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 , 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.