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.