Op-Ed: The philosophy that has pitted cars against cyclists for the last 40 years is finally dying

Take a ride on downtown L.A.’s first major protected bike lane and you’re rolling over something more than asphalt and paint: the symbolic end to vehicular cycling, an idea that dominated American urban bicycle advocacy for nearly 40 years.

In his influential 1976 book “Effective Cycling,” Californian John Forester argued that cyclists “fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” In Forester’s paradigm, this means cyclists shouldn’t cower in the gutters, but should assert their place in the middle of a lane, where they should be afforded equal treatment by operators of motor vehicles — and the law.

Cyclists and bike lobbyists latched on to Forester’s ideas to the point where the phrase “taking the lane,” became a rallying cry. The law in most places still required cyclists to ride as far to the right as practicable, but adherents of vehicular cycling claimed their space on roads, bravely arm-signalling their left turns. Everyone’s seen that guy clad in Lycra, riding his bike in front of a line of cars, seemingly impervious to the horns blasting behind him.


Do you agree with this perspective? Is this what pitted us against drivers? Is it fading with the implementation of bike lanes?

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There are simply too many situations where the cyclist has to move out of the bike lane:

  • parked cars/trucks
  • broken pavement or debris
  • pedestrians stepping into the lane while playing Pokemon Go
  • snow (in the winter)

Add to that, in the next 20 years or so a large fraction of cars will likely be operated autonomously (and thus better than their human passengers), reducing the potential danger of taking the lane.

In short, taking the lane isn't going anywhere soon.

Cars regularly demonstrate that they're not responsible enough to use the lane safely, so they don't get one. 

Heh....I was just about to post about the bike-friendliness -- or lack thereof -- in Los Angeles!

I just went to L.A. for the first time in my life -- just got back last night, actually, and I did pay attention to the bike situation there. Didn't do any biking myself, just a lot of walking and a lot of car driving...didn't spend any time downtown at all, but the rest of the city, well...just doesn't look safe for bikes. There are areas marked as bike routes, but there are no designated bike lanes - maybe you'll see a "share the road" sign now and then...and from what I can tell, you really have to squeeze in when there's a lot of traffic.

But then there's Santa Monica (which is not part of L.A. but adjacent), which from what I can tell, is very bike-friendly. They have bike-only lanes (I don't recall seeing any protected lanes, but they might be there) that are very clearly marked with green pavement. And check this out -- they have a really nice pedestrian-plus-bike trail that's marked off: inner lanes for bikes, outer lanes for pedestrians. This, my friends, is how the Chicago Park District should do the LFT -- that way they don't have to build a whole new path. I took a picture...doesn't really do it justice, but trust me, it is pretty impressive how they pulled it off:

Pic of Santa Monica ped/bike trail sure looks like our 6O6. Heh ! . . .

I try to ride in that small mystical space just outside the arc of swinging car doors, but far enough to the right to leave room for cars to pass.  I don't think it's realistic to expect all the motor vehicles to slow down to 10 miles an hour behind me.  But when safety dictates, I'll take the lane temporarily.  I think that's pretty fair.  I don't think that vehicular cycling as a way of life ever gained that many adherents in the first place.          

The thing is, everyone keeps slinging this strawman version of vehicular cycling, where somehow Forester COMMANDS that every cyclist exercise his God-given rights and immediately go outside and take the lane on a 6-lane suburban arterial for 10 miles.  In reality, all cyclists will pick their routes based on how pleasant they are, and for normal cyclists that means keeping lane-taking to a minimum.  Just because I don't think taking a lane on Irving Park Rd. is a good idea and would choose to ride Montrose or Lawrence instead, doesn't mean I'm not a vehicular cyclist.  So if you're taking the lane as safety dictates.... you are vehicularly cycling.

When vehicle speeds and traffic volume are low, there is no need for separate bike lanes, and vehicular cycling is a safe way for cyclists to coexist with vehicle traffic.  When vehicle speeds and traffic volume are high, separation is essential.

It's not an either/or proposition.  We need cycling infra, but we still need to know how to ride safely in the presence of vehicle traffic.  Every street will never have, and does not need, a bike lane.

I'm primarily a suburban rider. I use it only when I need to enter the left turn pocket to avoid having to cross twice or when the right turn lane is marked for right turn only when I'm going straight.  I over-communicate my intentions with drivers as much as possible, even trying to let them know that I intend to go straight. I want to live to ride another day, my friends. I'm not trying to prove anything out there, even if it may be my legal "right" to do so.

The same author wrote a much more nuanced article on his own website.  



So why does vehicular cycling still have its defenders? I think it’s because in our nascent bike cities, vehicular cycling as a personal tool for getting around remains very much alive.


There’s a distinction that needs to be made here. Vehicular cycling is more than just a style of riding. It was a theory of transportation that was never fully adopted anywhere. Treating cyclists as vehicles on the road required more than just cyclists to take the lane. It required equal treatment by motorists and the law. It required mutual respect, the development of better skills among both cyclists and motorists, and the end to what Forester still refers to as the motorist-superiority/cyclist-inferiority complex. That didn’t happen.


What happened instead was some hearty bicycle lovers adopted the tenets of vehicular cycling in the way they got around cities. They started riding in the centre of lanes instead of cowering in the gutter lane. They asserted their rights to the road, and made those cross-traffic left-hand turns that make less confident cyclists gasp in horror. All of which pissed off those drivers who thought they owned the road.


And guess what? This works. This is the part of vehicular cycling that remains alive. If you have the skills and confidence to ride this way, it’s probably the best way of staying safe on the vast majority of North American streets. And even though bike lanes are being built all over North America, it’s going to be a long while before you’ll be able to get to all of your destinations exclusively on safe, separated bike routes.


The article has a number of good comments as well.

Classic example of a "false" argument: Cyclists and bike lobbyists latched on to Forester’s ideas to the point where the phrase “taking the lane,” became a rallying cry.The entire argument rests on this premise but it is just glanced over and then heavy emphasis is placed on emotion based on prejudice immediately thereafter: Everyone’s seen that guy clad in Lycra, riding his bike in front of a line of cars, seemingly impervious to the horns blasting behind him.

The "editorializer" does not even understand what "taking the lane" is for nor does he understand "practicable". Apparently we should simply pull to the side of the road and wait until 2AM when all the cars are gone and then move slowly through the broken glass and gravel in the gutter but only then if we are humble enough to be wearing t-shirts and jeans.

While not advocating for lane takeover on a daily basis, it *absolutely* works by making you more visible and making cars respect you.  Getting buzzed while riding in the gutter is TERRIFYING not to mention it's dangerous due to the problems with grates, glass, "mystery" puddles, etc as well as the chance of getting whacked by either the buzzer's side view mirror or an opening car door from parked cars.  

When you are far enough into traffic that car drivers need to pass you by changing lanes, you are a lot safer. YOU ARE VISIBLE.  Car drivers are ridiculously distracted these days by electronic devices (and sometimes food/drink/cigarettes).  Anything you can do to make yourself noticed is a good thing.


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