Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Vehicular Cycling and Stockholm Syndrome

It's time for an opinion post, and this is one that may not be too popular.  Outside the world of bike advocacy, we can generally agree that cars, pedestrians, and bikes do not mix well.  At least the shouts of drivers and pedestrians alike would certainly suggest that this might be the case.  However, the question that urban planners in the USA are dealing with is what to do with the bikes.  Not as fast as cars, not as slow as pedestrians.  Within the world of bike advocacy, that debate rages more ferociously than just about any other argument this side of helmets.  I'm going to go ahead and come down on a side.

When I say "sides" there are two camps - "Vehicular" cyclists and those who prefer separated cycling infrastructure.  Vehicular cycling is the group of people that advocate cycling like a car, an utter necessity given the current state of U.S. cycling infrastructure.  It involves taking the lane, and utilizing all the lanes depending on current need - for instance, on my commute for about a mile I ride down the shoulder of a 3-lane, 65 mph dual carriageway and have to make a left.  Vehicular cycling dictates crossing all three lanes into the lefthand turn lane, then making the left with the traffic signal, same as a car.  It's exactly as terrifying as it sounds, and I am an extremely experienced street cyclist.

Those who advocate for separate bicycle infrastructure (if it's not already obvious, that's where I land) believe that this mix is the source of immense amounts of conflict.  Primarily due to the difference in user vulnerability, isn't something that can be remedied with the usual platitudes about "educating motorists" or requiring cyclists to get a license (another suggestion bandied about by the frustrated).  I'm of the belief that proper cycling infrastructure removes the conflict between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians by providing for each equally and not pretending that we're going to educate ourselves into resolving the inherent differences in these three forms of getting from A to B.

Here's my theory, and it's not terribly flattering.  I theorize that vehicular cyclists are essentially victims of a trafficky form of Stockholm Syndrome.  We American cyclists fetishize our traffic skills and after dodging cars bask an adrenaline not dissimilar to the Running of the Bulls.  For proof I will refer you to the film Premium Rush, an entire movie dedicating to crazy-ass vehicular cyclists.  See also the popularity of brakesless fixed gears for transportation purposes, "Cat 6" racing, and commuters who draft.  What I mean is that we've been forced to dance with the devil for so long that the notion we've had it wrong all along is met with nearly religious opposition.

Where this causes problems is that these conflicts within cycling advocacy means that there are people actively campaigning against separate bike infrastructure under the belief the best way to grow cycling in the U.S.A is to....change nothing.  Which seems to be to not only be insanity but to completely ignore the sample size provided by multiple First World nations of millions of people who have any kind of decent modeshare.  It's like denying climate change because you remember having hot summers as a kid.  Why else would you ignore vast quantities of hard data and successful implementations around the world?  In the end this causes mass confusion as urban planners try to accomodate the needs of cyclists and end with mixed messages.  I think what we need to realize is that people's opinions don't necessarily reflect the best decisions on a city-wide scale.  The mixed messages of cycling advocates received by city planners need to be ignored to a point in favor of hard data and facts.

I don't deny that everyone's heart is in the right place - the endgame is getting more people on bikes.  But we need to admit that no one's grandmother is going to ride her bike like a car through traffic on Lamar, and put in bike infrastructure on which she could take your 8 year old to school.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, you are right. Another way of looking at this opposition to cycle facilities is that "the fear of segregated facilities is really a fear that hard-won, highly-valued skills of handling all those motor vehicles will be become less important." In other words, it's a form of Luddism, the inappropriate protection of outmoded skills. Another way of looking at it is that the thrill some people get when cycling fast amongst cars is an extreme, risk-seeking sport getting confused with what should be just transport.

    Whichever, we've been having this debate in the UK intensely for perhaps 3-4 years, but it's pretty much settled now. Few people defend pure vehicular cycling any more in the UK, though there is less agreement on exactly what style of cycle facilities we need. It seems like this debate is rather less developed in the US, from what one reads (though that could be a false impression from this side of the pond).