John Forester on Vehicular Cycling

By David Fiedler

Source: About.com Guide

John Forester – (c) Bill Hoffman

John Forester is one of the most influential voices shaping how cycling is represented and understood in modern society. As a professional traffic engineer and a bicyclist since 1937, his research has brought credible scientific data to support the philosophy of vehicular cycling — that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

Mr. Forester is the creator of the Effective Cycling Program, which teaches both adults and children to ride properly in traffic as drivers of vehicles. His efforts over the years have protected cyclists against the pressures to treat them as children or pedestrians to justify limiting their right to use the roads. We had the recent opportunity to ask his some questions about his research and his views on bicycles and their place on the roadways.

How did you come to focus your experience as an traffic engineer on the issues related to cycling? Was there a specific event that sparked your activity?

I had been an active cyclist since my childhood in London, and I knew something about British cycling history. When cycling to work through Palo Alto in 1970, I saw signs posted prohibiting cyclist from using the roadway, relegating them to the sidewalks. I knew both that that was dangerous and that British cyclists had fought off a mandatory side path law in 1937. So I persevered cycling on the roadway until it came to a court case. I lost my defense and was fined $25, but the city council then repealed the law, because I had made the dangers so obvious.

While this was going on, two different governments had initiated other bicycling regulations. California had started the design of its bikeway system and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission had proposed a regulation for the design of bicycles. Both of these were bad for cyclists because they institutionalized and enforced the American concept of cycling as a childish activity of playing with toys. I had some savings and I thought that in two years cyclists could teach American governments what the rest of the world knows about cycling. It hasn’t happened yet, though; we are still fighting the same issues thirty five years later.

What have you found over the course of your career to be the biggest misconceptions about cyclists and cyclist safety?

The widest generalization is that whatever the public believes about bicycle transportation is wrong. In the field of bicycling opinion, everything is upside down, topsy turvy.

However, to be more specific, the public seriously overestimates the danger of motor traffic and overestimates the levels of skill, speed, and courage required to ride safely, and so enormously overestimates the danger of same direction motor traffic (as opposed to the dangers of crossing and turning traffic) as to make it the prime duty of cyclists to stay as far away from same direction motor traffic as possible, which view destroys the ability to ride safely.

Your book, Effective Cycling, has been very influential since its publication in 1984. What, in a nutshell, is Effective Cycling?

Effective Cycling is the skill and knowledge that enables a cyclist to ride a bicycle safely and usefully under any reasonable conditions of road, traffic, topography, and weather, for any purpose that the cyclist desires. This includes choosing and maintaining bicycles, clothing, equipment; riding for speed and comfort; knowing traffic operation; knowing about the various purposes that cycling can serve and the enjoyments it provides; understanding the historical background of cycling.

What does this look like when put into action?

The public should see the vehicular cyclist as simply one more driver on the road, operating like the others. However, the cyclist should understand that because his vehicle is both narrower and, often, slower than the others, he has a duty to cooperate with faster drivers by facilitating their overtaking where that action is safe for both drivers. That is not a duty to cringe out of the way regardless of danger or inconvenience to the cyclist, but a duty to move right only when it is safe to do so and is in accordance with the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles.

This is just the same as if a motorist were driving slowly to identify a house number or a street sign, or was nursing a defective tire. Indeed, when a cyclist operates vehicularly, nearly all motorists recognize what he is doing and treat him as just another driver.

Effective Cycling by John Forester – (c) John Forester

How is vehicular cycling different from what has typically been taught about how one should ride a bike?

So far as I know, none of the authors of traditional American bike safety instruction ever explained a basis for their instruction. I suspect that they never felt the need to explain because they thought that their beliefs were the truth that everybody knew. But one can deduce what they believed from what they did.

The first belief was that bicycling is playing in the street with toys. The second was that bicyclists were persons incapable of exercising judgment about traffic. Therefore, they issued their instruction as a set of commands to be obeyed without thinking, but enforced by the fear of death. You are trespassing on the cars’ road; stay out of their way lest they hit you. Ride only on roads fit for playing in. Stop at stop signs. Make arm signals for turns. Obeying this limited set of instructions produces dangerous cycling.

In practically every discussion of bicycle transportation today, these commands surface in the minds of bicycle advocates as strong beliefs which should guide our system of bicycle transportation. The typical bicycle advocate has these beliefs, which I call cyclist-inferiority beliefs, and tries to graft onto these some way to travel to useful destinations while obeying them. The result is bike lanes and side-paths; they cannot make cyclist-inferiority cycling safer, of course.

Is vehicular cycling something that can only be managed by adults only?

It should not be limited to adults only. After all, since Effective Cycling makes cycling more enjoyable, all should participate. Vehicular operation is the only way in which vehicles can be operated safely and efficiently on the road system. That doesn’t mean that we might not invent better ways, as vehicular operation has been improved over the decades, but it is the best that we now know.

Cycling according to the bike-safety commands is not safe, and bike lanes or bike paths next to the road cannot make such cycling safe. That is because the bike-safety commands and the bikeways that embody them contradict the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles.

Any person who rides on the roads should have the skill of obeying the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. Young persons might well restrict their cycling to the roads with easy traffic, say two-lane residential roads, until their skills develop fully, but even there they need all those skills that apply to two-lane roads.

The cyclist-inferiority view holds that cyclists are children who do not have the ability to exercise judgment about the speed and distance of other vehicles. The falsity of that claim has been demonstrated both by much experience and by experiment. Children of vehicular-cycling families have long been shown to have the ability to ride with cycling groups in the vehicular-cycling manner from the age of seven or so. With fifteen hours of on-the-road group instruction, children in grade three have passed driving tests on two-lane residential street systems; those in grade five pass driving tests on four-lane roads with slow or medium speed traffic; those in grade seven pass their tests on multi-lane roads with fast traffic; at each age, the child students earned far higher test scores than those of the adult cycling populations in the same area. It is obvious that children can be taught safe cycling at a reasonable cost, and it is probable that such training will make early motoring experiences easier and safer.

What is the biggest challenge facing the cyclist today?

I think that the biggest challenge facing the American cyclist today is developing the skill of riding properly in the vehicular manner, and the confidence that such behavior generates. I do not see society as a whole assisting in this task, but rather opposing it with society’s insistence on incompetent cycling on bikeways. The biggest challenge for groups of cyclists is developing a system for better disseminating the vehicular cycling skills; they are the only groups in our society with the required knowledge and the motivation to use it.

San Jose Bike lane. – (c) John Brazil.

What is your opinion of bikeways? Aren’t bikeways safer places to ride than the streets?

Bikeways were invented, designed, promoted, and are still paid for, by the motoring establishment. That is historical fact. Bikeways are the physical embodiment of the cyclist-inferiority view that the motoring establishment had been advocating for decades through its cyclist-inferiority, bike-safety training.

The three claims that are made for bikeways are that bikeways greatly reduce the car-bike collision rate, that bikeways reduce the level of skill that is required for safe cycling, and that bikeways reduce motoring by a transportationally significant extent. In thirty years of trying, none of these claims has been demonstrated by a scientifically sound study. Analysis of the types and frequencies of car-bike collisions, together with analysis of traffic movements, show that not only might bikeways reduce only a minuscule portion of car-bike collisions, but that they are most likely to increase those types of car-bike collision which form the large majority. No bikeway advocate has ever attempted to demonstrate which traffic-cycling skills become unnecessary in a city with a bikeway system; it is clear that all are required. As for a reduction in motoring, motoring has been growing all the time.

For a proponent of vehicular cycling, what makes bikeways an unacceptable alternative to riding on the roads?

This question is really several questions, distinguished according to types of bikeway and distinguishing between mere practice and social policy.

Some bike paths are well away from all roads and provide recreational routes. These are fine for those who wish to use them.

Some bike paths are adjacent to urban streets, as sidewalks are. These sidepaths are the most dangerous bicycle facilities known, because at driveways and intersections they create patterns of conflict between motorist and cyclist that exceed the capability of humans to handle. These are safe only when used at the slow speed, and with the cautions, that are required of pedestrians.

There are a few locations in urban areas that would permit the building of a bike path that serves a transportation function while also having almost no crossing motor traffic. The most usual of such locations are along the edges of waterways. These can provide a useful transportational function, but their most common fault is that they attract so much non-cycling traffic in the form of pedestrians, baby carriages, dogs on and off leashes, and suchlike, all making chaotic movements, that safe cycling is reduced to little more than walking speed. Even so, their intersections with crossing motor traffic need to be carefully designed to account for all classes and directions of traffic that are present, which design generally produces significant delay because of the complications.

Bike lanes are bikeways on the roadways, so they are not an alternative to riding on the roadway. The vehicular cyclist just ignores the bike-lane stripe, riding properly without regard to the presence of the stripe. However, the presence of the stripe confuses both other cyclists and motorists, because the stripe says that motorists should be on its left and cyclists on its right. That contradicts the rules of the road, which prescribe lateral position according to relative speeds between intersections and according to destination positioning while approaching intersections. In this respect, bike-lane stripes impose a more difficult task upon even vehicular cyclists, because they have to work out when they should obey the stripe and when they should disobey it, and how to out-think the bike-lane designer at the difficult places that always exist in any city, and to be vigilant for the movements of motorists who are equally confused by the stripe.

As for the cyclists who are not confident of their vehicular-cycling skills, the bike-lane stripe just confuses them into more mistakes that could lead to a car-bike collision. The same width devoted to a wide outside through lane without the stripe provides all the operating advantages of easy overtaking by motorists and cleaning of the space by motor vehicle tires, with none of the operating or policy disadvantages that are created by the stripe.

What criticisms do you make of the current road designing system?

By and large, road planners and road designers start by considering the amount and types of motor traffic expected. If no motor traffic is predicted, they won’t build a road. However, the fact that the road is built to serve motor traffic does not prevent it from serving other road users, such as including sidewalks for pedestrians along roads which will also serve pedestrian traffic. Building urban roads that do not have sidewalks is unconscionable, because people do walk near their homes and near where they shop.

The fact that a road is built to serve motor traffic does not mean that it doesn’t serve bicycle traffic. After all, any road wide enough for motor traffic is sufficiently wide for bicycle traffic. About the only road items that prohibit bicycle traffic are steel bridge decks and large drain grates with slots parallel to traffic, slots that catch bicycle wheels.

By and large, the best way to accommodate mixed motor and bicycle traffic is for the outside through lane to be sufficiently wide for motorists to overtake bicyclists within it. That answers the problems of motorist delay and cyclist guilt without introducing the confusion of bike-lane stripes. (In any case, we need bicycle-safe drain grates and bicycle-responsive traffic signals and smooth surfaces, etc.)

Bike/pedestrian lane. – (c) Stock.xchng

You have written that it is a mistake when government bike planners mix cyclists with pedestrians? Why is this mixing a mistake?

It is a mistake because it is the physical embodiment of the cyclist-inferiority superstition, saying that both shoes and bicycles are inferior to cars, so we’ll just push them aside in places where we won’t have to worry about them. What it ignores is that bicycles and their drivers have the operating characteristics of other vehicles and their drivers, while pedestrians have entirely different operating characteristics. Cycling at normal cycling speeds among pedestrians is about the most dangerous activity a cyclist can do, and for the same reasons that we all recognize that motoring among pedestrians is extremely dangerous, at least to the pedestrians. The mixing of vehicular travel with pedestrian travel reduces all vehicular travel to the speed of pedestrians. Cyclists object just as much as do motorists.

What should the ordinary “Joe Cyclist” be doing to ensure that his safety and best interests are being kept in mind by government officials?

The first thing for Joe Cyclist is to learn and practice vehicular cycling until the feeling that this is right comes naturally to him. At the same time, learn the explanations of why vehicular cycling is right; the information will aid the practice, and the practice aid the information. Then, spread the word to his cycling friends and associates, either informally or by teaching them. Develop a group of like-minded vehicular cyclists. Then, whenever the opportunity arises for discussion of bicycle transportation, either in the non-governmental sector or with government officials, there will be a group of cyclists who clearly know the subject and have the valid arguments. Vehicular cyclists have to oppose and discredit decades of massive effort by both motorists and anti-motorists advocating the cyclist-inferiority bikeway agenda. Succeeding in opposition will be a very long task.

What do you see to be the most likely state of cycling in twenty years?

Futurism is a most inaccurate subject. The American trend of the past sixty years has been gradual formalization of the cyclist-inferiority system, first through the motoring establishment and then through government, together with some ups and downs of cycling volume largely determined by demographic factors. I think it likely that the bikeway program will slow down because it has occupied the most likely streets and has less opportunity for growth. That suggests not much change for the next twenty years. The same argument applies to motoring, both in its sphere and as the competitor to cycling.

Naturally, I hope that a greater proportion of cyclists will become competent vehicular cyclists. Of course, it is up to us vehicular cyclists to make that change occur, for government won’t assist us. That is, not until we have won over a large group.

As for the future of motoring, I will make no prediction except that motoring is so valuable a means of transportation (despite what bicycle advocates claim) that great efforts will be made to preserve it, and that if those methods fail the results will be so far-reaching in the sphere of urban transportation that it is impossible to predict how we will handle them.

John Forester is the author of the book Bicycle Transportation (The MIT Press, 1983, 1994), which laid out the scientific principles supporting vehicular cycling. Its counterpart in expressing the practical applications of his research is Effective Cycling (The MIT Press 1984, 1993). Mr. Forester is also the creator of the Effective Cycling Instructor’s Manual, the film Bicycling Safely On The Road (Iowa State University, 1978), and the video Effective Cycling, The Movie, (Seidler Productions, 1992).