in contrast to facilitators, whose priority is creating separate bicycle lanes or paths. Vehicularists see cycle paths as “an admission that the cyclist deserves pity and should be walled off from the world”, and point to statistics indicating that dedicated cycleways increase the number of accidents (as well as the number of punctures and other damage to one’s bike – I totalled one of my wheels on a poorly-designed cycle path near my home the other week).

I’m going to nail my colours to the mast, here: I am a dyed-in-the-wool, implacable, militant vehicularist. This is mainly down to the influence of the man described by Slate as “the intellectual forebear of vehicular cycling”, John Forester, and his book Effective Cycling.

This is not a cheap book (just under £30 from Amazon.co.uk), and nor is it a book you are likely to read from cover to cover. But I cannot recommend it highly enough, both for Forester’s specific guidance on everything from bike maintenance to appropriate clothing to tackling road junctions, and for the general philosophy that permeates the book. This philosophy is summarised in Forester’s “vehicular cycling (VC) principle”:

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

The two main lessons I have taken from Forester and which consciously inform my daily cycling (as in: are frequently muttered under my breath as I ride) are:

  • Bicycles are road vehicles. So cyclists have both a right to occupy “proper” road space, and a responsibility to obey traffic laws: stopping at red lights, not riding the wrong way up one-way streets, keeping off the pavement and so on.
  • “Take the lane.” This is a specific application of the first principle, but incredibly important. When approaching junctions or traffic lights, and especially if turning across oncoming traffic, don’t meekly hug the kerb (inviting cars – you know, proper vehicles – to sweep past you). Check behind you, signal if necessary, and then occupy the lane well in advance of the junction so that you can pass through it without competing with motor vehicles. One report suggested that higher death rates among female cyclists may be due to their greater reluctance to occupy the lane in this way, particularly in the vicinity of lorries.

As Forester argues, one problem many cyclists have is that they do not ride in an assertive, effective manner. This means they ride in a submissive, ineffective manner – which is both dangerous and frightening, as they struggle to compete with motor vehicles. This in turn leads them to be even more submissive in their riding, and a vicious circle is created.

If you want to find out more about vehicular cycling and effective techniques for riding in traffic, this Wikipedia entry has a summary of the main principles (though written from a US, right-hand driving point of view). You can also check out Forester’s somewhat barebones website. But I still recommend buying his book to get the full picture.

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13 Responses to Bikes are vehicles. Deal with it.

  1. I guess I’m a vehicularist too! I teach my daughter to signal clearly and well in advance, and to move out into the road to take right turns etc. Also tell her to stop at lights, and obey all road signs. As she only 9 I still allow pavement riding on occasion though. But she is aware that is only while she is little and I stress that she has to stop and WALK when a pedestrian is on the path.

    All power to cyclists.

  2. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    dedicated cycleways increase the number of accidents

    as well as the number of punctures and other damage to one’s bike

    Exactly! On both counts. It’s as simple as the matter that cars, when wanting to simply to make a left turn are effectively crossing a lane to do so. But it’s not perceived as a lane and so whammo. That and other assorted issues.

    There’s no question in Cantab how to go about this. The primary schools all teach the kids how to be vehicularists. I think that’s a weak approach. We should be teaching the drivers how to be cyclists.

  3. phil_style says:

    Occupying the lane is THE safest way for a cyclist to negotiate an intersection. Hugging the curb is death waiting to happen. Cyclists have enough acceleration to get through most intersections before the cars behind catch them up.

    Although, I do think cyclists should be able to wrong way it down one way streets.

  4. Haven’t cycled for a while now but when I did I was definitely a vehicularist. Not that I ever articulated it to myself in that way, it was probably more an instinctive demand for respect from other road users. Australian schools now almost universally have classes where they teach kids how to be vehicularists, too. So perhaps Forester has well and truly won the debate?
    Btw, in most Australian municipalities it’s an offence to ride a bike on a footpath/sidewalk; it has to be either on the road or on a dedicated cycle path.

  5. John H says:

    Phil: I’m agin’ riding the wrong way down one-way streets as it endangers pedestrians. But other areas can be flexed – e.g. treating stop signs as “give way” signs, as cited by Slate.

    Mark: I think “vehicular cycling” has a stronger position outside the US. As I understand it, the position of cycling in the US is much more precarious, due to their more motor-centric approach. This manifests itself in laws requiring cyclists to hug the kerb, banning them from the road where a cycle path is available (of whatever quality), and even in product safety regulations that assume that bicycles should (without exception) be treated as “children’s playthings”.

    And I think VC struggles a little in media/political discourse in the UK, where the assumption is that “cycling policy” = “more cycle paths” (or “compulsory helmets”) rather than “more training/education”.

  6. Phil Walker says:

    Punctures are not the sole preserve of cycle paths. In fact, I think every puncture I’ve had has been from cycling on the road.

    It’s as simple as the matter that cars, when wanting to simply to make a left turn are effectively crossing a lane to do so.

    The old right hook, courtesy of drivers who just aren’t looking where they’re going.

    General comment: I partly blame traffic ‘calming’ measures. They are a cause of aggravation to motorists, and I don’t think it makes our roads safer to turn driving a tonne of metal at 30mph into a high-stress activity. The other thing I think would help (apart from losing traffic irritation measures) is placing the burden of proof for fault in an accident on the driver of the higher-powered vehicle.

  7. I see, John.

    Interesting how related but different cultures manifest quite different attitudes.

    And then there’s Asia to consider…

    I’m sure there are individual stories to the contrary, but I would say that in Australia cyclists generally have the respect of motorists and are regarded as legitimate road users. I would not have to walk a kilometre from my home here in country Victoria to see a road sign cautioning drivers of the likely presence of cyclists. The road is very much a shared space.

  8. Xan says:

    There must be some enormous cultural differences.

    Here in Austin, there are a number of major roads with very wide shoulders suitable for biking. And in my neighborhood the roads are either enormously wide, or have bike lanes, or both.

    If I were to see a bicyclist taking up an entire lane I would think he was absolutely off his rocker.

  9. John H says:

    Xan: to clarify, I’m not saying bikes should always occupy the whole lane. The normal riding position should be about 1 metre from the kerb.

    “Taking the lane” applies when approaching junctions, especially if turning against the oncoming traffic (i.e. turning right in the UK, left in the US) or if waiting to go straight on at traffic lights (to avoid motor vehicles cutting across you from behind when the lights change).

  10. Xan says:

    Got it; thanks for the clarification. Yes, making it clear and obvious where you are and what you’ll be doing while making a turn across traffic is definitely a good idea.

  11. SimonPotamos says:

    Vehicularists tend to focus on training cyclists to ride safely and effectively in traffic, in contrast to facilitators, whose priority is creating separate bicycle lanes or paths.

    There are cycle lanes and cycle lanes. The usual UK approach to a “cycle route” is to paint a couple of feet off the kerb red and call that a cycle route. The other alternative is the Continental Northern European (Germany, the Nordic countries) approach, where they create discrete cycle routes that are physically separated from motorists, either by an additional kerb or, if the country is half-empty like Sweden or Finland, empty space. You find them everywhere, not only in towns but also in the countryside. Among other benefits, they encourage people to cycle recreationally without having to put your bike on the back of your car, where in the past they wouldn’t have done, owing to a sense of self-preservation.

    Your overall point is valid, though.

  12. Rob says:

    Here in Akron, Ohio drivers have no patience whatsoever for cyclists. About a year ago, I attempted to begin biking to work regularly. I gave up after two tries when I was almost killed by one driver, and nearly run off the road by another who was screaming “get the f*ck off the road!” while waving his fist and angling his car at me. I figured my wife and children would prefer I continue buying gas for the car and gaining weight due to lack of exercise in exchange for my life.

    There are a few US cities that don’t have this trouble, many in the pacific northwest. Seattle and Portland are both well-regarded by cyclists. The popularity of cycling on the “left coast” lends itself to a common opinion here in the midwest: Anyone riding a bike on a weekday is a bleeding-heart liberal and is probably rooting for the end of capitalism. That might be way the drivers wanted me dead.

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