Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Vehicular Cycling
I have been blogging about cycling for almost a year, and I have been commenting on bike listservs like Mapmyride and IBikeTO for a bit longer. During this process I have been referred to, on several occasions, as a “vehicular cyclist”.

I’m not sure if the term is a good fit, I was reflecting on this today. 

I thought it would be simplest to consult the source, John Forester, perhaps the best known American advocate for so-called vehicular cycling, to sort this out. I reference his Effective Cycling (2009) for these points. 

Forester advocates for:
-          Education/training for riders
-          Riding on main arteries
-          Riding with traffic, rather than beside traffic
-          Against sidewalk and multi-use trial riding
-          For high speed riding

Does this model fit me? A brief run through of the relevant details…
1.       I have been cycling since I was about 4.
2.       I have received no formal cycle training, in riding or repair.
3.       I did not get my driver’s license until I was 33.
4.       I cycled for commuting and “recreationally” in high school and university and in my current job.
5.       I commute approximately 11 miles to work, 22 miles a day, around 273 days a year (75%) on average, depending on the severity of the winter.
6.       I don’t ride when the roads are so snowy and wet and icy that I can’t find enough clear pavement, so dry winters = lots of riding, wet winters = not much riding
7.       I ride on all forms of cycling infrastructure: roads with no lanes/tracks, suburban roads, main arteries, cycle tracks, trails, multi-use pathways, bike lanes, shared roadways, the works. My priority list for riding is: no cars, some cars, lots of cars. The particular form of infrastructure isn’t a big deal (for me as a rider, not for all riders, that’s different). I think cycle tracks are the safest, bike lanes are as safe as the wideness of the road and the density of the parking around it.
8.       I ride on sidewalks if I feel the road is not safe, but I do not ride when there are pedestrians on the sidewalk, then I walk my bike.
9.       I ride very slowly compared to some, averaging around 12-14 miles an hour, 19-22 kilometers per hour.
10.   I believe that breaking the law for safety is acceptable, but only in specific circumstances, e.g. I will ride my bike very slowly on the sidewalk if there are no pedestrians around, but I do not ride contraflow on one way streets, as drivers don’t expect me and often don’t look.
11.   I believe bikes have a right to be on the roads, as long as they stay to the right when faster vehicles are behind them to allow them to pass, my understanding is that you can ride anywhere but the highways  and designated roadways.
12.   The ambient traffic is most often faster than me, but when traffic is light to moderate and there are at least two lanes on the road I will ride in the middle of the right lane rather than to the right of the lane, cars will generally pull out and pass me, for those that don’t I pull over if they are going faster than me, or maintain the lane otherwise. It works remarkably well, but it won’t work during the middle of rush hour.
13.   When traffic is heavy I stay to the right of the lane and allow faster vehicles to pass.
14.   I avoid bike lanes on narrow streets, and busy bike lanes.
15.   I use mirrors regularly.
16.   For main artery roads I prefer roads with at least two lanes of traffic (Keele), for secondary roads I prefer roads that have a centre turning lane (Caledonia).
17.   I use multiple transit modes in addition to cycling, driving, transit, and walking.
18.   I cycle all year round, day or night.
19.   I like commercial feeder roads alongside major arteries (e.g. Garyray  South of Steeles West)
20.   I think that cyclist education is a great way to reduce the number of cycling accidents. 

So surprisingly enough I’m somewhere in the middle. I suspect that many cyclists are.
It took me a while to figure out why I don’t fit the model, and why I’m sympathetic to some claims from vehicular cyclists and I disagree with others.

Vehicular cycling is as much a political position as a cycling method. Forest believes that the American road establishment actively pushed to get cyclists off roads entirely. Their position, in some ways very similar to the position of many cycling advocates today, was that cyclists did not belong on the road with cars, they needed separate infrastructure. Forest railed against this idea, and as is typical of those taking a public position against a view they detested he went entirely in the other direction. For Forester, a cyclist was ONLY supposed to ride on main arteries. This was the fastest way to get around, the most direct, and it reinforced the fact that cyclists belonged on the road. 

This explains a lot about Forester’s position on cycling safety and general cycling issues. He hates multi-use paths and sidewalks and claims they are more dangerous than the road, he advocates for cyclists riding as fast as possible, and he advocates for cyclists riding on main arteries with cars. 

This position puts so-called vehicular cyclists in opposition to the primary position of many current cycling advocates: that more cycling infrastructure is needed. What you need, the vehicular cyclist would say, is better cyclists, not more bike lanes.

My position on these things is not so straightforward. 
I believe that cycling infrastructure is needed for newer and less experienced cyclists, as well as cyclists who just don’t like riding with traffic. In addition, I believe that certain forms of bike infrastructure (e.g. cycle tracks) are safer than others. I believe that cyclists should be encouraged to use all forms of travel infrastructure: main roads, secondary roads, multi-use paths, cycle tracks, trails, designated roads, etc. I also think the greatest single thing you can do to improve your safety is ride more slowly.

That is not the position of a vehicular cyclist.

However, I also believe that cyclists should and can use main arteries if they so choose (although they should ride off to the right to allow faster vehicles to pass when appropriate), and that certain forms of cycling infrastructure (e.g. bike lanes) are not always a safer option as the road conditions determine the safety of the lane, not the paint on the road.

This is a position compatible with a vehicular cyclist (adjusted for Canadian traffic laws).

What’s the disconnect?

It took me a while to figure this out, but I think the difference is this, I’m a cycle commuter, Forester was a cycling advocate. As a cycle commuter, my needs and views are different.

I ride more slowly as I’m on the road more and fast riding makes it more likely an accident will happen. I use all possible cycling infrastructure, from unmarked roads to cycle tracks as I have to cross a fairly decent distance, and if I relied on protected or separated infrastructure I couldn’t get where I need to go. I need to ride on everything to make my commute work.

This puts me in a strange place with respect to cycling advocates and cyclists in general. I’m neither fish nor fowl. I am a proponent of new cycling infrastructure (as I believe it is important for certain cyclists to have access to this sort of infrastructure, and that certain forms of infrastructure are safer than others), but I don’t need it to do my regular commuting. I’m also just as interested in things like regular road repair (fixing potholes and cracks) as I am in new cycling infrastructure. For example, rather than wait months, if not years, for a new bike lane, I would rather see existing roads repaired as this will make an immediate impact on the safety of my ride, while at the same time advocating for more bike lanes.

Finally, being a cycle commuter gives me what I believe to be a unique window on the future of urban transportation. Subways can be extended, but it takes time and it is very costly. Bus routes can be added, and new parking created for cars, but in the end there are limits to the amount of new commuters that can be added using cars and public transit. Cycle commuting has significant room for expansion, so it would serve cycling advocates well to include cycle commuters in their planning, rather than dismiss them as “vehicular cyclists” as they don’t restrict themselves to bike lanes.