UPDATED: Thumbing Our Noses At The Ideas Behind Vehicular Cycling


Before you can understand the title you need to read the article:

Pay special attention to this paragraph:

But most of the resentment of rule-breaking riders like me, I suspect, derives from a false analogy: conceiving of bicycles as akin to cars. In this view, bikes must be regulated like cars, and vilified when riders flout those regulations, as if we were cunningly getting away with something. But bikes are not cars. Cars drive three or four times as fast and weigh 200 times as much. Drive dangerously, you’re apt to injure others; ride dangerously, I’m apt to injure myself. I have skin in the game. And blood. And bones.

This is a frontal assault on the work of John Forester. His seminal work “Effective Cycling” is in fact the textbook distributed to League Certified Instructors during their training courses. There are course materials (including an full length video) which accompany this tome. It has been the basis for understanding the necessity of legislatures across the country to admit bicyclists into the discussion about alternative transportation. In fact groups like  Active Transportation Alliance (or at least its predecessor) began with an understanding that cyclists needed to be aware of their rights and responsibilities and prepared to assert them on the streets and roadways in their communities. Failing to be assertive could mean that bicycles would be relegated to trails and sidewalks which would not serve commuters and utilitarian cyclists well.

Background Reading Materials

If you are unfamiliar with the Effective Cycling materials here are some introductory ones which you might wish to read:

A Different Approach – Thumbing Our Noses

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel

So if bicycles are not analogous to cars what then are they? These paragraphs (by Cohen) spell out the hypothesis being put forward:

Nor are cyclists pedestrians, of course (at least not while we’re pedaling). We are a third thing, a distinct mode of transportation, requiring different practices and different rules. This is understood in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where nearly everyone of every age cycles. These cities treat bikes like bikes. Extensive networks of protected bike lanes provide the infrastructure for safe cycling. Some traffic lights are timed to the speed of bikes rather than cars. Some laws presume that in a bike-car collision, the heavier and more deadly vehicle is at fault. Perhaps as New York City’s bike share program is rolled out, these will become the case here.

Laws work best when they are voluntarily heeded by people who regard them as reasonable. There aren’t enough cops to coerce everyone into obeying every law all the time. If cycling laws were a wise response to actual cycling rather than a clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws, I suspect that compliance, even by me, would rise.

European cycling is indeed distinct from that practiced here in the States. Europeans heavily tax their automobile owners to discourage the use of internal combustion machines. Actually it is the model being employed in Amsterdam and Copenhagen that while technically European is not shared by most of the EU. Both these cities are relatively small by comparison with New York or Chicago and one might wonder whether the ChainLinkers who keep yammering about the “totality of difference” between suburban and urban cycling would be willing to opt for a model which works well in cities more akin to the larger suburbs here rather than bustling metropolitan areas?

But in addition to the differences between the sizes of cities to which this “new” model is supposed to be applied you have some stark equipment differences as well:

  • Copenhagen and Amsterdam cyclists do not as a rule ever use helmets.
  • Europeans in these two countries ride dressed as they will be when they reach their destination. This means that you don’t carry a separate change of clothing. You wear high heels if you are planning to be at the office. You often see folks riding on the super-strong rear racks that come with many of these bikes, just the way that kids in this country carry passengers on BMX bikes.
  • Bicycles in these areas are heavy balloon-tired affairs which do not resemble the “single-speed fixies” so popular in the States. In fact these bicycles have accessories that are simply foreign to the minds of urban cyclists by and large:
    • Hub generators are popular along with the Halogen or LED lamps that they drive. Europeans have long become accustomed to having front lights on their bikes. In fact in Germany there are actual lawsthat dictate the minimum requirements for them.
    • Kickstands are very, very common on the bikes used in both Amsterdam and Copenhagen. These make it easier to park the rather cumbersome style of bike used there.
    • Fenders are quite normal on bikes again in both Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Because folks often travel dressed in work clothing it is essential that “rooster tails” not adorn their backsides once they reach their destination.
    • Baskets again are essential to the Amsterdam and Copenhagen biking experiences. In fact rear racks are not only popular but essential on many bikes.
    • Balloon Tires are the norm in these two cities. Bicycles are functional pieces of equipment there and nothing “fru-fru” can be tolerated when you are riding distances in all kinds of weather on a bicycle. Stopping to fix a flat is not an experience you want to undergo when you are trying to get to work. But even more important is the fact that Europeans routinely carry heavier and bulkier loads than most Americans.

You are far more likely to encounter cargo bikes in these two European cities being used to haul kids, groceries and other odd assortments of things. And frankly I would venture to say that Europeans think of their bikes the way they do their automobiles. You simply are traveling more slowly and sedately and that is largely the difference.

Barge parking lots are usually jammed with bikes that commuters have stowed prior to setting out on foot for the final leg of their journey. Europeans have oddly enough adopted the parking lot model in much the same way we do here for automobiles. There are simply too many bikes venturing into the city on any given day to rely on street parking. The sidewalks after all are for the pedestrians and encroaching on their turf is just as annoying as having an automobile hogging the bike lines in this country.

These barges float the way our casinos used to. But sadly bike theft is relatively high even in countries (Amsterdam and Copenhagen) where poverty is less widespread. Bikes from Amsterdam and Copenhagen often come with rear wheel locks to prevent them being ridden without a key. But theft still happens.

Refutation of the New View

I would like to posit the notion that bicycles while more high accommodated in some European setting (e.g. Amsterdam and Copenhagen) are actually treated by the cyclists themselves more like cars than as toys or leisure vehicles here. Our bicycles are relatively flimsy by European standards. We don’t build them to support two people and especially not with someone riding the rear rack!

Our bikes are stripped down to provide the rider a lightweight and stiffer ride than most anything you would encounter in European settings. What is commonly referred to as Dutch Bikes here are more reminiscent of the Schwinn bikes of my youth. It takes bikes built that long ago when weight weenies did not rule the roost to find anything resembling a Dutch Bike made here. Sure there are companies that trying to revive the style but frankly until Americans are willing to buy bikes generally weight in the neighborhood of 50 pounds things are not going to substantially change.

What I believe the Europeans have done well is to provide a scaled down transportation roadway for cyclists. Unlike the days in China when cars and motorcycles clogged the roadway along with cyclists, Europeans have managed to bite the bullet to pay for separate but equal accommodations. The only time that Americans have ever tried this was when they were actively practicing racial segregation and while the accomodations were separate they were anything but equal.

If Americans do move toward the European model of transportation cycling then several things are going to have to be anticipated:

  • Bus and Train Racks. There simply will not be enough of these to go around. If cyclist populations swell to 300% or even 500% of their current levels, it will mean that the contention for resources for mixed mode travel will increase correspondingly. In fact the bikes lanes will become nearly as congested as the automobile lanes and there might indeed be as much mayhem occurring as cyclists of different ages, strengths and aims are vying for the same narrow lanes moving at vastly different speeds. Imagine what would happen if 5 times as many cycling commuters boarded the commuter trains in the morning rush hour? If there are a limited number of bikes per car that means that folks are inevitably going to be fighting for those precious few spaces. And inevitably the folks who are late to work will want to be accommodated over those of lower social status.
  • Bike Parking Lots. On street parking will rapidly become a problem. You will have motorists unable to exit their curbside doors if the clutter of bikes is too great. The more manageable approach is a bicycle parking lot. I would expect too that legislation will be enacted to encourage the use of these lots because you really don’t want the clutter of hundreds of cyclists trying to race to find a place outside their place of employment before being late to work. And imagine the problems that will ensue when cyclists who don’t even work in the building are nevertheless using the upscale parking racks intended for employees only.
  • Bike Lights. We are going to have to regulate the kind of equipment used on bicycles. That means that you will no doubt have to learn to think in terms of bicycle lighting. Right now the law across the land is based on reflectors. But if bicycle commuter numbers swell it will be necessary to treat their vehicles the way we do cars. You will need a light. And someone is going to have to determine how little is enough. In Europe is it set at around 2-3watts. I applaud this approach because it means that vendors across the country can finally expect to see sales from their most profitable product segment. The most practical and sustainable kind of lighting is delivered by hub generators.
  • Kick Stands and Fenders. Both of these should never have suffered the decline in sales that they did when racing styled bikes surged in sales. English touring bikes were dominant in the 1960s. People looked for heavy duty racks and baskets to carry things home from the grocery or work. These will have to return because frankly if you plan to use the bike in place of your car you will need to consider how to do this without a messenger bag slung over the same shoulder as you have your purse. Better yet you need enough storage capacity to put both the purse, valise and shopping bags comfortably onto your bike to leave your hands and shoulder free to signal and steer.
  • Folding Bikes. This is the only bicycling alternative that makes it possible for a commuter to jettison the worries about contending for racks on trains and buses or parking spots in lots or on streets. A good folding bike (e.g. the Brompton) is priced much like the better Dutch Bikes common here in the States. But it is rugged and can be equipped with rear racks and bags are well as front bags. It can handle a hub generator and LED lamp with ease. And its rear rack serves as a built-in kickstand.

My money is on the notion that Vehicular Cycling will win out over what Mr. Cohen is suggesting. There is little room for the notion of catering to a special type of vehicle, namely the bicycle. We are already having “pushback” from motorists, who having grown up finding free parking spots anywhere they chose, concerning the costs of downtown parking. On street parking is expensive but convenient in that you can step out of your car and walk into the shop to make a purchase.

But even for cars the troubling aspect of city travel is contending for the precious few open spots to park in. Nobody likes the idea of sitting for hours in traffic as you enter the metropolitan areas. Too much fuel is being wasted and despite the fact that automobiles are more fuel efficient and cleaner burning we have never addressed the underlying problem which is overuse of the roadways. You simply cannot build big enough highways into the cities to accommodate all of the traffic both single occupancy, bus, truck and motorcycle. Everyone wants the convenience of having a car which relieves them of having to live by a bus schedule. But no one has figured out how to discourage unnecessary single passenger traffic in favor of mass transit.

Suburban riders have their long distance commuter trains. But folks living closer into the cities have to rub shoulders with the poor and indigent and that makes mass transit less attractive. If people are to begin biking for the purpose of reaching business destinations we will need to build more protected bike lanes and that will take a different approach than is currently demonstrated on Kenzie. Those lanes are a start but will have to give way to lanes that cannot be used by cab and delivery traffic. That is going to mean rethinking the design of major arterial roadways and beyond that it will require dollars.

And here is the rub. Everyone will have to chip in for these protected bike lanes. And when it comes time to vote for representatives who will either enact or block the expensive bikes lanes there will be debate. And my guess is that the scofflaw cyclist will no longer be a myth but a negative reality that will do more harm than good.

No More Lame Excuses Regarding The “Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist”

What Randy Cohen has done is move the Scofflaw Cyclist Myth onto center stage. Up until now you had angry writer complaining about cyclists who flouted the Rules of the Road while getting pushback from cyclists that this was all an unfair attack on them. The general defense being offered was that cyclists were no more disrespectful of the law than pedestrians or motorists. But neither of these groups has an advocacy organization which tolerates and or supports open disrespect for the law. Randy Cohen has “outed” the bicycle community.

But cyclists have become emboldened on this issue and insistent that the rules must change to make them palatable to them before they will even consider obeying them. Why? Because we are “special”. That notion will not play well with the motoring public and they vastly outnumber us.

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