Bike paths give people a safe place to bike until they have confidence to bike with traffic. Vehicular Cycling gives them confidence and skills to bike safely with traffic.
When I started bicycling, motorists yelled “Use the sidewalk!” So I switched to the sidewalk. Then pedestrians yelled “Get off the sidewalk!” Confused by these conflicting messages, I turned to research, and promptly learned that bicyclists belong on the road and are at greater risk riding on the sidewalk.
Vehicular Cycling, a philosophy proposed in the 1970’s by John Forester, is the safest way to bike with traffic: Ride on the road, obey traffic laws, know when to take the lane or share the lane, be visible and predictable.
After researching best bicycling practices and taking the bicycle education class through the League of American Bicyclists, I became a Vehicular Cycling proponent. Its practices are supported by statistics and my personal experience.
Now I’m reading City Cycling (2012), which reviews the latest research and advances in bicycling for transportation. Chapter 6, "Bicycling Infrastructure for Mass Cycling: A Transatlantic Comparison" by Peter Furth, was an eye-opener for me. I knew that Forester’s extreme views on the evils of bike paths were behind his break with the League. But Furth holds Forester--and Vehicular Cycling--accountable for holding back bicycle policy in the USA for decades.
According to Furth, Forester campaigned vehemently against bike paths, on the premise that they are little more than glorified sidewalks and they relegate bicyclists to second-class status. Here in Missouri nearly every year we fend off proposed mandatory sidepath laws that attempts to force bicyclists to use the Katy Trail (even if it doesn’t serve their destination) or poorly designed bike paths.
Cities and states were happy to accept Forester’s anti-bike path agenda because bike lanes are a lot cheaper, and his ideas were adopted into official manuals and policy on bicycle infrastructure design recommendations and guidelines. But most adults are “traffic intolerant”, which means they’ll happily bike on bike paths but not on roads with traffic, even wide roads. Since there aren't a lot of bike paths, cyclists who are traffic intolerant tend not to be cyclists.
I don’t know if Forester truly held us back to the extent that Furth claims, but it is clear that if we want more people to bicycle, we have to accommodate traffic intolerance—well designed bike paths with appropriate intersections, and not just glorified sidewalks with their inherent dangers (i.e. driveways, parking lots entrances and exits, narrowness, sharp curves, etc).
The USA has a fine network of roads, second only to Germany’s. Our sidewalks tend to be fragmented and in disrepair, and our bike paths nearly nonexistent. But how many separate paths do we need? Forester proposes that all traffic be served by a single, very wide road, while Furth would have us separate ourselves based on speed. Furth cites examples and studies from Europe, much of which has a well developed network of bicycle paths, to support separation of traffic based on speed.
Even in Kirksville, which has generally low traffic volumes, traffic intolerant people would bicycle more if there were a north-south bike path and an east-west bike path (linking up with the future FLATS, of course) crossing town, many more streets with bike lanes, and many of the rest of the streets with “Bike Route” signs. Preferably the north-south bike path would parallel Baltimore, allowing bicyclists access to all the businesses on this bicycle-unfriendly street.
I’m in favor of both Vehicular Cycling and more bike paths. Vehicular Cycling gives us a way to safely use streets with more traffic. Bike paths are a “gateway drug” to bicycling on streets. As novice bicyclists get more comfortable on their bikes, they gain the confidence to ride on low-traffic residential streets, perhaps to travel to the bike path, and then the confidence to ride on streets with more traffic.