The Great Debate: Vehicular vs. Segregated Cycling

by Stacey Moses
26 October 2010

Source: Commute By Bike

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One of the most contended points in bicycle advocacy is how cyclists fit into the overall transportation picture and what course of action best benefits individual riders and cyclists as a group.  Two distinctly different schools of thought exist: vehicular cycling and segregated cycling.  While the vast majority of cyclists fall somewhere in between the two extreme ends of the spectrum, there are also a number of passionate advocates who remain firmly on opposite sides of the fence.  So what is everyone so excited about?

Vehicular cycling, which has also been referred to as integrated cycling, is defined by people ridin. bikes on public roads in accordance with the rules of traffic.  In most instances, when a cyclist ventures out onto a road shared with cars, the rider is obligated to follow the same rules that cars follow.  Proponents of vehicular cycling encourage cyclists to ride confidently on the roads, enjoying all of the same rights and responsibilities as automobile operators.  John Forester, who coined the term “vehicular cycling” in the 1970s, is still one of its staunchest supporters.  In his book, “Effective Cycling“, he says that “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles,” and throughout the past several decades, he has been outspoken in his belief that additional or alternative infrastructure for cyclists is unnecessary and counterproductive.

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Many bicycle advocates disagree with Forester and the vehicular cycling movement. All over the world, cities such as Montreal, Copenhagen, Paris, London, and Boulder have successfully implemented physically separated bike lanes, and there are many bicycle advocates that feel that cycling-specific infrastructure is the most effective action that city planners can take to encourage more people to ride bikes and to be safe while using a bicycle for transportation purposes.  Copenhagen is the shining example of a city that has invested a significant amount of resources in developing bicycle infrastructure (and maintaining it), and it now estimates that around half of the daily commuting in the city is done by bike. Other places often refer to segregated bike lanes as “Copenhagen bike lanes.”

Bike Stoplight

Clearly, there are pros and cons with different aspects of both vehicular and infrastructure-dependent cycling. Understanding the tenets of vehicular cycling is imperative; for the foreseeable future, most commuters will need to understand how to safely navigate a road shared with cars for at least a small portion of their commutes. However, ignoring the success of cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Portland, who have invested in bicycle infrastructure, constructed protected bike-ways, and implemented other traffic-calming initiatives, is not in the best interest of the majority of cyclists. There will always be individuals like Forester who believe that cyclists should act as automobiles act, but we’re never going to see a city in the US or anywhere else in the world that can achieve fifty percent of inner city commuting by bike without some measure of cycling-specific infrastructure.

1 Comment

  1. The real problem with a ONE SIZE FITS ALL approach to cycling is that infrastructure will sometimes be IFFY in rural and suburban areas. And indeed it will be IFFY in many urban neighborhoods until such time as money and expertise allow for its wider dissemination. In the meantime bicyclists will need the strategies of Vehicular Cycling when having to deal with integrated vs. segregated transportation structures.

    Think of it this way. Sure calculators are great. You can get answers faster and far more precisely than when attempting to do it with pencil and paper. But every one of us who is old enough to remember when calculators did not exist are surprised at how hopelessly adrift today’s sales clerks are when their cash registers are not working and they have to resort to making change for themselves or even calculating the cost of your purchases.

    We need to take heed from those sorts of instances to realize that physically separated bicycle lanes are not a panacea, but rather a “visual aid” for motorists and cyclists alike in ameliorating their contention for transportation lanes. When no visual aids exist the cyclist is still going to have to know effective strategies for navigating city streets on his or her own.

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