Over on the Bicycle Victoria Forums there’s a thread on something called “vehicular cycling”. 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 “claim” the roads. Rather than being segregated in bicycle lanes that too often are narrow and impeded by parked cars – or worse, herded into off-road paths that are too indirect and are shared with unpredictable pedestrians – 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.

Cyclists in Copenhagen

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.

There’re possibly some nuances here I’ve missed, but that seems to be the general idea. I think there’s a lot of logic to it. Even if a completely segregated network is feasible, it will be a long-term project, so there’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 I’m much less sanguine about how safe vehicular cycling is for irresponsible riders. Here I’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.

There’s always going to be a big difference in the speed and weight of motorised vehicles and bicycles. There’s always going to be a gap in vulnerability that’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 – and especially parents – 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 I’m relaxed about cars and bicycles sharing properly calmed local streets, I’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 (it’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 I’ve argued elsewhere (Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet), I don’t see cars going anywhere – they’re just going to get smaller, lighter and use alternative fuels and power sources, probably electricity. Nor do I see cars being neutered – 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 I’ll look at that issue another day.