FAQ: Whatever happened to “vehicular cycling”?

“Vehicular cycling” is a school of thought that claims people riding bikes are safest when driving their bikes as they would their cars by mixing with traffic boldly and confidently. While all users of public roads are expected to follow the traffic rules, “driving a bike” advocates have failed for 35 years to encourage the rapid adoption of cycling in N.A. as seen in Europe.  Vehicular cycling is a necessary yet entirely insufficient approach that remains a frustrating deterrent to mainstream cycling. 

Vehicular cycling was first coined and promoted by John Forester in his book “Effective Cycling” and a cycling skills/training program of the same name. John is credited with a highly analytic study of cycling and traffic patterns and habits, leading to guidance that helps someone riding a bike do so safely when mixing with traffic.  The principles formed the basis years ago for the creation of the CAN-BIKE training program, offered in larger Canadian cities.

The vehicular cycling approach, to its credit, has given us a wealth of knowledge and the basis for bike training programs that anyone riding a bike should understand and use.

However, vehicular cyclist advocate John Forester and acolytes like Ottawa’s Avery Burdett fail on several counts:

First, despite 35 years of strident advocacy that infrastructure designed specifically for cycling is misguided and dangerous, they have yet to attract greater numbers of people to choose cycling as a viable option for everyday travel. This contrasts with extensive research on the success of context-appropriate facilities like protected bike lanes, which always generate an uptake in cycling activity.

Second, the approach fails to consider the sociological and psychological aspects of encouraging people to get on a bike. Tell someone, “I can teach you to be comfortable riding with your family along Stewart through the Parkedale intersection” and you’ll be greeted with derision at best.  Ditto asking a grandmother to escort grandkids by bike along Laurier to the soccer fields. One look at the jacked-up F350 driven by someone with a Timmies in one hand and a cellphone in the other? No way.

Categorization of cyclists
Categorization of cyclists

The vehicular cycling approach attempts to grow that 1% of cyclists that research tells us are “strong and fearless”. However, we know that no amount of encouragement will convince someone in the other 73% to mix with traffic.

When it comes to training, the CAN-BIKE curriculum, based on vehicular cycling approaches, is quite well done. However, it has failed to capture interest in many circles as many organizations use the curriculum as a base, but then package the basics into shorter clinics that are fun and encouraging – and successful. CAN-BIKE courses are seen by many as too long, too dogmatic and overly dramatic.  Recognizing this, through the work of Share the Road and MTO, cycling skills training in Ontario is currently undergoing a major overhaul.

Without going to greater length here, the reader is encouraged to see the article by Mikael Colville-Andersen, leading international consultant adapting European successes to other countries through the Copenhagenize organization, since 2007.

Mikael’s article, “Vehicular Cyclists – Cycling’s Secret Sect“, was written in 2010. His views retain relevancy today, as those opposed to cycling facilities that would encourage healthy active mobility troll the web through a lens of confirmation bias to unearth old vehicular cycling articles to back their “no bike lanes” stance.

As Mikael summarizes:

“35 years is a long time. Especially without any results to back up this sub-cultural theory. How many Citizen Cyclists could have had their lives extended by being provided with safe infrastructure, or lived a life with fewer illnesses? How many overweight people could have had the chance to cycle happily to work on bike lanes and keep fit? The number of potential daily cyclists who have been restricted access to the bicycle must number in the tens of millions. All because of the ideology of a self-serving group.

Let’s not wait another 35 years and see yet another generation become obese and suffer a long line of lifestyle illnesses. Now, more than ever, it’s time to get people onto bicycles. With theories that have been proven. With best practice that has been established.”

Author: Alan Medcalf

Alan is a post-corporate, volunteer, community builder living in Brockville, Ontario. He seeks to create sustainable lifestyle advantage for the community by creating opportunities for more people to choose to walk and to ride bikes. He promotes the health, social, environmental and economic benefits of active mobility.