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 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.

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  2. Jan 12, 2012: Is an anti-bike fraud being committed in your name? « BikingInLA
  3. Nov 3, 2012: Boston Biker » Blog Archive » How The Dutch Got Their Bike Lanes (And How We Will Get Ours)

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