One Foot in Each Camp

Separated Facility

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.

Bicycling may be a relatively safe activity, but the perception that it’s dangerous is a major obstacle to increased ridership.

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.]

53 Responses to “One Foot in Each Camp”

  • Dan says:

    I’ve been hit by cars three times while cycling in downtown Sacramento where I work and live. I ride my bike to work and use it for daily chores around downtown. I am not one of those idiots that runs stop signs or rides against the flow of traffic on the sidewalk. Car drivers are the ones that need education.

  • Alan says:


    I’m sorry to hear about your collisions.

    I agree 100% that we need more and better driver’s education in regards to bicycling. If you have a minute, can you touch upon your collisions and how better driver’s education might have changed the outcomes?


  • gregg says:

    US drivers are unaccustomed to watching our for bicycles and even pedestrians in most of the US because our roads are so huge and sparsely occupied.
    But that is also why separating bicycles from traffic may not lead to the kinds of cyclist numbers cited in Europe…the roads are big because the travel distances are much greater. only in densely populated (thus small in terms of square mileage) cities could you see those numbers really rise.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Well said Alan. Here in Sweden, authorities have gone to great lengths to separate cyclists from motorists. Where bike paths cross major roads, the intersection is grade separated. Where the path crosses at grade, there are sharp turns on the bike path in order to make the cyclists slow down, and there is often also a raised crossing to make the motorists slow down.

    This is great for getting the the 7-77 age group cycling, but at the same time I feel that cyclists are a very diverse group. Some of us are adults with driver’s licenses (getting a driver’s license in Sweden is hard) and a lot of experience in traffic, and our needs are very different from the needs of young child cyclists. For an adult trying to get to work on time, it’s important not to have to stop or slow down at every driveway. And those lovely grade-separated crossings turn out to be just a detour with sharp turns and poor visibility.

    The sad part is that it’s technically illegal in Sweden to cycle on the “car road” when there is a bike path. Drivers who are normally courteous will become aggressive if you cycle on the “car road” next to a poorly executed bike path. Sometimes, it seems the mere existence of a partial cycle network will make people assume it’s a death wish to cycle in places where the cycle network hasn’t been built yet.

    I support the expansion bike facilities, both segregated and just painted lanes. But they are not a substitute for traffic calming, in the end motorists have to acknowledge the need to slow down and be extra courteous to those without a metal cage. After all, if you need to get somewhere fast, there are trains and airplanes that can safely go much faster than a car.

  • Dan says:

    Well first off, I was not seriously hurt in any of them thankfully. I attribute that partially to me being an extremely defensive rider. So the collisions: I was door checked once in a bike lane, I had a car turn right at an intersection during a green light across me in the bike lane while I was dragged along the side of his car, and I was t-boned by I person coming out of an ally way way to fast while riding in the street. All of these collisions where caused, in my opinion, by the car drivers simply not paying attention to the world around them. People in cars seem to be in such a hurry that they are oblivious to the world around them. All to ultimately gain a few seconds at the end of their trip or to simply get to that red light as fast as possible. I also feel that there is little education during drivers training concerning bicycles and how to simply be aware of them. The bike lane is not just a random white line painted on the street. It is a legal boundary that car drivers need to be aware of. The bicycle police here in Sacramento do not help the situation. They do not seem to understand the laws either and ride almost exclusively on the side walk and once told me I am not legally allowed to ride in the street! I realize I am preaching to the choir here. Love your site!

  • Andy says:

    I agree that the education should mostly be on the drivers. The bigger, heavier, more deadly your vehicle, the greater need for stricter licensing, harsher fees, and a real level of accountability.

    The part that I never see mentioned in articles like this is the different types of riding. The separate facilities are used by people generally biking about 10mph, on hybrid or upright commuter comfort bikes, by people not in a rush to get somewhere. That system seems to work very well in many countries.

    What we have in the US though, is a different type of bicycling, because for whatever reason, Americans are more often in a rush. Most riders seem to be looking for 15-20mph, and it’s much faster, more efficient, and safer to ride on the roads at those speed where you don’t need to worry about every driveway crossing and intersection crossings are easily visible instead of pushed to the side. In the bigger cities where there is inevitable traffic stops that lower speeds, bike lanes do seem to work decently well most of the time. But for small cities and rural places, bike lanes are rarely placed well, and drivers don’t treat cyclists any differently, so I haven’t found the infrastructure very helpful in those places.

    While I generally fall within the vehicular cycling title, I do see some places where proper painting placement has made a big difference. One example is a 3/4 mile hill on a state route with heavy but 30mph traffic. It has parking on the uphill side of the road, and also a bike lane. Dooring is not an issue, since most cars are parked there all day, and being a fairly steep hill the cyclists tend to go 8-12mph. When they put in the bike lane, they also ground out the yellow centerlines and shifted them over. While I don’t particularly care for the bike lane, since it’s too often filled with debris and potholes, having that yellow line shifted was a great benefit. It allows cars to pass with plenty of room without trying to squeeze past while staying within the (somewhat) arbitrary line on a wide road.

    My fear is that if we start trying to retrofit our roads for separated facilities, that non-cyclists will get angry when the “strong and fearless” cyclists are still using the roads when there’s a multimillion dollar bike path parallel to the road. I already hear some shouts from passengers telling me to “use the sidewalk!” even though that’s illegal in NY and most other states (someday I’ll yell back, “use the interstate!”). I’m certain that riding near a bike path but still in the road, drivers will want full use of “their” space, and won’t treat cyclists very well. I bet we could bump up ridership numbers with nice paths by a few percent, but I wouldn’t anticipate much more than that until our suburban car-centric lifestyle is forced to change.

  • Mat says:

    Alan, some interesting thoughts here. I’ve been commuting for ten years, with the last seven years including winter as well. One notion I have about cycling on the road is that it’s not for everyone. I believe it takes a certain personality to successfully make it through what can sometimes be the daily grind. I do it because every day, every ride, I enjoy the feeling of being on two wheels and I like the challenge, but I’ve often thought that if I were doing it only because I had to, it would be misery itself.

    I’m not referring to Dan here, but our daily paper published a comment by a rider in her twenties complaining about cars saying that in two years she had had nine (!) accidents, none of them her fault. In ten years I’ve had one accident, entirely my fault. Different mindset: I consider every close call to be my fault, and constantly seek ways to be a safer and more considerate rider.

    Separate roads for cyclists? I would like that but given the dismal financial state cities and states (and provinces up here) are in, is it a reasonable expectation or request?

  • Alan says:


    Thanks for following up regrading your collisions. All of those are common scenarios that could be easily prevented if drivers slowed down and looked for bicyclists. And I agree, people just seem to be in too big a hurry which creates a much more dangerous environment for all road users.


  • Erik Sandblom says:

    @Dan @Alan
    I think the road network contributes to motorists being in a rush. The roads are wide and the traffic lights are set up to give you a lot of green lights. On a road like that, doing 30-40 km/h (20-25 mph) seems like a crawl and non-motorists come across as a hindrance.

    “Use the interstate!”. Hm, maybe not such a bad idea! Roads and streets that parallel a divided highway should be traffic-calmed in my opinion, so that traffic flows at about 20-25 mph. That way those parallel roads would truly be open to everyone.

  • Nick says:

    IMO the question of seperated or shared lanes needs to be answered by traffic engineers for a specific route, not by politicians or advocates for all routes. I think its a practical matter, not a matter of policy.

    As a taxpayer and a transportation cyclist, I’m mostly interested in linking up whatever facilities already exist. Whether a route is shared or seperated, an interruption in it (bridge, intersection, half mile of undeveloped road) is a bigger problem than what typw of route it is.

  • Zane Selvans says:

    I think that “vehicular cycling” is the best you can do when you’re being denied any substantive bicycle infrastructure. I lived without a car for 11 years in Los Angeles, and it was vehicular riding, or nothing at all. That said, I don’t think it’s really appropriate for bikes and cars to share the same space. The energies of the two modes are too different (a factor of 100) and the risks too asymmetric in any context other than the calmest of streets. If our only option is vehicular riding, we’re not going to get mass cycling. Vehicular cycling will only ever appeal to a small demographic, hence the feeling that “it’s not for everyone” mentioned above. But if you’ve ever lived in Japan, or Denmark, or Holland… you know that bicycles can be for everyone — not just cyclists. And as far as real bike infrastructure being fiscally off the table… it’s sure a lot cheaper than car infrastructure!

  • Gary says:

    I’m an all around cyclist, I ride for sport and transportation. I’ve also just moved to The Netherlands from the US. I have no promblem whatsoever riding in traffic and in fact enjoy it a good deal. I will say though that having a seperate, dedicated infrastructure for cycling is really incredible and it’s not just for “slow” cyclists. In addition to the slower cyclists, the bike lanes are shared with sporting cyclists, mopeds and scooters. The difference is that everyone is considered traffic and taught from very early on how to work together to get around in a mutually beneficial way. I’m convinced that there is no single strategy that will “fix” cycling in the states but am definitely a believer in bicycling specific infrastructure.

  • dominic says:

    If there is a Holy Grail it is how to get more Americans to bike ride. The Separatist have had their turn. Federal funding during the years 1992- 2009 of $9 billion dollars shows only half of those dollars went towards infrastructure such as rails to trails and separate paths. A paltry $35 million dollars was allocated to bike and pedestrian safety. Any wonder fear is still the American perception? More money ($108 million) was spent on transportation museums. Figures from America Bikes 2009.
    So what of the John Forester camp? Is there anyone in this camp besides irate automobile drivers who yell at road riding bicyclist for petty offenses? This camp was the only voice 30 years ago and it made sense in simpler times. Today, let’s face it, automobile drivers have countless distractions. People only pay attention to what is around them when they are uncomfortable. There is hope though. Traffic calming solutions have been implemented by various municipalities to narrow roadways, reduce speed limits and remove traffic signalling. These are autocentric changes that are long overdue. While the debate continues I like to think that I ride a bike like Italians drive cars. Italians go fast when there is an opening. Italians respect the faster driver and stays out of their way and Italians know what the other scooter, van, truck, pedestrian is going to do. Like it was a sixth sense. Italians drivers are aware, pretty much like experienced bike riders and motorcylist are aware in America. The Holy Grail is not more bicyclist but less car drivers. Or at least totally aware car drivers.

  • Don says:

    I consider myself a pragmatist of the Forester school, but this is by default owing to the fact I have never experienced proper separate facilities firsthand. The most similar to the infrastructure you describe that I have experienced are those strips of asphalt that lace through city parks. They tend to be ambiguous in their intended uses and almost always fill up with dog walkers on completion. Nothing against my dog-loving friends; that’s just what happens. And a lot of side-by-side lovey-dovey stuff.

    In my neck of the woods there is much talk of lanes of various types. I seriously doubt I will ever see any, so I just get on with it and look out for road debris.

  • Don says:

    @Nick: Well put, brother! My sentiments exactly.

  • Ken T. says:

    Here in hilly SW Portland, Oregon we could use comuting roads with continuous shoulders or at least a continuous strip of pavement outside of the fog line. In this part of town, utilitarian bike riding is often either 25 mph downhill or 8 mph uphill. Installation of separate bicycle tracks along the main commute routes is very unlilkely and would be difficult to design especially with the differences in rider speeds, depending on the direction of travel.

    Many of the officially suggested bike roads here are simply too confusing for automobile through-traffic but are similarly confusing, steep, and little-used by bike riders. Getting to work by bike needs to be time and energy-efficient. We all take the highway. I guess I am in the vehicular cycling camp.

    From Jeff Mapes’ book Pedaling Revolution, I like this quote: “There is nothing like riding a bicycle alongside two tons of warm steel to focus the mind”.

  • Lunch Break » Cyclelicious says:

    […] with a Foot in each camp re vehicular cycling vs separated […]

  • Andy says:

    After reading other comments, I think it’s worth mentioning that “vehicular cycling” is not simply riding in the roadway. Vehicular cycling is when you ride as if you were a car, generally fully within the lane, not allowing cars to unsafely pass on narrow lanes, and keeping a straight and predictable line. I would assume that many cyclists reading this blog ride in this way, but it’s certainly not how the majority of people bike. We have one road with sharrows here, and even though the markings indicate to ride about 3ft away from cars to avoid getting doored, nearly all people I’ve seen biking on that road still weave around each parked car, and don’t ride on the sharrows. It’s extremely unsafe to bike that way since drivers are much less likely to anticipate a person riding a bike to pop out from in front of a parked car.

  • Phil Miller says:

    I don’t regard the two as camps but as viewpoints toward the common goal of promoting cycling.
    The Vehicular Cyclist is a manual that tells cyclists how best to handle day-to-day travel on roads not specialized for cycling. At least that’s how I’ve used it. All other ‘gospel’ is simply a means for eliminating the excuses for not getting out there.
    The separatists have a goal of changing the environment that cyclists use so as to make the experience better.
    One tackles the individual.
    One tackles the environment.
    I don’t think they are that much at odds unless you choose to overweight the details instead of the goals.

  • Phil Miller says:

    if you are asking the question, “How can I get on my bike and get where I’m going?”, Vehicular Cycling is your book.
    If you are asking the question, “How can I get my neighborhood to ride their bikes to the local high school football game?” instead of duking it out in the parking lot, well then that’s different.

  • John L. says:

    I find that one needs to be quite dedicated and intrepid to commute regularly in traffic without protected, or even marked, bike lanes. As long as that is seen as a prerequisite for transportational cycling, our numbers will be limited.

  • voyage says:

    Way back, in high school, we had to take and pass “Driver’s ed” to get entry as teenagers to the state’s licensing process and, presumably, get a license to safely operate a motor vehicle. The macro economy and middle class were prosperous back then, though the schooling wasn’t bikey.

    What is the current status of “Driver’s Ed” in USA public schools? Is it an anachronism, for whatever reason? Budget cuts?

  • joe says:

    A separate infrastructure would be nice, but I don’t see it happening nationally any time soon. Those cities developing them, are doing so because they have the ridership (or vision) to justify it. It’s a chicken and egg situation. We need to get people using bikes more and the infrastructure will follow. Statistics have shown that the more cyclists there are using the roads the safer they become. I’ve been without a car now for about 8 months and I’ve found local drivers surprisingly courteous and accommodating, particularly for a community with a relatively small cycling community. Maybe it’s because I’m “that old guy on the bike” :)

  • Phil Miller says:

    My experience in Drivers Ed way back in 1972 would not be typical, even of THAT time, because I took it in Davis, CA: probably the bike capital of the US back then. The city welcome signs said, “Population: 30,000 Humans, 30,000 bikes”, and they were probably right.
    BUT, it would indication pretty close to IDEAL drivers ed:
    Because there were LOTS of bikes on the road, training involved them in practically every on-street situation. Granting right of way to them was emphasized, and I didn’t have to just remember that, I had to DO it; again and again.
    Point to be taken is, Cyclist Safety in numbers is a factor for motorists at every stage.
    And by the way, you know how hard it is for a teenager to get a license now? And how restrictive that license is to them? I’m not complaining. But car dating for under 18 teens is a thing of the past in California. There’s a whole opportunity to get teens dating on bikes. How else are they going to get away from the fossil parental units? (uh… that would be me…)

  • johnnyk says:

    I would much rather drive my bike with traffic. I normally ride in the middle of the lane. There is only a handful of cyclist in Jacksonville, FL. most are pedestrians riding bikes and those pedestrians have almost collided with many times. It is much too dangerous to be on sidewalks for my taste after all they are not called siderides.

  • Michael says:

    Andy – maybe someone else can correct me, but I think the term “vehicular cycling” in this sense is how planning and funding resources should be used. For example, Forrester being a leading critic of ANY dedicated bicycle infrastructure, even bike lanes.

    For me, the argument between vehicular and separatist or “infrastructurist” is a non sequiter. Those of us reading this blog and who participate in such discussions or debates are typically already experienced cyclists, which statistically makes us affluent, white, and male. The argument doesn’t make sense because it is incredibly unfair to design a transportation system that cannot reasonably accommodate vulnerable users, in this case the young, old, low-income and female (statistically). I hope we all agree that the bicycle is indeed a transportation system, so the infrastructure should be designed to accommodate everyone who would want to use it. That typically means separated infrastructure, but could often be addressed simply with better complete street design in neighborhoods.

    The bottom line I guess is that we should consider not what is best for you and I, but everyone else.

  • Frits B says:

    Key question to vehicular riders: would you let your children from say 8 years on ride in traffic on their own, to school or friends or whatever? The Dutch do, the Danes do. It’s safe, because they have a separate cycling infrastructure – the Dutch more than the Danes. And cheaper than adding cycling lanes to existing roads, too, whatever politicians and taxpayers may think.

    This website says a lot:

  • Andy says:

    Michael, that’s why it’s hard to get involved. The experienced cyclists will generally prefer the road where we can move most efficiently, so we have little incentive to push for separate facilities that we are less likely to use. Even if we put a lot of effort into making cycling seem safe/fun and got double the ridership numbers, the difference in car traffic wouldn’t be noticeable.

    As much as I don’t like paying more than I need to, the only way things will significantly change is when gas becomes expensive enough that the suburban car-centric lifestyle won’t be easy or cheap anymore, and the revival of cities will require a higher percentage of people walking, biking, taking buses, and carsharing rather than driving personal cars.

  • Stephen says:

    I’m a professional planner who works on bike/ped issues and facilities. A decade ago when I began bicycle commuting, I bought Forester’s book. It’s got some good advice in it, and the basic idea that you are safest when you are predictable is sound. However, I will never forget being personally castigated online by Forester when I argued somewhere long ago that kids and adults who were not expert riders needed dedicated facilities to grow the population of utility riders. In my business, if you attack the messenger, your credibility evaporates. I didn’t have much patience for Forester or his disciples after that.

    While it is true that the US is much larger than any European country, our cities are still ripe for increasing utility ridership. To do that in the face of an automobile-dominated transportation system, you need dedicated facilities. To say that they aren’t necessary is the same to me in a way as saying that pedestrians don’t need sidewalks since they can walk just fine along the road edges as long as they are part of traffic.

    We will likely not convert our large cities in the foreseeable future into Copenhagen, but what we can create is a mixed hybrid system of dedicated facilities and other treatments that make cycling a reasonable choice in many urban areas. New York and Portland are two examples where there is a direct correlation between the provision of facilities and the growth of utility cycling. Another argument for the provision of facilities is that they are always way cheaper than roadways or roadway improvements, and that’s not included the health benefits of riding a bicycle to work or to the store. It’s sometimes a tough sell when many people have grown up driving everywhere, but younger people are increasingly questioning the need to buy personal cars, and they should be provided choices how to get around, not herded into expensive, polluting cars.

  • Karen Lynn Allen says:

    The problem with riding a bicycle amidst cars goes beyond the issue of danger. Vehicular cycling on any road with substantial traffic is stressful, unpleasant and unhealthy. (There was just an article in the SF Chronicle on the dangers to bicyclists of breathing the pollutants cars expel.) I do it when I must, but I grit my teeth and I don’t like it. To be widely adopted, bicycling needs to be pleasant, convenient and easy to do. The good news is that bicycling is inherently a pleasant and easy activity when one doesn’t have to deal with the noise, smells and intimidation of cars.

    It is pretty clear that vehicular cycling works very well for an extremely small segment of the U.S. population. It is pretty clear that those countries that create separate bicycle infrastructure are able to get large parts of their populations on bikes and out of cars. Arguing to retain the status quo of vehicular cycling is akin to arguing for:

    –sedentary lifestyles for the majority of the population with resulting high obesity rates and skyrocketing health care costs
    –an economy with huge trade deficits due to the importation of foreign oil
    –a society completely unable to cope with the looming impacts of Peak Oil
    –a planet rife with climate change that is ultimately likely to result in drought and famine for billions of people.

    The installation and maintenance of bicycle infrastructure is a fraction of the cost of installing and maintaining roads for cars. It is a fraction of the cost of heath care for an obese, diabetic population. It is a fraction of the cost of two wars and two shadow wars to control the oil supply in the middle east. It is a fraction of the cost of subsidizing corn and ethanol and oil companies. We are nonsensical in the belief that bicycle infrastructure is too expensive. It is too expensive not to put in bicycle infrastructure as fast as we possibly can.

  • kanishka azimi new england says:

    another compromise, similar to parallel to interstate roads suggestion above, there are a lot of excess roads at present. i love riding down a backroad with no traffic, it feels like a separated facility, you can ride in the middle of the road. bicyclists add to the atmosphere of those roads. maybe place a few more restrictions on acces to them – no heavy vehicles, a few speed bumps, make them one way for cars, but 2 ways for bicyclists. and also straight them out a little, if there is available space.

  • Mel Hughes says:

    Living in a fairly sparsely populated, rural area, my opportunities for using bicycle only facilities are nil. When i ride, it is primarily on secondary, two-lane country roads. For me, a positive, definsive posture works best as the traffic I meet can be anything from new, teen-age drivers to farm equipment. But congestion is rarely a problem.

    Out here, especially in areas that are not thriving economically, I don’t believe we will ever see anything more than lip-service for bike-only facilities or the ubiquitous “Bike
    Route-Share the Road” signs. Speaking of the signs, I had to work in Chattanooga yesterday. Driving back over the Cumberland Plateau, passing through the small community of Spenser, I saw one of those signs, a brand new one, stuck in fresh asphalt at the foot of a concrete lane divider marking the beginning of a construction zone with no shoulder at all. It was a “Bike Route-Share the Road ” at your own risk… Who came up with those things anyway? Does it qualify the poster for additional federal road funds? But I digress.

    I feel that for most of us living in the hinterland, that general neglect of cyclists will be the rule of the day until/unless some large, outside events push more people to cycling as an alternative to driving. So for now, defensive riding is the rule of the day.

  • JWLane says:

    I really like the bike trails all around Denver. And, they get plenty of use. I’m 53 and in TN and FL have been hit 4 total times on a bike (highly airborne twice, and one intentional hit), 3 times in a car. I can’t count the near misses I was able to avoid – for both modes. It’s a lot, and it has increased greatly with the adoption of large SUV vehicles. I don’t know why – it’s an observation. Though a minority, there is a significant number of motorist that feel absolutely entitled to any space on the road they want, when they want it. Bike lanes are to these people what game hunting limits are to poachers.

  • John Ferguson says:

    I guess the bottom line is how to create more transportation cyclists. I’m not sure how best to do that, but I’m pretty sure that facilities is just a minor part of the equation.

    Regardless of whether we improve roadways or create bicycle-only paths to get around there will be challenges – I live in an affluent suburb of San Francisco with lots of bike specific infrastructure, relatively bike aware and courteous drivers and people with plenty of disposable income that they could (and sometimes do) use to equip themselves as fully as they desire for cycling or auto driving or both. And the weather is great for biking year round – maybe a dozen days a year that are truly unsuitable for man or beast out there.

    Our area (Marin County, Northern California) is perhaps one of the least challenging to ride a bicycle in the country for the reasons I list above. In the 7 years I’ve lived here I’ve had more incidents with dogs on the multi-use path than I have on streets with cars. I’ve noticed that people who walk their dogs and socialize in the middle of the path are not at all concerned that they might be impeding a commuter cyclist’s progress in any way.. And the mode share % of transportation cycling in this bicycle nirvana? It’s stuck at or around 2% according to the numbers I’ve seen. This in the place where Safe Routes to Schools was born, where bicycle advocacy takes on a fervency that rivals southern state gun owners or Arizona anti-illegal-immigrants groups. If we can’t crack 5%, it’s really not about facilities or conditions.

    I think all the whining about facilities and safety is truly a straw man for the real reason most people won’t ride bikes – because they really don’t want to. As I first realized on a cross-country bicycle tour when I was 24 years old, in America Comfort is King. For roughly 90% of the U.S. Population, riding a bike is like eating your broccoli – something that we know is good for us but that we’ll only do if forced, because we don’t really like broccoli (apologies to broccoli lovers everywhere..)

    So yes, Driving 2 miles to work is like eating hamburgers and fries for dinner each night – we know it’s not good for us, but it’s what we’ve always done and it works for us.

  • Stephen says:

    John, those are valid observations. However, if you don’t build appropriate, well-designed facilities, very few people will ride a bicycle to work or to the store.

    Design, taxes, and cheap gas has a lot to do with what mode of transportation Americans choose as much as comfort, maybe even more. If I can get into an affordable, relatively luxurious automobile, SUV, or truck on a cold morning and be assured that plentiful supplies of gas are available, the roads are clear and in good repair, and that a cheap or even free parking space is waiting for me, I’m probably going to take the care. But if I can ride on superb shared use paths like those Alan loves to photograph around the Sacramento area, I may decide to ride instead, especially if the price of gas, insurance, etc. reflected its true costs.

    European rates of bicycling in places like Denmark are not only a function of available infrastructure, but it also reflects the high cost of fuel, taxes, parking, and especially automobile insurance. These are deliberate decisions made by governments and private businesses to fulfill specific societal objectives, just like our cushy cars and road systems are the result of deliberate decisions made here in the U.S.

  • John Riley says:

    Marin: I once considered riding from San Francisco to an event in Fairfax. The suggested routing was like a complicated maze. I am not surprised ridership is flat. I was looking forward to the train + path, but now it looks like even the existing tax might get yanked.

    Copenhagen: I was there briefly and concur with other comments that not everyone rides the same speed. I saw some riders speeding along on racing bikes with backpacks, as I see here. The thing is, people seemed respectful of each other, something that is not necessarily the case here. Regardless of speed, people seemed to ride predictably, also not common here in the US.

    Vehicular cycling: The issue is not just about getting hit. It is about harassment; horn honking and verbal abuse. In Miami, I got a lot less of it when I was in a bike lane than I did when I was sharing a lane with cars.(South FL is a notorious cyclist killing field.) Also note that in many places, taking the lane, legal or not, will get you a citation from the police for impeding traffic. Might get thrown out, but how many people do you think are going to cycle in this sort of environment?

    Another issue with sharing the lane is that device distraction might be involved in 25% of crashes:

  • Karen Lynn Allen says:

    Study: More people walking, biking in Marin (April 2011)

    More Marin residents are leaving their cars behind and pedaling and walking local streets, according to data compiled in an annual county survey on non-motorized transit.

    The survey is part of the federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, which has provided the county with about $25 million since 2005 via the U.S. Department of Transportation. The money has been used for bicycle and pedestrian improvements as well as educational and outreach programs aimed at encouraging non-motorized transit and reducing car trips.

    The 2010 survey shows “substantial increases” in walkers and bicyclists throughout the county, said Craig Tackabery, assistant director for the county public works department.

    “The program provided infrastructure, and people typically say they would use facilities if they felt they were safer,” he explained.

    Tackabery pointed to new bicycle paths on Alameda del Prado in Novato and on Los Ranchitos Road in San Rafael, among numerous other improvements, which he said have given residents a greater sense of safety on their bikes and encouraged them to get out of the car.

    Average bicycling rates in Marin at peak hours increased 46 percent on weekdays between 2007 and 2010, and 85 percent on weekends over the same period, the survey found. Between 2009 and 2010, there was a 29 percent uptick in weekday cycling and a 15 percent boost on weekends.

  • John Ferguson says:

    Stephen, I agree with you that unless you build appropriate well designed facilities most people won’t ride anywhere. I think infrastructure is a necessary but insufficient ingredient to widespread bicycling in the U.S.

    The Marin County Bicycle Coalition has a stated goal of 20% of all trips within Marin County be by nonmotorized means (cycling and walking, mainly) by 2020. It has a nice symmetry, but I honestly don’t know how we get there. According to the NTPP follow up report, the mode share %s per person-trip for walking and cycling are 11.8% and 1.8% respectively.

    Everyone wants to show progress through % increases in walking and biking, and I’m always glad to see signs of progress but for bikes to become a significant part of the transportation mix in Marin we need something on the order of a 10x increase in use. 46% sounds good, but what we really need to see is something on the order of 700% to 1000% increase in the base number of folks using bikes for transportation.

    If you want to see the unvarnished numbers, they’re all here:

    Lots of evidence is there to indicate that approximately 75% of all people in Marin would never consider getting on a bike for any reason at all, except maybe to chase the kids around. About 15% are relatively frequent cyclists. That doesn’t leave much of a slice for persuasion, so all the money in the world spent on infrastructure might yield a 10% improvement in the number of people riding regularly when measured against the whole pie. Not really a good ROI if you ask me..

  • Alan says:


    Those 75% of people who currently say they would never get on a bike might answer differently if gas prices and the other costs associated with car ownership approached those in the great bicycle countries in Europe. This goes back to my post about needing both carrots and sticks to make real progress. At this point we have only a few carrots (not many) and virtually zero sticks. In affluent areas like Marin where there is so much discretionary income floating around, it will probably take a large quantity of both to have much of an impact.


  • John Ferguson says:

    With all due respect Alan, for most people in our fair state (not me, but you know..) them’s fighting words.. If you’ll recall, it was a relatively minor increase in automobile registration fees that rousted Gray Davis from the CA governorship and gave us the Governator!

    Seriously – Politicians of all stripes are now treating increases in automobile use fees as Clark Kent treated Kryptonite. I agree that it will take vast increases to automotive costs and many incentives for HPVs to move the mode share needle in areas like Marin. I just don’t see it happening anytime soon.

    Even petroleum fuels prices are a red herring here – at some point, EVs and the use of hybrid drivetrains (and just general efficiency trends) will bring the average amount of fuel consumed down per mile driven, probably right in concert with the rise in fuel costs. People will drive just as much and pay about as much, they just won’t fill up as often.

    I’ll keep up the good fight in my own way, but I don’t expect to be joined on the roads by great numbers of new cyclists regardless of what incentives are dangled.

  • John Ferguson says:

    Just thinking about it some more, I can think of one big disincentive to driving in urban areas that will get people out of their cars. Parking. More specifically, the lack thereof. Take lots of it away and charge like the dickens for what remains. And ticket the heck out of people who park illegally.

    It’s in the process in most of the urban core of San Francisco and it is having a big impact on how many people drive around. In suburban and rural areas I don’t see any way to make parking a big disincentive to driving, but it can certainly work in urban areas.

  • Alan says:


    Anything that makes driving less convenient is likely to encourage the use of other forms of transportation, and parking is a big one. Another one is simply our overcrowded urban freeways and the stress and strain of daily traffic jams. These will only get worse going forward.

    I have to wonder what, if any, effect the upcoming “carmageddon” highway closures in LA will have on people’s thinking. I don’t expect to see scores of drivers abandoning their cars, but perhaps it will make at least a small minority reconsider their transportation choices.


  • misodumb says:

    The Geography of How We Get to Work

  • Alan says:

    Great article – thanks for the link!

  • Jim says:

    My ride to work is both, and it is really interesting to see clear divisions between ‘infrastructuralists’ and ‘vehicularists’. I’ve seen articles saying cyclists are exposed to more harmful gases riding in traffic, I’ve seen yet more that cyclists breathe less harmful gases than those in cars.

    I have to ride on the road to get to work on time. But I my route also allows me to ride on one of the best patronaged parts of cycing infrastructure in the country (NZ). So I am firmly in both camps, and I have to do my job well to stay out of trouble!

    Now having a young’un, I don’t see me putting a helmet on my child and pushing him out there to ride on the road like I do anytime soon.

    It is illegal to ride on the footpath here (though not really enforced), but for kids, I think riding slowly on the footpath is much safer than riding slowly on the road beside traffic going 50-60km/hr.

    A lot of discussion in cycling seems to be an ‘all or nothing’ thing, you either supoport this side or that side etc, particularly when you have strong willed/stubborn cheerleaders at each end of a spectrum. But really, cycling in our environment is just such a grey area that one side or the other is never the most applicable, or appropriate, because your reality is going to involve both sides of the story.

    For my kid, I would love to have them ride seperate from traffic on bike lanes everywhere they want to go. That would let me think that they were going to be safe.

    But that is never going to happen. My reality is, I can hope for cycle lanes and use them where available, but we all should be educated in the best ways to ride on the road, because we might just need them one day. And I’m going to make sure my kid knows too before I send them out there (when they are 20 or something ha).

  • kfg says:

    @Jim – “It is illegal to ride on the footpath here”

    Go to the library and look up the actual law.

    “That would let me think that they were going to be safe.”

    The further off from England, the nearer is to France.

    “when they are 20 or something ha”

    Yes, I’m afraid they’re going to have their own ideas long before that. I hit the long and winding road on my own when I was 12; of course those were the days when people tended to freak out when a cyclist wore a helmet.

  • John Riley says:

    “If you want to see the unvarnished numbers, they’re all here:

    Lots of evidence is there to indicate that approximately 75% of all people in Marin would never consider getting on a bike for any reason at all, except maybe to chase the kids around.”

    — I have connected those two paragraphs, assuming you were saying the second was supported by the link in the first. But that link says:

    “The research team designed and implemented surveys to collect travel behavior data to establish a baseline or “before” information on travel by bicycling and walking in the four pilot communities …”

    I don’t see the 75% refusal rate in that link. Where ever that number came from, I am guessing that means 75% are saying, “I would never ride a bike – – the way things are now.” I don’t see how one can conclude the opposite, that they are saying “I would never ride a bike, regardless of improvements.”

    Re San Francisco, before you brandish the stick too severely, consider that parking is already a serious issue, that car ownership is already expensive and inconvenient, and that we are deficient in carrots:

    Cycling is challenging because of the terrain. The SFBC cares not about north of Market. There is no consideration at all of a wiggle type connection between the Marina and the rest of the city. Polk Street climbs half way up Russian Hill.

    SF transit is unpleasant and not very useful. I lived in Toronto for 20 years, and used transit regularly. I could imagine living car free there. Not so much in San Francisco. Part of that is that Toronto had a subway system that served more of the city.

  • John Ferguson says:

    John Riley: I have lots of issues with how the NTPP data was collected, and the results are not that easy to interpret. I’m exrtrapolating my 75% non cycling figure from the information contained in the tables labeled 5.6 and 5.7.

    5.6 asks the respondents when the most recent time they used a bike for any purpose. In Marin, 62% said not within the past year. 5.7 asks repondents what the frequency and duration of bicycling was during a typical week. In Marin, 78% of people didn’t bike at all in a typical week. I take it that somewhere between 62 and 78 percent of people in Marin could be well classified as ‘non-cyclists’.

    The entire point of my post was that those people who are ‘non-cyclists’ are not riding bikes for many reasons, and that the effects of improved infrastructure in getting them to ride their bikes more will be minimal at best. People are non cyclists generally because they don’t like or can’t easily ride bikes, not mainly because of the perceived safety issues with riding bikes. I don’t personally know one person who doesn’t ride a bike at all who has told me “you know, if biking were safer I would do it”. That’s a transportation cycling myth that I would really like to dispel if at all possible. We engage in a fringe activity, but the reason that it *is* a fringe activity in the U.S. has much less to do with infrastructure than with mindset. Having great infrastructure in and of itself will not change the mindset. Necessary for sure, but not sufficient.

    As far as the SFBC not caring about north of Market, I’m not sure where that comes from. My regular commute takes me from the Golden Gate Bridge to the financial district and there’s plenty of bike lanes and routes going east/west through the Marina, Cow Hollow and North Beach. Francisco, Greenwich and North Point all have new and quite excellent bike lanes and biking along the Marina green is really quick and easy. There is an issue with going South from the marina, but aside from an electric motor I don’t know how you make those hills easier to climb. Nothing the SFBC can do about that, short of a tunnel that would cost more than the Doyle Drive rebuild is costing so no go.

    I agree that MUNI (SF public transit agency) is poorly planned and poorly run, but I can thank them for making me into a bike commuter almost 20 years ago. I was car free in SF for 12 years – it’s not only possible, it’s actually rather easy. Sure, there are hills but unless you live on top of one, there’s almost always a route that you can take that will get you around them.

  • kfg says:

    “I don’t personally know one person who doesn’t ride a bike at all who has told me “you know, if biking were safer I would do it”. ”

    I’ve known a few who have told me that. I’ve known a few who have told me all sorts of things. What have I learned from this?:

    People lie.

  • John Riley says:

    –“The entire point of my post was that those people who are ‘non-cyclists’ are not riding bikes for many reasons, and that the effects of improved infrastructure in getting them to ride their bikes more will be minimal at best. People are non cyclists generally because they don’t like or can’t easily ride bikes, not mainly because of the perceived safety issues with riding bikes. I don’t personally know one person who doesn’t ride a bike at all who has told me ‘you know, if biking were safer I would do it’. “–

    May I be the first? ;-) OK, I do not live in Marin, so I would not be a Marin commuter, but I would be much more inclined to ride there if the facilities were better. This very day I spend a lot of time exploring the byways of Corte Madera, Larkspur, and San Raphael. Terrible traffic, lots of very narrow roads of inconsistent width, etc. Seems to be some really nice _pieces_ of bicycle infrastructure, but they don’t seem connected. This includes the beautiful tunnel trail that ends in a parking lot and not at the ferry terminal.

    These conditions would be a serious deterrent to me, and I am someone who would be _trying_ to ride. If the facilities were better, I’d be pushing to move there.

    –“As far as the SFBC not caring about north of Market, I’m not sure where that comes from. …There is an issue with going South from the marina, but aside from an electric motor I don’t know how you make those hills easier to climb. Nothing the SFBC can do about that, short of a tunnel that would cost more than the Doyle Drive rebuild is costing so no go.”

    You just answered your own question. They seem to have a similar attitude about a north end wiggle.

    I often finish my 20 mile rides coming from the Marina back up to Polk Street, so I am sensitive to it, and have time to think about it as I climb.

    As with the south wiggle, there seems to be a natural gentle slope that runs diagonally across the street grid. This might involve removing street parking from a couple blocks of Franklin and running a separated south bound bike lane against the traffic, the object of which would be to get you to about Green Street, where you would turn east toward Polk. This does not seem that ambitious compared to the Oak and Fell projects. Maybe for some reason it is insurmountable, but it is not even being considered. It is dismissed the way you dismissed it.

    I appreciate the lanes on North Point.

    I don’t know that the SFBC had much to do with Crissy field, and in any case that area is in dire need of attention to better separate bikes and peds, and to better direct bikes to the bridge.

    Marina and Cow Hollow is mostly just a few signs directing you to bumpy streets, and the northbound lanes on Francisco that direct you to the Polk street climb half way up Russian Hill. The other route climbing part way up Pac Heights might be better, but you still give up a lot of your climb as you dip back down into the ravine before you climb back up to Polk.

    BTW, I do live on a hill.

    Speaking of tunnels, there is an unused tunnel (seismic issues?) under Ft Mason. The City has talked about re-opening it to rail vehicles to bring the America’s Cup crowds closer to the viewing areas in the Marina. What are the chances that they would get something like _that_ done on time? ;-)

  • John Ferguson says:

    Comment: John Riley

    ‘May I be the first? ;-) OK, I do not live in Marin, so I would not be a Marin commuter, but I would be much more inclined to ride there if the facilities were better. This very day I spend a lot of time exploring the byways of Corte Madera, Larkspur, and San Raphael. Terrible traffic, lots of very narrow roads of inconsistent width, etc. Seems to be some really nice _pieces_ of bicycle infrastructure, but they don’t seem connected. This includes the beautiful tunnel trail that ends in a parking lot and not at the ferry terminal.’

    I think you may have missed my main point. Anyone who reads this blog is not a ‘non-cyclist’, for one. You would be more inclined to ride in Marin if the facilities were better? Okay, you just outed yourself as a cyclist. I’m not really talking about cyclists (the 15%) who would ride more if conditions were better. For those of us who already ride, sure we’d like things to be better. It’s just not going to move the needle more than 2 or 3% of total trips no matter how much you and I and the rest of the gang reading this ride. Mice always want more cheese, and sure I’d love it if the moon was made of cheese and I could reach out and grab a piece any time I wanted. Doesn’t change the overall picture much, does it.

    If you do 20 mile rides either around S.F. or across the GGB, you want someone to make the Polk street hill easier for you? Seems like a minor inconvenience to me – If you don’t like hills, I’d say you picked the wrong city to live in. You could always move down to the Marina and avoid the whole problem ;

    Sure, there may be lots of good potential cycling routes through the Marina and Russian Hill that no one has thought of. They won’t get built on their own, so maybe you need to start showing up to planning meetings. That’s how the wiggle through the Haight got built, and it took almost 15 years of showing up and advocating for it to finally happen. It’s still not perfect, but as with all political acts it’s the art of the possible.

    I go to meetings on a monthly basis to get things like the Alto tunnel and the north/south bikeway funded and built, so to hear a cyclist complain about a bike path (Cal Park Hill) that eliminates about 15 minutes and at least 2 very dangerous intersections from my commute because it ends in a parking lot and not right at the ferry terminal sounds more than a little disingenuous. You won’t ride in Marin because it’s not perfect? Good luck with that – I’d say we have it pretty good by the standards of the realm..

  • John Riley says:

    “If you do 20 mile rides either around S.F. or across the GGB, you want someone to make the Polk street hill easier for you? Seems like a minor inconvenience to me – If you don’t like hills, I’d say you picked the wrong city to live in.”

    My point was that things could be better on the north side. You said it was impossible and mocked me. I illustrated how it was possible, and you are still mocking me. That doesn’t make for much of a discussion.

    “They won’t get built on their own, so maybe you need to start showing up to planning meetings. ”

    I intend to, and I intend to speak out publicly, as I am here, and as I do on the SFBC FB page.

    “I go to meetings on a monthly basis to get things like the Alto tunnel and the north/south bikeway funded and built, …”

    I don’t understand. You seem to be arguing against facilities, because you don’t believe they will increase the number of cyclists, any yet you have been very active in getting facilities built? (Thanks for that, BTW.)

  • John Ferguson says:

    JR, I’m not mocking you (well maybe a little). I’m also not arguing against facilities. I’m very much for bike facilities, but I”m against the idea that bike facilities by themselves will have any kind of large impact on how many people are riding their bikes. Having bike facilities in large amounts will attract a few new people and will make riding safer and better for those of us who ride anyway. There’s nothing wrong with advocating for a bigger piece of the transportation infrastructure pie for bike projects – just don’t expect it to change how people get around by all that much.

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