Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Death of Vehicular Cycling!?!

Apparently vehicular cycling has “been complete[ly] pummeled” or is a secret sect that's been discredited entirely. Funny, I hadn't noticed. In my daily riding, the advice of John Foerster remains as relevant as ever. But I guess some vehicular cycling advocates have really been, politically and socially, left behind by the times.

It's really a shame to see this. But it sounds like there's such a gulf between the core concepts of vehicular cycling and the social and political position of its advocates. I hope that, after the rhetoric has cooled off a bit, that we can employ the best ideas of vehicular cyclists and their adversaries within the community.

The concepts: vehicular cycling came to the US in a time when bicyclists largely rode on the wrong side of the road or on sidewalks, ducked in and out of car-park areas and inconsistent shoulders, and in many places would have been arrested for taking a lane on an arterial road. Bike trails and bike lanes were designed with little noticeable regard for their users; seemingly more to keep cyclists out of the way of motorists than to provide safe and useful places to ride.

In this atmosphere, the vehicular cyclists told us to ride on the correct side of the road, to ride a straight line, and to take a lane if it wasn't wide enough to share with a car. The core concept was that the safest and most effective way to ride was to be visible and predictable. This was good advice, it still is good advice, and it has largely been adopted. I rarely see the sorts of behavior that apparently predominated in the Bad Old Days.

Reasoning from the principles of visibility and predictability, they decried the state of bike paths and bike lanes. Bike lanes forced cyclists to do things that no driver would do, and because cyclists were rare on the road, this made their actions unusual, unpredictable to drivers. Like riding in the shoulder, riding in a bike lane could make cyclists invisible to drivers. Bike paths were often installed in disused rail rights-of-way; a train has, to understate wildly, quite different needs from a bicycle. Along these trails visibility at intersections was poor; trains had the right to stop traffic, and used flashing lights, gates, bells, and driver education campaigns to do it. Bikes get none of these advantages. The only way to safely ride a bike trail along an old railroad was to come to a stop at every intersection, even at unimportant side streets. Many of the trails were given superfluous curves, as if the landscape design was more important than cyclists' transportation needs. These criticisms of bike lane and bike trail projects remain true in many cases; there are lots of old trails and plenty of new ones being built to bad standards. In some cases, however, trail designers have started to take visibility, predictability, and real transportation needs into account when designing trails. At any rate, visibility and predictability remain a valuable rubric for evaluating infrastructure, whether you're planning a bike path of planning a route to work.

The politics: vehicular cyclists have taken lots of political stands against more “mainstream” cycling groups, policies, and ideas. Foerster attacks some policies as being improperly influenced by motives other than cyclist safety. For example, he cites the influence of bike manufacturers on safety standards that require only cheap reflectors, rather than expensive lights, for night riding (for my part, I'd love a bike with a built-in headlight). Or the influence of motorist groups on bike safety laws that run against his principles for biking. At the same time, vehicular cyclists have criticized the anti-car, pro-urbanist, environmentalist slant of many cycling groups. For the most part, vehicular cyclists in name want to keep a very narrow focus on cycling issues.

Given the wide range of issues that directly affect how cyclists get around today, keeping a narrow focus may have merit. If a cycling group takes political positions on the Deep Bore Tunnel and road tolls, how can it have time for the important stuff that affects day-to-day cycling, like good visibility at trail intersections? It seems to ignore a few things, however. Environmental, anti-car, and urbanist concerns may convince lots of people to try cycling — paying attention to these issues probably unites the biking community more than it divides it, and helps it make alliances with other sorts of groups (transit advocates, environmentalists, urbanists). Urban densities, good air quality, and slow driving speeds can really open up utility cycling to the masses. And cyclist safety, on a per-cyclist basis, seems to improve as cyclists increase in numbers. Furthermore, the specific political positions taken, such as the absolute opposition to separated bike facilities, have not been helpful. In European cities (and American college campuses!) pedestrianized cycle tracks have helped people feel safe, if at much slower speeds, and got a lot more people biking. Bike movements on cycle tracks are visible and predictable, just not fast, yet vehiculars still oppose them. That vocal vehicular cyclists have taken these positions may have more to do with their social attitudes than their principles.

The social attitudes: One thing that always stands out to me when I read vehicular cyclists is that they sound old. Their “opponents” in the cycling community tend to sound closer to my generation. The vehiculars stress personal responsibility, and the rewards of learning difficult skills. Their opponents stress the social benefits of increased cycling and insist that the government support them because they're doing so much good.

There are some conflicts that are probably specific to this particular generational divide. The older generation has settled into a suburban lifestyle, having chosen suburban homes in a time when inner-city life in America was at its nadir, while my generation is doing its best to gentrify the hell out of post-industrial inner cities. Indeed, most vehicular cyclists I read are from the suburbs or exurbs, biking in very tough traffic conditions indeed, and their opponents do tend to live in the city. In dense cities a slow or pedestrianized bike culture works because distances are shorter, high speeds are often impractical anyway, and the needed coverage area is not so great. Cycle tracks let everyone bike (as long as they live in the city). In vast American suburbs and exurbs there's no hope of good, useful, separated bike infrastructure going everywhere a cyclist might want to go. A vehicular cycling strategy, and respect for this from drivers and law enforcement, lets everyone bike (as long as they're strong enough to make the distance).

Then there are the timeless generational conflicts. The older generation (along with those that harbor socially conservative attitudes) stresses hard work and self-reliance, is skeptical of social engineering and great change, and tends to focus on the benefits of the status quo (which, after all, it built) as opposed its downsides. The younger generation tends to feel more righteous and entitled, and encourages the world to change in its image. It decries the injustices of the status quo, which it only inherits. The status quo, relevant to this conflict, is car dependence. Vehicular cyclists frequently defend cars and their drivers, and usually don't criticize cultural car dependence or vehicle emissions. Their “opponents” often engage in absolutist criticisms against drivers and self-righteously rant against car dependence and the lack of government support for their better lifestyle. Both groups will often sound completely irrelevant to eachother. Vehiculars aren't going to go to the city to ride on some slow cycle track, wait at stoplights, and dodge pedestrians and smoking hipsters. And the emerging mainstream of urban cyclists isn't going to take a lane in front of a truck doing 45 MPH.

The personal conclusion: I have to straddle these camps. Fremont, where I now live, is semi-urban; north of the ship canal but south of Green Lake, full of single-family homes, converted duplexes, and modest apartment buildings. Canyon Park, where I work, is pure exurbia. I love cycling, I'm reasonably fit, and I care about my technique in every regard (whether that's knowing how to take a lane, how to fix a flat and adjust my dérailleurs, or how to quickly get on and off of a bus bike rack) but not enough to log over 40 miles per day to get to work, so I take the bus part of the way. I ride according to the advice of John Foerster when I'm on the roads (I find I get into the most trouble when I lapse), and I believe most cyclists would do well to read Effective Cycling and practice their skills, but I also believe we'll get a lot more people riding, and reap real social benefits, if we don't make expertise a prerequisite. I like to go fast, because it's more fun and takes less time than riding slow, but if they build a good cycle track on Broadway I won't complain about having to ride slow on it.