Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Vehicular Cycling and the Suburbs

Brown Girl in the Lane has a scathing critique up about vehicular cycling advocates. While I'm not about to say a word about her concern for the diversity of cycling, and the overwhelming white-male-ness of long-time vehicular cycling advocates, I want to push back against some of what she is saying. It's true that, in a perfect world (or Denmark), we'd have plentiful, grade-separated bicycle paths along every major road, and that bikes would be treated with respect by cars on the low-speed roads where they mix. Sadly, this is not a perfect world, and bicycle infrastructure is often severely lacking, especially out in the suburbs. (Riverside is actually on better footing than many surrounding cities, but this is still the case here, especially outside of downtown and the University area.) Vehicular cycling is a valuable tool for maintaining a cyclist's safety under specific infrastructural conditions, when a road leaves provision for cars and nothing else. Our right to the road, codified in CVC 22201(a) 21202(a), is an important tool to be used when city planners have neglected our right to safe passage in the public right-of-way.

For example, I'm going to go back to a long-standing pet peeve of mine in Riverside's bike infrastructure: Arlington Ave. between Indiana and Magnolia. Vehicular travel lanes are 10 feet wide, two in each direction. There is no shoulder, and no parking lane. Sidewalk cycling is illegal in Riverside, and is in any case rather dangerous due to driveway traffic. There are no alternate routes along side streets, as every street ends at the 91 freeway except the major arterials. (Central Ave. is even worse.) Oh, and did I mention that this is a City-designated bike route?

View Larger Map
(A quick map, so you can see that there really are no good cycling routes through here.)

View Larger Map
(And a street-level view. This passes for a "class III" bike route in Riverside.)

So I've recently taken up climbing at the Hangar 18 climbing gym, which is right next to the airport on Arlington. My choices are either to travel through this area or go several miles out of my way. I chose today to take the lane- and yes, it's not fun. Cars speed by you, honk, yell at you, etc. But if I were to ride at the far right-hand side of the lane, they would speed by much closer, and put me in greater danger than I currently am. The skill of vehicular cycling allows me to navigate sub-par infrastructure safely, while I continue to advocate for safer cycle routes.


Anonymous said...

Would you be interested in climbing outdoors either in the Box Springs or at the Riverside Quarry? I am a former UCR PhD student.

JN said...

Anon- I don't feel like my skills are up to real rock yet, but thanks for the offer. Perhaps in a month or two.

Jason Tinkey said...

But therein lies the rub...a lack of safe, comfortable infrastructure is the largest hindrance to getting most people onto a bike in the first place, and those who choose to settle for less fall into the trap of self-marginalization. Most people will never feel at ease riding in traffic, especially novices.

But I have to give credit to anyone riding a bike under any circumstances in my hometown, I know firsthand how awful it can be.

Anonymous said...

The "vehicular vs facilitor" argument is going to cost us all big time. As it is now, most decision makers see the bicyling community as not knowing what it wants, or confused. The goal should be complete streets without mandatory bike lane or sidepath laws. This should satisfy all users while at the same time encouraging more folks to ride. It's about balance, not one extreme or the other.

JN said...

@Frank- Yeah, but I know what I want. Anyone who says that bikes should mix with 45+mph auto traffic is smoking something. That's not an ideal state for the world. I want bicycle facilities (sharrows or better) on every street with a speed limit in excess of 30mph. I want separated bicycle paths on major arterials. I want plentiful bike parking at every destination.

What I want, though, is immaterial, which is what I was trying to point out with this post. For the foreseeable future, at least, those who choose to bicycle will have to cope with crappy infrastructure design, even as we fight for inclusion in the public right-of-way. The point that I'm trying to make is that vehicular cycling *as a technique* should be taught to all cyclists, so that they have a method to safely navigate sub-par infrastructure, while we wait for complete streets to become the norm.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what your arterials are like, but here it is impossible to ride one as a vehicular cyclist unless you have a death wish. The vast majority have generous shoulders (in access of 10') which is very accommodating mid-block. However, in most states, the shoulder is NOT the road, neither is a dedicated turn lane, yet you are relegated to ride there or cause serious backlash. I have been on rides with LCI instructors who ride in the shoulder, cross solid white taper lines, and continue straight through in right turn-only lanes as though a shoulder. I have made the point to ask why they weren't riding in the lane (in the drivers eye, the middle of the road). Nobody is going to ride in the lane with a 45-55 mph posted speed limit doing more like 60 mph. The problem is far more complex than most realize. In our arterial situation, complete streets treatments do have a positive impact on safety and validating bicyclists in the eyes of motorists, albeit far from the ideal as you describe. By the look of your streetview, perhaps no shoulders is more the norm, and sharrows or STR signs may be all that's left. I rode for almost 25 years in a similar built environment (Northern NJ) before moving to Delaware, and if that's the case, I can certainly relate.

I wasn't trying to pick apart your post. What this shows, however, is the vastness of difference in road conditions depending on where one lives. This is why the forrester "bicycle driver-only" approach simply doesn't work in a blanket fashion.

Here is a link to the blog posts I have written on this topic.


We currently have a shared right turn-only lane treatment, and a bill (SB 120) before the legislature to validate shoulders as "the road" for bicyclists.

Anonymous said...

I think the confusion stems from the fact that "Vehicular Cycling" seems to mean different things to different people. As a personal tool for individual cyclists to become better, safer, more adaptive riders it is great, but as a public policy framework it is misguided. John Forrester believes (believed? is he alive?) in the extreme, that Vehicular Cycling is the only way, and that these should guide public policy. I and many reasonable people believe that is wrong. You said so yourself in your comment, there is what you would prefer, and the reality. I would say that the public policy should be what you prefer, but that the reality is what you have to deal with. So experienced cyclists should advocate for more education, and should share these techniques with new cyclists, but that doesn't mean they should supplant bike lanes. Unfortunately, the term Vehicular Cycling really does apply to the public policy, not the personal techniques and methods.

Marco Anderson