“Macho Bike Culture” and America’s Paucity of Bike Infrastructure

This morning Andrew Sullivan highlighted a story in the Australian journal The Conversation that explains how the “macho” bike culture of the 1970s contributed to low cycling rates in that country and the United States as well.

Paint is not enough to make cycling on the street appealing to most people. Image: ##http://theconversation.com/ride-to-work-youll-need-a-bike-barrier-for-that-19111##The Conversation##

The Conversation‘s Steven Fleming points to recent studies showing that streets with protected bike infrastructure are safer than streets without it. People prefer to ride in protected bike lanes as well. As feminist bike activist Elly Blue told Streetsblog recently, having to ride with traffic means that your city’s bicyclists will range “from the most fit to the least fearful.” But if you want to broaden cycling’s appeal beyond “one percent of the population,” you’ll have to make it safer and more comfortable.

But for years, influential American cyclists, almost out of a sense of pride, resisted protected bike lanes, Fleming writes:

Bike store owner John Forester was a keen “vehicular cyclist”. He could keep pace with cars, assert his right to a lane, and gracefully somersault onto the grass if ever a driver looked but didn’t see him. He published these tips in his 1976 book Effective Cycling, with some good intentions, but also a hint of male pride.

By the way he opposed the Dutch-modeled cycle tracks he feared would spread to the US, you could be forgiven for thinking his secret fear was being made to ride beside women and children.

Authorities throughout the Anglosphere nations where Forester’s book was read most were happy to listen to a male voice of cycling. There was no way though that Forester’s ideas were going to have sway with the Dutch.

Too many Dutch mothers were already active in the Stop the Child Murder rallies that began in 1973 after 450 children were killed on their bikes in one year.

The “vehicular cycling” movement that Forester helped spawn in the United States is thankfully waning. But we’re still dealing with some of the results of resisting bike infrastructure: much lower cycling rates and much higher traffic fatality rates than countries like Denmark and the Netherlands.

27 thoughts on “Macho Bike Culture” and America’s Paucity of Bike Infrastructure

  1. Many components of vehicular cycling are important to know when riding when there is no cycling-specific infrastructure, but to take them and say “we dont need safe infrastructure because a few of us who are least risk-averse get by with this” is insane.

  2. I should point out that there are other factors besides car culture which have conspired to keep cycling mode share low in the US and Australia. The biggest factor is that many trips are typically longer. Even if we had great cycling infrastructure, most people aren’t going to bike 10 or 15 miles each way. If we take 5 miles as the point at which cycling starts to become a less attractive option, then at best we’re probably looking at 10% or 20% mode share, even in major cities.

    A second problem is much of the bike infrastructure in the US is either shared space with pedestrians, or not safe/comfortable to use except at low speeds. Again, this is a big problem given that travel distances are longer. Cycling at 8 to 12 mph may work fine in Amsterdam where most trips are under 3 miles, but it doesn’t cut it if you’re trying to go 10 miles or more. Moreover, yes, you will have opposition to bike infrastructure from some cyclists if said infrastructure is slower than just riding in the street.

    All that said, the Dutch have the answer already, but we’re looking in the wrong places. The network of bike superhighways they’re building now to connect towns and cities is closer in concept to what we should be looking at in places like the US. The relatively slow speed protected cycling tracks common in places like Amsterdam may work fine in a compact town or city, or perhaps in the downtown area of a large city, but these must be supplemented by high-speed non-stop routes free of cars, traffic signals, and stop signs, even if such routes require grade separation due to lack of space at street level. I actually feel very strongly that we can use human-powered transportation, even over distances many experts don’t consider feasible, with the right infrastructure and equipment. For short trips of a few miles or less, an upright bike and protected bike lanes do just fine. For longer trips you need a faster bike, and mostly non-stop bike routes. I feel human-powered trips even of 20 to 25 miles each way are quite feasible, but they require bike superhighways and very fast equipment, preferably velomobiles capable of cruising at 50 to 60 km/hr on the power an average cyclist puts out. The bottom line is the US needs to copy best practice from elsewhere when applicable, but also invent its own unique solutions when necessary.

  3. Re: long trips. While work commutes tend to be longer as you described, the majority of trips people make are pretty darn short. Even in the suburbs, trips to the grocery, pharmacy, kid’s school, dry cleaners, are usually within a few miles.

    I sometimes wonder why bike infrastructure discussions focus on work commutes. Then I remember that given the facilities we have, most transportation bicyclists are men, and they’re the ones more likely to commute and less likely to do family errands.

  4. I like “vehicular cycling”, but that, and my single-speed beach cruiser, puts me in as one of the “least fearful”. However, I would like to point out that I appear to be the only cyclist in North Carolina who knows to not bike through a red light or down the left-side of the road…

  5. There’s no reason why you can’t accommodate both types of trips. The same non-stop cycling routes which are useful for long trips are also useful for parts of short trips. You might do 2 out of 3 miles of a shorter trip on a bike superhighway, and the last 10 blocks on each end on protected or striped bike lanes (or even just regular streets if traffic is calm enough). My point is we need both. Indeed, both types of facilities are complementary. Right now, yes, we focus too narrowly on just work commutes and that has to change.

  6. I don’t know. It seems that everyone talks almost exclusively about work commutes regardless of what mode of transportation is being discussed. They’re also longer and more regular than other trips.

  7. Ryan, I’m not absolutely sure of this, but my impression is that any cyclist can bike outside of an existing bike lane in order to pass other riders. It kind of makes sense that one could ride in the mostly auto travel lane, alongside a bike lane, as long as said rider was going as fast as the cars and not impeding them. That said, I saw most riders in bike-heavy European cities waiting their turn and following behind slower riders for short stretches before passing on the left. Riding within bike lanes there resembled car driving behavior, rather than the free form bicycle ballet/speed riding of the solo cyclist in a city with almost no other riders.

  8. Exactly. Drivers talk about trips that are painful, like work commutes which happen at peak times, or getting to a popular destination like a ball game or mall during their peak times.

    Overall, work commutes add up to only half the average person’s total vehicle mileage. And since those trips are longer than average, work commutes are probably closer to one-third the total number of trips.

  9. The bike superhighway concept is fine they actually go where people need to for their trips. But for a mother pulling kids and groceries or a kid riding their own bike, overpasses are a real barrier. You may fly up them unemcumbered on a light bike, but that’s not the case for less macho sorts of riders.

    I have no problem with building those kinds of routes. In fact, I use a river trail in San Jose that would qualify. But it in no way replaces the need for separated bike lanes in the heart of the city.

  10. The concept here is similar to the local streets and highways we have for motor vehicles. Highways usually don’t go right where you’re going, but you can sometimes take them part or most of the way, bypassing local streets, and saving time. In a large city, I might design a grid of superhighways spaced a mile or so apart, effectively putting most areas within 1/2 a mile of a bike superhighway. This would mean most journeys would require 10 blocks or less on local streets at either end. On the local streets you would have either protected or striped lanes, depending upon the situation. As I said earlier, very quiet streets you can leave as is, without separate bike infrastructure.

    As for overpasses and the like, my thoughts here is that you either have the room at street level for bike superhighways or you don’t. If you do, then there should be little or no need for overpasses. If you don’t, then you just elevate the entire thing so you only have to climb once when you get on. I totally agree repeatedly climbing overpasses would get tiring and annoying, even for someone on a light bike.

    Given a choice, if you mostly have the room at street level for a separate route, but occasionally (i.e. once or twice per mile) need to grade separate, I think underpasses are preferable to overpasses. You need to go at least 15 feet up to clear large trucks but you only need to drop about 6 or 7 feet to route bikes under a road. Moreover, since you’re going down then up, the speed built up on the downgrade will carry you back up regardless of weight or cycling ability.

  11. But most bike-heavy European cities are extremely compact. If I calculated correctly, Amsterdam is only about 4 miles from one side to the other and then you hit farmland. The longer your commute is, the more frustrating congestion will be, even if it’s bicycle congestion. Copenhagen has actually put in some multi-lane bike facilities for different speeds.

    Here in Atlanta, it is often necessary to ride outside of the bike lane due to really bad design – narrow lanes built in the door zone or conflict points – which can lead to harassment by motorists. That has certainly soured many people to any kind of bike infrastructure.

  12. Yeah, that’s more or less my feeling. I don’t want motorists to yell at me to ride in the bike lane, when I’m specifically not because it’s unsafe to do so. (Passed a sign in Sausalito CA yesterday that said “bikes must use bike lane” and raged hard).

    BUT I do want to see more people biking, and I’d like it if there were also calmer bike path options for people to get places they need to go.

  13. I learned to ride in traffic much, much more mindfully and safely thanks to Forester’s book, which I read some time in the mid 80’s. It is definitely flawed–humorless, dogmatic, and simplistic at times, particularly on the “vehicular” claims and the supposedly scientific evidence of “cyclist’s inferiority complex.” But I advise giving it a read before writing it off as entirely “macho.” It has plenty of sound advice and good arguments. And I’m certainly not opposed to well-designed infrastructure, but my Forester influence still shows when I feel forced to ride in badly designed infrastructure–narrow, separated bike paths that end up dumping bikes into traffic on the wrong side of the road, for example. That doesn’t mean we should all argue against separate paths, which can really increase safety and get more people on bikes. But not all infrastructure is good, and bad infrastructure is often based on fear rather than evidence. Forester still has a point…sometimes.

  14. One slight correction: Those 450 child deaths in The Netherlands were total deaths, not just cyclists. They included child pedestrians.

  15. This is why engineering standards exist. Infrastructure that complies with the Dutch CROW bicycle traffic engineering design standards is good. Infra that does not ranges from bad to terrifying to lethal.

  16. This is untrue and a profound misunderstanding of Amsterdam and the effect of population density in general.

    The City of Amsterdam is like Manhattan: The center of a large metropolitan conurbation. The Amsterdam conurbation, known as the Randstad has an area of approximately 82,287 square km and a population of 7,100,000.


    Dutch commutes are the longest in Europe, and 40% of trips in the USA are less than 2 miles (3.2 km) in length. Source:


  17. But I think a large part of the worry is that if the bike lane is protected, then it’s nearly impossible to cross from the bike lane to the general lanes, except at intersections. If the protected lanes are narrow and designed only for slow travel, and the general traffic lanes are completely unfriendly to bikes, then it’s difficult for someone who wants to travel at a moderate-to-high pace by bike.

    Now obviously, the people who want to travel at a moderate-to-high pace by bike are a minority, and it’s possible to design protected lanes that are wide enough for cyclists to pass each other, so this isn’t an argument for total integration of bikes with cars. But there are some cases where bad facilities make things worse for many cyclists than no facilities.

  18. Now Kevin, let’s compare apples to apples, or trips to trips. Don’t compare commutes in one country with all trips in another.

    The US does have a significant percentage of trips under 3 miles – roughly half of all trips in metropolitan areas. (http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/complete-streets/complete-streets-fundamentals/factsheets/gas-prices) But the Dutch statistics you are using actually refer to the total amount of travel time each day, not to distance and not to the trip to work. (http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2011/12/are-your-travel-distances-and-times-too.html) The same post also compares cycling rates for various trip distances in different countries, but only for distances under 4 miles (6.4 km).

    A very lazy search for NL commute distance finds that the national average in 1987 was 13.1 km (8.1 miles). (http://usj.sagepub.com/content/31/9/1545.abstract, subscription required). By comparison, the average commute distance in the Atlanta region is around 30 miles. I don’t know what the average non-work trip length is in Amsterdam. I know that when I’ve stayed there, it was in one of the outer neighborhoods, and I was still barely over a mile from the central train station. I visited all over the city and never spent more than 10 minutes pedaling between destinations. If I did not wish to bicycle all the way to a destination, bus, train, or streetcar service was available to anywhere I considered going. I even considered a trip over to Haarlem, which would probably be considered more of a vacation length trip by locals (David Hembrow certainly describes such vacations), but which is a normal weekend excursion in Atlanta. I also recall the scooters which zoomed along in the cycle tracks, and the road rage with which cyclist addressed pedestrians who stepped into cycle traffic without looking.

    My point is not to say whether Americans are traveling ‘unbikeable’ distances. It is to emphasize the concept that low-speed bicycling is particularly unwelcome in places where people are making longer trips.

  19. This is how ‘separated’ facilities are perceived in Atlanta: http://beltline.org/2013/01/10/tips-for-keeping-life-courteous-safe-and-clean-on-the-eastside-trail/

    The photo on the left of that page represents common conditions during peak hours and explains why one often ends up cycling at walking speeds for much of the distance. Other bicycle facilities have a stop sign at every single cross street, and sometimes even at driveways, while traffic on the parallel road does not have to stop at the cross streets. If facilities were built to Dutch standards – separation from cars and pedestrians, dedicated signals, and priority or bypasses at intersections, as well as an extensive network so you can avoid the most congested spots, it would be seen as a functional option.

  20. Forester has admitted that he can no longer bike in his native San Diego at age 80. If only he lived in Holland…

  21. “many trips are longer.” Where I grew up, we lived on a .75 acre lot in suburbia, and all of our neighbor lots were as well, and stores weren’t for miles. When you design a City correctly, with small lot sizes (.2 acres where I own my house today) and mixed use developments, commutes are actually very short. The reason we have sprawl is because car roads take up a lot of space, which leads to more driving cars, which take up a lot of room, then people demand MORE roads due to congestion. Bicycles take up next to no room and that is why they are so efficient as traffic and much faster than walking for commutes.

  22. I agree that most work commutes are by men, but this is also important because it’s also the least enjoyable time to bicycle on roads or drive in congested traffic. I find cycling in quiet residential neighborhoods in the morning to be as good, if not better, than having a greenway. I neither see another car or even a bicycle but lots of trees and nice houses. However, it’s the arterial roads I despise, but at least I have some paint (bike lanes) that pretend to protect me on my way to work. People don’t run errands by bike either for the same reason, we don’t have dedicated paths or separated bike lanes. If we had them to the grocery store both my wife and I would use them (I have biked to the grocery store and even took my daughter in a Burley to pick up pizza we ordered, but I am unusual and this was .8 miles with only one or two car hell crossings)

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