Why Vehicular Cycling Failed: Or How I learned To Love The Bike Lane

Written by Boston Biker on May 24

There has been a battle raging in the bike advocacy world for the last 30 years. A battle that in my mind was put to rest several years ago, but like that Japanese guy after world war 2 some people continue to fight this fight long after both sides have announced a peace treaty.

A Vehicular cyclist sees this as a deadly door zone bike lane, everyone else sees it as a great place to ride.

What is this decisive rift that until the last couple years was tearing apart the bike advocacy world? Vehicular cycling, or VC for short. Back in 1976, during the last oil crisis, cycling was getting pretty popular in America and a man named John Forrester wrote a little book called Effective Cycling. In it he laid out the basis for what was and still is “Vehicular Cycling” or the idea that cars and bikes should act the same on the road, be treated under the same laws, and importantly that education of cyclists and motorists is the main component of safety.

So what is the problem? Sounds like a good idea right? Bikes and cars, follow the same rules, educate everyone, bike nirvana! The problem is it just doesn’t work. Below I will try to give a reasonable argument for why it failed.

It doesn’t reflect what people want or think.

Hard core vehicular cyclists don’t like the idea of things like bike lanes, sharrows, bike boxes, cycle tracks, or pretty much any other bicycle infrastructure. They see it as a step towards creating a divide between cyclists and motorist, who the VC crowd think should be treated identically.

Talk to a strong vehicular cyclist and it will quickly become apparent that they don’t just not like bike lanes, they will go out of their way to fight against them. This puts them in direct opposition with EVERY major bicycle advocacy group in America. Even the League of American Bicyclists (a strong supporter of vehicular cycling) endorses these sort of bicycle infrastructure improvements. It also puts the VCs at odds with just about everyone I have ever talked to. I start talking about biking with random strangers and the first thing out of their mouths is “I wish there was more bike lanes.”

It gives the appearance that cycling advocated are confused, or at odds

In the bike advocacy world 99.9% of the time bike advocates want more and better bike infrastructure (lanes, sharrows, etc), but a very vocal minority of VCs will make enough fuss to give the appearance that there is a debate. Like the “debate” over global warming this divide is entirely fictional. Pretty much everyone in the bike advocacy world agrees bike lanes are the way to go, but the media love to have a “this side vs that side” article and will go out of their way to find someone (anyone really) to give “the other side.”

A perfect example of this was the recent article in the JP Gazette in which one side of the bike lane “debate” (the side that wanted lanes on center/south st) is every advocacy group in the city and most of the public, and the other side is two guys (and to be fair, one of the two guys just wanted the lanes to be well designed, he wasn’t really against them, so really it was ONE guy against the world).

The is partly the medias fault for failing to realize there is not an equivalence between the two sides (and wanting a more interesting article) and partly the VC’s fault for being so stubbornly opposed to admitting the world has changed and that their ideas don’t have much relevance anymore.

This “debate” actually hurts cycling advocacy. Law makers, and the people who control the money are not always big fans of cycling. Sometimes these people in power will say something to the effect of “the advocates don’t even know what they want, why should we give them any money!” This effect can be seen from the local town meeting, all the way up to state and federal funding decisions.

For years nothing happened in Boston around cycling because the “advocates” actively fought against bicycle infrastructure! It wasn’t until the VCs got out of the way that things started happening in this city.

It doesn’t take into account the mental landscape of new riders

Vehicular cycling is simply not an option for most people. If you took someone who had driven in Boston, but never ridden a bicycle here and you said to them “just get out there and act like a car” they would laugh in your face and go get in their SUV. As much as the VCs would like to think so most people are not ready to ride around in traffic like an automobile. They are too scared to take the lane, and don’t want to interact with traffic in that way. The reality is that cars are big and heavy and metal and human beings on bicycles are small and fragile. No amount of education will get new riders out on to the streets.

This is a big problem. How will we convince people in their cars that they should ride a bike if they are too scared? You talk to people and repeatedly they will tell you that they feel safer when they have a bike lane, or a sign, or a sharrow, or a cycle track. This sets the VCs head to steaming as they start talking about safety this and statistics that and freedom of choice etc etc etc. What the VCs miss is that it doesn’t matter if bike lanes make you safer or not. Let me type that again…

It doesn’t matter if bike lanes make you safer or not!

Obviously I don’t want someone to design a bike lane that puts a cyclist in more danger. The reality is that for the most part bike lanes are safety neutral. They don’t make a rider more or less safe than if they were on a road without bike lanes. The important function of bike lanes is that they make people FEEL safer.

It’s the placebo affect of transportation. Safer or not, bike infrastructure (including bike lanes) gets more people to ride. More people ridding means less people driving cars. More people riding means less pollution. More people riding means less obesity. I could go on and on.

If hanging golf balls painted red off of little poles would get people to ride their bicycles in this city, I would be out there tomorrow with a can of balls and some red paint. it doesn’t matter one wit if bike lanes make you safer or not, the fact is they get people riding and that is what we want.

There is also a fair amount of evidence that when you get more people riding bicycles the overall safety of everyone goes up. I can still not say conclusively if this is so but what I do know is that it is more dangerous for large numbers of people to drive cars around all day, than it is for people to drive bikes around all day. In any way you slice it having millions of people drive cars is more dangerous than having the same number of people ride bikes. One simply has to take a good look at global warming, or obesity, or political issues and you will quickly see the danger of having the majority of us drive cars.

The VC’s had their chance, they didn’t produce results.

For the last 30 years (give or take) the cycling advocacy world has been dominated by John Forrester’s ideas. The VCs pretty much had it their way. One would think that 30 years later we would be living in a bike utopia where 30% of people rode bicycles as their main form of transportation. Oh wait that’s Amsterdam, who for the last 30 years have been building bicycle infrastructure. Here in America where VC’s have ruled the day we still have about 1% of our population using bicycles as their main form of transportation. Simply put, the VCs had their chance, they had 30 years of chances and they failed to produce results. While other countries that pursued a more infrastructure heavy complete streets model have reaped massive increases in cycling.

One need not travel far from home to see a perfect example of this. Cambridge which has been hard at work supporting cycling infrastructure for the last decade or so and has seen a very large increase in the numbers of people riding, while Boston which until recently didn’t do much of anything for cycling (expect stress education) did not. Now that Boston is starting to take infrastructure seriously the number of riders, and the number of people thinking about riding is going up.

The battle is over, the VC’s lost

The battle between VCs and the complete streets movement (the idea that streets should be designed with everyone in mind, not just cars) is over. Every major advocacy group in America has moved towards complete streets. The model has been proven successful in Europe and elsewhere, and the VC model has failed miserably over the last 3 decades to produce large amounts of cyclists on the streets.

You will continue to find (even on this very website) a small handful of people that will scream till they are blue in the face that bike lanes will be the death of us all. That cycling infrastructure removes freedom of choice, that building separate facilities will cause cycling to get regulated to a legal black hole…none of which is true.

VCs get focused on the minutia of widths of lanes, and angles of turns and instead miss the point. We (and by we I mean people who want cycling to be a dominant form of transportation) are trying to change a culture. We are trying to convince people to get out of their cars, and ride their bike around this city. They get so focused on treating motorists and cyclists identically that they miss the obvious point, THEY ARE NOT IDENTICAL.

We have already seen great progress in this city by taking the best parts of VC and merging them with an infrastructure that takes into account the needs of all road users. We will only see more benefits from this marriage of ideas moving forward. The thing that really makes me shake my head in wonder is why a handful of vocal proponents still try to push the straight VC point of view?

In my mind we can take the good parts of VC (education, cyclists rights, the idea that everyone must follow the law, etc) and incorporate them into a system of top notch cycling infrastructure. The debate over which ideas are better is over because a strict VC point of view is no longer relevant to the discussion. The idea that cyclists will be served best by using the same infrastructure as automobiles (with a heavy dose of education) is simply foolish. Cars are not bikes, and bikes are not cars. The VC model has been absorbed and improved upon by the complete streets model.

Vehicular Cycling proponents are quickly being regulated to the dust bin of transportation planning ideas. Sadly this will not keep them from filling our comment sections, our town hall meetings, and our news paper articles with their well intentioned but misguided ideas. If they really wanted to help they would do well to see that their ideas have merit, and play well with the ideas of building good cycling infrastructure, but don’t work alone. Only by combining infrastructure with good education will we ever see the kind of cycling revolution that most of us want.

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Posted in advocacy, infrastructure | 53 Comments »

53 Responses to “Why Vehicular Cycling Failed: Or How I learned To Love The Bike Lane”

  1. By hackneyed sojourn on May 24, 2010 | Reply

    Whether sharrows or lanes, the small white images of a figure cycling serve as ghost bikes in the most important places to raise the concsiousness of drivers- especially when it comes to remind people to look before turning. I think you’re also right that these lanes create an invitation to cycling for those who may be reluctant.
    Cycling as traffic, IF you know how to DRIVE as traffic, is the way to go when differential in speeds between vehicle types is not much more than 2:1. I find when I cycle this way, using the right hand side of the appropriate lane for my intended trajectory, the cars around me get it, and there isn’t a problem.
    For years I wouldn’t cycle in Boston, because of all the poor driving I saw demonstrated daily as I drove my cab. I wanted the suburban white picket fence scene or Rt.127 along the coast. One day, I had too much to do in a limited period of time throughout the city to deal with the T from Revere. I used the bike. I was amazed. All the years of watching driver errors occuring in the same ways in the same places every day, made riding in Boston a breeze, and yes, I rode like a car- it really works when you know how cars drive.
    My greatest challenge today is the infrastrusture between Boston and its northerly and southerly neighbors- high speed rotaries. That, and that commuting for work and it’s twelve hour shifts, are out thanks to the high rate of theft.

  2. By JohnO on May 24, 2010 | Reply

    “it really works when you know how cars drive.”

    That is a huge point. If you can pay attention to the cars beside you, in front of you, and behind you, all at the same time – keeping the pace and flow of traffic – you will be fine. You won’t get honked at. You won’t get doored. You won’t get run over. Use the big roads, like Beacon, or Tremont, or Mass Ave. The one with enough lanes for cars to make their space and get around you. Everyone will be happier. And you’ll get to your destination faster.

  3. By mtalinm on May 24, 2010 | Reply

    another data point: only 1 of the 225 bicycling-related deaths in NYC from 1996-2005 occurred when a cyclist was in a marked bike lane.

    (i know, I know, this statistic is meaningless unless we know the % of riders who are in bike lanes, no wait until we know the % of miles ridden in bikes lanes, and then the disposition and safety orientation of those riding in bike lanes vs. those who practice VC…).

    and I know that most collisions occur at intersections where bike lanes usually take a break. but the data are still striking.

    original on page of the following report: http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/episrv/episrv-bike-report.pdf

  4. By Mark Simpson on May 24, 2010 | Reply

    1. While i don’t like the bike lanes that Cambridge has created on Mass Ave i don’t mind them – and i do use them (carefully).

    But i will fight hard against bike lanes if we get to the point where bikes are mandated to be in those bike lanes (as they are in other states).

    I want to _be_ safe, not just _feel_ safe.

    2. I see lots of bicyclists doing really dumb things on their bikes – do they feel safe when they run red lights? When they hug the curb and suddenly jump out around a parked car? When they suddenly change lanes without any signals, not even a shoulder check? How will ‘infrastrucure’ help these people?

    3. I say we need infrastructure _WITH_ education. If you are using the road you need to know how to use it safely, for yourself and the rest of the road users.

    4. (and frankly i still don’t get bike boxes – why would i filter forward and put myself _in_front_ of the cars when i am going to be starting much slower then they are when the light changes? – can someone explain why the bike box is useful?)

  5. By Paul Schimek on May 24, 2010 | Reply


    Obviously there are a lot of statements here that I disagree with, but let’s start with this one: “For years nothing happened in Boston around cycling because the “advocates” actively fought against bicycle infrastructure!”
    You and Pete Stidman are spreading this compelling argument that happens to be completely unsupported by facts. Why don’t you have a look at the MassBike archives? Since 1977, MassBike actively supported bike lanes as did the large majority of bike activists.
    – Cambridge started a bicycle program in 1992, supported by the inclusion of the program in the city’s air quality plan certified by EPA, which gave it some official standing and budget.
    – Brookline began putting in bike lanes in the 1990s.
    – Yes, Boston did virtually nothing until the last few years. I said after being laid off in 2003 that I was able to do anything I wanted as long as it didn’t involve either spending money or changing policies. What changed in 2007? Nothing fundamental about the content or quality of advocacy (although I will admit that Livable Streets has been more effective and tenacious than MassBike). How did things change, “So Boston set about to reform its bad bike behavior, because — well, for no other reason it seems than a few years ago someone bought Mayor Tom Menino a bike” per the Phoenix last week (
    http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/102061-pedal-promise/#ixzz0ou9rMjLL). Actually Menino’s deputy Michael Kineavy became a cyclist (after 2003) and slowly convinced the Mayor to try biking around his neighborhood instead of walking. That did it.

    This statement is also completely wrong:
    “For the last 30 years (give or take) the cycling advocacy world has been dominated by John Forrester’s ideas.” It’s wrong in that the vast majority (95%) of advocates have always called for “paint and paths”. It’s wrong in that there have been oodles of USDOT-funded reports supporting bike lanes and paths. It’s wrong in that 95% or more of bike money has gone to bike paths. It’s wrong in that only a little of the vehicular cycling agenda has been advanced — and much of this I thought you and MassBike fully supported, such as
    – bicyclist awareness in drivers manuals and tests
    – government-published Bicycle Drivers Manual
    – education of police officers in fair enforcement
    – changes in policies so that routine maintenance and road repaving is bicycle-friendly
    – support for bicycle skills training
    – defending bicyclists’ legal rights to use the roadway

    Finally, I have been thinking about your question — which bike lanes I like — and planning to compose a response. I think the Concord Ave bike lane (if it were repaved) would be a perfectly good bike lane. There is no on-street parking for one thing. But Cambridge is planning to make it into a sidewalk (by another name). Are we all really happy to give up the right to use the road? Once this happens, if you try to use the road you will be certainly harassed and possibly even arrested.

  6. By Boston Biker on May 24, 2010 | Reply

    “Are we all really happy to give up the right to use the road? Once this happens, if you try to use the road you will be certainly harassed and possibly even arrested.”

    So you are going to fight a bike lane, because you are afraid you will get arrested if they build it…I am pretty sure this beautifully illustrates the entire point of my article.

    if you are worried about cyclists not having the right to the road, then you should fight any changes to the law that would remove said right, not fight a bike lane.

  7. By Eoin on May 24, 2010 | Reply

    I just had yet another conversation with someone who told me that she would love to commute to work via bicycle, but that she’s too afraid of getting hit by a car. So she drives to work instead.

    On an individual level, that’s very reasonable. But on a societal level, that’s pure insanity.

    I won’t go as far to say that you have to be a little crazy to ride a bike in this town, but I think it certainly helps. I’d bet that the existing population of regular cyclists in the Boston area is disproportionately made up of risk-takers, people who don’t mind a little danger in their day. That would explain the high proportion of light-running, weaving, salmoning, young males in the cycling community.

    And it’s going to stay that way as long as cycling in this town is widely perceived as unsafe.

  8. By Lovely Bicycle! on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    This is an interesting article and you make some good points, but I disagree with the extent to which you portray VC proponents as a tiny minority of old folks living in the past. I know plenty of people who are vehemently VC – and they are young, well-informed, forward-thinking.

    Personally, I like bike lanes and segregated paths if and only if:
    1. they are well-designed (rather than adorable death-traps) and
    2. cycling on the road remains a legal option despite their availability

  9. By Lovely Bicycle! on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    Eoin – I am not sure to what extent that’s true. I am very risk averse, and I feel safer cycling in the Boston area than driving. I basically haven’t been behind the wheel since I moved here; it’s just too stressful. But cycling? No problem. I got on a bike for the first time in 12 years last spring and took to it right away. Believe it or not, I’ve spoken to several women my age (late 20s – early 30s) who feel the same.

  10. By Paul Schimek on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    @BostonBiker Shane: “So you are going to fight a bike lane, because you are afraid you will get arrested if they build it…I am pretty sure this beautifully illustrates the entire point of my article.”

    I was not referring to a bike lane on Concord Ave — which I support — but a bike sidewalk, which Cambridge variously calls a “raised bike lane” or “cycle track.” And yes, bicyclists have spent time in jail in Massachusetts for riding on the road (look up ‘Peter Rowinsky’).

    Police enforcement of nonexistent bicycle laws is a serious problem. Just last week — Bike Week — a State Police officer on a motorcycle ordered me into the bike lane “for your own good”. When I asked him about the illegally parked cars — one of which the two of us had passed — he said, “You don’t listen so I’m not talking to you.”

  11. By Boston Biker on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    paul, no one is trying to make it illegal to ride your bike on the street…no one.

    The fact that police misinterpret the law, and that one cop one time told you to do something has NOTHING to do with bike lanes. Nothing.

    You are conflating completely unrelated issues.

    Also if you read the article (which I feel you should do again) you will see that I am not saying that VC ideas are bad, but that on their own they simply dont work. Only when you combine VC ideas with well designed infrastructure will we get the people cycling.

    @lovely Are your VC friends strongly against bicycle infrastructure? Or do they share your point of view that well designed infrastructure goes well with education and rule following? (as I propose in the article)

  12. By Lisa on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    I’d like to draw one distinction here:

    VC as a political stance: Failed. Bring on the bike lanes!

    VC as a riding style: Everyone should learn it! There aren’t bike lanes everywhere. VC is the best way to stay safe while mixing it up with cars.

  13. By Paul Schimek on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    I was talking about Concord Ave, where they plan to narrow the road (from 17 feet of sharable space to 12 feet) and tell everyone with markings and maybe signs that bicyclists are expected to be on the new widened sidewalk. This is similar to what they did on Vassar Street, except that there are many more driveways (24) and several intersecting streets in the new proposal.

    In the context of this plan, I said “if you try to use the road you will be certainly harassed and possibly even arrested.” This is true of any street with a sidepath where bicycling is technically legal. I have experienced harassment on Memorial Drive and Vassar Street, including from police officers and DCR (then MDC) employees.

    And even if you convince the police to leave the bicyclists alone, motorists will harass, because the road is narrow (to make room for the sidepath) and there are official markings indicating that bicyclists are supposed to be on the sidewalk.

    For these reasons, MassBike has a policy that paths alongside roads should only be installed where there is adequate room for bicyclists on the roadway, and police have been trained in bicyclists rights to use the road. Apparently MassBike is repealing this policy. If not, please correct me.

    Some more info on Concord Ave here:

    This is just the beginning. Cambridge also intends to make sidepaths on Binney Street, and Boston is hoping to make some as well.

  14. By Boston Biker on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    why not go ask massbike what its policies are, their website is massbike.org.

    But you have failed to convince me (even a little) that building side paths will somehow change the law to make cycling on the street illegal.

    @lisa: I pretty much agree with you, and was trying to say so in my article.

  15. By Paul Schimek on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    @BB – last try: I never said that bicycling on the street would become illegal — that would take a change in state law. You made that part up. It’s another straw man, like much of your original post.

    I’m not happy about Door Zone Bike Lanes, but I have not made any effort to fight them, even on Columbus Ave (where there already was enough width and where they now have negatively affected me on my commute).

    The exception is Centre/South Street, where the City was saying bike lanes were NOT possible on MOST of the corridor, except on the few blocks where there is 44 ft curb to curb. This happens to be the area where there is the most parking turnover and the most opening doors and the slowest traffic.

    I’ve lived in JP for 18 years. Until 3 years ago bicycling was difficult and dangerous due to trolley tracks on narrow roadways (R.I.P. Eric Hunt). I just asked the city to do a consistent 10 ft parking lane with buffer zone and shared lane marking to the left of that. They agreed to do this where there is 42 ft (much of the corridor), but not where it widens to 44 ft. Yes, I was asking for a designated bicycle facility.

    Is it somehow beyond the pale to request door zone buffer markings throughout the corridor? Right, I should shut up and go home because everyone wants bike lanes, wants to hug parked cars, pass on the right of moving traffic, and wants streetcar tracks that merge to the curb.

    If the city is giving us bicycle facilities (since there are none now, because roads are for cars) how dare we say anything negative? Put those shared lane markings under parking spaces. Please designate sidewalks as bikeways. Mark bike lanes to the right of right-turn only lanes. Make diagonal bike lanes cutting across “car lanes.” Bring it on. If anyone gets hurt, it is for the good of all, because every bicyclist on the road, no matter how injured, is making it safer for all of us. Especially those bicyclists who ride the wrong way. But of course there’s no way to stop them, since they go faster than anything else on the road.

    And while we are on the subject of laws, this one from Somerville is still on the books:

    Section 13-7 Lane Use in Designated Bicycle Lanes
    Not withstanding the provisions of Section 13-6, bicyclists shall yield the right-of-way to
    motorists making a right turn maneuver in a bicycle lane. Except when overtaking a slower
    bicyclist or to make a left turn maneuver, or to avoid a hazard, bicyclists shall stay within
    marked bicycle lanes.

    Nothing at all wrong with that, right?

  16. By CYCLER on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    Great article, compellingly written.
    +1 to Lisa!
    Obviously no one wants bad infrastructure, but as you point out that by fighting the concept of dedicated infrastructure completely VC’er have won the battle but lost the war. There are so many people (new cyclists, young cyclists, older cyclists, strong cyclists who have a cold or a bum knee) who need to be able to go a little slower, and need a little space, and without a dedicated place for them to feel safe, they’re never going to get on their bikes.
    I do think that there’s a safe way to use bike lanes, and an unsafe way, and education is key. I never knew what a right hook was until it happened to me. A lot of newbies never even think about dooring.
    Although I practice VC, I would never advocate against infrastructure.

  17. By Lovely Bicycle! on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    “Are your VC friends strongly against bicycle infrastructure? Or do they share your point of view…”

    Strongly against, based on the belief that there is no such thing as “well designed infrastructure”. The idea is that all bike infrastructure marginalises and demeans – with the cyclists gratefully and meekly collaborating in their own ghettofication, out of a deep-rooted insecurity with their status in a car-centered society…

  18. By Boston Biker on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    @Lovely I find that an odd position to take considering that we will never abolish car centric thinking unless we get people out of their cars and using other forms of transport like bikes.

    People ride more when there are bike lanes, which leads to more cyclists which changes culture.

    Do you see the same incongruity, or do you think they have a point?

  19. By Lovely Bicycle! on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    Another thought after reading your article: You say that the VC proponents have had their chance for the past 30 years and lost, and you contrast this with how many cyclists are out there since the infrastructure initiatives of the past few years have begun. In all fairness, I feel that such a comparison cannot be made, because there are other factors involved contributing to the recent increase of cycling: Namely, the sociocultural acceptance and popularity of cycling (for transport, in one’s regular clothing) that just wasn’t there a decade or two ago.

    Even at the height of the bike boom of the ’70s, the focus in the US was on racing and touring, but not on mainstream urban commuting. Whereas now, under the influence of the “hipster culture” and “cycle chic” and what have you, the stress has been placed on urban cycling for transportation as it never has been before in the US – at least not since the turn of the 20th century. The infrastructure initiatives arose at the same time, and therefore I feel that we can’t disentangle the two factors enough to determine whether infrastructure without the co-occuring “bikes are cool” trend would have “won” over VC. Just saying.

  20. By Lovely Bicycle! on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    “I find that an odd position to take considering that we will never abolish car centric thinking unless we get people out of their cars and using other forms of transport like bikes… Do you see the same incongruity, or do you think they have a point?”

    I think that their views are “philosophically valid”, for lack of a better way to express it. For example, I can see a scenario, whereby – propelled by a social trend of the bicycle being perceived as a symbol of “cool” and the car being perceived as a symbol of “uncool” and aided by a long-term dip in the economy – more and more people on bikes take to the streets (first the hardcore cyclists, then those less so, then people like me, then finally pregnant mothers and little children and frail old ladies) until finally the cars are forced to “throw their hands up in the air” and stay out of dense urban centers altogether, because the reality is that there are just too many bicycles for a car to move around efficiently.

    But while I see that scenario as a valid possibility (after all, it has happened in some areas of the world), my problem with it is that, as an organic movement, it is not systematically replicable. And replicability would be necessary for any kind of conscious urban planning.

  21. By Charlie on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    Please note that although the traffic regulation in Somerville that states that bicyclists must use bike lanes is still on the books, the police have made it clear that they have no intention of enforcing it. The Bike Committee has been working to have the regulation struck, but it’s a long cumbersome process to make that happen.

  22. By Eoin on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    I think it’s worth making a distinction between VC’s infrastructure recommendations and VC’s advice on how to ride. Say what you will about his opposition to bike lanes, but I have benefited from Mr. Forrester’s tips on how to position myself on the road safely.

  23. By Herzog on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    In response to Lovely Bicycle!, I think that one of the main problems with VC is that it’s not scalable.

    If one vehicle in a thousand is a bicycle, VC makes sense. However, as soon there is a significant number of cyclists on the road it makes no sense to have them going single file down the middle of a twelve-foot lane. I just don’t believe VC principles work as soon as there are more than a few cyclists on the road.

  24. By rg on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    @ Mark simpson:

    bike boxes- if nothing else, the box ensures that the drivers can SEE the cyclist, clearly.
    More here:


  25. By Another biker on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    I won’t wade into the VC vs Bike Infrastructure debate, to the extent that there is one, except to say that whatever arrangement there is for cyclists to use/share the road with cars is only as good as the enforcement of rules intended to keep (a) cyclists safe and (b) cars the $#*&@ away from them.

    That means there need to be fines that are more than a token slap on the wrist for, e.g., cars that park in a bike lane, drivers that fail to check for cyclists before opening their doors, etc. It also means that there needs to be aggressive enforcement of said rules. I bet you not 1 motorist in 200 knows that you can be fined for failing to check your mirror before opening your door.

    If we rely on the courtesy of drivers (ha!), we’ll never get anywhere. We need real incentives and disincentives.

    I saw an inspection sticker in a friend’s car recently that had a message on the side facing the inside of the car that alerted the driver to the fact that engine idling is illegal. Every time that driver glances at the sticker, that’s a reminder. How about something similar re: laws protecting cyclists?

    As a final aside, I wonder how the attitude of police officers changes towards cars & bikes when the officers are on bike patrol – it has to make them more sensitive to the viewpoint of the cyclist. Maybe we need to require that every elected official and employee of any transportation agency spend at least 2 days per month on a bike. In rush hour traffic in downtown boston.

  26. By Tim Pierce on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    I think that Paul’s concern — if I may be so bold as to presume — is that poorly designed bike lanes are the camel’s nose under the tent of keeping bikes off the road. In a lot of ways bike lanes are a convenience for motorists as for cyclists (they get those pesky cyclists out of the way of my big ol’ car). When cyclists accept improperly designed facilities, it has the potential side effect of emboldening legislators and planners who would prefer to get bikes off the road altogether, and are more likely to pursue policies that would bring us closer to that effect.

    As such, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable concern. I agree with @BostonBiker that we’re better off with the right to use the full road *and* with sensibly designed bike lanes, paths, markings, etc. But it can be a very delicate dance of policy to generate well-designed facilities without risking setting ourselves back on the right to the road. Paul’s objections are well founded.

    This is overall a very well-written and thought-provoking article.

  27. By JonT on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    Re. “The VC’s had their chance, they didn’t produce results.”:

    Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, et. al. have spent a lot of money to design and install bike facilities. Has there ever been a period where anywhere near that much money was spent towards promoting VC principles? E.g. a free cycling manual like the drivers’ manual that most states distribute for free, or free cycling classes, or public service messages informing everyone that cyclists have both rights and responsibilities, etc? If not, then it’s not a fair comparison.

  28. By LAUREN HEFFERON on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    Having cycled in Coppenhagen for three days last year I was inspired how well my children could navigate through this strange city. The bike lanes told them where they could and could not go. Back home in Arlington, I bike my daughter to school on the Concord Ave Bike Lane. The simple act of riding in a bike lane has taught her what a lane is, where her rightful place is and I can ride behind her and coach her on “vehicular situations” such as cars pulling in and out, turning right, etc. The fact that my child is riding in a bike lane ( and I am not pedaling with her through traffic) sends a positive message to motorists: 1. That we are in our rightful place, following rules and deserve respect 2. That parents and kids can bike to school, that it is not a crazy idea

    The purpose of bike lanes is not just for cyclists, it’s a very visual way to communicate to motorists how much space we require and that it should be respected

    Even in Copenhagen where everyone is used to seeing bikes, the streets that did not have bike lanes were more chaotic and to be completely avoided when riding with children

    I am very excited to hear that VC is a dying cause. It only makes sense for the most experienced cyclists which most of them clearly are


  29. By Hapto on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    Someone above mentioned that they don’t just want to “feel” safe, they want to “be” safe.

    But here’s the rub. “Safety” is a myth. Safer, is not. You are not without risk, ever. Life will kill you one way or another, and nothing will stop it.

    And I think that, in some respects, danger, will keep you safe. Being aware that there are things out there that will/can hurt you and accepting that life comes with risk, and the responsibility therein, will make you a safer cyclist because when you run the red light, you will know by the headlights barreling down on you that you are now responsible for your choice.

    And next time, you sure as heck, provided there is a next time, will be more cognizant of your place and responsibility for this place called the road.

  30. By MiKing on May 25, 2010 | Reply

    a great read. keep going and turn it into an article. would be great to have a well researched and documented argument against the politics of VC.

  31. By daisy on May 26, 2010 | Reply

    This statement is flat out wrong: “For years nothing happened in Boston around cycling because the “advocates” actively fought against bicycle infrastructure!”

    Having attending hundreds of meetings about transportation improvements in Boston over 20+ years, I don’t recall anyone arguing against bike racks, wide streets, grates installed properly, bike paths, bike path maintenance and improvements, bike racks on buses, bike cages etc. We advocated for ALL these bike improvements and were ignored. Yes, some people don’t like bike lanes, but don’t blame them for a complete lack of interest by the City. The City of Boston was actively hostile to bikes for close to 20 years. Stop blaming cyclists and put the blame on the people who had the ability to make improvements for bikes.

  32. By mtalinm on May 26, 2010 | Reply

    I think VC is a great idea if you can keep up with the traffic. but if you’re slow (like me, especially on a grade) or in an area with fast-moving traffic, it becomes impractical as motorists lay on the horn.

    in downtown Boston I practice VC and find it much safer than trying to hug the right-hand side of the lane. as you get to the outer boroughs and the suburbs, though, cars are going so fast that “taking the lane” becomes more risky than it’s worth

  33. By Paul Schimek on May 26, 2010 | Reply

    Hey folks, “vehicular cycling” is not “taking the lane” or “riding as fast as the cars”. If you read carefully John Allen’s Street Smarts and follow his instruction, you will be a vehicular cyclist — no matter how fast or slow you go. You can buy a copy from various sources or read it on line, http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm

    Furthermore, the advocacy agenda that vehicular cyclists support is not “everything is fine as it is.” Providing sufficient space on major streets for motorists to pass bicyclists without changing lanes is one of the major points of this agenda. That space might be in the form of a bike lane, where appropriate. But if a road has a bike lane or not, it is still a bicycle facility as much as it is a car facility.

    I will write more about this later on bicycledriving.com

  34. By mtalinm on May 26, 2010 | Reply

    thanks, that’s a very helpful link. would be great to have it prominently posted here and elsewhere for new cyclists. I would’ve benefited greatly from reading this when I started, as it took me awhile to figure some of this out.

    the major difference I see between what he suggested and what I practice is my reluctance to take the lane unless I’m riding as fast as the traffic. so maybe I am more of a VC than I think…

  35. By John S. Allen on May 27, 2010 | Reply

    Boston Biker (and who are you, please give a real name) said:

    “So you are going to fight a bike lane, because you are afraid you will get arrested if they build it…I am pretty sure this beautifully illustrates the entire point of my article.”

    This comment was in response to Paul Schimek’s about Concord Avenue, where the plan is narrow the street, removing bike lanes and placing bicyclists on what are for all practical purposes, 5-foot-wide sidewalks behind 6-inch curbs — snow-dumping territory, and also making it very difficult to cross the street and so encouraging wrong-way travel. Paul and I are fighting for those bike lanes, not against them. Intelligent discussion can only proceed if people start by getting their facts straight. I demand an apology. More details are at http://john-s-allen.com/blog/?p=859

  36. By John S. Allen on May 27, 2010 | Reply

    “John Forrester wrote a little book called Effective Cycling. In it he laid out the basis for what was and still is ‘Vehicular Cycling’ or the idea that cars and bikes should act the same on the road, be treated under the same laws, and importantly that education of cyclists and motorists is the main component of safety.”

    The author’s name is John *Forester*

    I have the book in front of me (1993, 6th Edition). 600 pages. “Little book”? Perhaps you are confusing it with my Bicycling Street Smarts, 46 pages.

    And — “cars and bikes should act the same on the road”? Here’s what Forester said. He chose his words carefully.

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

    Cars and bikes can’t act, they are things. The motorist and cyclist act, and not always the same either: motorists (other than motorcyclists) occupy a whole lane but cyclists have to choose a position within the lane. Some laws, especially equipment laws, are different — motorists use signal lights, cyclists use hand signals. Motorists (other than motorcyclists) wear seat belts, cyclists wear helmets.

    There are other types of vehicles too: construction equipment, animal-drawn wagons, horses, and some different laws that apply to them.

    Forester is saying that the same fundamental right-of-way rules apply to all, despite these differences, and if you mess with them (as can happen, for example, when a bike lane or bicycle sidewalk has cyclists overtaking motorists on the right), things rapidly get more complicated, confusing, inefficient and hazardous.

    Now I realize who you are: Shane Jordan, in charge of Massbike’s education program. And you don’t accurately describe Forester’s book or the fundamental point it makes…! This is not to say that you have to agree with everything on those 600 pages. Neither do I. But let’s start by getting the facts straight.

  37. By Charlie Denison on May 27, 2010 | Reply

    I think we can all learn a lot about safely riding from VC practices. I use VC techniques every day that I ride. However, I do think we should try to provide safe, appealing facilities (bike lanes, sharrows, cycle tracks, multi-use paths, etc) wherever possible to encourage more people to get out and ride and to make it more pleasant for those who already do. I think there will always be some debate about exactly what a well-designed facility is, but thankfully firms like Alta Design and now NATCO are working to create clearer guidance for a wider range of facilities that we can all use. There is also a new AASHTO Bike Guide that should be finalized this year that will make it a lot easier for city and state transportation departments to make their streets bike-friendly.

  38. By John S. Allen on May 27, 2010 | Reply

    Ah, details, details, Charlie. Alta Planning & Design,(not “Alta Designs”), http://www.altaplanning.com/ is a design firm, as its name implies. NACTO (not “NATCO”), the National Association of City Transportation Officials), http://www.nacto.org/ is not a firm, it is — a national association of city transportation officials.

    Both push for unconventional bicycle facilities treatments which in my opinion can be useful in some situations but troublesome in others. The push is the problem as far as I am concerned. Sound engineering judgment is being overridden much too often.

  39. By peteathome on May 27, 2010 | Reply

    “It’s the placebo affect of transportation. Safer or not, bike infrastructure (including bike lanes) gets more people to ride.” You then mention that more people riding might, eventually, make bicycling actually safer through “safety in numbers” effect, if they exist.

    Imagine that a patient goes to a doctor with a very legitimate fear of, say, traveling to a plague infected country. The doctor gives the patient a pill saying it would make him significantly safer. But in reality the pill only occasionally made people slightly safer, mostly did nothing, might even make him slightly more likely to catch the plague. And the doctor knew this but figured the chance of catching plague was pretty low and, besides, if enough people traveled to this plague-ridden region, all their spending would help alleviate the underlying conditions and start lowering the plague rate. So the end justified the means.

    Wouldn’t that doctor be drummed out of the AMA for unethical behavior?

    How can you support this approach? Saying the “ends justify the means” is a very slippery slope. It also a very elitist attitude that treats people as children rather than as true adults. Yet I’ve almost never seen a organization that advocates for facilities say things like “Bike lanes mostly do nothing for safety, can easily worsen safety if not correctly designed, but they make people feel safer” except when called on it by those of us who look at the underlying causes and actual statistics of car/bike collisions. And what they actually say when the numbers are pointed out is that most people ride so unsafely to begin with that the bike lanes won’t have any impact.

    I also will argue that thinking bicycling infrastructure will cause dramatic increases in bicycling is mostly nonsense. Bike lanes and such can convince a modest number of people that bicycling is safe, but that’s about it.

    When you look at areas in Europe with high bicycling rates, you will find that they had very high rates long before they had much infrastructure and that most of their bicycling infrastructure was put in after WW2 as those countries were recovering their prosperity, mostly to reduce conflicts that were occurring between the increasing motor vehicle traffic and the declining bicycling traffic. At most the infrastructure helped slow down/halt the decline in bicycling and in a few cases reverse it and return the levels to near pre-WW2 levels but never as high as their historical peak), they certainly aren’t the reason they had high bicycling rates in the first place.

    Special bicycling infrastructure in US cities that don’t have the characteristics of high-cycling European cities ( high density and short commuting distances, difficult driving/parking due to medieval city designs, very high cost of obtaining licenses and operating motor vehicles, flat terrain, mild climate, superb mass transit for distances longer than 3-4 miles) will probably only help boost transportational cycling from 1% or less to maybe 3-4% at the very most. A big increase percentage-wise, but very small in absolute numbers.

    LA and other low density sprawling cities will never have high amounts of bicycling. A few of the high-density East Coast cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and NYC have potential, although they are somewhat climate-limited with very hot summers and/or bitter winters compared to the milder European cities.

    A few US cities have already achieved a modestly high bicycling rate, but that rate was increasing before the infrastructures went in.

  40. By 100psi on May 27, 2010 | Reply

    Top forty!

  41. By J on May 28, 2010 | Reply

    “I also will argue that thinking bicycling infrastructure will cause dramatic increases in bicycling is mostly nonsense. Bike lanes and such can convince a modest number of people that bicycling is safe, but that’s about it. ”

    So it’s a coincidence that the number of cyclists on comm ave (by BU) exploded when the lanes were put in? Or how about comparing cambridge and boston in 2006. You crossed the bridge and BAM bike riders everywhere, and hey, with bike lanes!

    The fact is, bike lanes add riders. You can compare within a city (Boston 2005 vs Boston 2010) within a region (Boston vs cambridge) or across cities (Boston, NYC, Philly, Baltimore, DC) AND taking into account time.

  42. By Mtn High on Jun 1, 2010 | Reply

    I also looked at the Boston Biker post about how to ride a door zone bike lane. It says that you ride on the leftmost side of the lane to protect yourself from opening car doors. How does the average person, who sees the new bike lane or reads about it in the paper and then contemplates riding in it, learn that salient safety fact? This site is not well visited by the average public, and the education piece of the bicycling surge in Boston lags far behind the infrastructure piece.

    Maybe the left side of the bike lane should be painted some color like the diagram on the door zone bike lane webpage? On the other hand, what about the door of a large coupe, which is extra long? That might cover the whole bike lane.

    I would sure like to see the stats on whether dooring accidents have increased as a result of painting bike lanes, and how that increase stacks up to the increase in bicycle usage.

    However, I do not oppose bike lanes, but we need to invest in education more as we have increased the investment in infrastructure. Perhaps bicyclists over the age of 18 need to have proof of taking a course on bicycle riding and safety as a way to stimulate the education end of this. And we need to educate drivers too — about the door zone, and about bicyclists’ legal rights to be in the bike lane or in the driving lane, and why bicyclists make the choices they do (safety, need to make left, etc.)

    I do want to say bravo to Lisa’s May 25 comment.

    Still, we have come a long way, when I can talk about the education piece lagging, when in the bad old days, nothing was moving ahead, so everything was lagging!

  43. By Sam on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply

    It is unfortunate that the author of the initial posting chose to rant against vehicular cyclist instead of making a coherent and well formed argument for a specific position on safe riding policies and practices. Rants by their nature tend to give the reader the impression that the author does not have strong arguments to back up their case, otherwise why rant. In addition, rants tend to push readers into more defensive positions rather than less. In this case, the author seems to have even exaggerated the arguments of both sides making the issue even more divisive.

    As an example, I had never heard the term vehicular cyclist in my 25 years of riding. Now, I not only know that I belong to this group, but I feel defensive about their position.

    I generally try to avoid responding to rants, but apparently this post was written by an employee of MassBike. Does it represent the views of MassBike or does the author take sole responsibility for the views expressed?

  44. By Boston Biker on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply

    sam: Anything written on this site represents the authors view, and no one else.

    Also remember, just because you read it in the comments doesn’t mean that it is true.

  45. By Mtn High on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply

    A letter to the editor in today’s Globe (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/letters/articles/2010/06/02/bicyclists_must_obey_traffic_rules_too/) illustrates the problem of the public’s perception of the bike lane as restricting bicyclists to that space. The letter writer complains about “[c]yclists ignoring the designated bike lanes to ride in auto lanes instead.”

    More education!

  46. By bruce goodchild on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply

    Invariably there are people walking in the bike lane on Vassar Str.
    when I’m cruising on it – riding slowly and respectfully. If I want
    to make time I ride on the road…..

  47. By Jay on Jun 3, 2010 | Reply

    I don’t know why I bother reading the comments section in any Globe piece on bicycling. It’s a guarantee that it is gonna be filled with hateful vitriol from people that just don’t get it. “Dey took my road!”

  48. By John on Jun 6, 2010 | Reply

    Shane, your arguments are filled with misstatements, strawmen, and other intellectually dishonest techniques. I urge you to take pride in NOT arguing like that in the future.
    With all the injuries and deaths from dooring accidents, I will always be fiercely opposed to door zone bike lanes, and I submit that supporting door zone bike lanes in the face of the accident data raises serious ethical questions.
    By mischaracterizing bicycle driving so badly, you seem to be intent on hiding from your readers how easy, fun and safe it can be. Better still, bicycle driving doesn’t require government money.
    Fact check time: the 1970s bicycle boom was from 1971 to 1974, and ended rather abruptly (with a 60 percent drop in sales of imported bikes) at the end of 1974. Three fourths of the way through this boom, in October 1973, the Arab oil embargo began. Mangling facts and dates leads to misstatements of cause and effect.

  49. By Eli Damon on Jun 13, 2010 | Reply

    While there is much contention among bike advocates in general, there is much less disagreement among cycling instructors and cycling safety experts. Some bike lanes impose a small hazard to cyclists but most bike lanes pose a great hazard because they are not designed to even the most minimal of standards. More importantly though, the presence of bike lanes does not relieve cyclists of the need for traffic handling skills, An timid, untrained cyclist is no better off with a bike a lane than without one. There is also no evidence that more bike lanes encourag more cycling. Rather, the evidence seems to show that more cycling encourages more bike lanes. Moreover, bike lanes have done a lot to facilitate and legitimize discrimination against cyclists. We have so far been able to fight off a great deal of statutory discrimination in Massachusetts but other states have not been so lucky. And we still face extra-legal discrimination from police officers.

  50. By Fred Ollinger on Jan 12, 2012 | Reply

    I agree on the matters regarding that the VC movement has failed in advocacy.

    I’m going to contradict “common knowledge” and say that I do not think that VC riding is safe.

    I had a friend who rode VC and he got hit by a car.

    Getting rear-ended is extermely common. Look at any study even the Ken Cross study from 1977 that VC is based upon:


    You will find that reasons that VCers give for how dangerous infrastructure do not kill as many people as cars rear ending cyclists do.

    Also, nobody rides VC not even the pro-VC people. Most of them drive cars and only ride when convenient.

    All the car free cyclists know how to ride VC, but they prefer infrastruture.

    So bike lanes actually are safer and make the streets safer. Seen Portland data, recently where they had several years of ZERO deaths or the recent NYC data where they, had far lower deaths with more bike lanes.

    VC riding is deadly. Bike lanes, even in the door zone, are safer in every US study you look at.

  1. 3 Trackback(s)

  2. Dec 29, 2011: Boston Biker » Blog Archive » Relevant Repost: Why Vehicular Cycling Failed: Or How I learned To Love The Bike Lane
  3. Jan 12, 2012: Is an anti-bike fraud being committed in your name? « BikingInLA
  4. Nov 3, 2012: Boston Biker » Blog Archive » How The Dutch Got Their Bike Lanes (And How We Will Get Ours)

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