VC’s Greatest Hits

I was directed through Copenhagenize’s Twitter feed to this post. It was written in response to a well-known post on Copenhagenize which discusses Vehicular Cycling (VC). This is not VC the survival technique used by most cyclists on UK roads, this is the ideology that VC is the ‘right’ way to cycle and a viable solution to the problems cyclists face on the roads. There are plenty of anti-infrastructure myths, canards and lies out there, but the post on Velo Rambler is truly exceptional, representing a Vehicular Cycling ‘Greatest Hits’ of sorts.


Do advocates for separated bicycle facilities believe in fairies, trolls and ogres? I can’t confirm they do, but there are strong indications. They can’t be convinced by facts, since their religion depends upon believing unsupported theories that they take on faith. But since the majority believes in these myths, they have to be true, right? So the author of can lambast and ridicule vehicular cycling without fear of reprisals. The other zealots in his religion are incredulous that anyone would believe the safety and effectiveness of vehicular cycling.

No anti-infrastructure piece is complete without reference to ‘the facts.’ When looking at research, it is usually advisable to read a sizeable amount of the literature on a given subject in order to judge the consensus, or ‘take an average.’ A good example here is cycle helmets; the general consensus from the majority of research is that cycle helmets offer little (if any) benefit to the wearer in the even of a collision on the road. When people use a single or small selection of research papers which differ from the consensus in order to mislead, this is referred to as cherry picking.

This approach works well when reading about a subject such as cycle helmets because cycle helmets are generally the same all over the world, making studies performed on the subject in different parts of the world broadly comparable, and a fair general consensus on the effectiveness of cycle helmets to be reached. However, determining a meaningful consensus does not work when the research is about things which differ too much to be directly comparable. Sticking with cycle helmets, it might be tempting to try and determine a consensus for the effectiveness of helmets in general, by adding research on motorcycle helmets, motorsport helmets and horse-riding helmets. Because these helmets all differ significantly, it is no longer to determine a meaningful consensus about the effectiveness of ‘helmets.’ They may share the same term, and even be visually similar, but they are too different for an ‘average’ of their effectiveness to have any meaning.

Despite the obvious problems with ‘averaging’ research on non-comparable things, it is remarkably commonplace amongst those who oppose the construction of separated cycle infrastructure. The cycle infrastructure in Milton Keynes and the infrastructure in Assen completely in their design, maintenance and implementation of separated provision for cyclists. They are both ‘separated cycle infrastructure’ but Assen’s approach is successful and Milton Keynes Redways are shit. The shitness of the Redways does not change the success of the infrastructure in Assen, and the only reason to take an ‘average’ of the research on the safety and demand-inducing effects of these two types of infrastructure is either to make the Redways look better than they are, or the Assen infrastructure worse. Unless you are an idiot, there is no honest reason to do this.

Where cycle infrastructure is directly comparable, determine a consensus of the literature is a good idea. Using this approach, it would be clear to see that in its effect on safety and demand-inducing the UK’s approach to cycle infrastructure is a measurable failure and The Netherlands approach to cycle infrastructure is a measurable success. When reading anti-infrastructure pieces, always beware the false dichotomy.

Cart before horse:

These “build it they will come” bicycle advocates like to hold up Copenhagen as an example of how infrastructure has created an increase bicycle use. But they got the story backwards. According to Cycling Embassy a Danish web site: “The energy crisis of the 1970s and growing environmental awareness led to traffic switching from cars to bicycles and public transport, and to an increasing demand for improved conditions for cyclists. An example of this was the annual cyclist demonstrations in the major cities from the late 1970s. Authorities and planners became aware of the problems which cyclist faced, and bicycle traffic began to form a greater part of traffic planning.” This is what I read several places, that first came increased bicycle use for transportation, then came infrastructure. Not the other way ’round.

Another common canard in these anti-infrastructure pieces is that the infrastructure was put in because cycling rates were already high, implying that it is unnecessary. In the Netherlands, cycling rates were high before they started building their current cycle infrastructure in the 1970s. At this point, cycling was in rapid decline as the rise of private motoring became an affordable alternative to more and more people. More driving also leads to less attractive and less safe environment for those on bikes, eventually leading to a decline in cycling to its bare minimum core of enthusiasts. Generally, in those places which pursued a vehicular approach, cycling continued to decline until it reached this level, around which is has remained ever since  (UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc). In those places which built high quality separated infrastructure, this decline was largely halted (The Netherlands, Denmark, Germany etc).
Motorist superiority cognitive dissonance:
They ignore all evidence to the contrary and ridicule people like John Forrester who wrote the college course on bicycling. But ignorance is bliss. They’ve bought the motorist superiority, cyclist inferiority propaganda. 
A surprisingly common canard is that advocates of separated cycle infrastructure have bought into the motorist superiority propaganda of the motoring lobby. This is a particularly amusing accusation for a group advocating the idea that car-centric roads designs should remain in place whilst cyclists endure special training to cope with cycling in these conditions to make against a group advocating that the roads be redesigned for the convenience and safety of cyclists.
The right way to cycle:
They want to build lots of infrastructure to support inferior cyclists.
Note the elitism, the disgust that cycle infrastructure might allow people to ride bikes without even having the decency to be good at it. 
Effective vehicular cycling requires a level of athleticism which is simply beyond the capabilities of some. The required speed for cycling with motor traffic makes it appear even less viable as a serious mode of transport. In a successful mass cycling culture, people are able to dress for the destination because they are not effectively forced to cycle at high speeds. They can carry their children and shopping because the infrastructure has given the option of cycling slowly should they choose. If you end up having to change your clothes in order to use a mode of transport, it’s not going to look like a viable way to get around to the majority of people.
Never mind the fact that VC requires people who are afraid of cycling to electto undergo special training in order to be able to cope with the awful situation they wil> have to deal with on the road network.
Feeling safe is for pussies:
Bicycling is safer than driving, but the public doesn’t believe it. This shows that logic is not at work here, emotion is. Until the public can overcome the fear that bicycles are dangerous, they will continue to demand segregated facilities.
Cycling is objectively quite safe (as long as the only ones who do it are capital-C Cyclists). A common VC canard is that because cycling is statistically relatively safe, subjective safety is of no importance. As the author states at the beginning of the piece, there is a feeling that “vehicular cyclists don’t understand human nature.” The author of Copenhagenize, cult leader certainly doesn’t seem to understand human nature. Cycling can be as statistically safe is you like, but as long as it feels like you are taking your life in your hands every time you get on a bike it will not appeal to the majority of people as a viable mode of transport.
People do not make decisions entirely logically. Any approach to creating mass cycling which requires a change in basic human nature is not going to work. Addressing the problem if subjective safety is extremely important for making cycling a viable transport option for normal people.
Curiously, the author ignores the issue of potential gains to cyclist safety from cycle infrastructure. In the UK, cycling is statistically quite safe. It is my belief that a lot of this is due to the fact that almost everyone other than an elite core of fit, fast, mostly male cycling enthusiasts have been scared off their bikes by the hostile road environment. These remaining cyclists are very good at dealing with the danger they are put in by motor-centric road design, motorist behaviour and the need to share space with large volumes of fast moving motor vehicular. In The Netherlands, cyclists are statistically even more safe. This is despite the fact that over there, people other than capital-C Cyclists make up the majority of cyclists. Parents with children, pensioners, teenagers and revellers all manage to cycle, without necessarily even being particularly good at it, and yet they are statistically safer than the core of fit, fast, armoured cycle enthusiasts which form the majority of the cycling population in the UK.

6 thoughts on “VC’s Greatest Hits

  1. I don’t think that the phrase “infrastructure for inferior cyclists” is elitist. The original writer means that, at present in society and in transport, motorists are superior and cyclists are inferior; and that building infrastructure for cyclists will maintain that inferiority as the roads will increasingly be seen as for superior motorists.

    • Fair point, the author could have intended it in that way.

      It’s still an odd statement though; a road network which is so hostile it requires cyclists to be specially trained to deal with it suggests to me that they are considered more inferior than they are where the road design actually takes the needs of cyclists into account.

      • I agree with that. But training in road safety for young cyclists – going out with mum/dad, proficiency tests with cubs/brownies/lower school – doesn’t, by itself, suggest inferiority to motorists.

        Even on totally segregated cycleways, I think we’d still want youngsters trained in the basics of balance, braking, awareness of others and so on.

        And that doesn’t mean that such infrastructure is hostile.

    • In the UK, I’d agree with you: segregation always treats the motorist as the superior, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The Dutch segregate by making the motorist the inferior beast: cyclists get direct routes, convenient parking, and often priority at junctions while motorists have to take the long way round.

      We need to segregate the motor vehicles away from the people (as we already do in many shopping streets), not the people and cyclists away from the motor vehicles. It’s a subtle difference, and depends on whether you want to “increase safety” – a futile activity because safety improvements are always converted into performance improvements – or “reduce danger” – the only way things really do get safer.

  2. Crossing Waterloo Road last Friday, on the last leg up the (London) Waterloo Station approach, I could have sworn I saw Bradley Wiggins chase Victoria Pendleton around the bend. Of course, what I actually saw was two “vehicular” commuter cyclists – skin-tight lycra bib-shorts, helmets, clipless pedals, wrap-around shades, the whole nine yards. It was only the knapsacks on their backs which indicated they weren’t racing, but they were taking the lane and maintaining well over 20mph.

    There are quite a few of those in London, and I don’t have a problem with that per se – it tends to be them who run red lights including at pedestrian crossings, but as long as they don’t preach to me about how I ride, I can tolerate them.

    For myself, I was never a true vehicular cyclist – for one thing, I started too late in life for that, as you really need to be around 25-45 years old to make that work. And as I get older, I am slowing down, becoming more cautious and more nervous about the traffic, this despite the fact that I have been doing this for some years now and my four (sic) collisions with left-hooking taxis have only left me with material injury on one occasion. However I do find myself now opting for such off-road provision as exists, in preference to staying on the road for a faster ride, and taking a slightly more circuitous route through back streets in preference to more direct but busier roads. I am beginning to *feel*, personally, the difficulties and barriers to cycling which I know intellectually prevent more children, women and older people from taking it up.

    Arguments between segregationists and vehiculars/integrationists can sometimes take on the aggression and obduracy of the doctrinal disputes between the Catholic and Protestant churches of the late middle ages. I can actually see doctrinaire attitudes in some segregationists as well, but what we all need to accept is that there is no heresy and we are all entitled to worship a god of our own choice. I am not aware that even the most ardent “subjective safety” advocate is saying that young fit fast vehicular cyclists will have to conform and use the paths provided if they don’t want to (although if they get the right sort of path they probably will). Vehiculars don’t have to use cycle paths, so they should stop whining about people who prefer them.

  3. I used to be a very VC person, then I obtained a lovely wife and children. Now I’m still a VC person sometimes, if I’m on my own and wanting to get somewhere fast (given that local cycling provision is pretty poor, even in the few places it exists). But most of the time I want to cycle to local places without feeling that I might be nearly killed or injured every other journey. I would like to cycle gently in normal clothes, without fearing for my life, or the lives of my wife and children. Yes, cycling is statistically safe(-ish) in the UK, but so are bungy jumping and sky diving, and you won’t catch me doing those things, let alone taking the whole family along.

    The trouble with VC is that is only reduces the risk of being killed prematurely – even cycling experts are killed on our roads, simply because they’re sharing physical space with potentially lethal equipment driven by people who often aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing. VC people put their lives in the hands of others: this is not popular for humans – we’re happy to take our own risks, but hate it when someone else is in control.

    Segregation of cyclists and motor vehicles is essential to have true safety, both real and subjective: we really do have to remove the danger. Segregation doesn’t mean removing the cyclists from the roads onto crap facilities, though, it means removing the need to cycle in amongst heavy motor traffic. Here’s how it should be done:

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