Ed.note: Part 1 of this essay can be found on Resilience.org here.

“Vehicular cycling” and the Slow Bicycle Movement

The “vehicular cycling” approach promoted by John Forester can be a great help to all of us who have to ride on busy streets dominated by cars. Yet I think there are good reasons why this approach has always had limited appeal.

In this second installment of a two-part essay I compare the vehicular cycling approach to what is arguably a much stronger social force – the Slow Bicycling movement.1

When I took up urban cycling in Toronto at the beginning of the 1980s, Forester’s insights were just what I needed to hear. I had quickly come to the conclusion that a bicycle was a beautifully appropriate technology for getting around in cities, and I’d be damned if I would accept that most streets should be ceded to cars and trucks.

In his book Effective Cycling2 Forester called his approach “vehicular cycling”, and he helped me to understand that a cyclist in motor traffic is generally safest when behaving like a driver and asserting the rights of a driver.

Take The Lane

Several basic ideas are key. First, an urban cyclist is safer riding on the road than on the sidewalk. That is because at the many intersections – both driveways and cross streets – drivers are not habituated to looking at sidewalks for anything faster than a pedestrian, and they may well turn right into a fast-moving cyclist. When the cyclist stays out in the road, right in the normal line of vision of motorists, the cyclist is seen early enough for the driver to slow down.

Second, a cyclist should not hug the curb, but should take and hold a place well out into the lane. Again, the cyclist should be in the normal line of vision of drivers, and in addition should avoid near-curb hazards such as sewer grates, road-edge potholes, and debris in gutters. It’s particularly important not to weave in and out between parked cars.

When a lane is too narrow to allow a car to safely pass a cyclist within that lane, the cyclist should move right into the middle of the lane, so that a driver will slow down until it is safe to pull around in the next lane.

An extension of the “take the lane” idea is that cyclists should take the appropriate lane. For example, when coming to an intersection with a right-hand turn lane, a cyclist going straight through should move out of that lane into the through lane. When approaching an intersection with a left turn lane, urban cyclists can often safely move right across the roadway into the left turn lane. (These examples assume North American driving conventions; cyclists in Britain would follow the same principles adjusted for left-side driving.)

These lane changes depend on a procedure Forester terms “negotiation”. He urged cyclists to practice turning their heads to make eye contact with overtaking drivers, and in so doing, signaling intent while also verifying that the driver had seen the cyclist. I quickly adopted this practice and found it very helpful, which is partly why to this day I have never got used to using a rear-view mirror on a bike.

There’s a problem with this “vehicular cycling”, however, that goes to the heart of this essay. A successful “negotiation” for a lane depends on the cyclist maintaining a speed fairly close to the speed of the cars and trucks. If you’re riding at 15 kph, you can’t make meaningful eye contact with a driver coming up behind you at 60 kph. Forester recognized this:

“When the traffic is moving more than 15 mph faster than you, negotiation is impossible ….”3

To Forester this wasn’t a big problem – he pitched his ideas to fit and active cyclists – and it wasn’t a big problem for me, 40 years ago, either. Although I have never been athletic, I was in the prime of life, very enthused about cycling, and I could generally keep close to or surpass the speed of city traffic. I didn’t stop to worry about letting motorcars basically set the pace for almost all of the cycling I did.

What’s the risk?

Humans don’t generally like the feeling that they could be crushed at any moment; we’re funny that way. So even though the risk of riding in traffic in most cities is much less than the health risk of being sedentary4, vehicular cycling didn’t catch on all that well, and cyclists’ ranks in North America grew slowly.

As for me, I quickly concluded that the risk of cycling in traffic was relatively low compared to many other common activities.

But I always knew that one careless move – either by a driver or by me – could result in my instant demise. I knew, too, that most of the time when we make the kind of mistakes all humans make on the roads, there are no consequences; just once in a while, there is a confluence of circumstances that gives a particular mistake a deadly outcome.

We can take reasonable precautions to reduce our risks, and then get on with life without worrying a lot about the risks that always, inevitably, remain. For me those reasonable precautions included riding by the principles of “effective cycling”.

When I first heard discussion of having separated bike lanes alongside city streets, I didn’t like the idea. It struck me as a declaration of surrender, a formal ceding of streets to motor traffic. Besides, I thought, a separated bike lane will soon get crowded if indeed it attracts many more people to cycling – and then we’ll all have to ride at the speed of the slowest cyclists. (Much later, I learned that Forester was also a determined opponent of separate cycling infrastructure, for similar reasons.)

For three reasons, my thinking on this took a 180 degree turn – but the turn took years.

First, over the past twenty years it became apparent that separated bike lanes were very popular among cyclists, especially new cyclists. As cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York and Minneapolis started their modest developments of cycling lanes, the ranks of cyclists, and their effective influence in urban planning, started to grow at a rate that gave real hope for sane transportation systems. In this respect we remain several decades behind cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but we are finally moving in the same direction.

Second, as luck would have it, I got old. (Or at least, much older than I ever intended to get, back when I was a callow youth of 30.) And as I got old I got slower, especially once I’d passed the half-century mark.

My personal experience, I now realize, was opening me to the views of the “8-80” movement. Popularized by Guillermo Penalosa, 8 80 Cities advocates for urban environments that are safe and pleasant for 8-year-olds, 80-year-olds, and everyone in between.

The vehicular cycling approach, by contrast, is clearly targeted to fit adults in the prime of life. In a recent online discussion with a determined opponent of dedicated cycling infrastructure, for example, I was told that real cyclists “inevitably get in good enough shape to cruise (maybe not average) in the 15-20 mph range.” I had to respond that the days when I cruise at 20 mph are already in life’s rear-view mirror – but I hope to be a “real cyclist” for a good many years, during which I will happily roll ever more slowly.

The final factor in my conversion came while cycle touring, when I took my first long ride on a rail-to-trail route. Though I had never worried much about traffic while biking, after a few days away from all motor traffic I realized how blissfully quiet, peaceful and stress-free the ride had been.

A healthy compromise

For all the above reasons, I am now happy to consider myself part of the Slow Bicycling movement. Does that mean I no longer appreciate the ideas of vehicular cycling? Not at all.

Most of the places I want to go on bike still don’t have dedicated cycling facilities, so I still need to ride in traffic much of the time. When and where I am able to ride at an adequate pace, following “effective cycling” principles makes my rides reasonably pleasant and safe.

Furthermore, I don’t think either the “Vehicular Cycling” or the “Slow Bicycling” approaches are fully adequate to our present predicament.

There is a widespread attitude in North America, energetically promoted by the motor industry generations ago, that cars belong on streets, and bikes don’t. Effective Cycling says that both cars and bikes belong on those streets. I believe that bikes and pedestrians belong on streets, and inherently dangerous cars do not. But I know that I’m unlikely to live to see the day when streets are returned to bikes and pedestrians, when streets are no longer the site of mortal vehicular peril.

In the meantime I think the Slow Bicycling movement, with its push for widespread, convenient and safe cycling lanes for people of all ages, is going to help us grow toward sustainable urban lifestyles, as tens of millions of North American city dwellers feel comfortable in getting out of cars, getting on bikes, and enjoying the outdoors as they move about their cities under their own power and at their own pace.

Photo at top: Toronto cyclists gather at Bloor & Spadina in May, 2009 for a Critical Mass ride. The ride celebrated the approval of bike lanes on a busy downtown route, Jarvis Street. These lanes proved short-lived, as the administration of the next mayor, the late Rob Ford, returned that precious pavement to motorists.


1Though there is no official definition of the Slow Bicycling movement, the Slow Bicycle Movement group on Facebook is a good introduction. Founded by Copenhagen-based urban planner Mikael Colville-Andersen, this group includes in its statement of purpose, “This group/movement is a celebration of cycling, formed as an alternative to the perception of cycling as a hardcore endurance sport/recreational activity. … The bicycle takes us places. It’s those places and getting to them that sums up this group’s spirit.

2Forester, John. Effective Cycling, first edition 1976, most recent edition 2012.

3Forester, John, (1994). Bicycle transportation: A Handbook for cycling transportation engineers (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. Quoted in Listening to Bike Lanes, by Jeffrey A. Hiles.

4For example, see the article “Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?”, Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2010, which concludes “On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport.”