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Bike Lanes: A Motorist Invention? 17

Bike Lane Toronto

Photo by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country (Beverley St. Toronto)

Imagine this: a cycling advocate who doesn’t support bike infrastructure. I was both surprised and intrigued when I first learned about the phenomenon they call “vehicular cycling”.

Vehicular cycling was popularized by John Forester, a Britain-born American cyclist and industrial engineer who has spent most of his life fighting against bicycle infrastructure.

Forester claims that bike lane systems were an invention of motorists because they perceived that cyclists were too dull to adequately share the roads with automobiles. In a 2007 presentation to Google employees, a 77-year-old Forester said:

But there it was, the motorist invented the bike lane system. And they invented it for their own convenience on the excuse that cyclists were too dumb. Did you know that straddling a bicycle destroys your brains, it turns you into children that don’t know how to drive?

Then comes the environmental group – and they believe all this stuff that the motorists have been telling them about being incapable of riding in traffic. And they say oh, these bikeways weren’t invented to shove us aside – keep us out of the way of motorists. They were invented to make cycling safe for beginners.

Here I am, watching Mr. Forester speak, and I can’t help think to myself “If only more motorists would push for more bike infrastructure”. That would save cyclists the hassle of the tireless advocacy that we have had to endure just to give us a couple metres of roadway with some white paint.

Biking Toronto

Photo by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country

I wanted to know more about the thought process of a vehicular cyclist, so I interviewed cycling advocate and instructor Mighk Wilson, who runs the website “Bicycling Is Better” out of Orlando, Florida.

I first came across Mighk’s website last October when he wrote the article “Which Cycling Politics: Doom or Possilbity” – an essay that explores the false perception of danger in cycling.

Mighk subscribes to this vehicular cycling theory and teaches the skills of vehicular cycling to his students. In his defence, he does claim that he isn’t against bicycle facilities per say – he just feels that they have been poorly conceived and executed.

Mighk also claims that even the best designed bike facilities will never replace the need for vehicular cycling skills and knowledge – which is true.

My biggest struggle with the theory of vehicular cycling is the fact that in densely populated urban areas, cyclists aren’t able to freely move past gridlocked traffic – there just isn’t enough space.

So I asked Mighk how he expects cyclists to bypass automobile congestion without proper infrastructure.

Surprisingly, Mighk doesn’t support rewarding cyclists by helping them move to the front of the queue.

I used to be in that camp that said “We should reward cyclists (because they’re more environmentally and socially responsible) by helping them move to the front of the queue.”  No more.  (I am not against queue-jumping per se, if the cyclist A) understands the conflicts to watch out for and B) it will not result in the passed motorists having to pass the cyclist again in a tight roadway.)

I support bicycle queue jumping in the same way I support HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes, bus lanes, and right-of-way streetcar lanes. This encourages people to get out of their single-occupancy automobiles by carpooling with a friend, taking a bus, or riding a bike.

I asked Mighk whether his end goal is to increase the rate of utility cycling – after all, how can we increase cycling if we don’t give cyclists sufficient space on our urban streets?

Without a doubt, Mighk’s goal is to increase the rate of cycling. But he doesn’t believe bicycle facilities will take us very far down that path (pun intentional). He notes:

The Orlando metro area had about a 0.5% bicycle commute rate in the 1990 census with virtually zero miles of bikeways.  In 2000 it was essentially the same rate, but with about 60 miles of trails and a couple hundred miles of bike lanes and paved shoulders.  I don’t expect it to be much over 1% in the 2010 census, in spite of over 90 miles of trails and over 400 miles of bike lanes and paved shoulders.

So in Orlando, bike infrastructure has done very little to improve the rate of cycling. Could this be a deficiency in our North American culture? Or are the bike paths primarily designed for recreation instead of commuting?

Mighk has a simple explanation: Gas prices.

When gasoline prices make their inevitable climb, we will see the increases in cycling.  I imagine the bikeway system we have will help facilitate that somewhat.  But making people comfortable with (and competent on) the existing roadway system is the most cost-effective way to get more people on bikes.

Mighk also pointed out that parking is free in most places around Orlando.

Although Mighk and I may not agree on the the value proposition of bike infrastructure, I have enjoyed our occasional e-mail conversations on the topic of cycling – a topic in which he is well versed.

Our friend John Forester is another story entirely. While speaking to those bicycle-friendly Google employee in 2007, he was asked if there was anything wrong with the network of bikeways in the Netherlands.

Forester’s response included a tray of rubbish with a sprinkle of gibberish (Scroll to 34:26 in the video to watch Forester’s full answer)

He downplayed (or blatantly ignored) whether bike infrastructure had anything to do with the popularity of cycling in the Netherlands, and went on to say that the rural bike paths in the Netherlands are “wonderful for touring, but aren’t used by the people they were designed for”.

Forester also noted that the population density in the Netherlands affords short cycling commutes, but my blogger friend David Hembrow who lives in Assen Netherlands can assure you that it is much more than population density that makes cycling popular in the Netherlands.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15144831168368736673 amh

    Forester had a point, once. And so does Bertrand Russell (see “Power“).

    Feeling powerless on the roads to bullies with two-tonne killing machines often makes advocates out of cyclists, therefore some will band up together and attempt to get bike lanes.

    In some places, cycling is so rare, and also so culturally foreign, that only a very few will ever ride a bike.

    But in many other places, like Toronto, we see more people being attracted to cycling every year. And, for many reasons, we want to encourage more to cycling. In these places there exists a latent demand for cycling infrastructure. In these places, the efforts that cyclists make to get some infrastructure attract more cyclists. More cyclists, in turn, encourages more infrastructure.

    We see it Toronto, in NYC, and in Montreal, as well as in Portland and Vancouver (BC). And we see it in The Netherlands, and even in Paris and London.

    Older, denser, cities are the ideal candidates for cycling. These are places where commute distances are reasonable (to cycle), and there are plenty of potential stops along the way.

    Cycling infrastructure would likely not be as successful in sprawling, newer, cities like Brampton. But that’s not to say that I wouldn’t want them to even try, because, like you, I think that reducing car use as much as practical is all for the better.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14543024940730663645 David Hembrow

    This idea that motorists invented bike lanes is very strange. Here in the Netherlands, the first cycle path definitely came about due to a cycling organisation – albeit one which changed itself into a motoring organisation at a later date.

    Anyway, what does it matter who came up with the idea ? If it was discovered that the heart bypass was invented by someone who beat his wife, would that make it a less useful procedure ?

    Cycle facilities should be judged on their usability, their suitability for purpose and ultimately how well they achieve their goal (of increasing cycling).

    I have not ridden in Orlando, but if it is true that cycling is such a minority pursuit as you’ve said, really true that just 0.5% of adult commuters (the easiest demographic to attract to cycling) cycle, then that is clear evidence that they haven’t got it right.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09033579459724944055 Euan

    You might find it a strange idea, but it is correct.

    “Between 1926 and 1928 firm demands were made to remove cyclists from the roadways through the construction of cycle tracks. The first bible of cycle track construction, “The economic significance of cycle traffic and the construction of cycle tracks,” was published by Dr. Henneking in 1926. This brought about the development of the “Guidelines for creation of cycle tracks” by the Study Group for the Construction of Roads for Automobiles in 1927. In contrast to the example of England, from this time the construction of cycle tracks intensified in Germany, so that cyclists finally come “off the streets””

    http://www.galwaycycling.org/history-of-cycle-tracks/http://www.galwaycycling.org/history-of-cycle-tracks/

    Cycle paths can be useful, usually they’re not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13186428862833389619 Kevin Love

    Car drivers never cease to advocate for their fully-segregated infrastructure.

    Proper bike infrasturcture is much, much cheaper than building fully-segregated car-only expressways.

    The problem in Toronto is that the cycling infrastructure is crappy. “Door zone” bike lanes without physical separation from cars, intersection conflicts with cars and pedestrians, failure to clear snow and ice from bike lanes, etc, etc.

    Dutch cities have proper fully-segregated bike lanes with conflicts engineered out and promptly cleared of snow and ice.

    We can easily do the same in Toronto, it is just a matter of political will.

    Look, for example, at how long it took to build half of the new RailTrail. And the fact that the other half is going nowhere.

  • J..

    Mr. Forrester is simply wrong about cycling in the Netherlands. He seems to be a strict integrationalist, but he makes no compelling argument for why it would be wrong to segregate. I agree that shoving cyclist to the side of the road on a crappy lane is a bad idea, but what’s wrong with a high quality separated facility?

    I think both segratation and integration should be used, in the places best suited for them. My point would be that the entire design of the street should clearly communicate to all road users what is expected. This should include road design, pavement materials, placement of buildings, placement of parking spaces, curve radius, etc.
    The best thing you can do is “not send mixed signals”. So in low speed residential streets, don’t segregate bicycles and don’t use tarmac, because that signals “high speed”. Let the steet itself clearly communicate how road users should behave, and road users will behave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00793880692099538955 ‘Xander@416cyclestyle

    I can understand this, I myself am a hybrid commuter who drives a car when necessary and rides a bicycle. And as much as I want bike lanes for cyclists, it does make it easier for car drivers to avoid insurance claims and preventable accidents. Is it wrong to want a complete street strategy for all road users? If more car drivers understood the bike lane benefits to the safety of their own vehicles they may get behind them more.

  • http://ibiketo.ca/ Herb

    Thanks for alerting me to your article on Forester, James. Good job interviewing Mighk.

    Looking at Google’s Bike There of Orlando, Despite having some bike paths shooting out into the suburbs, the downtown has been slashed by big highways and doesn’t have a tight-knit network of bike lanes in the core.

    A big reason why Orlando has a low cycling share, in my humble opinion, is that the city is sprawling, pedestrian-unfriendly.

  • Ride Better, It’s Safer

    typo: “per say” = “
    per se

  • Anonymous

    (shaking head)
    all you people on here are telling me John Forrester is Wrong?!!?

    My brain hurts.
    JAT in Seattle

  • Anonymous
  • didrik

    As a former resident of Florida, I would guess there is another reason for slow uptake of cycling in Orlando despite bike lanes: it’s HOT and humid most of the year. The central part of FL doesn’t get a sea breeze like the coasts. Just unlocking your bike is enough to make you sweat. I’m not kidding. Even slowly cruising along on my cruiser from place to place I would get sweaty. Heck, just standing at a bus stop makes you sweat. Combine that with the sprawling distances in Orlando and nobody would consider cycling an option. Floridians like their weather but live indoors in their AC a good chunk of the time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12056080802746709323 Green Idea Factory

    Gridlocked motorized traffic is a failure. A failure of politicians, traffic and urban planners, engineers and the common citizen. It is a waste of resources and a direct source of both tailpipe and power plant emissions directly into the blood and brains (and wallets!) of cyclists riding nearby (or not). When cars cannot move and the bikes can, it makes the latter seem heroic or wonderful or something. But, no, unless it is aliens visiting the planet, these people are the citizens who are letting gridlock happen, whether or not they voted for or against this season’s asshole politician. It is not a good idea to force people out of their cars, but taxing them to a certain extent is fine. Still, they are driving. We have not changed their minds. We have failed.

  • Generic Viagra

    I can understand that, I have a switch to hybrid drive a car when necessary and cycling. And all I want bike lanes for cyclists that makes it easier for motorists to avoid insurance claims and accidents prevented. Is it wrong to want a comprehensive strategy of the street for all users? If car drivers understand the benefits more bike lanes to the security of their own vehicles, they can get behind.

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  • Generic Viagra

    I can understand that, I have a switch to hybrid drive a car when necessary and cycling. And all I want bike lanes for cyclists that makes it easier for motorists to avoid insurance claims and accidents prevented. Is it wrong to want a comprehensive strategy of the street for all users? If car drivers understand the benefits more bike lanes to the security of their own vehicles, they can get behind.

  • JohnWatcher

    The term “vehicular cycling” was NOT invented by John Forester. It was invented by a CalTrans engineer (and cyclist with the Los Angeles Wheelmen) named Harold “Hal” Munn in a paper he read before the American Society of Civil Engineers in November, 1974, and was then published in their journal in November, 1975 under the title “Bicycles and Traffic.”

    As late as December, 1973 John Forester was still advocating specialized bicycle facilities, in the form of “Bicycle Boulevards.” He read a paper to this effect before the American Society of Civil Engineer’s MAUDEP Conference in Orlando that month. The boulevards were eventually installed several years later under the direction of Ellien Fletcher.

  • JohnWatcher

    The term “vehicular cycling” was NOT invented by John Forester. It was invented by a CalTrans engineer (and cyclist with the Los Angeles Wheelmen) named Harold “Hal” Munn in a paper he read before the American Society of Civil Engineers in November, 1974, and was then published in their journal in November, 1975 under the title “Bicycles and Traffic.”

    As late as December, 1973 John Forester was still advocating specialized bicycle facilities, in the form of “Bicycle Boulevards.” He read a paper to this effect before the American Society of Civil Engineer’s MAUDEP Conference in Orlando that month. The boulevards were eventually installed several years later under the direction of Ellien Fletcher.

  • Dan

    I bought Forester’s book, mostly because it’s the bible on how to buy, own, and maintain a bicycle in any condition. His main point is this, we can add more and more bicycle infrastructure, which usually ends up in places which lead to recreational areas, or are poorly designed and put cyclists at risk, or the speeds traveled are so low and shared with dog walkers that you won’t get anywhere in decent time. Let’s see, living in Tennessee, I can’t argue with either. My bike “friendly” City has bike lanes that end everywhere “bike lane ends” signs, can you imagine a “car lane ends” sign anywhere? Anyways, I prefer bike lanes but to get to certain places directly or make a left hand turn, and be home at night for dinner, I need to occasionally cycle in traffic. This is absolute necessity in the vast majority of extremely sprawling American suburbs and even in denser Cities.

    Also, his main reason why people don’t bicycle in North American is “time, time, time” and not infrastructure. Our sprawl makes most trips too far for most people to desire doing them on a bicycle. This is not his being an advocate, it’s simply his reacting to the conditions that exist in almost all the US (and most of Canada too). Also, he discusses in length about incompetent cyclists in America, which I must admit, I saw a comletely idiotic move today, a cyclist came next to me at a red light, went into the crosswalk, then went straight. One has to wonder why he didn’t simply turn in the left hand lane, it’s not like a car is going to hit him, but fear drives the few cyclists in North America, who never learn to cycle properly in such car dominated design conditions.