The flaws of vehicular cycling (VC) theory

One of the first comments often heard from fellow cyclists when starting to bicycle commute was not to ride on the community’s bike pathway system because it is less safe than riding in street traffic. A whole litany of perceived dangers were cited, most commonly conflicts with vehicles entering/exiting driveways. Instead, riding amid street traffic was touted as the better and safer way to go. For those hardy souls with the skill level and nerves of steel, please feel free to ride all the busy collector roads and arterial streets that you would like to. As for the rest of us, forget about it!


This week, while reading the book entitled City Cycling, the name of the theory that appears to have fostered the pent-up angst against bikeways was discovered. First espoused in 1992, vehicular cycling (VC) theory essentially adheres to the philosophy that:

Cyclists fare best when they act as, and are treated as, operators of vehicles.” (page 114)

While it is agreed that cyclists are operators of vehicles and should rightly be treated as so when riding on streets, the contention that they “fare best” when doing so is unsupportable. Furthermore, there is no way that everyone falls into this theory’s mold. It is simply a theory of convenience for those who prefer street cycling over other forms of bicycle riding. The frustrating part is vehicular cycling (VC) theory has largely overshadowed the utilitarian “European-style” cycling modes which promote inclusive, less stressful, and more logical non-motorized transportation network designs that most of us would prefer using as opposed to competing with motorists.

Here is a paraphrased summary of the inherent flaws of VC theory articulated in pages 114-17 of City Cycling:

“It ignores the massive evidence of the European experience.

It ignores the engineering solutions developed to improve intersection safety for cyclists.

It is preoccupied with a collision type called the ‘right hook,’ which occurs when a through-going cyclist conflicts with a right-turning motorist approaching from behind.

When first postulated it had no empirical support.

Until now [2012], only one credible American study at first glance appears to support the [VC] theory…However, this study considers only crashes at intersections (including driveway junctions) and therefore gives a distorted view of overall safety.

A 2011 study by Lusk, et al. showed that when between-junction crashes are accounted for along with crashes at intersections, the sidewalk bikeway’s crash risk was not statistically different from the risk of riding in the street.

When the risk of riding the same direction as traffic flow was considered, the risk of riding along bikeways/cycle tracks is half that of riding in the streets.”

Thank heaven, not everyone is still buying into the VC theory. A number of American cities, such as Portland, New York City, Indianapolis, Cambridge, Davis, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC have seen the light from the European results. May many more do so and soon – hopefully bringing along county and state road agencies, perhaps even the ever-present foot-draggers at AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials). Cycling in general and utilitarian cyclists in particular, will be very thankful when they do.

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10 Responses to The flaws of vehicular cycling (VC) theory

  1. Bill says:

    There is a lively and important debate on this topic, and I personally hope to see more information that helps us understand the wheres and the whyfors of the issue. It seems to me that there are so many variables that generalization is tricky. There are road conditions, motorist attitudes, cyclist enthusiasm and a million other factors that are virtually unique for any given segment of transportation corridor at a given time of day in a given season. It seems to me that (at least some of) the crash data are out there – let’s look around locally and see what problems are worth addressing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marianne Phillips says:

    I hadn’t realized this was still a conversation. A while back it made sense because the few bike paths that were around weren’t maintained very well. The hassle of dodging litter and tree roots made it much easier to use the road. However, now, in Portland, the paths and lanes make the commute enjoyable, much better than fighting traffic.


    • Rick Brown says:

      Thank you, Marianne.


    • Jon Spangler says:

      Until bike paths are available to and from *every* location cyclists want to visit–an extremely unlikely prospect given US politics–cyclists need to know how to safely navigate city streets, roads, and arterials. Even then, off-street path users need to navigate according to the Uniform Vehicle Code/”rules of the road,” since it is the randomized behavior of pedestrians, cyclists, dog walkers, and other off-street users that makes these paths so hazardous. And when I am bicycling on streets and roads, I *most definitely* “fare best” when I: a) am treated as the legitimate roadway user I am, and b) act according to the same “rules of the road” that I obey when driving a car. (I cannot fathom why acting like a motor vehicle when on public streets is a matter of contention among the cycling community. What else would we want but equal treatment under the law?)


  3. Zvi Leve says:

    I consider myself a ‘utilitarian cyclist’ which means that I ride a bike whenever and wherever it is practical. Montreal is fortunate to have quite a good cycling network, but in many ways it is the very success of the network which leads me to often opt for other options: sometimes the congested arterial with fewer traffic signals is far more comfortable than the bike path which has signals and conflicts at virtually every single intersection. Riding on a congested bike path is very stressful! And if I am not in a hurry, I would much rather ride on a quiet residential street than on a slightly busy one which happens to have cycle tracks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Often overlooked in this debate is the fact that bicycles have almost nothing in common with cars (two skinny tires instead of four fat ones, less torque, less horsepower, shorter, narrower, less visible, operator on the outside of the vehicle, chance of causing a pedestrian fatality next to zero, etc.) About the only thing these two modes of transportation share is the road.


  5. Vintagengine says:

    First proposed in 1972, not 1992. Life changes. Nothing remains the same. VC is really good for individual cyclists that have the ability to ride with traffic, I can, but may not be as applicable to large populations of cyclists. If we have 10 cyclists per block it may not apply.


    • Jon Spangler says:

      The laws of the sea–from which vehicular traffic laws descend–have remained essentially unchanged for 2,000 years and no one has come up with a better set of principles. I do not believe that the basic principles of the Uniform Vehicle Code are being questioned here. And every cyclist over a certain age (8-12?) needs to know how to ride in traffic safely, no matter what bike facilities are available and handy.


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