A United Front

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008
By The Stouts

When it comes to bikes as transportation, and infrastructure, I can't help but feeling that what we need most is a united front.

All you have to do is peruse the comments on bike advocacy forums, or the comments section of Yehuda Moon, to see that we do anything but present a consistent message about what we see as the future of cycling infrastructure.

Its tremendously encouraging when I see the kinds of changes that places like NYC are making, even going so far as physically separating the bike lanes in a place where any road infrastructure changes are tremendously difficult to implement. Or Boulder who recently caught up with Portland on the platinum rating as a bike friendly city.

Bike lanes all by themselves which both of the examples above include, manage to flare up comment wars between "vehicular cyclists" and the rest of the bike transportation folks. I can certainly see the arguments of both sides. Vehicular cycling is learning to make the most of a road infrastructure designed for cars, and honestly much of the time I ride like one of these. But at the same time, just because we've had to make the most of a road system meant for cars doesn't mean it always HAS to be that way, or how bout the fact that no 8 year old kid is going to feel comfortable "taking the lane" or even be able to for that matter.

I think this is one area where I think Portland has got a head start on the other bike friendly communities. There is no wheel to reinvent here they're acknowledging that. There are and have been for some time now cities where bikes truly are equally billed as transportation, and they've been able to successfully get all cross-sections of society out on bikes, not just active males between the ages of 22 and 35.

What do you think, is our message as a group as scattered as it seems to me?

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I get tired of the VCs, too. Physically separate lanes make the most sense to me, too.
Scatterbrained. Because VCs preach their way or the highway, the public chooses highways.
I think a huge issue is the fact that there are important, fundamental truths about infrastructure planning that the overwhelming majority of people don't believe (like that sidewalks are hardly *ever* safer than streets for cycling).
Right now where I am it's painfully "scattered," though the eternal optimist in me says that's because there are enough more of us ... but it's hurting us.
(and we don't even really have a VC faction...)
I'm ambivalent on this one. Surely a complete, nation-wide network of separated bike lanes and bike paths is what we'd all like to see, but that seems very far off. In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to maintain our existing rights as road users.

Alan @ EcoVelo
I believe everyone should be educated on VC. It just makes sense for people to know how to take care of themselves on the road.

Separated bike lanes won't be widespread for a long time. Should we discourage cycling until they are? Will they become widespread if people don't cycle without them?

I'm all for just about anything that makes it easier for cyclists, but I don't for a second think that anyone on the road should not consider themselves a vehicle.
One of the main problems here is that Vehicular Cycling and separated lanes are seen by most Americans as mutually exclusive. Anyone who has been to Copenhagen or Amsterdam (the ideals of separated facilities) knows that every person on a bicycle there is a Vehicular Cyclist. They all have no problem mixing and coexisting with the automotive traffic, and they are also quite glad to take advantage of the dedicated lanes where they are needed. It's a question of thoughtful, integrated road design. One of the big epiphanies for me when riding in the Netherlands was realizing that there are many roads on which bicycles are prohibited, but that there will always be a parallel bicycle trail reaches the same destination. If there is not a trail, then the human and gas powered traffic mixes, with no animosity. Very sensible. Val
How many VC trainers works with young cyclists (not old enough to have a drivers license) on 8-lane roads? Why not? How do you train young minds to know what's in the head of a large SUV driver who just had too many beers at the ball game and is speeding home before he's in more trouble with his wife? How do you teach young minds to appreciate the inadequacies of our electronic intersection signals?

How do VCs explain to a young one that his 60 lb body on a bike has the same rights to use the road as a 60,000 lb semi? Even my young ones know how foolish that dichotomy is.

VC advocates are typically adults without children or if with children, they typically don't let them ride along on major roads.

Teaching these issues to four sons provides more education than most VCs would take the time to learn, let alone teach. I would like to see more separated bike lanes but effective law enforcement of STR is a first step which has yet to be achieved.
Part of my purpose in publishing this blog is to recognize cycling as a safe activity. I'm okay with facilities; I'm not okay with the fear mongering that sometimes accompanies facilities promotion.

Fully segregated paths can be very nice -- many of the bike paths that Anthony (the author of this post) uses in Boulder County, for example, are excellent. When I lived there I was among many excited about the prospect of the (not yet completed) LoBo trail. Monterey County has a wonderful coastal bike path. I'm excited about the prospect of the 70 mile Sonoma Marin trail that voters in those counties approved on Nov 4.

An issue we're fighting in San Jose, CA right now, though, is planning for segregated sidepaths in the downtown area, and fear mongering is a big part of the promotion being used by the facilities fans. It might seem a little daunting riding past crowded 10 mph downtown traffic, but it's actually pretty safe there. The only accidents that occur in downtown San Jose are in intersections, and these are precisely the kinds of collisions that will increase with the construction of these paths.

The reason some VC advocates vociferously oppose and mock facilities is the supposition that the presence of bike paths will erode our rights on the road. Santa Cruz CA, for example, has a network of bike paths and lanes, but the motorists in Santa Cruz are very aggressive and dangerous when I ride on the roads there. I take the lane on the Alameda and El Camino Real in Santa Clara County, however, with no problems at all.

Back to Anthony's thesis: Can VC and P&P people coexist? Of course -- we've been doing that for years in California with varying levels of success. Some of us VC people sometimes get uptight on the minutiae of designating Class 1, 2, and 3 bike facilities and how local governments stripe the sides of the roads, but that kind of activity keeps planners honest, IMO.
In California, school children are taught to take the lane in the few place bicycle instruction is available. I see them riding in heavy traffic all the time in the South Bay and on the peninsula. VC principles are part of the public school curriculum in Washington State (ranked most bicycle friendly state in the USA) and is also taught in Portland, OR schools. I'm 100% with Val that VC & P&P are not mutually exclusive. I disagree with Val that it's seen as mutually exclusive by most Americans -- I think most Americans are completely unaware, and most of us who are aware have the attitude that both approaches have their place, and then you have the extremists on both ends ("ROADS ARE TOO DANGEROUS FOR VC!" vs "P&P ARE MENTALLY ILL") who tend to be the loudmouths, egg each other on, and try to convince the reasonable middle to their side.
Thats precisely the point, neither one is "THE WAY". It has to be both. Poorly thought out bike lanes and infrastructure can be just about as bad as none at all and in some cases even worse, whereas qality bike infrastructure is simply a delight to partake of.

Vehicular cycling is a true necessity for getting around as a cyclist, and interfacing in a predictable manner for drivers of cars.

There are sections along my daily commute where there are simultaneously a beautiful dedicated multi-use path and a shoulder-less, no bike lane, road. Everyday I ride on the road, simply because as one who has been riding for awhile and carries more speed, it is simply easier to ride in with traffic than slow down at each crossing on the path to make sure I don't get hooked.

Daily on that same stretch, I see many folks getting to and from by bike on the adjacent path going at a much more leisurely pace , that probably would not ride otherwise.

My main point is, that as Fritz and Val have mentioned, both have their place, and what we should do is aim for good infrastructure to bring more folks into the fold, but provide good VC education so that people can make informed decisions on the go, what best suits the situation.
I will always push for more bike lanes, and I am a very aggressive rider with respect to taking lanes/etc...

Case study - Valencia in SF. In order to put in the bike lanes, a 4 lane roadway was turned into a 2 lane roadway with a center lane and 2 bike lanes. While the bike lane is nominally in a door zone and is "occasionally" used for double parking, the street on the whole is much safer because the reduction in lanes calmed traffic (and there is less lane switching by cars who are looking for other cars but not for Vehicular cyclists).

With that facility in place, training is still needed (ride to the far left of the bike lane to stay out of the door zone, if the bike lane is impeded then take the lane completely rather than trying to squeeze by). Cyclists without training are safer on Valencia than they were before, cyclists with training are safer than they were before, and it's easier to train the untrained. And traffic is slower and moves more safely.

There is also an impact that the bike lanes draw more cyclists, period. More cyclists means less cars, which is safer because there are less cars, and because the frequency of cyclists trains the drivers to be aware of them.
Taking the lane is just a way to make bicycling work in areas with lack of infrastructure for bicyclists. My vote is towards separate bicycle paths. I agree with David Hembrow's idea of hightened subjective safety in the case of dedicated bike lanes. That is the only thing that will make more people resort to cycling as an option for their commute.
There are lessons to be learned from VC advocates. Sidewalk riding is unsafe, when to take the lane, avoiding right hooks, etc. The attitude and the my way or the highway bit has to go. I lived in Munich and loved the facilities there. I found it easy to ride there and I used both roads and the bike lanes. There was no hostility toward riders there.

I want sharrows, bike lanes, separated bike lanes, dedicated trails and bike trails that prohibit pedestrians as the ones in Munich do. I have no problem with the regulations that Germany puts on bikes for lighting, bells, and reflectivity. I would welcome those in the US.
Here's the closest I've seen to a united approach to advocacy:

...despite all "our" dialogue & the "united front" that i agree, we should be presenting, this is america & as pointed out, it will be a long time before there is a real acceptance of cycling to begin w/ & then that same time frame applies to there being separate lanes, on a regular basis for bicycles...

...& then you have folks walking haphazardly all over them anyway...the ol' "ain't nothin' comin' at us, so lets walk down the middle of the path"...like satchel paige said "don't look over yer shoulder, somethin' might be gainin' on ya"...

...& it might be 'bikesgonewild' & hordes of other cyclists..."excuse me, on yer left,......ah, jeezus (that last, muttered under the breath & then finally)...'scuse me, on yer left !!!...thank you"...

...the real problem lies w/in the minds of the general public...even when there is a bike path within the vicinity, you still need to utilize surface streets to arrive at your destination...the unenlightened motorist is thinking "my effin' tax dollars are at work here & these idiots are still in my way"...

...it's as if when you're not on the path, you should walk your bike...

...i'm glad to see "taking the lane" being taught in school 'cycling safety' classes, so that youngsters will grow up w/ that attitude, but it's the oldsters who don't live in our little cycling world, that scare me...

...& i fully agree w/ murphstahoe regarding 'valencia st' in sf...definitely way safer nowadays...having ridden & driven it recently, i'd suggest it even has more of a community, rather than a freeway, feel to it...

...hope to see more of the same...
People tend to want to oversimplify the problem and believe in a "silver bullet" solution.

We have to realize that each situation has its subtleties, and may require different solutions. For example, some roads are best off with separated bike lanes, yet some have better flow for all with sharing.

Find the right solution for each problem. If you look for a single solution to all problems, you will never succeed.
"If all you have is a hammer - all problems look like nails"

I think all cities should strive to create a few visible, practical separated bike lanes... and let the chips fall where they may, from city to city. If you create an biking opportunity, then people will use it and once you bike, you become aware of the rights of bikers. It may vary from city to city as to how the streets are modified, but over time, I believe progress would occur.
u r blog Is very nice
Most of the problem is that the quiet side streets (which cyclists are always told are safer, no?) are just simply too dang narrow to share. A single cyclist, even one hugging the door zone, can create enough of a bottleneck in these narrow residential labrynths to drive a driver insane with road rage. Where would a separated bike lane go? It would have to replace a parking lane, and some people would give up a kidney before they gave up a parking spot.

So, I dunno, maybe the vehicular and the facilities people could put up a more united front if we all shook off this notion that busy = unsafe. Seems to me that arterial streets would be the best places for separated bike lanes, especially since many of them already have parking restrictions. So nobody would miss the parking (or if there's already a parking lane, then nobody would miss a traffic lane), cyclists would be able to ride where they actually want to go instead of following some circuitous side-street route through heck knows where, and at night there'd be better lighting and possibly more people afoot for added safety (because traffic isn't the only safety concern that keeps people off bikes).
Jennifer's comment demonstrates part of the disagreement. Residential road rage?

More broadly, what seems to define the different viewpoints of cycling is how we view motorists. Are they raging demons who go into kill mode at the mere sight of a cyclist in their path? Or are they just other drivers who happen to be using wider, faster vehicles than us?

Likewise, is it the job of cyclists to always defer to motor traffic, staying out of their way at all costs, or is it the job of all drivers to treat each other as equals?

Until we can all agree on our relationship to motorists, it's difficult to be united. The comments above demonstrate both extremes.

We already have a physically separate network. We usually call them sidewalks, and some cyclists prefer that network. A Class I Multi Use path is just a sidewalk without a parallel road.
There is the fact that there is no Amsterdam in the US. The vast majority of us can dream about 'infrastructure', but we are doing it while we are riding in traffic. We all need to behave like 'vehicular cyclists' because that is what we are. These are skills that benefit every person on a bike, even where there is segregation because they are skills that make us all more aware of others.
As to the child argument. I have been teaching my kids how to ride in San Francisco for the last year. My 14 year old son is now able to ride almost anywhere in the city with confidence, including taking lanes and 'reading' drivers. My 9 year old daughter will not ride on the sidewalk, she recognizes the street is safer. She knows how to stay out of the door zone, how to scan intersections, how to look for reverse lights on parked cars... She is not ready to ride alone across the city, because she is small, but she rides safely with her brother. Both of my kids know how to ride better than many adults I see.
We all want better space for bikes, but that does not mean that we shouldn't learn how to ride in all situations. The more who do, the better it will get for all on the road or in the bike lane.
Anon asks: "How do VCs explain to a young one that his 60 lb body on a bike has the same rights to use the road as a 60,000 lb semi?"

By that logic, how do we explain that a driver in a 4000 lb sedan has the same rights to use the road as a 60,000 lb semi?

As a practical matter, not many 6-year-olds are cycling on roads with semi truck traffic. But you could ask the same question about 200 lb adults, motorcycles, Mini Coopers, or even 6,000 lb SUVs. None of them are a match against a 60,000 lb semi. Or against each other.

But they all DO have the same right to the road. What's the alternative, physically separate lanes for every weight class of vehicle? Requiring all vehicles to weigh no less than 60,000 lbs? Road rights are proportional to vehicle weight?

Equal rights doesn't mean you HAVE to ride on the same roads as 60,000 lb semi trucks. You could ride on a different road or on the sidewalk. But some cyclists are very concerned about giving up our rights. As Ben Franklin put it: "If we restrict liberty to attain security we will lose them both."
...adrienne...polemics aside in this discussion, it was refreshing to read yer post as regards teaching yer young ones the proper tools to ride in sf...

...i'll always remain a cynic as to the mental capacity of the majority of drivers & therefore my 'modus operandi' is essentially "ride paranoid", but good to see you installing intelligent operating procedures in yer brood...
bikesgonewild- There is only one way to establish a 'bike culture' in this country- get out and bike. Whenever I take the kids out to ride, which is almost everyday as I have just about abandoned my car, I get a lot of comments. Most of the time, people are really surprised that kids can be taught the rules of the road and how to ride safely for themselves and others. Those in the community who already ride the streets are always thrilled to see young kids out doing the same thing and usually wave to them or give them a thumbs up. Drivers are good about giving them space and time.

Every once in awhile, someone feels the need to lecture me about how dangerous it is and they would never allow their kids.... I just smile and let them know we are glad we are not missing out on the fun.

It is easy to become terrified of the world from the safety of the couch. When people lose touch of how to move with their bodies, they become afraid of the world and try to project it on others. That is where so many VC's can get a bit strident, because they dislike other's projecting fear onto them. When the discussion comes away from 'safety' and moves to 'practicality', we will find the two sides come together more and more to find solutions that work for everyone.
This is truly an interesting discussion since it covers most of the spectrum. But let's be clear about what a 'united front' really means. It's simple and blunt - shut up and let us have our bike lanes.

I'm not joking. A former president of our state bicycling coalition was told just that at a DC Bike Summit a few years ago. The person who said it is the former leader of a large so-called bicycling advocacy group exclusively focused on bike lanes. VC need not apply.

So you'll have to excuse me when the idea of a united front comes up. I don't substitute superstition and supposition for factual information. Fear mongering is the stock-in-trade of some advocacy groups, and they use it to pursue facilities that have little or no real benefit for cyclists. No one asks if it's a wise use of public funds to build facilities that offer no greater safety than riding in the street, yet somehow we're supposed to believe that these magical bike lanes and paths are capable of luring motorists out of their cars and onto bikes. We're supposed to believe in 'build it and they will come.'


Nationally, we've spent ever-increasing amounts of money on bike facilities since the 1970s. Yet bike sales and bike usage have remained essentially flat. So why spend more money on programs that don't reduce motor vehicle use and don't make cyclists safer? Who benefits?

I've read accounts from cyclists who say they can't get from A to B because there are no bike lanes or paths connecting the two. It doesn't occur to them to ride on the road, and there are advocacy groups that foster that fear and dependency. It's simply wrong. I'd rather teach vehicular cyclists and empower them to use the existing road network safely and comfortably, rather than add to the ranks of fearful ones who cannot leave the dubious security of a sidewalk, a bikelane, or a path.
I think many cyclists who advocate for the on-road cycling option forget that not all cyclists have the skills or experience to ride safely with traffic.
I'm thinking particularly about school children, the elderly or the really wobbly, novice cyclists.
Children especially should be able to ride safely to and from school, sport their friends homes or the beach without having to contend with motor vehicles.
If cars have roads and pedestrians have footpaths, is it too much to expect appropriate infrastructure for cyclists?
Sydney Australia
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