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Vehicular cycling versus bike lanes: why they are both right, both wrong and why bike boulevards matter

Posted Dec 09 2009 8:18am
Thoughts on where we’ve been and where we are going ahead of tonight’s Bike Boulevard Open House
Image coutesy of LiveableStreets

Image courtesy of LivableStreets

As Austin prepares to experiment with the concept of bicycle boulevards, it is important to remember where bicycle infrastructure has been and why bike boulevards are really important in the goal of creating a city where large numbers of people live life on two wheels.

Vehicular cycling versus bike lanes

The Dallas Observer recently did a story about the battles of the Dallas cycling community with the former City of Dallas Bicycle Coordinator, PM Summer. Summer was a vehicular cyclist, a philosophy that holds that a bicycle is just another vehicle on the road and riders should behave that way. On these lines, any infrastructure built specifically for bicycles is wrong because it makes bikes a different class of vehicles. This philosophy was popular in late 20th century planning and Summers was quoted saying “As long as I’m the bike coordinator for the city, Dallas will never have on-street bike lanes.” Interestingly, the proponents of vehicular cyclists have inevitably been middle aged men not especially in tune to what women want in transportation cycling. The attitude has been cyclist need to be trained before they can ride. While it may feel good to talk about education, this essentially creates a barrier to entry making cycling the purview of those with the time and commitment to take classes or those daring enough to brave automobile dominant streets. The VC track record is bleak where implemented with a flat less than 1% of the population cycling for transportation.

Vehicular cyclists have fallen out of favor in the last decade. In fact, Summer, as the coordinator of the 9th largest US city, was probably the highest profile VCer left, and he was removed from his position last fall. In their place are bicycle programs that emphasis bike lanes and paths where ever possible. This is seen as progress in much of the cycling community creating safer routes and making transportation cycling more accessible to more of the general community. While this infrastructure has been appreciated by established cyclists, it has not created the real large scale increases in bicycle usage promised. Why?

While the VC philosophy puts no infrastructure on the road, most bike lanes are retro fitted to existing roads putting cyclist on the edge of the street where they are least visible and road debris accumulates. The lanes create space for cyclists but little is done to change the dynamic of the street. Cars are still the dominant traffic taking up the majority of the road, remaining a relatively high speed vehicle, and often parking in the bike lane forcing cyclists out in the road. Bike paths are often worse being glorified sidewalks where cars again have dominance where the path intersects the path. While this gives the rider a feeling of security, it is in fact one of the most dangerous routes for cyclists to use. Add to this the fact that most paths are recreational in focus being built in parks away from the routes of everyday life.

Solutions for wide spread cycling use

So here is where the VCers are right. If we want a sizable portion of the population to bike, they need to be able to use existing roads so they can use a bike for errands and commuting with the minimum amount of inconvenience. And here is where the traditional bike lanes are right. If we want a sizable portion of the population to bike, they need to feel safe from being run over by cars.

I would argue both theories are incomplete and remain focused on a small dedicated group of cyclists. VC appeals to the hardest of hard core cyclist while conventional bike lanes appeal to those cyclists who might already ride recreationally but need more physical support to feel comfortable riding in the city. Both are destine to flat or slow growth because they focus on the needs of a narrow niche: established cyclists instead of people who happen to ride bikes.

Enter a solution: bicycle boulevards. Bike boulevards re-balance the streetscape by pulling the automobile back from its conventional roll of dominate transport. Bicycles are part of traffic, VCers, but infrastructure like bollards, raised medians, forced turns, and roundabouts slow the traffic and raise cyclists and pedestrians as equals on the street. A sense of safety in design and safety in numbers make the boulevards extremely accessible to all users. They also use existing roads in the midst of established neighborhoods making them sensible routes for those wanting to live all aspects of their lives on two wheels.

Tonight’s open house for our first bike boulevard is exciting and important to the future of Austin cycling and retaking our streets for people instead of cars. I hope you will make it tonight or let the Austin City Council know how critical this is to improving the quality of life and sustainability of our community.

Nueces Street Bicycle Boulevard Open House: Project Discussion and Public Design Exercise
Wednesday, December 9
6- 8 PM
Pease Elementary School, 1106 Rio Grande St

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