Vehicular Cycling

Vehicular Cycling, also known as "Effective Cycling" and "Integrated Cycling"[1], starts with this

Bicyclists fare best when they act, and are treated, as drivers of vehicles.[2]

Note that this is not quite the same as saying drivers of motor vehicles. Bicycles obviously have a few important differences from motor vehicles, primarily their narrower size and (usually) lower speed. This does have some implications for how we act differently from motor vehicles. However, the similarity between our behavior and that of motor vehicle drivers should be the norm, with a few exceptions arising from the difference between the vehicles. This means that we obey all vehicle laws and right-of-way rules, except when specifically excepted from doing so for some good reason.

Behavioral Goals

  • Visibility

    Other drivers[3] need to see you. The best place to be seen is where other drivers are expecting traffic, meaning, in traffic. People tend not to see that which they do not expect[4], such as a bicycle twenty feet down the sidewalk but closing fast. To take another example, drivers (including cyclists) making a right-hand turn put most of their effort into looking for other traffic from the left, and so might well miss a wrong-way cyclist advancing from their right. Even when riding on the right side of road, your "conspicuity" (ability to capture attention) may be affected by whether you are right out in the lane or closely tracking the edge of the road.

    Besides positioning, the other aspect of visibility is of course dressing brightly, with colors like yellow, white, orange, or flourescent colors. It is also advisable to use both lights[5] as well as reflectors at night.

  • Predictability

    Paraphrasing Robert Hurst[6]: Some cyclists are all over the place, hopping on and off sidewalks, running red lights, zooming through crosswalks. No one knows what these cyclists are going to do. As a result, no one knows how to react. This is when people get angry, and accidents or near-accidents can easily result.

    It is ironic that because of this sort of cyclist, one of the last things that many motorists expect to see from a cyclist is predictable behavior. In other words, they're predicting that we are going to be unpredictable. However, most motorists also have a strong sense that cyclists should obey the laws, even if most don't. So when they observe a cyclist that is obeying the laws, they are much more likely to be willing to "work with" him or her, and much smoother traffic flow is maintained. Not only that, you help to repair their image of cyclist behavior. Strive to be a "Good Ambassador of Cycling" every time you drive your bike

General Traffic Principles
John Forester boils these down into five basic principles that apply to all traffic on public roads:

  • Everyone drives on the same side of the road.

    To this day, the belief persists that, as with walking, you should ride your bike against traffic, so that you can see the cars coming. Many people were taught this as children. Probably it is still being taught to many children today. But it is wrong.

    There is undoubtedly some advantage to having the cars that are nearest to you directly in your line of sight. If they get too close, you can see it happening earlier, and it's easier to make eye contact or otherwise communicate. When riding with traffic, it is more of an effort to monitor traffic and negotiate with drivers behind you, using either a mirror or turning your head.

    But there are two important differences between cycling and walking that negate these advantages for the bike: You are going faster, and you cannot change direction as quickly as you can when walking, or even running. The faster speed has many implications:

    • Against traffic, the speed at which you and a car are closing the distance is the sum of your speeds. Going with traffic, it is the difference. At walking speeds, these two numbers are close enough as to be negligeable, whereas on a bike, they can easily be 30 MPH apart! (Consider a bike going 15 and a car going 35: Approaching head-on at 50 MPH versus car overtaking bike by 20. If there is a collision, which situation would you rather have?)
    • The closing speed directly affects reaction time. Consider this not only in terms of the motorist seeing and reacting to the cyclist, but also for the cyclist dealing with other unplanned occurances, such as needing to move left to avoid debris or bad pavement.
    • To avoid a collision, vehicles opposing each other both have to come to a complete stop. A vehicle overtaking another has only to slow to the other vehicle's speed.
    • The slower net speed of riding with traffic causes fewer encounters in the same time period.

    Probably the biggest fear that people have of riding their bike in the road is of being hit from behind. This is no doubt a big reason for the persistent belief that riding against traffic is better. The bad news is that this kind of collision is indeed the most likely to be fatal, and often alcohol and high speeds are involved. The good news is that it is also one of the least likely to occur, especially during the day, or at night when the cyclist is using lights.

    Collision statistics consistently show that numerically, most collisions happen at intersections, not on straightaways. Riding with the flow of traffic helps make you much more visible and predictable at intersections, where you are most at risk.

  • When you reach a more important or larger roadway than the one you are on, yield to crossing traffic.

    This is pretty basic. Stop at the end of your driveway. Most other occurances of these intersections will have stop signs. Slow down and prepare to stop at them if necessary, and yield the right of way to those who have arrived at their stop sign first (or don't have one!). Don't forget to downshift as you are slowing, so that you can easily get going again.

  • When you intend to change lanes or move laterally on the roadway, yield to traffic in the new lane or the new line of travel.

    Basically, don't pull in front of someone. Neither car nor bike has a superior right of way by virtue simply of being a car or a bike. The vehicle in a lane simply has right of way to the space in front of them. If you need to change lanes, such as for a left turn, or just need to move to the left side of your current lane, check to make sure the space is clear. If a car is behind you and about to pass, let it pass. If it is not that close, signal your intention and check again to confirm that the driver has seen you and is prepared to let you in. If not, let him go and try again.

    This applies equally to the less frequent situation where you have to merge to the right, for example, when two roads merge and you are joining the common road from the left.

  • When approaching an intersection, position yourself early with respect to your destination direction.

    This applies both to what lane to choose at multi-lane intersections (channelization) as well as where in the lane to position yourself. At multi-lane intersections, you should be in the right-most lane that accomodates the direction you are going. If the lane serves only one direction of travel (left turn only, through only, or right turn only), you may position yourself in the right-hand portion of the lane. If slowing to a red light in such a situation, some people like to "hold their place" in the middle of the lane, to prevent being passed in the intersection, and to improve their visibility. This is perfectly legal to do.

    If the lane serves more than one destination, and you are turning, position yourself such that no through traffic can get beside you in the direction you are going. So if turning left, move to the left-hard portion of the lane so that all the through traffic behind you must pass you on the right.

    If you are continuing straight through an intersection, and traffic is moving, you will probably desire to stay to the right, but not so far that you encourage passing by right-turners (if a right turn is possible). Being a bit out into the lane is both a signal of your intention to continue straight, as well as a discouragement to right-turners behind you from passing you on the left and then cutting you off. If approaching a light that has turned red, on the other hand, you may wish to hold your place in the middle, or even get to the left, to allow right-turners to be on your right. This is especially true if you are first in line. If the driver behind you wants to turn right on red, he will appreciate your cooperation!

    In all these cases of changing lanes or position within lanes, negotiating with drivers who have the right of way to the space in front of them is required, as discussed in principle #3.

    With respect to timing, it is kind of an art to know how soon to start trying to move, and very dependent on current traffic conditions. On a route you are familiar with, it can help to establish some landmark near the point that, by trial and error, you have found it useful to begin trying to move.

  • Between intersections position yourself according to your speed.

    In general, between intersections, faster traffic is on the left, slower traffic on the right. This is called "speed positioning", and is why bikes are supposed to be "as far right as practicable"[7]. That law is really just a special case of slower traffic keeping to the right. In fact, it's somewhat redundant with the slow-moving vehicle statue[8], except that the bicycle-specific one includes the following explicit exceptions (including new provisions provided by LD1808 in the summer of 2007):
    • When overtaking and passing another bicycle or other vehicle proceeding in the same direction;
    • When preparing for or making a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway;
    • When proceeding straight in a place where right turns are permitted;
    • When necessary to avoid hazardous conditions, including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, broken pavement, glass, sand, puddles, ice, surface hazards or opening doors from parallel-parked vehicles, or a lane of substandard width that makes it unsafe to continue along the right portion of the way. For purposes of this paragraph, "lane of substandard width" means a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side in the lane; and
    • When it is otherwise unsafe.

    This principle implies that passing should always be done on the left, as does the first exception to the ride-to-the-right statute listed above. Although many cyclists pass on the right, and many motorists even expect it, be aware that it does go against standard traffic procedure. It is now even legally permitted by LD1808, although the phrase "at the cyclist's own risk" is included. Proponents of that provision state that "passing on the right is sometimes safer than pulling out into traffic to pass on the left when traffic is backed up". But always remember that it is an unexpected maneuver, and other drivers often don't bother looking over their right shoulder when pulling out to the right. It should be taken with extreme care when there are a lot of driveways and intersections to the right, and never pass a car on the right that is approaching an intersection and slowing down!

In closing, the belief of vehicular cycling proponents is that bikes are vehicles whose right to the road is equal to other vehicles, and that the best way to share the road is to act like a vehicle. Much time can be spent, and sometimes is, arguing over the need for and use of special infrastructure such as bike lanes, but vehicular cycling can teach you to safely drive your bike almost anywhere without the need for such. The best way to be safe on the road, regardless of infrastructure, is to be visible, be predictable, and take responsibility for your own safety.

I think Robert Hurst [6] says it best:

"The urban cyclist's best chance is to gather all the responsibilty that can be gathered. Hoard it from those around you. Have faith that you will do a better job with it than they will, and make it so. Don't trust your fate to the police, the planners, the pedestrians, or the paramedics. Don't leave your fate to the stars, or to luck. Definitely don't leave your fate to the drivers."


[1] The various names actually all have slightly different histories and associations, but they are all basically saying the same thing, "act like a vehicle". For purposes of this article, I use "Vehicular Cycling" generically to refer to all such styles.

[2] This premise was first articulated in these words by John Forester in his classic book Effective Cycling, now in its 6th edition. Forester's book is an important foundation of the road cycling instruction offered by the League of American Bicyclists.

[3] I make a conscious effort refer to all operators of vehicles, motorized or not, as "drivers". Where I mean specifically one or the other, I use the term "motorist" or "cyclist".

[4] The fancy scientific name for this phonemenon is "inattentional blindness". There is an excellent article on it here.

[5] Maine statute Title 29-A, Chapter 19, §2084.

[6] Robert Hurst is the author of the excellent book The Art of Urban Cycling: Lessons From the Street.

[7] Maine statute Title 29-A, Chapter 19, §2063. "Practicable" means feasible, or capable of being put into practice with available means, according to

[8] Maine statute Title 29-A, Chapter 19, §2053.

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
Where to Donate Used Bikes August 6, 2009 1:34 PM John B.
Vehicular Cycling Blogs November 22, 2009 4:58 PM John B.
Preventing and Responding to Bike Theft June 10, 2011 12:49 PM John B.
Carrying Things by Bike July 22, 2009 8:41 PM John B.
Bike Trails and Maps September 2, 2010 7:21 PM John B.
Flats and Mechanical Issues March 10, 2008 3:30 PM John B.
Studded tires December 16, 2009 11:46 PM john b.
Vehicular Cycling January 21, 2009 10:58 PM John B.
Winter Commuting and Clothing April 10, 2011 10:52 AM former member
Commuting Statistics and Our "Market" March 19, 2007 1:36 PM John B.
Miscellaneous Online Resources September 7, 2008 6:38 AM John B.
Other Local Bike Clubs July 12, 2007 1:33 PM John B.

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