A debate regarding the validity of separated bicycling facilities has continued non-stop for many years. On one side there is John Forester and the bicyclists and planners who support a strictly vehicular approach to bicycling, and on the other side we have John Pucher and the bicyclists and planners who support a system based upon separated facilities such as those seen in The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany.
The vehicular side argues that we currently have a fully functional road network and bicycles are already classified as vehicles, so all we need to do is maintain our rights as road users and educate bicyclists on the techniques of riding a bicycle as a vehicle. One of the strongest arguments for this approach is that these goals are attainable and realistic.
The separated facilities side argues that until we do more to separate bicyclists from motor vehicles we’ll never see the numbers of bicyclists in the U.S. that we see in other parts of the world. Numerous studies support this notion, with the fear of cars often being cited as the number one reason people don’t ride their bikes more. One of the strongest arguments against separated facilities is the difficulty of creating such a system here in the U.S.
My thinking falls somewhere in the middle between these two opposing viewpoints.
On the one hand, when I ride on roads, I employ many of the principles of vehicular cycling as laid out in Forester’s Effective Cycling. Many of his techniques truly are “effective”, and with proper training and experience, they’ll serve riders well in a wide variety of situations. That said, I like to think of myself as a “pragmatic vehicular cyclist who rides as a vehicle when it’s appropriate, but then switches to a bike-pedestrian mode when conditions call for it.
On the other hand, I fully agree that the fear of auto traffic is one of the main obstacles we have to overcome before we’ll see a dramatic increase in bicycle use in the U.S. The data support this idea, and anecdotal evidence supports it as well. The fact that we see so much sidewalk riding suggests many casual bicyclists are fearful of cars. The studies tell us that bicycling is a relatively safe activity, and I believe this to be the case, but still, sharing the road with fast moving motor vehicles is frightening to many people on a gut level, regardless of what the numbers tell us. Personally, I find riding on a quiet separated path far preferable to riding on a busy roadway just feet from cars traveling at a high rate of speed.
Bicycling may be a relatively safe activity, but the perception that it’s dangerous is a major obstacle to increased ridership. We must find a way to build more separated facilities to make bicycling less intimidating to beginners and non-enthusiasts. We also need more training in vehicular cycling techniques to build rider skill and confidence for dealing with the realities on the ground as we build those new facilities. This combined approach will give us the best chance of growing bicycling for transportation in the U.S.
[A slightly different version of this article was originally posted in 2009. —ed.]