We often hear that cyclists should follow the rules of the road, just like motor vehicles. Since recently obtaining a practical city bike I have been using it as my primary means of transportation — and have mostly been following those rules. But as helpful as the techniques of vehicular cycling are, it has become quite clear to me that this model of bicycles sharing space with cars is generally inadequate as a model to encourage regular use by regular people on bikes.
Those rules of the road in North America were explicitly designed to facilitate automobile travel. But bicycles — and particularly city bicycles — are not cars, and they generally cannot travel on the same road as fast-moving cars and trucks in a way that is convenient and subjectively safe.
Bicycles are slower, much smaller, quieter, and generally less visible than are cars. They pose virtually no hazard to the occupants of a motor vehicle, and little hazard to the vehicle itself. In North America, they are also unlikely to pose any financial or legal hazard, as unintentionally hitting a cyclist does not usually result in any consequences. (Amazingly, you can even intentionally hit cyclists with no jail time.)
I believe that a number of routine car interactions are dependent on the threat posed by other vehicles on the road — gut feelings being the real driver, as in so many other situations. Naturally a motorist does not feel threatened by a bicycle on the road as he does by another vehicle, and thus a cyclist has difficulty navigating road situations which implicitly rely on that threat.
Here are a few specific reasons why and situations in which vehicular cycling poses problems, due to visibility, speed, and that lack of threat. (Left and right are in the context of right-hand traffic.)
1. Left turns at intersections without signals or left turn lanes. If there’s any traffic travelling in the same direction, you’ve got problems. How do you make it across fast-moving lanes of traffic to get to the left-most lane to make the turn? How do you know that cars coming up from behind will see you when you’re standing there waiting to make the turn? Do you have enough time to make it across during gaps in traffic? Are motorists behind you getting pissed off and starting to pose a hazard?
2. Left turns at conventional signaled intersections. Here there may well be a left turn lane, but again, how do you get to it across multiple lanes of traffic? If you have to yield to opposing traffic, can you find a gap in traffic? If you go when the light turns red to avoid getting stuck (as motorists will do), do you have enough time to cross — and are motorists who just got green on the intersecting road going to be angry at your low speed?
3. Roads with blind curves. Cars travelling at speed around curves pose a serious danger to slow-moving, small (and thus poorly visible) bicycles. Unlike faster-moving vehicles, bicycles are more likely not to have been seen prior to the curve.
4. Obstacles in the right-most lane or bike lane, including gutters, debris, and parked vehicles. Traffic in the next lane over is likely moving much faster. How do you get into that lane?
5. Merges into a lane with high speeds or heavy traffic. Here a car can accelerate to speed and/or force its way in. The speed and threat imbalance make either a difficult proposition for a cyclist.
6. Trucks and buses. Drivers of large vehicles have poorer visibility of the area around the vehicle, and so are particularly likely not to notice a bicycle. They are also less able to judge how close the bicycle is.
7. The encouragement to ride faster and to accelerate faster. Car speeds set a norm for the speed of road travel, and the slower you ride, the more impatient drivers will be with you. On the other hand, the faster you go, the fewer times you will be passed by cars (often too closely for comfort). Going fast and accelerating quickly are counter to the normal inclination when riding a city bike for utility without cycling clothes or needing a shower at the end of your ride.
8. Riding side-by-side. This natural and pleasant way for two people to ride somewhere together is incompatible in philosophy and practice with vehicular cycling.
9. Stop signs. Setting aside the fact that motorists themselves often don’t come to a complete stop, there is no good reason for cyclists to come to a full stop at a stop-controlled intersection. On a bike one can get very good sight-lines by slowing down at an intersection, but without losing all momentum. (This is known as an Idaho stop.)
10. Tight left turns from an intersecting street. We all love to cut corners, and motorists are no exception. When turning left, they often cut into the cross-street’s left-turn lane if they don’t see any cars there. A bike in that lane is less visible and less expected, and thus in danger.
11. Cars merging from the left on a road without bike lanes. If a car travelling closely behind another car in the left lane decides to merge right, slow-moving and small vehicles (e.g. bicycles) can be obscured by the car in front.
12. Multi-lane roundabouts. If you’re staying on the roundabout past a two-lane turn, you’re either in the right lane and liable to get hit by a car turning from the left lane or you’re in the left lane and liable to get hit by a fast-moving car.
If you’re fast enough, sufficiently trained, and aggressive enough, you can probably navigate the above scenarios on the busiest of suburban arterials. But most people want neither to be particularly fast nor aggressive, nor to undertake difficult training in traffic. They want to travel safely and comfortably, with their stuff, and without breaking a sweat.
Vehicular cycling is a marginal activity, barely visible and taking place on small pieces of car-dominated roads. It is a coping mechanism for cycling-inadequate road infrastructure designed for cars. Its techniques are useful for making do with what we have, but it is useless as a model for promoting cycling as an everyday mode of city transportation for regular people. If we want people to cycle in large enough numbers to make a difference in our cities, we have to acknowledge the serious differences between bicycles and cars — and for that matter, between bicycles and pedestrians — and implement segregated cycling infrastructure. Especially on roads with high speeds or many large vehicles, and at intersections.