Over on the Bicycle Victoria Forums thereâ€™s a thread on something called â€śvehicular cyclingâ€ť. This term is new to me and probably to most readers too.
As I read it, the key premise of vehicular cycling is that cyclists should â€śclaimâ€ť the roads. Rather than being segregated in bicycle lanes that too often are narrow and impeded by parked cars â€“ or worse, herded into off-road paths that are too indirect and are shared with unpredictable pedestrians â€“ vehicular cyclists ride well away from the edge of a lane (although not in the middle) in order to be more visible to drivers and hence safer.
They are concerned that construction of separate cycling infrastructure, such as Copenhagen-style lanes and on-road lanes, will reinforce the idea that cyclists are not legitimate road users.
Thereâ€™re possibly some nuances here Iâ€™ve missed, but that seems to be the general idea. I think thereâ€™s a lot of logic to it. Even if a completely segregated network is feasible, it will be a long-term project, so thereâ€™s little choice other than to mix it with motorists in the meantime. And the meantime is likely to be a long time. Even in The Netherlands and Denmark, a significant proportion of cycling continues to be done on roads. So it seems sensible to find ways that cyclists and motorists can co-exist safely.
I can see that responsible cyclists, who ride defensively and maximise their visibility, could very well be safer if they adopt a more assertive approach. However Iâ€™m much less sanguine about how safe vehicular cycling is for irresponsible riders. Here Iâ€™m thinking mainly about children but there are also some adults who do irresponsible things like ride at night in dark clothing or without lights.
Thereâ€™s always going to be a big difference in the speed and weight of motorised vehicles and bicycles. Thereâ€™s always going to be a gap in vulnerability thatâ€™s even larger than that between mini cars and B-doubles. Some drivers will always be inattentive and unpredictable and so will some cyclists.
Most pertinent is the perception of many people â€“ and especially parents â€“ that it is unsafe to mix bicycles with cars and trucks, particularly on arterial roads. That perception acts as a powerful disincentive to bicycle use. Even in Copenhagen, improving safety for cyclists is still a major objective. It’s probably fair to say that starting young is one of the keys to cycling winning a greater share of travel.
So while Iâ€™m relaxed about cars and bicycles sharing properly calmed local streets, Iâ€™m not at all relaxed about cycling with cars on arterial roads as a permanent solution.
If we want to increase the level of cycling to reasonably serious levels (itâ€™s less than 1% of all travel in Melbourne but 41% of trips in Assen, The Netherlands; Copenhagen is aiming for 50% of work trips by bicycle by 2015) then our longer term goal has to be either to neuter cars or give bicycles a safe network of arterial cycle routes (not necessarily segregated from cars but certainly safe) complemented by shared but calmed local access streets.
As Iâ€™ve argued elsewhere (Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet), I donâ€™t see cars going anywhere â€“ theyâ€™re just going to get smaller, lighter and use alternative fuels and power sources, probably electricity. Nor do I see cars being neutered â€“ slower and smaller certainly, but still likely to be too fast and heavy to mix it safely with bicycles on arterial roads.
But is it realistic to think that constructing a safe network of arterial cycle routes is feasible in Melbourne, even in the longer term? I think so, but Iâ€™ll look at that issue another day.