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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