The politics of safety and vehicular cycling
I am going to start off by expanding a bit on Herb’s intro to Vehicular Cycling and John Forester. These posts are not an attempt at an wholesale assassination on ‘Vehicular Cycling’. There are many good things about Vehicular Cycling that one would be wise to consider putting into practice. I agree with Herb that some parts of Vehicular Cycling should be considered as part of a balanced approach to riding on our streets. That said, there are some suggested practices and pieces of information in Vehicular Cycling that range from questionable to dishonest to dangerous. This is troubling because quite frequently these problem areas are in the forefront, being used to obstruct the progression of all things cycling, whether it is a bike lane or legislative relief. While Vehicular Cycling converts like to describe their entire approach as a proven theory, the problems being explored in these posts will suggest that Vehicular Cycling contains a mix of various theories and hypotheses.
Vehicular Cycling is explained as the, “...practice of driving bicycles on roads in a manner that is visible, predictable, and in accordance with the principles for driving a vehicle in traffic...” What is missed in most of these definitions is the political component of Vehicular Cycling. Read any Vehicular Cycling literature and it clearly asks its converts to advocate its tenets where ever and whenever they can. Vehicular Cycling contains a political philosophy that is strongly influenced by staunch conservative values and encourages followers to promote it with religious fervor. This is not a criticism: any sort of advocacy group has different political influences and different ways of delivering their message. It is, however, important to understand how these influences present themselves, and how they shape suggested practices. In the case of Vehicular Cycling, it holds to true conservative values of preserving the way things are and resisting radical change, regardless of how beneficial change may be.
To begin this discussion it is important to start with a key definition. Every set of practices or laws relating to how to operate a vehicle on a road have a common goal; that is, to make the use of the roads “safe”. It is important to understand how this word is used to understand the goals of any proposed “safe” practice, and how it is interpreted.
How is “safe” defined? Dictionaries use an “either or” definition, you are “safe” if you are free of harm otherwise you are not “safe”. In general usage though the definition is more comparative. We ask, “Is it safe?” Meaning is there less risk than an act one is familiar with. For instance, “Is roller blading safer than taking a car?” No one assumes that any act is completely safe.
"Risk" is an easier word to define as it deals with the probability of harm occurring and is subject to less opinion. Everything else being equal, you or I have the same risk of being struck by lighting. Yet our views could be at odds when asked if riding in a lighting storm is “safe”. You may view it is “safe” practice because it has an acceptable risk factor, I not.
The word “safe” when discussing cycling takes on a lot more opinion and emotion in its definition. “Safe” in cycling discussions contains two major parts, a quantitative and qualitative assessment. Risk, usually measured through statistics, is the quantitative assessment. I would argue that the qualitative assessment is opinion gained through one’s experience, perception or interpretation. The qualitative part is very powerful to cyclists or potential cyclists when they act. In some cases so strong that they will ignore the quantitative assessment altogether. A perfect example of this is riding a bicycle on a sidewalk. There is a wealth of statistics that clearly states that this practice is far more risky than riding on the road. Typically the practice of riding on the sidewalk is driven by the discomfort of sharing the road with much larger vehicles or just the road itself. This decision can also be influenced in a large part by factors that are not easily identified by statistics. A good example here would be the aggression cyclists face from drivers while riding on the road, whether the cyclist is in compliance or not with the rules of the road. Rarely do cyclists get hit by these aggressive drivers but it can make riding very unpleasant. Some time ago I heard cycling advocate Ben Smith-Lea describe the desire and importance by cyclists to have a pleasant ride described as the “quality of life on the road”. A quick read of any cycling advocacy website or face-to-face discussion amongst cyclists shows how important quality of life really is.
It is extremely important to understand that cyclists’ concerns are not unique nor do cyclists suffer from any sort of mass mental health issue as suggested by Vehicular Cycling. Drivers have the very same issues and they too will favour the qualitative assessment, and with good reason. Unlike cycling, there is more quantitative evidence supporting their assessments. They too have discomforts like sharing the road with large vehicles, non adherence to rules of the road, aggression, and so on, which bears out in statistics. In a stunning statistic referred to in an open letter by Ian Law published in the Toronto Star, nearly one in 17 cars in Ontario was involved in a collision in 2006. Other statistics point to aggression being the cause of up to 80% of collisions. This begs the question of how “safe” it is to advise cyclists that they are “safest when they behave like vehicles”? Especially when motor vehicle drivers and the conventions established for them to operate on the road that Vehicular Cycling practices have been modeled on are in such turmoil themselves.
Vehicular Cycling attempts to address the qualitative issues with questionable results and sometimes even uses unsupported “facts” to achieve this. Vehicular Cycling even attempts to dismiss the qualitative concerns by cyclists altogether by labeling them as a disease. This “disease” will be dealt with more directly in the second part of my post. There are three articles I have referenced in the following three paragraphs I would like to draw your attention to. One deals with the contrasts between a cyclist interested in not only being safer but in the quality of life and a Vehicular Cycling practitioner. The second makes a quantitative argument as to why cycling is “safe”, arguing that cycling is safer than most any other transportation choice. Finally the third takes a direct look at the qualitative assessment.
“Bike Lanes: A Motorist Invention” in The Urban Country by James D. Schwartz highlights the contrast between issues of quality of life versus the tenets of Vehicular Cycling. There may be a slight miss in the article when the Vehicular Cyclist is not challenged when he states that cyclists should not be given any special consideration on the roads. This conflicts with a Vehicular Cycling practice of “filtering”, a practice to give a cyclist an advantage in slow moving traffic. “Filtering” is in a legal gray area in several jurisdictions including Ontario. In others it is widely practiced even if illegal.
Ken Kifer makes an excellent quantitative argument that cycling is safe, even boasting that, “...bicycling is nearly six times as safe as living!” He also argues that the fatality/ injury rates could even be further reduced if more cyclists practiced Vehicular Cycling. Unfortunately he supports this reduction based on some of the more questionable attributions’, like the source of a cyclist's fear, of Vehicular Cycling.
Sociologist Dave Horton takes a hard look at the factors involved in qualitative assessments that are made by cyclists. This is a very well researched article and makes some excellent points. He does seem though to somewhat share a “conspiracy theory” with Vehicular Cycling of the invention of cycling as dangerous: “...The road safety industry, helmet promotion campaigns and anyone responsible for marketing off-road cycling facilities all have a vested interest in constructing cycling - particularly cycling on the road - as a dangerous practice...”
There is a myth in the cycling community that Vehicular Cycling tells cyclists to behave and drive like cars. This follows with protests that a bicycle can never be like a motorized vehicle. In its most base form Vehicular Cycling is proposing that we have a common approach to the road in order to best communicate with other road users. Any reasonable proposed practice to use on our roads would pretty much have to rely on similar mechanics.
The problem is that Vehicular Cycling founding father, John Forester, surrendered to the automobile before even considering any other approaches to use to communicate with other road users. He freely admits admits as much. Google Videos has a lecture by Mr. Forester where he provides his interpretation of history and how the car took the dominant role.
He chose to integrate his approach into the system of rules of the road that were established for the automobile; a system that was flawed even before he promoted Vehicular Cycling. Other forms of transportation: pedestrians, planes, and ships, for instance, have much lower incidents of collisions than automobiles. You had a much greater chance of dying in a car on 9/11 than you would have had had you been flying or been on a ship. These other modes of transportation use a much higher level of active communication that what is found in the rules of the road. Approaches like “Complete Streets” and “Naked Streets”, which Herb will deal with in greater detail, have proven how flawed the current rules of the road and street designs are.
There, too, is the problem that to this day the bicycle is not universally accepted, even in some North Americas jurisdictions, as a vehicle. Even if it is considered a vehicle, several jurisdictions treat the bicycle in its driver education manuals and highway laws as a nuisance. It could be argued quite easily, however, that this is not a flaw of Vehicular Cycling but a flaw created by lawmakers. A more relevant problem with Vehicular Cycling is that it is rigid and adverse to change, something that, again, we will later on touch on in greater detail. Things change, societies change, needs change, understandings change and any proposed method must be able to adapt. If it fails to adapt it becomes irrelevant and out of touch.
In my second part to follow I will take to task both some minor and major issues with Vehicular Cycling. I will be encouraging you to take another look at some so-called facts promoted by Vehicular Cycling enthusiasts. There will also be some simple social and driving (yes, with a car) experiments you can carry out on your own that may offer you a basis to alternative explanations to those of Vehicular Cycling dogma. I will also make a case as to why the “cyclist inferiority complex” is more junk psychology than it is fact.