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:

Cycle-specific infrastructure 2010-07-11Walk-029

So, there.

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:

Shared sidewalk Shared sidewalk

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:

2010-07-11Walk-077  2010-07-04FourthOfJuly-003

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):

First real Dutch bike path Blocking the bike path

Paths like these, I think, are well outside the reach of Los Angeles for now. But one can dream.

  1. October 26, 2010 at 6:26 PM

    Assuming LA’s wide sidewalks were clutter-free, we’d still have to put up with driveways that lead to parking lots, drive-thrus, or whatever. Thanks for the great post, I personally enjoyed it very much, I like your writing. I don’t mean whore-out my blog, but I have some pictures of cycling in Malmo, Sweden if you’re interested. My father lives there and took the pics for me.

  2. reb1
    October 27, 2010 at 3:47 PM

    Very few places in this country would have the space available to redesign the road so the facilities like they have in Sweden would be possible. Not only were the cities designed with peds and bicyclists having priority in mind they also made there laws with this intent. I lived in Germany for a while when I was in the Army and they had very few bicycle paths. They did have harsher laws for motorists who hit peds or bicyclists. The same goes for bicyclists who disobey the law. They also had lower speed limits in congested areas than we do. The roads were not used for parking lots either. We need to make some really big changes in public attitude and our laws before we insist that people ride in bike paths. It is the lack of respect for human life over the right to drive down the road in a motorized vehicle that keeps many from riding bicycles on our roads.

  3. Opus the Poet
    October 27, 2010 at 3:57 PM

    I think the major problem with sidewalk riding is the legal facts that there is next to no liability placed on drivers for hitting someone on the sidewalk. Now if hitting someone on the sidewalk caused a, say 6-month loss of driving privileges with the car keys being kept by police until the end of the ban, then I could see sidewalks becoming a safe place to ride and dare I say it even to walk.

  4. DanaPointer
    October 27, 2010 at 10:22 PM

    In my riding around OC I see most people riding on sidewalk, out of utilitarian cyclist probably about 80% even when bike lane is present, so clearly our sidewalks are suited for riding since people do it everyday. Only people on road are wearing lycra and flying along in circles, not actually going anywhere.

    For example this morning I saw same number people riding on sidewalk in San Juan Capistrano as walking, so basically in OC we already have de facto separated bike paths.

    However, I agree with you 100%, with some creative use of pain/tiling etc they could be made lot more comfortable for pedestrians and cyclists alike. Dealing with the bad law of right turn on red and adding bulb outs etc, intersections could also be made lot safer for very little money.

    But allowing those changes need to be done at state, maybe even federal level, since SoCal cities mostly blindly follow the “highway design” guides handed to them.

  5. Sam
    December 28, 2011 at 2:14 PM

    I don’t own Mapes’ book, but I’ve read excerpts whenever I can.

    My biggest complaint is that even the bike/ped advocates who claim to have distanced themselves from Forester’s ideology still buy into many of his claims (we don’t have space, we don’t have money, intersections are dangerous, The Netherlands/Denmark are old countries with narrow streets). Southern California, of all places, is the perfect place to implement all sorts of bike and ped facilities as we have gobs and gobs of space to carve out. When I visited Copenhagen this year, what shocked me was not the extent of their bike infrastructure, but how simply designed it was and yet how many people cycled. Also shocking to me was how smoothly the automotive traffic flowed, even when there was a pile of cyclists waiting at every light.

    And also shocking to me is when bike/ped advocates use terminology that has been started by the VCers to emotionally manipulate the discussion. Bike paths/lanes/tracks/etc are not separate facilities, they are safety improvements, street-tamers, traffic calmers all designed to bring quiet to our streets, and move a vast number of people efficiently.

    A very good discussion, thank you for starting it.

    • Ed
      October 19, 2012 at 12:34 PM

      I always like the “we don’t have space” argument when combined with the “old countries with narrow streets” argument. If they can find space in crowded Europe, surely we can find space in North America.

      I think the age of VC dominance has finally ended, but it will be a generation or two before the small changes we’re making today add up to more hospitable cities. Maybe if gas doubles again? That would be fantastic.

      • October 19, 2012 at 2:12 PM

        Unless fuel prices reach stratospheric levels soon (say, twenty times current prices), I don’t think they’ll have a significant impact on road safety priorities. The European nations have, in effect, been conducting unintentional experiments to see how high they can push prices before consumers crack, and it seems like there’s no reasonable ceiling. Some places now have gasoline around $9 per US gallon, and the roads are still packed. Plus, the electric car is finally making a real appearance, at least in L.A., where I see them daily now, and they stand to supplant gasoline cars completely if necessary. I think, instead, we’ll need to rely on political will to see infrastructure changes, but that continues to be lacking. Instead, we get sharrows.

    • July 12, 2014 at 6:53 PM

      Intersections ARE dangerous, but the benefits still outweigh those dangers. The increase in collisions at intersections are almost always do not result in a KSI while KSI from overtakes go way down. Also, expect those dangers to fall dramatically as self-driving cars come into the picture and with the ability to now use bicycle-specific signals. But when signals, which would eliminate most of the conflicts at intersections, are mentioned to the VC crowd, their response is that there’s no need for “extreme engineering treatments” for bikes and continue to grandstand against any sort of infrastructure besides general roadways. Hopefully, they can soon get over grandstanding and meaningfully add to the conversation by helping monitoring to ensure that what is built is of the best quality.

  1. October 27, 2010 at 11:58 AM
  2. October 29, 2010 at 10:01 AM
  3. March 13, 2012 at 12:37 AM
  4. July 27, 2012 at 8:30 AM

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