The stubbornness of a good idea

Few people are as infuriating as John Forester. I’ve never met him but I have read countless of his commentaries on bicycling safety. To call him a thorn in your side is like calling a lobotomy a “minor procedure.”

John is a real old dude and I doubt that he rides a bike much, if at all. I’ve certainly never heard of him showing up on a group ride. That’s kind of weird because all he ever writes about is bikes and bike safety.

Not only that, he has an unparalleled ability to aggravate. When he puts pen to paper, there is an edge to his writing that just pisses you off. I’ve often tried to figure out what that edge is. It’s not the commentaries that sometimes spill over into ad hominem attacks, although that’s part of it. What really gets me is his tone, which is the tone of “STFU, I’m right and I know it, and if you had half a brain, you’d know it, too.” Takes one to know one, I guess.

John was the subject of a hit piece in the Los Angeles Times the other day in which the author announced that John’s philosophy of “vehicular cycling” was officially dead. If you wanted to sum up John’s approach to bicycling in traffic, it’s this: Bike fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

In other words, for us to be safe we don’t need bike lanes or protected cycle tracks or anything other than the roads we currently have, along with a set of equally applied rules. The hit piece essentially says that John got it wrong. The best way to boost ridership is by shunting riders out of traffic and into bikes-only infrastructure. Create a parallel, separate-but-equal system (that conveniently costs billions), and you will have more cyclists and fewer car-bike casualties.

While I loves me a good hit piece, and while John is a super annoying, crotchety old curmudgeon, I don’t loves me a shit piece. And I especially don’t loves me a shit piece when it’s dumping on a super annoying, crotchety old curmudgeonly sonofabitch who happens to be right.

Not simply right, but one-hundred-fucking-percent right. The language may have changed from “vehicular cycling” to “sharrows” and “BMUFL–Bikes May Use the Fuggin’ Lane,” but Forester’s principles are as ironclad and correct as they were when he first proposed them.

Riding off to the edge, stuck in the gutter, dodging trash and glass and cracks and manhole covers and used dildos (yes, Knoll once found a giant pink dildo on PCH) makes cyclists less visible and much more likely to get clipped, right-hooked, rear-ended, or otherwise hurt. John’s principles embody the Savvy Cycling course and they give cyclists control over what happens to them in traffic. Unlike the false perception of safety afforded by bike lanes, BMUFL gives cyclists the real protections of a) being seen, and b) not being treated as inferior road users, but rather as vulnerable ones deserving of special attention and care by bigger, faster, deadlier cars.

In his inimitably annoying way, Forester demolishes the shit piece in the LA Times with diamond hard prose, not a comma out of place, relentless, unapologetic, with the force of an artillery shell hitting a cardboard box. To wit:

“Pitting cars against cyclists” is the first lie. Vehicular cycling holds that motorists and cyclists have equal right to use the roads. Is that pitting cars against cyclists? The logic is all wrong: cars are obviously not motorists. So are the politics; making sure that black people have the same legal rights as white people cannot, justly, be held to be pitting blacks against whites. Besides, the only cycling alternative to advocating legal equality was accepting Motordom’s motorist supremacy policy and its Jim Crow laws that demeaned cyclists. There’s no doubt about it: I stood up for cyclist equality and fought motorist supremacy.

The claim that vehicular cycling had any dominance in American cycling policy at any time in the past is the second lie. At no time, at least since 1925, have cyclists been officially considered equal to motorists, and they were made legally subservient to motorists in the 1944 Uniform Vehicle Code. The idea that American governments had a policy that cyclists were legally equal to motorists is just plain false. If any jurisdiction differed in that, it certainly had insignificant effect. At all times (with maybe some insignificant exception) cyclists were legally inferior to motorists and instructed to be subservient to them.

The argument that American governments supported cyclist equality because they failed to put up money for bikeways is another lie. They failed to fund bikeways because they didn’t care to spend money on bicycling facilities, not because they supported vehicular cycling. While some bikeway advocates make that argument, they fail to produce the official budget arguments stating the support for cyclist equality.

The fact that American governments now fund bikeway construction demonstrates only that America has now decided to fund the bikeways that Motordom has always demanded to instutionalize motor supremacy.

It is correct that the bikeway funding by American governments is now also supported by bicycle advocates in a program designed to accommodate fearful, traffic-incompetent, rules of the road rejecting cyclists with only the maturity of an untrained eight-year-old. That program has won its political battle and is now irreversible. But the political victory does nothing to change the content of the program. What it means is that those of us who reject the emotionalism and anti-science bases of that program have the legal means to refuse its imposition upon us simply because it is trying to unlawfully impose Motordom’s selfish motorist supremacy upon us. Rejecting Motordom and teaching vehicular cycling to all we can reach, and maintaining our legal opposition to Motordom’s motorist supremacy policy, are the two tasks to which we should devote ourselves.

John’s methods have made me a better rider, kept me alive and unhurt longer, taught countless motorists about how to safely deal with cyclists, and inspired thousands of people to ride bikes with confidence and competence.

If the price for that is a cranky old dude yelling at people from his porch and shaking his fist at passing cats, it’s well, well, well worth it.



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43 thoughts on “The stubbornness of a good idea”

  1. A few days ago John Forester asked me about the “full carbon” version of the CyclingSavvy course I have been working on at the request of Big Orange leaders. I sent him links to the presentation and to my ride-along video with the Long Beach Freddies and my comments.

    His response was an email message with a single word: “Excellent!”

    So it looks like we are on the same page.

    1. and unless each system was on a different plane, motor vehicle and cycle traffic can never be totally separate — there will some intersecting travel.

  2. Thank you, Seth and John Forester!

    More to the point, how do you feel about Froomey running up Ventoux? Should bike racers on foot receive equal treatment to stinkin’ drunk pedestrian fans?

  3. I won the BCBC San Francisco to Half Moon Bay and Back race in 1949. Around 1970 for several years I was the #2 points veteran in Northern California veteran racing. I led the San Jose Bicycle Club veteran team that won the 1972 Mt Hamilton race, 1, 2, 3, 4 places, in which I was second because I protected my companion because he had a sprint, which would have been vital had we been caught. I rode when Dr. Graves resurrected double century riding, in San Diego, 1969, 13hr 40min (despite having a bad start), and innumerable mountain doubles since, with typical times of 12h30m. I rode the first Sierra Passes Challenge, organized by John Finley Scott.
    For one period, my commute to work was only 7 miles each way, but returning with a 1,000foot climb to home. At another time, when I was working at home, I used to ride the 11 miles to where my partner, Dorris Taylor, worked, so we could ride home together, often climbing 800-1300 feet using routes through the hills behind Silicon Valley. I was in good company; of the four of us in that family, I was the only one who never qualified and rode in the national championships. When I moved to Lemon Grove in 1998, I rode with Suzanne Bond in the San Diego Wheelmen, which disbanded early this year because of advanced age, and by myself in the delightful hills of Lemon Grove, Spring Valley, and La Mesa.
    But now I have one bad knee and two bad shoulders; every day is painful. Cycling is too painful to bear.

  4. Serge Issakov

    Nailed him in every sense. Come to San Diego. I’d like to meet you finally in person and we can go visit the crotchety old guy who is far more pleasant in person.

  5. Thanks for such an informative (yet entertaining) piece this morning. You certainly sparked my interest to learn more. I’ll definitely be reading more on this topic.

    1. Lars! TEN years ago? Yikes. Thanks for the photos! I’d forgotten about that.

  6. Forester does not ride anymore due to physical problems (knee and hip issues if I recall correctly). He’s 86 years old. That happens to a lot of people that are that age. He’s still passionate about the subject and as you say, he’s still right.

  7. Thank you, Lars, for the photos. And I had had to replace the top tube, which broke while riding to a meeting in DC. All the top tube brazing work is my own.

  8. crotchety correction, it’s not BIKES that fare best, it’s CYCLISTS, as in:
    “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles”

  9. Particularly disliked that LA Times hit piece. It was written by a Canadian who clearly doesn’t cycle here, or possibly anywhere where there’s traffic. Hired outsider shill. The Times once had two good traffic/car/driver writers – both gone now, along with any reason to read that paper.

    I’m a LCI who is a complete convert to John Forrester’s cycling philosophy. We can build cycling infrastructure to substitute to cycling knowledge. But we can’t build enough for everything. We will always have to share the road with cars.

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