The Great Debate: Vehicular vs. Segregated Cycling

One of the most contended points in bicycle advocacy is how cyclists fit into the overall transportation picture and what course of action best benefits individual riders and cyclists as a group.   Two distinctly different schools of thought exist: vehicular cycling and segregated cycling.   While the vast majority of cyclists fall somewhere in between the two extreme ends of the spectrum, there are also a number of passionate advocates who remain firmly on opposite sides of the fence.   So what is everyone so excited about?

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Vehicular cycling, which has also been referred to as integrated cycling, is defined by people ridin.  bikes on public roads in accordance with the rules of traffic.   In most instances, when a cyclist ventures out onto a road shared with cars, the rider is obligated to follow the same rules that cars follow.   Proponents of vehicular cycling encourage cyclists to ride confidently on the roads, enjoying all of the same rights and responsibilities as automobile operators.   John Forester, who coined the term “vehicular cycling” in the 1970s, is still one of its staunchest supporters.   In his book, “Effective Cycling“, he says that “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles,” and throughout the past several decades, he has been outspoken in his belief that additional or alternative infrastructure for cyclists is unnecessary and counterproductive.

Many bicycle advocates disagree with Forester and the vehicular cycling movement. All over the world, cities such as Montreal, Copenhagen, Paris, London, and Boulder have successfully implemented physically separated bike lanes, and there are many bicycle advocates that feel that cycling-specific infrastructure is the most effective action that city planners can take to encourage more people to ride bikes and to be safe while using a bicycle for transportation purposes.   Copenhagen is the shining example of a city that has invested a significant amount of resources in developing bicycle infrastructure (and maintaining it), and it now estimates that around half of the daily commuting in the city is done by bike. Other places often refer to segregated bike lanes as “Copenhagen bike lanes.”

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Clearly, there are pros and cons with different aspects of both vehicular and infrastructure-dependent cycling. Understanding the tenets of vehicular cycling is imperative; for the foreseeable future, most commuters will need to understand how to safely navigate a road shared with cars for at least a small portion of their commutes.  However, ignoring the success of cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Portland, who have invested in bicycle infrastructure, constructed protected bike-ways, and implemented other traffic-calming initiatives, is not in the best interest of the majority of cyclists.  There will always be individuals like Forester who believe that cyclists should act as automobiles act, but we’re never going to see a city in the US or anywhere else in the world that can achieve fifty percent of inner city commuting by bike without some measure of cycling-specific infrastructure.

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28 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Vehicular vs. Segregated Cycling”

  1. Richard says:

    Vehicular cycling is an extreme sport enjoyed by about .5% of the population who are around 90%-95% male. This is all fine. More power to them if they get a rush off cycling in traffic. I admire their courage. For the rest of us, well designed separated cycling facilities are the best option along busy streets.

  2. Jim says:

    Great topic, and it is indeed the great debate. I fall squarely into both camps.

    I couldn’t disagree more with Richard, above. Learning how to ride in traffic isn’t about courage, or getting a rush from the risk. It’s about getting to where I’m going, safely. There’s nothing “extreme” about it. Quite the opposite. I’m a full-time, year-round daily bike commuter (even through our Canadian winter), and highly risk averse. There’s no way to make anything 100% safe, but commuting by bike is very safe if you follow the rules and best practices.

    Anyone who commutes by bike is eventually going to be riding on the street. Having a completely separate transportation system for bikes is impossible. I use the separate paths, and the street. The paths are just as dangerous as the street, and in many cases even more dangerous, such as anytime the path crosses alleyways, streets, or exits from parking lots.

    It’s the intersections that are the real danger, and there are just as many, or more, on most paths. At least if you’re on the road, drivers can see you better, and are clearly aware you’re there.

    On top of that, people tend to have a false sense of security that can actually add to the danger. Unless they learn the best practices.

    I love the paths too. The very nature of cycling means there’s a relatively low barrier to entry, and we need to address all levels of experience. The paths are much more pleasant to ride, notwithstanding the false sense of security. People still need to learn how to ride, because it’s really no safer.

    I’d love to see more paths and segregated lanes, as long as it doesn’t take away from our right to the road. Some of us refer to the segregated lanes as “get the hell out of my way” lanes.

    Ultimately, I believe we need to educate kids with standardized programs in the schools, and the vehicular cycling approach should be the foundation. Those kids will become both cyclists and drivers, and it will be better for everyone if they all learn what to expect from each other.

  3. John says:

    Holy heck Richard, insult much? There is nothing sporting about riding in traffic. If done right, it’s rather mundane and undramatic.

    As for your “segregated” facilities, enjoy that right turning dump truck as you pass through that “protected” Copenhagen style intersection above grinding you into the asphalt.

  4. Ted Johnson says:

    I realize that this morning that I’m neither a vehicular cyclist nor a segregated cyclist. I’m a hypocritical cyclist.

    Heading west, I pulled into a left turn lane–like a vehicle–when it suited me. But when the light turned red, I jumped out of the left turn lane, and into the crosswalk and became a pedestrian on wheels, on the sidewalk. I headed south looking behind me in my mirror. When the lanes were clear, it suited me to become a vehicle again.

    When I’m driving a vehicle, I have a very clear idea of the rules, roles, and rights of way–in law as well as in practice. Here in the US, we exist in a state of vague uncertainty. Even if the laws are clear, our cultural understanding (i.e. car culture) remains unclear.

    Stacey is right on target. Segregated vs. vehicular cycling is an important issue to resolve. But I don’t see it being resolved on a national level. States, perhaps and communities certainly need to commit to one model or the other–and not half-heartedly.

    Maybe the future is something of a “right on red” model. Before the 1970’s when you crossed a state line, you needed to know whether or not right turns were allowed on red lights. Drivers were expected to–and did–adjust the local rules.

  5. BluesCat says:

    I have engaged in some … ahem … spirited dialogs with my fellow riders about some tangential issues related to the Vehicular/Segregated Cycling debate.

    Riding on the sidewalk: The Solidly Safer Sidewalk

    Traffic laws which shouldn’t apply to cyclists: Here Come Da Traffic Law Judge


    The direction the danger from motor vehicles is really coming from: Shocking Arizona Statistics

    In my opinion, cyclists are safe on local streets — where the speed limits are 25 mph or lower — even if there isn’t any dedicated bicycle infrastructure.

    When the speed limits go up above 30 mph, as on collector or arterial streets, I think a dedicated lane or separate MUP is definitely safer.

  6. Josh Lipton says:

    Good related post How an integrationist became a segregationist from Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest

  7. Good unbiased summary, but doesn’t go too deep. Obviously that would have made for a lot longer article.

    As a self-identified vehicularist, one of my big concerns with infrastructure that I didn’t see mentioned is the tendency of infrastructure to diminish the perception of cyclists as equal travelers on the *entire* road system, including outside of the bike infrastructure. I think Europe has a better sense of this equality, but the US does not. From what I have seen in this country so far, the more obvious bike infrastructure you have (lanes), the less tolerant motorists are of cyclists outside of it. At the same time, there is neither the physical space nor the money to build out bike infrastructure everywhere you may need to go if you ride for transportation, and intersections will always be problematic without dedicated signaling, which most places in the US don’t want to use. (It tends to delay everyone by either increasing the total light cycle, or giving everyone smaller slices of it.) So I fear that a lot of bicycle infrastructure in this country is going to result in a “separate but unequal” ability to access destinations conveniently by bike.

    As I understand it, Europe has not just infrastructure, but good bicycle education built into the school curriculum, and laws assigning default liability for any car/bike crash to the motorist. No doubt their police are better trained in bike law as well. The US is deficient on all these counts, and I don’t think infrastructure alone can work well without them.

  8. Peter Smith says:

    there is no debate – ‘vehicular cycling’ failed and for the last several years at least, mode separation (i.e. common sense) has taken its place. 30 years of anti-cycling policy is over, thank goodness. now we can finally watch bicycle commute numbers continue to explode.

  9. Dolores says:

    I just got in an argument with a taxi about this tonight. I pointed out that we are both technically vehicles carrying a single person and in the absence of bike lanes, I have the exact same rights to the lane on Sixth Avenue as he does. He is welcome to switch to the next lane if he thinks I am too slow, but it is not acceptable to drive behind me leaning on the horn and then pull around really fast and about 1/2″ from my leg (especially when there’s a red light right there, so I’m guaranteed to catch you and yell).

    Usually, I find the regular streets in NYC safer than the bike lanes — the bike lane is full of pedestrians walking out without looking and taxis swerving in to pick up passengers.

  10. Jim says:

    Re: ” ther is no debate – vehicular cycling failed”

    Ridiculous. Forester may have gone too far at times, and be a tad inflexible, but I think he gets frustrated at the comments of some people who refuse to get it and speak with an authoritative tone when they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. I have a hard time understanding how any regular commuter wouldn’t be on board with vehicular cycling.

    I apply the principles every day. They work. It’s the opposite of “anti-cyclist”. In fact it insists upon cyclists equal right to the roads. In fact segregated lanes often end up as far more “anti-cyclist”.

    Every cyclist will be using the street at some point in virtually every ride longer than a couple of blocks.

    John Brooking, above, gets it right. Education is the key, along with training. It should be part of grade school curriculum. And the danger of segregation is indeed that it could result in reduced rights for cyclists (or perceived reduced rights from drivers), and also result in reduced safety.

    And John, above, also gets it. “There is nothing sporting about riding in traffic. If done right, it’s rather mundane and undramatic.” Bingo!

    Anyone who is experienced in vehicular cycling couldn’t possibly deny it’s the reasonable way to go, whether there are lots of paths or not. It doesn’t have to mean segregated bike lanes and paths don’t have their place.

  11. Graham says:

    Toronto, Canada’s most populous city just welcomed in a new mayor who’s as anti-cycling as they get.

    We’re morning our fellow Toronto cyclists.

    Check out this clip –

  12. I see a lot of odd comments above, including those which see see “Europe” as one place with uniform policies. In fact, Europe is very diverse.

    The low cycling countries in Europe, including the UK, France, Spain and Italy have cycling rates which are about the same as you have in the USA. i.e. only about 1-2% of journeys are by bike. These are also the countries with little if any cycling infrastructure, and where cyclists are at a relatively greater risk of injury.

    The highest rate of cycling in Europe, and in fact the world, is the Netherlands. In this country, 27% of all journeys are made by bike. It’s also the place where cyclists are most segregated from motor vehicles, where the standards of construction of cycling facilities are highest and where cyclists are safest.

    Someone mentions “copenhagen lanes” above. They’re right that there is a risk from right turning vehicles. It’s due to the poor design of that junction. It’s part of what keeps the Danish cycling rate so much lower than the Dutch cycling rate, and a good reason not to look to Copenhagen for inspiration. You won’t find that type of provision in the Netherlands, where junctions are far better designed so that they remove the conflict.

    It’s all common to find right turn on red for cyclists only in the Netherlands. This is one of several things that results in average speeds on the cycle paths being higher than average speeds on the roads.

    As for the “debate” – you have to see vehicular cycling as what it really is: A survival technique in a hostile environment. When I used to live in the UK, and when I visit now, I cycle “vehicularly”, along with most of the other 1% of the traffic which moves by bike there. It’s the safest way to behave on roads which have been designed despite cyclists, and which have resulted in the cycling rate of the UK flatlining. However, when I return home to the Netherlands I can relax and enjoy my cycling, along with the 97% of the population who use a bike at least once per week.

    Segregation in this country has transformed the experience for cyclists. While British (and American) cyclists now quite commonly video their cycle journeys and post them on youtube in order to “gather evidence”, Dutch cyclists video their journeys merely to keep a record of pleasant days out. While in countries with poor infrastructure, cycling is dominated by young adults, in NL it is simply a normal means of transport for everyone, rich or poor, young or old.

    Without subjective safety you cannot achieve a high cycling rate.

  13. false choice says:

    False choice, false choice, false choice.

    When there are lanes, I use them thankfully, when there are not, I ride vehicularly. My wife, who has gone through courses, will not ride vehicularly by herself, but she will use bike lanes (and loves the physically separated facilities she’s tried.)

    Bicycling for transportation will NEVER become mainstream is we rely SOLELY on education or expect people ONLY to ride where there are lanes.

    Vehicularly cycling is the foundation of safe and smart bicycling, but it’s not the whole story. Education = good. Bike lanes = good. Efforts to make it more complicated than that are counter-productive.

    Oh, and I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves as “segregated cyclist” so the use of that phrase in the subject makes the post seem biased.

  14. As pointed out in previous comments, learning to ride a bicycle on the streets safely is necessary in most current North American cities because bicycle infrastructure is limited to non-existent. At some far-flung future date, years and billions of dollars from now, there may be a plethora of North American cities with dedicated cycling infrastructure, motorists who understand what cyclists do, along with cyclists who ride in a legal and predictable manner. That probably would be a better state of affairs, if all those elements could be realized in concert. Even this infrastructure would have interfaces with automobile traffic, though, as in the photo above, and everyone would still have to know how to get along. In current reality, in most North American cities (not all, I know, I know, hi Portland, hello ongoing experiments in Manhattan, etc), though, cyclists have to ride on streets safely and legally if they are going to travel from point A to point B as freely and easily as cars do, and they have to know how to deal with traffic at the interfaces between existing infrastructure and streets, which are numerous and unavoidable most of the time. Cyclists need to know how to use what they have now legally and safely, and also need a vision for the future which would represent putting a better foot forward. To know what that best future state would be, it seems to me, thorough and effective knowledge of current state is needed, and sorely lacking, at least in the cyclists I see riding around on my daily cycle commute. Riding the wrong direction, and blowing through signals, is not going to work on dedicated infrastructure any better than it does on streets.

  15. peteathome says:

    Really, these days it is between directly reducing accidents by bicyclist behavior (VC) versus “safety in number” effects. Most infrastructure advocates will admit that infrastructures don’t actually make bicyclists safer,but that they attract bicyclists.

    As mentioned by an earlier post, VC people study where accidents actually occur ( mostly in intersections in urban and suburban locations) and try to ride to avoid the most common car/bicycle accidents. Infrastructure people look at what makes bicyclists FEEL safer. Their theory, apparently correct, is that the safer people feel ( regardless of whether the infrastructure actually makes them more or less safe) the more people will ride. Eventually, the “safety in numbers” effect will cancel out any safety degradation of the infrastructure and make them safer than they would be without the larger numbers.

    Both parties are right, in my opinion. Copenhagen hasbetter safety statistics than the USA and many, many times the number of riders. But at this point they have probably saturated the “safety in numbers” effect and the true effects of their infrastructures can be seen. They recently completed a major study that compared accidents on streets before and after infrastructures went in. They showed quite conslusively that all the various infrastructures degraded intersection safety and significantly increased overall accidents forbicyclists and pedestrians,

  16. Doug says:

    The “debate” is exhausting. Cyclists number too few to have disagreements over policy. The best position is to support any measure that increases cyclist safety and ridership.

    That means: education so you can be safe and comfortable in traffic and infrastructure so you can get shy people on the bike in the first place. You can’t build a movement by telling people how they’re wrong (“traffic isn’t dangerous! You’re a wimp!”).

  17. Stacey Moses says:

    Lots of great points made above- thanks to everyone for the comments. My intention, as John B. pointed out, was to give a fairly unbiased summary of each perspective and see how the discussion developed. I will definitely be exploring some of the finer details from each camp in future posts. I have to add here, however, that I couldn’t agree more with John B. and Jim that education is a key element. Any city that has successfully implemented any type of bike infrastructure has also dedicated resources to education as well as considered other factors that contribute to the transportation culture such as traffic calming measures.

    Thanks for reading!

  18. Ted Johnson says:

    @John Brooking

    “the tendency of infrastructure to diminish the perception of cyclists as equal travelers on the *entire* road system, including outside of the bike infrastructure.”

    That’s an important point. I got doored in DC once–broke a finger and handlebars. The man with the car felt completely innocent because I was on a section of Columbia Rd where there was a gap in the bike lane. (I bet you know this section, Stacey.) In his view, I should have bridged that gap by switching to the sidewalk.

    @Everybody Else

    Commute By Bike is in good hands.

  19. Todd says:

    My bike is my main form of transportation and I’ve been a vehicular cyclist for years – only because I have to. Frankly I am sick of having to ride in very heavy traffic, being cut off and endangered by drivers, avoiding road debris, etc. There are a lot of cyclists in my town, but the vast majority are young adults willing to take more risks. I advocate in my city for any and all segregated infrastructure we can get that is safe, convenient, and well maintained. I can’t wait until the day I can ride like so many do in Europe and never again have to deal with motorized traffic. We’ve been pursuing a vehicular approach for a long time, and our numbers are not growing by much at all. When we create an environment where parent can haul their kids around and seniors can ride without fear that is the day we’ll really see a spike in our numbers. Thanks so much for taking this issue on. I look forward to further investigation and discussion on this topic.

  20. reb1 says:

    There are very few bicycle paths and of those there are very few of them that are as safe as just using the road. The man does not care about are safety. We are responsible for it ourselves. Obeying the law and doing things like signaling stopping at stops and lights and not cutting traffic off is not anti cycling. The amount of rear end collisions is rising due to the use of electronics. In some countries this is not near as much of a problem because they put human life first. We live in the USA not Europe. I believe things like slower speed limits,not allowing cars to park on the street and loss of license and jail time for motorists who injure or kill peds or bicyclists and the same for bicyclists who injure or kill peds would do allot more to stop the mayhem.

  21. Ryan says:

    I support separated bike paths on ANY street with a speed limit of 50 km/h (30 mp/h) or greater.

    All residential side streets should be a max of 30 km/h, and bike lanes are not needed.

    Of course a big issue is how many motorists obey the speed limits now?
    It bothers me because in many Ontario cities, going 10-20 km/h over the speed limit has become perfectly acceptable.

  22. Dolores says:

    I think this really is very true — the more bikes on the road, the more likely drivers are to be aware of them and look out for them. Then, cycling feels safer and more people cycle.

    I’ve seen this in NYC just in the past few years.

  23. Sean says:


    Bang on. Speed limits seem to be the acceptable minimum rather than upper maximum lately. Even when a speeder is pulled over the cops typically reduce the spped infraction to avoid charging motorists with street racing and to save them points and fines.

    Gawd help cyclists in Toronto if Rob Ford removes the street cars and eliminates bicycle lanes. It will be worse gridlock than ever.

  24. oboe says:

    This kind of false dichotomy is so frustrating.

    It’s the equivalent of arguing that “poor people should eat sushi instead of Macaroni & Cheese”. If you think the reason we don’t have *comprehensive* segregated cycle infrastructure in US cities (much less suburbs) is because the opposition of “Vehicular Cyclists”, you’re either completely deranged, or high as a kite.

    Your strategy appears to be:

    1) Ride your bike on the sidewalk (at a walking pace)

    2) ???

    3) Billion dollar network of segregated bike facilities that connect every Point A with every Point B.

    Blaming realistic cyclists for the fact that you haven’t gotten your magical dancing pony yet is just crazy.

  25. Stacey Moses says:

    Hi Oboe,

    Not sure if your comment is directed to me personally or if you are speaking in generalities (or even if you are agreeing or disagreeing with me?), but there are both pros and cons to each side of this debate, which are explained above.

    I can think of good, different reasons to eat both mac & cheese and sushi as well. What doesn’t make sense is for someone to insist that you should only eat one kind of food- if we only ate mac & cheese, we’d all end up with scurvy, and there are definitely places where I wouldn’t trust the sushi.

    And I’m not really in the market for a magical dancing pony.

  26. Susan says:

    I ride on the roads with the traffic and get yelled at regularly by drivers telling me what they think I’m doing wrong (driving like a car). But the bike path here in Ottawa 1) has a speed limit of 20 km / hour so if I want to go faster I should drive on the road, and 2) even that speed is dangerous in the evenings due to the plethora of walkers, kids, wheelchairs, faster cyclists etc. I experienced bike road rage from a cyclist I passed very closely because he didn’t shift over in response to my bell – because he was wearing headphones and didn’t hear me coming. I’ll use the roads and the paths, but I usually feel safer on the roads where I drive my bike like a car. I’m just tired of drivers telling me how to drive my bike; I don’t tell them how to drive their car!

    On the other hand if someone offered me a dancing pony I’d take it. 🙂

  27. alain smithee says:

    My girlfriend found an article that compared riding a bicycle in vehicular traffic to Running With the Bulls in Palermo, Spain.

    I don’t know how accurate the article is (Gemma didn’t save the link), but I am extremely aware of both motorized vehicle drivers who are more interested in their cellphone conversations than their driving and other cyclists who wear headphones and check their phones while riding.

  28. Robert Rands says:

    It is a shame that there is such vehement hatred of vehicular cycling & attacks on VCing, so much so that there is a push to make VC riding more dangerous so non- & new cyclists can “feel safe”, which, actually, makes them less safe. VCing is plenty safe if one is both assertive & conservative in riding. Much safer than the poorly designed protected lanes. Using space, along with narrower lanes that push cars & bikes closer together, along with the “precious” speedbumps” trying to make neighborhoods exclusive. The anti-car, antibike movement will fail. The organizations have already been couped & sold out. The VCs are given no respect, despite claims of “inclusiveness”. Despite their actual numbers. Enjoy it while you can.

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