While doing research on another cycling-related topic, I came across a somewhat dated article by Avery Burdett on vehicularcyclist.com entitled Bikeway Activists in the Wrong Lane, versions of which were published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 20, 1998, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, November 25, 1998. Disturbed by it, I was about to link to and comment on the article on ICH's facebook page, but quickly realized I had more to say on the topic than a status update would allow.
Before I get into what bothers me about the article, let me say that there is much we can learn from vehicular cyclists to make cycling safer. Indeed, CAN-BIKE training, which I was fortunate to receive recently and hope to pass on as an instructor, is largely based on the work of John Forrester, the American father of vehicular cycling. Furthermore, since I view CAN-BIKE courses as great training in defensive riding, not unlike that offered by good commercial transport companies to their drivers, training that not only gives students a good understanding of the Highway Traffic Act and how cycling is addressed therein, along with other related legislation, but also teaches them about traffic dynamics and cycling principles (there are many), bicycle type, fit and inspection; handling skills; crashes and collision avoidance, etc. I would love to see such training incorporated into the elementary school curriculum, beginning in grade 3 or 4, and made a mandatory part of driver training.
But vehicular cyclists, as a more or less organized group, have become too entrenched in their position, their heels dug too deeply in, to see other ways of moving forward. Their argument, as put forward in the above article and elsewhere, has some validity, but only, I would argue, within the current culture.
Our roads were initially improved because of the Good Roads Movement launched by cyclists in the 1880s and 90s. With the sudden rise of the automobile, and especially its mainstream affordability after WW2, the roads improved at the behest of cyclists became increasingly designed around the automobile. Cycling was quickly relegated to a transportation option for the poor or a recreational and sporting activity for the privileged. The ensuing culture obsessed with and built around the automobile, though it faced brief challenges during the oil crisis in the 70s, created a transportation system wherein the automobile reigns supreme. Everything is designed around it, from highways and expressways to downtown streets, alleyways, entire residential neighbourhoods, and even parks and recreation areas. In such a culture, where the Highway Traffic Act has included (left intact from earlier times, perhaps) wording that classifies the bicycle as a vehicle under the law, yet has left little space for it in its design of infrastructure; where the balance of power is immensely skewed in favour of motorised traffic; where automobile/bike collisions are largely blamed on the cyclist, underinvestigated, or quietly ignored; in such a culture the arguments of entrenched vehicularists make some sense.
What vehicular cyclists (as a movement) don't seem to see is that we (the infrastructure/design/culture advocates) are advocating for a shift in the balance of power in our transportation systems. We are advocating not just to be allowed on the streets, to be given a little bit of space with traffic so we can run with the bulls, but indeed to change the culture and the design of transportation and urban design. Painted lines are a meagre start, I'll agree, and they may indeed inconvenience motorists, provide them with the notion that cyclists belong in the confines of the bike lane, and even provide some cyclists with a false sense of security leading to taking greater risks, but they are a start. Where we hope our culture will get to, where we hope the transportation system will move to, is a place where all modes of transportation are at the very least valued equally and provided for accordingly in infrastructure design. In such a culture, and such a transportation system, examples of which we see emerging in various places around the world, including American cities (see videos below) and well-established in certain European cities (Amsterdam and Copenhagen are shining examples), there is an abundance of cycling-specific infrastructure. And they are the safest places, and most functional, for cyclists--much safer than any vehicular cyclist could hope for sans infrastructure.
In a cycling culture, for lack of a better term (the term won't be necessary when we achieve it), a culture wherein the balance of power is shifted not only towards equality between modes, but towards favouring modes--cycling, walking, public/mass transit--that are better for the environment, our health, and our economies, there is lots of infrastructure to separate bicycle traffic from motorised traffic along arterial streets. But that doesn't mean bicycles are restricted to those separated areas. They may use other streets as well and still be safer because of various traffic-calming measures employed, most notably much lower speed limits, and because of greater numbers of cyclists. Good design brings cycling numbers up. That has been, and is being, proven consistently. And where numbers are up, obviously, there are fewer motorists on the streets and more motorists that are also cyclists and thus understand the needs and behaviour of the bicycle.
Allow me to share some videos for illustration purposes, some of which have appeared on ICH before:
How the Dutch did it (yes, it was featured here recently):
Copenhagen rush hour (love watching this, every time):
Boulder, Colorado, a Platinum-rated bike-friendly city (rated by The League of American Bicyclists):
Portland, OR (another Platinum Bike City):
Davis, CA (America's first Platinum Bike City):
New York City (an enormous city that still has challenges, but has made huge strides):
Minneapolis, MN (rivalling Portland for top cycling-friendly city in America):
What do each of these cities have in common to make them havens for cycling? Cycling infrastructure. As long as we insist that cyclists must take their place alongside motorised traffic, ridership will remain low and consist mainly of a population of males between 30 and 50. Bicycles are unique vehicles, and while they should have equal access to our streets, only when the design of infrastructure begins to favour cycling and more people feel safe will they heartily take up cycling in large numbers. I would like to see all arterial roads in the city have a separated bike lane about 8-9 feet wide and residential streets throughout have traffic calming measures in place, chief among them low speed limits.
There are many examples around the world--not just Europe--of ways to move forward and get more people to choose cycling, walking and public/mass transit instead of the car. Vehicular cycling will continue to play an important role in educating people, equipping them with the knowledge, skills and techniques to ride safely. Infrastructure design factoring in other modes will move us into a healthier, more active future.
Let me leave you with the following, which may sound like a dating ad:
My advocacy derives from and combines both vehicular cycling and cycle-friendly infrastructure and design/culture change approaches. I'm looking for other advocates who appreciate the sound knowledge of traffic dynamics, principles of cyling, handling skills, collision avoidance techniques, bike design and fit, as well as touring and organized cycling theory, who also appreciate and would like to join me for stimulating conversations on urban design, complete streets and alternative transportation, exploration of bicycle culture, watching bike porn (beautiful bikes of all shapes, sizes and types), utilitarian and social urban rides, nudging government officials (municipal, provincial, federal), long rides by the beach, and more. We could be so good together!