All of us on bikes!

The League of American Bicyclists was founded as the League of American Wheelman in 1880, primarily to bring together thousands of “Wheelmen” in an effort to encourage the development of “good roads.” Modern cyclists on carbon fiber frames running on smooth asphalt roads have a hard time imagining the effort to ride an ordinary or Penny Farthing bicycle on rutted dirt lanes.

Three cyclists on Penny Farthing bicycles dressed in period costumes.

Penny Farthing bicycles on good pavement.

But times change and by 1972, the masses of wheelmen or cyclists that dominated the roads of the late 19th century across the world had dwindled to individual cyclists dodging the ubiquitous automobile, at least that had happened in the United States and to some degree in England.

In China, and other developing regions, the bicycle remained the primary means of personal transportation. In more developed areas of Europe, namely Holland, Germany and Denmark, the governments had made the decision to step back from the auto centric model of society and encourage the use of bicycles. It is important to recognize that this change began to occur as cities in Europe reconstructed after the World War II and the change continued after the boom of consumer spending that exploded after World War II had driven these cities to the brink of auto apocalypse. These countries, with walkable cities that developed centuries before the advent of the automobile, decided to stop tearing down their heritage to provide space for automobiles and began giving space back to people.

John Forester, a traffic engineer, first stated his vision of “Vehicular Cycling” in his book Effective Cycling, “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”

Through John’s association with the League of American Bicyclists and his publication of Effective Cycling, the concept of Vehicular Cycling became inculcated in the only national education program for cyclists. Some of the instructors in this program became, at times, such proponents of the concept of vehicular cycling that a proposal to construct bicyclist specific accommodations on the roads became controversial. In the interests of full disclosure, I am one of those instructors and I will continue to argue against poorly designed and constructed accommodations.

Change is difficult. But, change is inevitable. In the 40 years since the concept of Vehicular Cycling was promulgated, society has changed. In places, Portland, OR and Minneapolis MN come to mind, the bicycle and bicyclist have become a significant proportion of the transportation mix. Under these conditions, the concept of vehicular cycling begins to become less compelling for groups of cyclists. It may be time for a paradigm shift.

Vehicular Cycling is the most important safety factor for individual cyclists that has ever been conceived. But it is less relevant when the system must adapt to try to deal with masses of cyclists.

In the United States the limitation of two abreast for bicyclists is ubiquitous and in some states single file is encouraged. The average Chinese or Dutch cyclist would fall off of his bike laughing at the concept.

In the early ‘80s I traveled into Beijing on business. On my first trip, the car that conveyed me from the airport to my hotel was one of the few motorized vehicles on the road. Bicyclists ruled the roads.

A typical configuration of the major thoroughfares was a central four-lane, two way pavement for motor vehicles with the occasional automobile. Flanking medians separated this road from bordering multi-lane roads filled with bicyclists. Filled means filled. Cyclists packed the pavement from curb to curb and extended as far as one could see. Cyclists were moving 10 to 15 abreast.

To cross this human river by automobile was an interesting exercise in patience and luck. The driver of the motor vehicle would turn right at an opening in the flanking median and inch (literally) forward. The cyclists would continue to flow past as the car moved slowly through the throng. At some point, the flow of cyclists would change from moving in front of the car to moving in back of the car and the motorist could begin to accelerate and continue on his way.

This was no time to be discussing vehicular cycling.

As long as we have individual cyclists moving in traffic, the principal of vehicular cycling is profoundly correct. It is the best way to decrease the risk of riding in traffic to an acceptable degree.

Once; however, we begin to have cyclists in groups moving through our streets, the precepts that drive vehicular cycling begin to have less and less application. When cyclists dominate the streets and most motorists are also cyclists, then I would argue that vehicular cycling, while still valid for the individual cyclist, is not the best way to maintain an acceptable level of safety for those masses of cyclists. At this point, infrastructure is required to provide space for the motorists as well as the cyclists.

How do we get from here to there? Copenhagen has done it, Amsterdam has done it and Portland is doing it. Do we even want to go there? Of course we do, the benefits that accrue from a significant portion of our population cycling are well known and overwhelmingly persuasive. But it requires significant change in our infrastructure, education and judicial systems. Why don’t we have traffic safety education in our elementary schools? Why do we wait until someone is 15 to begin?

One thing we do know, change of this magnetude is not easy and it is not simple. It is not just about putting in cycletracks everywhere and it is not just about teaching individual cyclists how to ride in a vehicular cycling manner. We must envision a future where cycling is a normal part of the transportation mix and work to make it reality.

The future of 20% mode share (percent of all trips) for cyclists is not unrealistic in the US, there are parts of Portland where this is happening now. But that which makes bicycling so important to a society is also one of the things that makes it difficult to define how to move forward. Bicycling is ubiquitous, everyone does it to some degree. The issues are too large to be able to grasp easily. The changes that are needed are too vast and beg for vast solutions. Humans don’t do vast well, we need to focus.

Change begins at the grass roots. A person decides to get on a bike, right here, today. A merchant decides to create a parking space for bikes in front of her store . People decide to ride in the clothes they have on. But these changes have to be supported by the “system.”

And the system is made up of people. When the mayor begins riding to work, when the head of public works begins riding more, when taxpayers begin voting for pedestrian and bicyclist facilities because they make more sense then additional space for cars…then we know that we are on the right track. Then we can begin to create policy that favors a balanced transportation system, an appropriate use of different types of vehicles using appropriate infrastructure.

The revolution is not going to be complete in my lifetime. But it has already begun. When the signs “bicyclists may use full lane” or “share the road” become irrelevant then we will know we are on the way.

Vehicular Cycling is the best way for individuals to cope with traffic. But it is not the solution for most cyclists when 20% of our trips are made by bike. We need to define new cycling paradigms to fuel the revolution.

How about “You on your bike!” or “Me on my bike!” or maybe both “All of us on bikes!”

About Vintagengine

Long history in the bicycle safety world. League Cycling Instructor and expert witness in human behavior in traffic.
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Education, Facilities, Training. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to All of us on bikes!

  1. Steve A says:

    At its most basic, vehicular operation means nothing more than operating your wheeled device in a manner so that other road users know what you are doing and planning in order to minimize collisions and facilitate traffic movement. Without some vehicular component to operation, the road system cannot function with more than a minimal amount of traffic. What’s more, I don’t think you believe it either. Even in China and India, vehicular principles govern most aspects of bicycle operation. Even the best facilities will not function where the users follow no rules. Even if 20% of our trips were made by bike on dedicated bike freeways, a rider going the wrong way would be a hazard to all. Actually, even more than today.

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