Vehicular cycling

Vehicular cycling, or VC, is the practice of driving bicycles on roads in a manner that is visible, predictable, and in accordance with the principles for driving a vehicle in traffic. The phrase was coined by John Forester in the early 1970s to differentiate the assertive traffic cycling style and practices that he learned in the United Kingdom from the deferential cycling style and practices that he found to be typical in the United States.

Under the international Vienna Convention on Road Traffic (1968), a bicycle (or "cycle", as referenced by the convention) is defined to be a vehicle and a cyclist is considered to be a driver. In a minority of jurisdictions (the states of Arizona, California, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York in the United States) a bicycle is legally defined as a "device" rather than as a vehicle, but in all cases operators of bicycles share a basic set of rights and responsibilities with operators of motor vehicles. Bicyclists, who do not pose an extraordinary danger to others, are not burdened with certain additional responsibilities placed on drivers of motor vehicles — for example, only motor-vehicle operators are required to have a driver's license and, in some localities, carry liability insurance.

Sometimes vehicular cycling is referred to as integrated cycling (i.e. integrated with other vehicular traffic, as opposed to cycling on segregated cycling facilities ), integrated traffic cycling, cooperative cycling, or bicycle driving.


John Forester, a cycling transportation engineer,, has written that the principle of vehicular cycling is: "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles". This is coherent with the dictionary definition of bicycle: "a vehicle with ... pedals by which it is propelled ...".

Jeffrey A. Hiles, an Instructional Web Designer, has written that vehicular-cycling is a philosophy.

Origins of vehicular cycling

The origins of riding in accordance to vehicular rules of the road go back to the 19th century when bicycles were invented and began sharing the roads with other vehicles, such as wagons and buggies.

John Forester's book, Effective Cycling, is generally considered the primary modern reference work about vehicular cycling. Without using the term vehicular cycling per se, John Franklin also describes VC practices in his book, Cyclecraft. A "nuts and bolts" reference to VC is John S. Allen's booklet Bicycling Street Smarts.

VC best practices, techniques and skills

A vehicular cyclist is a cyclist who generally travels within the roadway in accordance with the basic vehicular rules of the road that are shared by all drivers, and the most effective cycling practices. Primarily, this means:

  • Traveling on the same side of the road as other traffic traveling in the same direction.
  • Staying outside of the door zone; when passing a motor vehicle that is parked parallel to the road, no closer than the width of the door.
  • Respecting traffic controls, such as yield signs, stop signs and traffic lights.
  • Between intersections and other junctions, choosing the appropriate lane or lateral position according to those rules of the road that are shared by all drivers.
  • While preparing to turn or turning, choosing the appropriate lane or lateral position according to destination positioning.
  • Ignoring designated bicycle lane stripes when choosing where to travel on the street.
  • Changing lanes or lateral (left/right) position in response to, and in anticipation of, factors such as changing traffic conditions.
  • Using the full lane unless overtaking traffic is likely to be delayed and the marked traffic lane is wide enough to share.
  • When making a turn toward the inside of a road when multiple traffic lanes are marked, merging into the traffic in each lane while using negotiation with other drivers as required.
  • Generally feeling and acting like a vehicle driver, albeit the driver of a narrow and relatively low-powered vehicle.

Some non-"VC" actions commonly taken by bicyclists include

  • Riding on the opposite side of the road compared to other traffic traveling in the same direction.
  • Riding in the door zone.
  • Riding along sidewalks or crosswalks.
  • Running red lights.
  • Blatantly running most stop signs (certain stop signs, particularly those in quiet neighborhoods, are routinely treated cautiously as yield signs by most vehicle drivers, including vehicular cyclists, though technically doing so is against the letter of the law). There are exceptions to this in some places. In Idaho, human-powered vehicles are allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs.
  • Going straight across an intersection while positioned laterally for a turn or while in a turn-only lane.
  • Darting inward across the roadway from the outer edge of the road, instead of merging across one marked lane at a time.
  • Moving laterally without looking back and yielding to overtaking traffic that has the right of way.
  • Splitting marked lanes instead of taking a more predictable position within a lane.
  • While a traffic light is red, moving to the front of the traffic queue instead of taking one's place in line according to the first come, first served principle (even if doing so is outside the rules of the road).
  • Passing slow or stopped traffic on the outside too fast and/or without recognizing the extra danger from passing a driver on the outside.
  • Not merging out of a curbside bicycle lane when approaching a junction or intersection where the cyclist intends to go straight or turn left, which would violate the destination positioning rule.
  • Traveling along the edge of a marked traffic lane when the lane is too narrow for sharing side-by-side with wide vehicles. Riding the edge can mislead overtaking drivers into thinking that the cyclist is giving approval for same-lane passing.

Lane control

A cyclist is controlling a lane (also known as "taking control of the lane", "taking the lane" or "claiming the lane") when traveling near the center of a marked travel lane. Controlling the lane normally precludes passing within the same lane by drivers of wide motor vehicles, while being positioned near a lane edge usually encourages such passing—even when it is hazardous to bicyclists.

Vehicular cyclists commonly control lanes under the following circumstances:

  • when approaching a junction at which approaching or waiting traffic may turn or cross directly in front of the cyclist
  • when traveling at the normal speed of traffic at that time and place
  • when there is a gap in faster same direction traffic (to improve vantage and maneuvering space with respect to noticing and avoiding hazards up ahead, and to increase conspicuousness to traffic approaching from the rear as well as to traffic with potential crossing conflicts up ahead)
  • when the marked lane is too narrow to safely share with overtaking traffic
  • when merging across a roadway in preparation for a turn across the opposing lanes
  • when overtaking and passing another vehicle moving more slowly
  • when approaching an intersection or junction at which the cyclist's destination is straight ahead

John Franklin advocates operating bicycles in accordance with the basic rules of the road for vehicle operation. Using terms such as "primary riding position" — meaning in the center of the traffic lane — and "secondary riding position" — meaning about 1 meter (3.2 feet) to the side of moving traffic, but not closer than .5 meters (1.6 feet) from the edge of the road. Franklin advocates the primary riding position as the normal position and the secondary riding position only when it is safe, reasonable and necessary to allow faster traffic to pass.

Vehicular cycling, including controlling lanes when appropriate, is supported by traffic laws in most countries (California's Vehicle Code section 21202 is an example of this).

Lane sharing

All forms of lane sharing are aspects of vehicular cycling. While sharing lanes by normal width vehicles is rare, this is because lanes are rarely wide enough for two normal width vehicles to travel side-by-side. But, like motorcyclists, due to their relatively narrow width, bicyclists can often share lanes comfortably and safely. Even drivers of automobiles occasionally share lanes, such as when one is slowing and merging to the outside in order to make a turn from a very wide outside lane, while through traffic passes within the same lane to the outside.

As long as it is safe and not explicitly prohibited, lane sharing does not contradict the vehicular rules of the road. Due to the relatively narrow and slow nature of bicycles, the opportunities for lane sharing are generally more frequent for bicyclists than for other drivers. The practice of whitelining while being passed by faster traffic in both adjacent lanes is demonstrated in the Effective Cycling video/dvd. Lane splitting is often used by cyclists, including vehicular cyclists, to filter forward past slow or stopped motor traffic. Sharing wide outside lanes, when safe and reasonable, in order to facilitate being overtaken by faster traffic, is also a common vehicular cycling practice.

Vehicular cyclists know that often implicit in lane sharing is yielding of the remainder/unused portion of the lane. For example, when riding in a lane sharing position, a cyclist must yield to overtaking traffic using the other part of the lane, or obtain right-of-way to move over through negotiation, before moving laterally into that space.

Speed and destination positioning

Vehicular cyclists and other drivers who travel in accordance to the vehicular rules of the road use "speed positioning" between intersections. The basic principle is "slower traffic keeps to the outside; faster traffic to the inside". When lanes are marked, slower drivers generally operate in the outermost travel lane (in a country operating right-hand traffic rules, the outside lane is the right lane). When lanes are not marked, slower drivers generally operate as far to the outside of the traveled way as is reasonably efficient and safe.

Because of the bicycle's narrow width, a cyclist can "share" a marked lane (i.e., be passed by overtaking drivers within the lane lines) more often than the driver of a wider vehicle can. A bicyclist who decides to share a lane should ride about a meter (3.2 feet) to the outside of overtaking traffic and about the same distance from roadside hazards (such as the door zone). For this reason, bike lanes which are within a meter of a parking lane should be considered a hazard.

As drivers approach a junction of ways, the principle of "destination positioning" comes into play, and they should position themselves laterally according to their destination (left, straight or right):

  • Where lanes are marked, slower drivers approaching a junction should choose the outermost lane that serves (i.e., corresponds to) their destination. For example, if the outermost lane is a turn-only lane, drivers in that lane who do not intend to turn outward should merge inward into the adjacent lane.
  • When lanes are not marked, drivers approaching a junction will travel along the inside of their side of the road if turning toward the inside, along the outer side if turning to the outside, and in between if going straight.

The best rules of the road allow any slower driver (including a cyclist) to establish the center of the outermost marked lane (between the left and right tracks of wider vehicles) as their default or primary position. When traffic is

  • overtaking and will likely be significantly delayed while waiting to pass outside that travel lane, and
  • the lane can be efficiently and safely shared with that traffic

then the polite driver moves over in the secondary position, nearer to the outer edge of that lane. In general, vehicles (whether pedal or motor) are more visible and predictable when traveling along in the primary position. Bicycles in the secondary position are less likely to be noticed.

Looking back

The skill of looking back over one's shoulder is essential whenever a cyclist needs to

  1. check that moving laterally or turning will not violate the right-of-way of someone who is overtaking
  2. broadcast the cyclist's desire (to move laterally or turn) to other road users so that they can better predict the cyclist's path
  3. see if someone who's overtaking is about to make a mistake and violate their right-of-way

Looking back is usually visible enough that it can suffice as a signal that the cyclist wishes to move or turn in the direction of the look. A sustained look back increases the odds that the signal will be noticed. Compared to hand signaling, looking back has the advantage of allowing the cyclist to keep both hands on the handlebars. Some jurisdictions, however, mandate that bicyclists use hand signals before moving laterally or turning.

Looking back can be challenging to perform: it requires traveling in a straight line while looking behind for up to a few seconds. The natural tendency is to not continue in a straight line, but to turn the bike in the same direction as the look. The tendency to turn can be countered with practice; learning to relax the elbow in the direction of the look is key. The more often looking back is done, the more comfortable and effortless it will become.

Special mirrors are available for mounting on a cyclist's helmet, eyeglass, or handlebar. Such mirrors enable the cyclist - with practice - to check for overtaking traffic with less effort. Another advantage is that the check can be accomplished more quickly, reducing the amount of time the cyclist isn't watching where they're going. Although such mirrors are small in size, the mounting is so close to the eye that the field of view can approach that of an automotive rear-view mirror (although that poses more of a challenge for eyeglass wearers). However, the field of view is usually still limited enough that looking back remains an essential skill for vehicular cycling.

Even with its limitations, mirrors are regarded as an important or even critical piece of safety equipment by some cyclists. Others value mirrors more as a means to avoid the shock of being surprised by high-speed traffic passing from behind.


The concept of negotiation is an important part of traversing across one or more lanes of traffic. The basic idea is to negotiate for the right-of-way in the adjacent lane, move into that lane, and then repeat the process for any additional lanes. This is an important vehicular cycling skill, because it allows the cyclist to merge in with the flow of other traffic instead of cutting across at a right-angle (as a pedestrian would).

The first step in traversing across a lane is looking back for traffic that may be overtaking in that lane. When there is overtaking traffic which will arrive too soon for the cyclist to merge out into the lane (i.e., there is an insufficient gap), the cyclist needs to either wait until traffic has passed and a sufficient gap becomes available, or request that someone in that traffic explicitly yield the right-of-way by slowing down to let the cyclist in. Simply looking back is often all that is required to signal the cyclist's intent, but sometimes a hand signal is helpful in getting a driver in overtaking traffic to yield right-of-way by slowing down to the cyclist's speed in order to allow the cyclist to move in front of the driver. Once right-of-way has been acquired in the adjacent lane, the second step is for the cyclist to move into that lane.

If there is another lane to traverse, the cyclist repeats the steps until there are no more lanes to traverse. The key to the process is that the cyclist merges into traffic lanes as per the rules of the road, one lane at a time, either when there is a natural gap to move into, or after someone slows down explicitly to allow the cyclist to move over.

The higher the relative speed of the overtaking vehicles, the more time and space a willing motorist needs to notice the cyclist's request and to safely slow down enough to allow the cyclist in. An assertive arm signal coupled with a timely look back is usually sufficient to accomplish this, even in very dense and fast traffic. When the relative speed is large and the gaps are too small for merging, the cyclist who is unwilling to use negotiation either has to wait for traffic conditions to improve or find another route.

The vehicular cycling attitude

Vehicular cycling advocates such as John Forester contend that if a cyclist does not act like a vehicle driver, they are unlikely to be treated like one by other road users, stating "There is much more to the vehicular-cycling principle than only obeying the traffic laws for drivers. The vehicular-style cyclist not only acts outwardly like a driver, he knows inwardly that he is one. Instead of feeling like a trespasser on roads owned by cars he feels like just another driver with a slightly different vehicle, one who is participating and cooperation in the organized mutual effort to get to desired destinations with the least trouble". (Forester, Bicycle Transportation Engineering, 1994, p. 3).

Alternatives to vehicular cycling

Pedestrian cycling

An alternative to vehicular cycling is pedestrian bicycling, or bicycling according to the pedestrian rules of the road. Pedestrian bicycling often means riding on sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and other pedestrian facilities. In those jurisdictions where such behavior is illegal, the cyclist may be held liable for any personal injuries or property damage that results. There are peculiar hazards associated with this activity, including (but not limited to)

  • Opening passenger-side doors.
  • Pedestrians, dogs, children playing, etc.
  • Potential conflicts with other vehicles at all intersections, including driveways and alleys, as well as major intersections.
  • Entering crosswalks, where drivers turning into your path are often looking the other way.

Many cyclists use a combination of vehicular cycling and pedestrian bicycling. Some cyclists will resort to pedestrian cycling to avoid busy roundabouts, using pedestrian crossings (if provided)--in Britain cyclists are often encouraged to do so by signs and shared-use footways (for pedestrians and cyclists).

This approach has the drawback that extra care must be taken when transitioning from one mode to the other, since transitioning often leads to actions not expected by others. In particular, during a transition, a cyclist must yield the right-of-way to both pedestrians and vehicle drivers. Car-bike collision statistics indicate that those who operate bicycles (and other pedal vehicles) in contradiction with the vehicular rules of the road are particularly vulnerable.

Examples of pedestrian bicycling:

  • going straight across an intersection from the outside edge of the road (next to the curb)
  • making inside turns only when it's clear (don't bother negotiating) by darting straight across the road during a gap
  • resorting to pedestrian-style turns when no gaps are to be had
  • eschewing streets with narrow outside lanes whenever possible (and, thus, where there is no room to be "out of the way")

Segregated cycling

Another alternative to vehicular cycling, "segregated cycling", is available in areas with segregated cycle facilities that support cycling without sharing roads with vehicular traffic. Cities that are providing such facilities are reporting a high degree of usage, for example Montréal and Ottawa (Canada) and many European cities. Research indicates that cyclists are willing to pay a higher price in longer travel time for designated facilities such as an on-street bike lane.


In addition to reading about vehicular cycling in textbooks, a cyclist can participate in training courses offered by organizations such as the League of American Bicyclists and the Canadian Cycling Association.

Another source for education regarding the basics of vehicular cycling is John S. Allen's pamphlet, Bicycling Street Smarts.


Vehicular cycling experts—such as John Forester, John Franklin and John S. Allen—advocate for the operation of pedal powered vehicles (including bicycles) in traffic according to the principles of vehicle operation (i.e., driving). Some VC advocates feel that, in addition to the safety and efficiency benefits, cyclists should operate vehicularly to increase societal acceptance and to directly challenge the government's sanctioning of priority for motorists.

Opponents often object to vehicular cycling as overlooking the needs and interests of the majority who feel that, since motorists effectively already have areas of priority (travel lanes and freeways), cyclists deserve their own priority areas (such as cycle lanes and tracks).

See also

Further reading

  • Effective Cycling by John Forester (First edition, 1976; Sixth edition, The MIT Press, 1993) ISBN 0-262-56070-4


External links

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