Advocacy – What Comes First?

Car Lane

Why is there always so much acrimony whenever anyone starts talking about creating/using bike lanes?  And why are there so many cries of  “you’re crazy” and “you’ll never convince new riders” whenever Vehicular Cycling is mentioned?  And we all know that many motorists would just prefer that we disappear and stay out of their way.  And Jeez!!!  If you start talking about bicycle advocacy – it seems that nobody can agree on anything relating to advocacy!

Most of our readers at Commute Orlando should have heard of John Forester.  John’s book, Effective Cycling is a must-read for any transportational cyclist.  It is where the term “Vehicular Cycling” originates and VC has been defined as “Cyclists fare best when they act, and are treated, as the drivers of other vehicles.”

Many cyclists agree with this concept, and follow (to some extent) the VC philosophy of riding as a vehicle (car) and following all traffic rules.  However, VC advocates have run into stiff opposition whenever voicing their complaints about bike lanes and other parallel, segregated facilities.

But I am not getting into the debate about bike lanes pro or con here.

John Forester has authored a very interesting document in which he tries to find common ground between the VC advocates and the facilities advocates.  You can read the entire document here, but I wanted to grab John’s summary and show it:

5.2 Reforming the Traffic Laws

It is undeniable fact that the governmental program for bicycle transportation is largely based on the motorists’ system for restricting bicycling for the convenience of motorists.  It is also undeniable fact that the bicycle advocates have misled themselves into supporting the motorists’ anti-cyclist program by demanding more and more of the facilities that implement it.  It is not the facilities themselves that produce the anti-cyclist effects. As argued above, it is quite possible, and eminently desirable, to accommodate both cyclists who like bikeway cycling and cyclists who prefer vehicular cycling. The villainy resides in the three prohibitory laws by which bikeway-style, cyclist-inferiority style, cycling is legally enforced:

  1. The law prohibiting cyclists from riding away from the edge of the roadway
  2. The law prohibiting cyclists from riding outside a bike lane
  3. The law prohibiting cyclists from using the roadway when a path is nearby

Just so long as any of those three laws remain in effect, the governmental program for bicycle transportation is an anti-cyclist program designed to make motoring more convenient.

5.2.1 Vehicular Cyclists

Vehicular cyclists understand this well enough, but they need to transfer their efforts from opposition to bikeways to really significant opposition to the three oppressive laws.

5.2.2 Bicycle Advocates

Bicycle advocates must come to understand that they can unify the cycling community only by producing strong opposition to the three discriminatory laws that both make bikeway operation more difficult and dangerous, and require vehicular cyclists to oppose bikeways.

5.2.3 Politicians

Politicians who support the bicycle program must be made to realize that, unless they tie this support to effective opposition to the three discriminatory laws, they will be exposed as toadying to the motoring interests

Some may quibble over some of John’s facts, and have some healthy skepticism over some of his statistics supporting his arguments.  And I personally don’t like the term “inferior”.  But I really do like how he has framed what should be the central tenant of a local, state, or national advocacy program:  the removal of restrictive laws and the affirmation of bicycles and cyclists as legitimate vehicles and users of the road. That first and foremost — all other advocacy takes a second seat behind it.

Agree or disagree?  Your thoughts please on what should be first and foremost in bicycle advocacy…

16 replies
  1. Abhishek
    Abhishek says:

    A method of advocacy that makes it safe for a mother taking her child on their own bikes to the grocery store or to school as well as the method that makes it safe for the bike-to-work commuter should be the preferred method. All members in the spectrum of bikes-as-transportation should be considered equally. The preferred method of advocacy should be of high safety in any region of the country.

    If any section of the society (parent, children, professionals etc) feel unsafe in following a particular advocacy method, it renders the method ineffective. Keeping on advocating it is the textbook definition of insanity.

  2. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    I agree in principal with the repeal of these three laws, and am thankful that here in Maine we have only the first one, and a relatively liberal one at that. (It contains most if not all of the usual enumerated “exceptions”, or “examples of impracticable”, depending on your interpretation). I plan to fight like hell if either of the second two are ever proposed.

    However, the first is so ingrained in the culture, that I’m not sure that it’s repeal is a good first target tactically. Is it better to start with more achievable goals, or tackle what might be the hardest one(s) right off? I don’t know. I do know that the idea is not even on the radar of our state bicycle coalition, per informal conversations I’ve had about it with a few other board members. Not something most of them have given any thought to, it would seem.

  3. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    @Abishek: Here’s the rub: How do we know what is safest? The bicycle riding population is so low that it is difficult to get statistically significant and scientifically valid results that everyone can agree upon. We understand what makes people *feel* safer, but how well does that correlate with reality? The problem with merely “feels safer”, besides whether or not it really is, is also that the infrastructure that is promoted for “feels safer” can interfere with the the efficiency and travel rights of other cyclists, especially when accompanied by these restrictive laws, who know they can be go faster safer operating more vehicularly.

    If the goal of your advocacy is to make everyone feel safe, then of course having anyone feel unsafe is ineffective advocacy. What some of us question is whether making everyone *feel* safe is really the best way of making sure that everyone actually *is* safe, as well as in the best long-term interests of bicycling as an effective transportation mode.

  4. Doohickie
    Doohickie says:

    I posted the following on BikeForums earlier today, and I think it is relevant:

    I like the whole concept of Vehicular Cycling as a tool my tookbox of cycling skills. I like infrastructure that aids my bike travel. But for the life of me, I don’t see how one precludes the other, at least here in Fort Worth, Texas, where I live.

    We have a great MUP system along the Trinity River which gives recreational cyclists a motor-vehicle-free cycling experience. It is also useful for commuting and is used by a lot of commuters. It is also also used for recreation apart from cycling (pedestrians, dog walkers, joggers, etc.) There is room enough for everyone and I’ve encountered very few conflicts.

    We have limited bike routes, bike lanes, and parkways that allow travel between different parts of the city. I use them when they are available, but don’t feel compelled to.

    We have motorists that are surprisingly tolerant of vehicular cycling, even on rather busy routes with 40+ mph speed limits.

    We have laid-back police that, in my experience so far, allow for minor and reasonable bending of traffic rules to facilitate cycling. They don’t mess with cyclists on sidewalks (even though I believe it is illegal here), as long as they are being careful and prudent. They don’t mess with cyclists who non-vehicularly cross main roads using pedestrian-only crossings. The don’t jump out of the bushes and give you tickets for rolling through stop signs or proceeding through red lights, as long as you’re not violating another vehicle’s right-of-way.

    Cycling in my city is a fairly rare, but organic mix of vehicular cycling, path cycling, on-road cycling with bike-specific infrastructure. And pretty much everyone is happy, sings Kumbaya, and gets along.

    Why do some people insist on setting up battle lines over how to bike? You bike for the situation, to provide the safest and most enjoyable cycling experience. There’s no sense in drawing battle lines; we all have the same goals.

    Now…. play nice with each other, mmmmkay?

  5. Doohickie
    Doohickie says:

    With regard to the Forester excerpts above, this points to why I have avoided reading his book thus far: There are too many “you have to’s” and self-proclaimed “undeniable facts.” His book is not the sacred text of a religion; it is his method, based on his opinions and views. Nothing more. I have no problem with learning and practicing vehicular cycling technique, but I am not going to fall in lock-step into VC fundamentalism. I use some aspects of vehicular cycling in my daily commute. I use bike lanes and paths as well.

    Despite Forester’s wet dreams, I’ve come to realize the cycling community will never unite behind his or any other uniform code of ideas. Cyclists are too diverse, and frankly, recreational cyclists seem to make up the majority, and they will never, ever embrace Forester’s ideas. They like segregation from motor traffic. It makes them feel safer.

    If a recreational cyclist begins to use his bicycle as real transportation, there is a high likelihood he will embrace at least some aspects of VC. But even for the handful that come over, the majority of cyclists will remain recreational only, and even agree with motorists that bicycles don’t belong on the roads in the absence of cycling infrastructure.

    Accept this reality and stop preaching to the uninterested masses, John, and maybe you will actually win more converts to your method by being non-adversarial.

  6. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    Read the book. Mostly it’s not as dogmatic as what you read on some blogs. The FW library has copies. You can borrow mine when I get it back. THEN judge. Yes, there’s dogma in there, but the BS stops when it comes to how to ride safely in a given situation. Most of that will track with experience.

  7. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    I’ve got a couple problems with this statement:

    “It is undeniable fact that the governmental program for bicycle transportation is largely based on the motorists’ system for restricting bicycling for the convenience of motorists.”

    Problem #1:
    What government program? Which level of government? Does this program have a name? Or is he simply lumping all programs at all levels of government together.

    Assuming the latter…

    Problem #2:
    Why then do motorists fight so hard against most of the actual bicycle programs that I know about that have actual names. For example, the Toronto Bike Plan and the recent decision in Toronto to take one car lane on Jarvis Street and turn it into two bicycle lanes.

    The caraholics fought like hell against this program. They produced a nice yellow t-shirt to wear to their pro-car rallies. They fought a media battle calling the Bike Plan a “war against cars.” They got waaay more than their fair share of media time fighting against the Bike Plan.

    They lost, of course. But the Bike Plan is a REAL “governmental program.” And the caraholics sure don’t think that the Bike Plan is “restricting bicycling for the convenience of motorists.”

    Anyone who thinks that it is, is welcome to see for themselves on the City’s official web site at:

  8. Keri
    Keri says:

    To answer Andrew’s question:

    Equity in the law is the underpinning of the respect needed for cycling to thrive. As I wrote here.

    We’ll always need roads. We’ll always need equity. The way we are treated on the roads is a reflection of cultural equity. Cultural equity determines the quality of infrastructure that is built. A Culture that disrespects cyclists and only wishes to shove them out of the way, builds stuff like this.

    JohnB: FTR laws can be repealed, but it’s not easy. Advocates in PA managed to do it there. Cyclists are now only subject to the same SMV law as the drivers of Amish carriages and farm tractors. AFAIK, they did it by forming relationships with key legislators and working at it over a long period of time. They didn’t do the big “special interest” blitz, such an effort would surely backfire in most states. If you don’t have problems with unfair enforcement, there probably isn’t much impetus to repeal the law. It becomes an issue when cyclists are repeatedly harassed and inconvenienced by uninformed LEOs who can’t read the WHOLE statute.

    Ultimately, a cyclist should never have to defend the practicability of where s/he chooses to ride within a lane.

  9. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    My own personal take on VC:

    It’s what to do faut de mieux.

    OK, I won’t quit my day job and make a million as a rapper. 🙂

    If there is inadequate infrastructure I’m a VC cyclist myself. I always exercise lane control in lanes that are too narrow for a car to pass me in-lane. In the Toronto area, that means all roads, with a very few exceptions.

    Fortunately, we’re starting to get adequate infrastructure. To quote John Foster, “it is undeniable fact” that no city in any industrialized country has achieved a bike mode share over 4% without dedicated bicycle infrastructure.

    Where I live in the Riding of Toronto Centre, the commuting to work mode share is:

    Public transit: 38%
    Bike/walk: 34%
    Car: 28%

    That never would have happened if it were not for dedicated bicycle infrastructure. And a lack of car infrastructure. Where I live and where I work – neither place has any car parking whatsoever.

  10. Laura
    Laura says:

    Kevin makes an excllent point about having a lack of car-centered infrastructure with complementary emphasis on bicycle, pedestrian and transit infrastructure.

    I also have to agree with the idea that, as advocates, we should focus more on removal of these restrictive laws (as well as cultural perceptions towards cyclists) and the affirmation of cyclists as legitimate users of our roadways (I’d go on to say the same goes for pedestrians and transit riders).

    As a professional planner, I bristle at the idea that I don’t understand the needs of cyclists and that I advocate for facilities that put cyclists in harm’s way. I like to view what I do as ‘affirming cyclists as legitimate users of the roadway’. As a planner and an advocate, I also feel an obligation to many groups of people and users of our roadways.

  11. Abhishek
    Abhishek says:

    @ John B,

    A simple test would be to see how many families ride to the mall on their bikes through roads with speed limits in excess of 30 mph.

    If it works for a seasoned cyclist on a road bike, it may not always work for the teenager riding to school. ‘Feeling’ safe is important. If they had 12 foot lanes on an interstate, motorists would not feel safe travelling in excess of 75 mph. Hence, they are usually at 18 feet width.

    Pedestrians wouldn’t feel safe walking on a road with no sidewalk.

    I am of the opinion that advocating vehicular cycling is a band-aid type temporary fix for bicycles as transportation till we can have proper infrastructure that invites everyone to try bicycling.

    People even perceive that bike lanes are safe. They think a little white line between them and the car will keep cars away, even at intersecting driveways. I have seen some cyclists feel safe riding on a shoulder in a busy road against the flow of traffic with no lights. . That is where we need a healthy mix of statistics and ‘feel’.

    Therefore, the effective advocacy should target:
    Actually being Safe (like you said, statistically reduced number of accidents)
    Feeling Safe (not having to worry about being hit, not having to ride fast to keep up, etc)
    Being Safe from society (mugging, etc).

    Leave either one out and people will not be comfortable riding their bikes.

  12. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    People also believe bicycling on the sidewalk is safer, which is of course contrary to all research.

    Yes, “feeling safe” is important. But the question is, do you take an approach which makes people feel safer while not addressing the most common types of crashes (crossing and turning conflicts) or one which makes people feel safer by giving them skills and strategies to avoid the most common motorist errors (VC)?

    I sat along Edgewater Drive last week at lunch and watched the cyclists go by in the bike lanes. About half of them were going the wrong way.

    I feel safe without “riding fast.” I average about 13-15 mph around town. There are plenty of much faster riders out there who are quite uncomfortable riding the high-speed arterials I ride.

    “If they had 12 foot lanes on an interstate, motorists would not feel safe travelling in excess of 75 mph. Hence, they are usually at 18 feet width.”

    Um, no: the standard lane width for US Interstates is 12 feet; has been from the beginning.

  13. Abhishek
    Abhishek says:

    My apologies. I made a bad assumption on the highway lane width. The underlying point was reducing the lane width at higher speeds will make people feel uncomfortable. The same argument can me made for 10 ft lanes against a standard of 12 ft lanes.

    Right hooks and other accidents at intersections must be considered while designing an advocacy program. It is the first of three targets in my comment.

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