Forty Years Later
John Forester, the father of vehicular cycling, may well be equal parts saint and villain in the annals of American cycling. Over the past forty years, he has defended “the rights of cyclists to the public roads” while also fighting “bike lanes, European-style cycletracks, and just about any form of traffic calming.” Forester’s initial entry into bicycle politics was limited to Palo Alto, California, where he successfully scuttled Dutch-style bicycle paths in the early 1970s. His influence later extended statewide, and then nationally. He “talked his way onto a California committee studying bikeway standards” and “particularly attacked protected bikeways running next to roads.” (AASHTO guidelines “still recommend against these types of facilities.”) In 1980, he was elected to the presidency of the League of American Bicyclists, where he stayed for three years, until he was “ousted … in a power struggle over the organization’s direction.”
Jeff Mapes, in his book, Pedaling Revolution (the source of all these quotes), takes a diplomatic tack in his overall description of Forester’s efforts for cycling, but he also portrays a man who despised most other cyclists: “[Forester] savaged the bike industry for supporting bikeway proponents and what [he] saw as misguided safety regulators. The industry … wanted to encourage more people to become cyclists. Forester wanted to see only properly trained riders on the streets.”
I find it cruelly indicative and galling to read Mapes’ small footnote about Forester in a chapter otherwise describing bicycling in Amsterdam:
Forester … said that, besides a childhood train journey through Holland before World War II, he has never been in the country. “However,” he told me in an e-mail, “I have several cycling associates who have cycled there, and they inform me that they didn’t like cycling there for reasons which I see as eminently reasonable and conforming to my feelings about the few imitations implemented here.”
In other words, Forester argued vociferously against infrastructure that he had never seen, that he had never ridden on, that he hadn’t experienced. It’s a crushing spirit that denies the visions and dreams of others without having experienced them firsthand. If you haven’t been to the Netherlands, you simply cannot understand cycling as a way of life — the immersive, encompassing, and encouraging way of it, and not the peripheral, excluding, and callous version we have in much of the U.S., and certainly in Los Angeles.
Forester’s advocacy for vehicular cycling, and in particular his rejection of separated infrastructure, may well represent the biggest squandered opportunity for inclusive cycling in the last forty years. His view of strong, confident, fearless, and fast cyclists navigating traffic like drivers has at least partially — and perhaps substantially — contributed to the very few cyclists we see today on the streets of Los Angeles. One need not make too many imaginative leaps to see a vastly different Los Angeles if Jan Gehl had begun his forty years of infrastructure build-out here rather than in Copenhagen. Two men, two divergent visions, and two vastly different outcomes:
We have to start somewhere, I suppose, despite the wasted time. And we have much work to do if we really want to remake our cities into places where human power has equal status on the roads. In previous posts, I have promised photos of urban infrastructure I had the privilege to see while overseas earlier this month. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve found it rather hard to relate to Los Angeles, because the buildout over there is so far advanced. However, I do have a few items of note.
Let’s take these photos of some typical German urban bike paths. These happen to be in Bunde, a village on the western edge of the country. Villages and Los Angeles share in common relatively empty sidewalks, so perhaps these paths might be instructive:
In essence, these two photos illustrate a shared-use facility, a sidewalk and bicycle path on the same level, built out side-by-side. Cyclists are guided on their portion through positioning, coloring, and surface variances, and pedestrians through the same mechanisms. They represent a rather simple, elegant, and cheap way to make a bike path, because they require giving up no road space and still give cyclists a place.
I realize that readers might point out that the bike path is actually on the sidewalk, and then perhaps alert me to the dangers of sidewalk riding. I am going to discount those studies in one stroke. They have nothing to do with sidewalk riding, and everything to do with conflicts at intersections. It’s not sidewalk riding that’s dangerous, it’s intersections, and we need to do a better job at making intersections safer.
No, I think the bigger challenge for L.A. would come from rethinking our cluttered sidewalks:
Where the Germans have nearly obstruction-free sidewalks, we have burdened them with signs, parking meters, power line poles, newspaper boxes, trees, etc. Walking in a straight line has become difficult in some parts of our city, much less riding a bike. However, it may be easier to remove parking meters — they are disappearing anyway — and rethink our sidewalks, than to remove traffic lanes and rethink our roads.
And then, maybe, someday, we’ll find a way towards something more advanced, like a real Dutch-style bike path, where the path is as big as a traffic lane, and where blocking it just isn’t done (well, barely done):
Paths like these, I think, are well outside the reach of Los Angeles for now. But one can dream.