Vehicular Cycling (Bicycle Driving)

Until recently I'd never heard of vehicular cycling or bicycle driving. It seems these concepts are at the heart of a worldwide debate between cyclists who believe bicycles should have equal status to other vehicles on the highway and those who prefer them to be segregated with their own infrastructure. In the UK the CTC is taking some stick for being a 'failed organisation in denial about its failure to bring about mass cycling' compared to what's happened in places like Denmark and Holland where segregation is the norm.

According to John Forester, who invented those phrases as long ago as 1970, "cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles." Advocates of bicycle driving passionately believe in a God-given right to ride on the roads and that local authorities and other bodies like Sustrans are part of a grand conspiracy to confine us to cycle lanes and special paths for bicycles. This has already happened in Holland, where apparently it's compulsory to use the bike path if one is provided (I shall see this for myself in September).

CTC mostly campaigns to increase the number of cyclists on the road (Safety in Numbers, Right to Ride to School, etc), for better roads (Fill That Hole), and for better driving (Stop SMIDSY, an online service for reporting bad driving). It also encourages member groups to organise local club runs. It does not campaign for Copenhagen-style separated bicycle infrastructure (Cambridge Cycling Campaign does that). According to the government's Department for Transport, cycling levels have actually remained fairly steady since 1970, but we don't know what the numbers would be if the CTC didn't exist.

In Copenhagen cycling blogger Mikael Colville-Andersen's sneering remarks on Cycling's Secret Sect he compares 'self-serving' vehicular cyclists to the Flat Earth Society and Pamplonan bull runners: "utterly useless for the rest of society and the Common Good," for standing in the way of getting regular citizens onto bicycles by rejecting bicycle infrastructure. It isn't clear why Mikael calls them a secret sect, especially as John Forester and his colleagues actively seek to spread Knowledge of Proper Cycling and change public opinion.

Nor are they alone. John Franklin, a British road safety expert and the author of Cyclecraft (the foundation of the UK's national standard for cycle training) also advocates vehicular cycling and believes segregating cyclists from other vehicular traffic doesn't increase cycling or make it safer. So, in the world of public cycling, we have the integrationalists versus the segregationalists.

On both sides of the debate are plenty of cycling bloggers who enjoy poking fun at Council engineers and who publish photos of clumsy, useless, and sometimes dangerous attempts at funnelling cyclists along lanes at the side of the road. I don't see these 'infrastructures' as part of a grand conspiracy. It's just the normal local authority process of defending budgets and maintaining staffing levels. To be sure, Council highway planners are messing up the roads with chicanes for raised bus stops and on-street parking bays, and with cycle lanes full of parked cars. What were once simple streets are now an ugly hotch potch of projecting kerbs, coloured markings, and a jumble of signs on posts. Perhaps we'll have less of this nonsense with the impending slashing of public spending budgets.

  • Danish and Dutch-style bicycle infrastructure will never be achieved in the UK because there isn't the space, the money, or the will do do it, and anything less won't stimulate significant numbers of new cyclists.
  • The gap between bicycles and cars will not be so clear in the future as new types of electric vehicles are developed, including efficient battery assisted bicycles that allow anyone to ride at the same speed as cars in urban areas.
  • The real issue for cyclists is the illegal and violent behaviour of motorists*. Justice will be much easier when all bicycles are fitted – as cars will be too – with compact video cams front and back for evidence in court.

*I should qualify this statement. I cycle often, and my experience is that the vast majority of motorists behave well towards cyclists in the UK. The main exceptions are (i) at roundabouts and (ii) car doors being opened in my path. The solution in both cases is to ride a safe distance out in the road. Apart from the weather, the biggest disincentive to cycle somewhere is the lack of a secure place to leave my bike when I get there.

DfT Local Transport Note, October 2008: The road network is the most basic (and important) cycling facility available, and the preferred way of providing for cyclists is to create conditions on the carriageway where cyclists are content to use it. Cycle lanes are not always suitable and may encourage cyclists to adopt inappropriate positioning if the lanes are poorly designed.

Cycling England Engineering and Planning Design Checklist & Guidance: Cycle-specific infrastructure should not be introduced without first establishing whether cyclists’ needs would be better met through demand management or traffic management measures that reduce both the volume and speed of motor traffic.

Segregating bicycles from motorised traffic as a way to encourage mass cycling is clearly not on the British government's agenda.


Danish cycle path linking two towns (2009) – tarmac, well-maintained


Danish cycle path alongside a highway

You see hardly anyone cycling on these special paths. If they existed in the UK I think they would be used more than they are in Denmark because Danes are urban cyclists. These are not converted railways or canal towpaths. They are built and maintained for bicycles – mostly those that are owned by foreign cycle tourists looking for cycling heaven. The UK has its own cycling heaven: thousands of miles of traffic-free bridleways in a natural environment that Denmark and Holland can never match.

7 comments on “Vehicular Cycling (Bicycle Driving)”

  1. Mike Smith wrote:

    Great article, Patrick.
    I wonder if we would be better served if the money spent on pointless segregation which isn't enforced (vide London's Cycling Super highways, opened today) was spent on education. Not the three Rs, but the road users' three Cs – calmness, consideration and Courtesy.
    The day we can finally dispose of the prevailing "us vs them" mentality may be the day cycling finally becomes a whole lot safer and more fun – and therefore vastly more popular!

  2. Kern wrote:

    Yes, Patrick, great article.

    I don't think there is a simple answer to this very simple question.

    Cyclists come in many flavours: casual riders, commuters, serious recreational riders, racers, mountain bikers, touring cyclists, etc.; each community has its own needs, habits and style. Similarly urban traffic patterns can differ wildly depending on time of day, weather, sporting events, etc. Traffic can be monstrous or sedate, often within a stone's throw of each other.

    It is unrealistic to expect all cyclists and drivers to have the requisite knowledge, skills and personality to integrate with perfect harmony – it's just not going to happen.

    My personal opinion is that cities should have strategic networks of cycle-friendly routes to enable north-south-east-west traffic flows. A well planned network of cycle-friendly roads quite simply makes it easier to get on the bike. As a daily commuter (except winter) I hate traveling on multi-lane express routes even if there is a dedicated bike lane. It takes only one inattentive driver to ruin your day.

    What frustrates me most are ambiguities in road design. I love the wide shoulder on my morning route, but I curse the 50 meter section where it disappears and I'm thrown into multiple lanes of cars all trying to cross over to the exit (i.e. across my path). A simple extension of the shoulder wouldn't avoid the cross-over hassles, but at least it would clearly establish my real estate.

    Similarly we have one notorious bike lane that ends abruptly and forces riders to move across 3 lanes of traffic to continue their route (we generally lose about one person a year on that one). Unfortunately the rules of the road simply aren't clear to cyclists, drivers, or bus drivers at that particular junction. Nobody knows who has the right of way (but we all know who loses).

    In the recent media debates about this intersection a representative of the largest local bicycle club held forth that people should come out and join the club, and then they would learn how to ride safely through such folly. To my ear his argument bordered on arrogance and did nothing to promote cycling as a friendly pastime. We are not all about performance riding, and there must be some accommodation for the gentler, more timid folks who simply want to get from point A to point B without running a gauntlet.

    In summary, I think there are valid circumstances for segregation, and there are safe ways to integrate. Safety is the most important consideration for cycling. Safety, and a feeling of safety, are paramount to a successful cycling strategy; and strategies have to accommodate cyclists of all styles and capabilities.

  3. Patrick wrote:

    It does seem pointless to create cycle lanes next to the kerb unless they are kept clear for cycling and are continuous. I suppose the engineering argument is that the painted line keeps motor traffic further out in the road where possible – a 'good thing' for cyclists – but we all know the effect is to encourage motorists to believe the normal road is not a shared surface.

    A philosophy of "build it and they will come" is a risky one. Even if cycle lanes were car-free I doubt if it would make much difference. Negotiating junctions, especially roundabouts, and making right turns across moving traffic are the real put-offs for would-be cyclists, and of course the absense of facilities at your destination. But even with all that, do more people really want to cycle? I'm not so sure. In the UK, mass cycling isn't waiting in the wings for Council planners to get things right.

    A while back I read about an urban street (in London I think) where there was an experiment with removing everything – no markings, no signs, nothing. I'll see if I can look it up.

  4. Chris wrote:

    Patrick wrote: A while back I read about an urban street (in London I think) where there was an experiment with removing everything – no markings, no signs, nothing. I'll see if I can look it up.

    I think I saw this story – or one similar – on television. The reasoning seemed to be that if you removed all the signs people might actually think for themselves and work out what to do for the best.

    Good article, and thanks for your American perspective, Kern.

  5. Mary wrote:

    On the Isle of Man, we do not have any official cycle routes. Except the single shared pedestrian one on the prom at Douglas.

    Otherwise cyclists and car drivers share the open road.

    I must admit, that this approach works well. We have low cyclist accident statistics (but maybe fewer users on our roads too as we are a small place population of about 80,000). The Island is a motor lovers paradise though, IOM TT, IOM International Car Rally, IOM Classic Car Rally to name just 3 regular events. WE have poor public transport which results in busy roads. Most of our roads are more narrow than the ones I have been on in the UK.

    Our drivers here are tolerant to cyclists and other road users I tend to find. Maybe this is because we all have to share a common route?

  6. Patrick wrote:

    Mary wrote: we are a small place population of about 80,000 ... drivers here are tolerant to cyclists.

    That's an interesting point. Perhaps there's an instinctive trait in humans to be more considerate to others within a small population, because of the greater risk of harming a relative – even a distant one. If this is so, it helps to explain why drivers in small nations like Denmark and Holland are more courteous to cyclists than they are in the UK. I'm not suggesting it would be the only reason; there must be cultural reasons too, but it might be a tendency that makes a difference.

  7. James Davies wrote:

    As a regular cyclist I would much prefer to ride out of traffic. If there is a SAFE cycle lane or track I will use it. I believe this is the case for most cyclists. The key word here is SAFE. Often the position of cycle lanes encourages left hooks (in Australia we ride/ drive on the left), or right hooks. It is also a frightening sense to have cars going around you at a much higher speed.

    For small low speed backstreets vehicular cycling makes sense, but for faster roads, where the speed difference is great it does not. Therefore in My opinion the best option is where the speed limit is over 40 km/h have Fully seperated cycleways (and cycle specific traffic lights), and have integration where the speed limit is 30 km/h or less.
    This would make cycling truely safe, and would avoid confrontation.

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