Qualified to debunk vehicular cycling

Let me tell you, just how mightily qualified I do be, to debunk the principle of vehicular cycling. I borrowed the doctrine’s Good Book, Effective Cycling, from my local library in 1993, back when I had recently traded my mountain bike with slick tires, for the secondhand road bike I was preparing to race. Forester’s book was there on the shelf. I didn’t own a car, or have money even for bus fares. Neither did I have the benefit of living in Northern Europe, where they build separate bike infrastructure. If I was to get anywhere, beyond walking distance, I would need to perfect what I read.

I found moving as a vehicle a high wire act, one that delighted kids in the rear seats of cars, and that actually worked, so long as you followed John Forester’s rules, asserted yourself, used all your power, signalled predictably, etc etc.. After nearly 20 years of “vehicular cycling” to work, on long training rides, in cities all over the world, and in all conditions, I could not think of anyone better qualified to write the next edition, than my own lucky self—lucky, because I’ve survived.

It is worth knowing how to ride a bike like a vehicle, just as it is worth taking a gun and a flack jacket into a war zone. And when you’re a skilled and experienced vehicular cyclist, it’s true, you can feel alive confronting dangers by the split second, the way professional soldiers say they feel alive during battle. I’ve made peak hour bike trips across Manhattan and Chicago—but still, Sydney’s the worst—chasing that rush, and convincing myself that it’s easy, when you know how, and are prepared to accept death. The day a pedestrian steps this way, just as a driver moves that way, and I am glancing at some 3rd or 4th hazard, my kids lose their dad.

Thanks to the bicycle, we humans can make kinetic energy out of our breakfast, more efficiently than any creature, either in the sky, on land, or in the water. What a travesty, that such an elegant mode goes on being planned for, as though it fares best as a peace time stand-in for soldiering.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore.
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8 Responses to Qualified to debunk vehicular cycling

  1. So long as everyone is perfectly aware, and sees everyone else, and drives perfectly safely, and reacts with split-second response at the edge of human reflex time limits, and yields according to local law and custom, and is not in a rush, and is in a good mood, it all goes fine.

  2. Andrew Seger says:

    Just out of curiosity how did you feel cruising the downtown streets of Portland? When the lights are all timed at 13-16mph it, at least to me, creates an ideal vehicular cycling space. Or is it more of a shared space? Either way that seems a decent stopgap measure until we can implement true Netherlands style separated cycleways. Are Sydney lights not timed the same way?

    • Steven says:

      This is just an impression, but downtown portland seems quite quiet most of the time, with few cars moving pleasantly slowly. On the down side, drivers don’t look for cyclists. The living must be too easy :)

  3. Pingback: The link love is back — Villaraigosa’s failing bikeway promise, Roadblock joins the bloggerati « BikingInLA

  4. Peter says:

    odd response to EC – I’ve been riding that way for 30 years since that seems to be the only way to ride safely on the roads around here. I generally find my rides quiet and relaxing. I generally ride pretty slowly these days and just enjoy the ride. People I know who don’t ride vehicularly will tell me how stressful the same roads are, full of near misses as they almost get doored or right hooked at intersections.

    Just because I normally ride vehicularly doesn’t mean I won’t also enjoy a ride along a quiet rail-to-trail ro other segergated facility. But at least where I am, you have to use the roads to get from point A to point B.

    • Steven says:

      we differ only insofar as I am not content with the world as it has been presented to me, and will do what little I can make it better, for my kids mainly, but also with a view to my old age when I might get very slow on the bike. Riding as you do still brings ME joy — I just have this activist hobby as a bit of a sideline.

    • James says:

      I agree with Peter. My beef is with the poorly designed farcilities. I mean, who had a death wish for bicyclists when they decided bike lanes within the door zone was a good idea? And Copenhagen bike lanes? Please, no. I prefer to ride on the road.
      (Only 25 years and 250,000km for me. ;-)

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