You can thank John for that

I was riding my bicycle along Del Amo Blvd. in Torrance several years ago, pushed up against the curb by fast-moving traffic. I’d been reading a string of Facegag posts by Dan Gutierrez, a Long Beach bike instructor and advocate. Dan was part of a discussion group that advocated riding your bike using the rules of the road used by other vehicles, in other words, not cramming your bike and your life onto a shoulder or into a gutter.

Seemed crazy to me.

A car came frighteningly close as I hugged the gutter more amorously, wondering which was crazier, moving my bike over into the center of the lane and forcing cars to slow and pass around me, or riding on Del Amo at all? It’s a big, fast, busy, car-clogged street and I was one extended pickup mirror away from having my shoulder broken.

Back in those days I angered quickly, and as the next car buzzed me, I got pissed. Why did I have to choose between shredding my expensive bike tires in the nail-glass-debris-condom-strewn gutter or abandoning a road that I had a legal right to ride on? I considered the craziness posed by Gutierrez and his buddies. What would happen if I took the lane? Would I get mowed down from behind?

I still remember the fear of moving over and tensing, but you know what? The hit never came. My next big intersection was Hawthorne, a street I avoided at all cost. It was a sperm whale to the guppy of Del Amo. Once I had the lane on Del Amo the riding improved immediately. I may have drawn a honk, but I was so exhilarated by being sprung from gutter jail that I decided to turn right on Hawthorne rather than select the narrower street Anza.

Anza had a bike lane, which in LA means “on-street car parking and sudden door-opening zone filled with debris and pedestrians.” I had always hated Anza because the fake security of the bike lanes forced me to zig and zag for several miles before getting to the place where the bike lane suddenly and without warning simply stopped. “These bike lanes are so safe and good for you that it’s over now bye.”

I turned right on Hawthorne and easily centered my bike in the lane, which was narrow to begin with. In the next mile or two I drew a couple of hard, angry honks, but in my elation I didn’t care. I had an entire lane of the huge, busy thoroughfare at my disposal. And for the cars that honked, there were countless ones that did what cars have been doing ever since: Seeing me, slowing down, changing lanes, and passing.

Just like they do when they encounter a bus, a dump truck, a broken car, a collision scene … the only difference was that I was on a bike.

That one day opened up Los Angeles to me and began a process that eventually led to me abandoning motor transport (almost) altogether. In August of last year I quit driving, and in December I sold my car. I have sat in a car a handful of times since as a passenger, and ridden the bus once. The change in my quality of life has been profound, but that’s another post.

This post is about John Forester, who died on April 19, 2020, at age 89. John is the person who inspired and articulated the bicycle method known wrongly as “vehicular cycling”; it’s the method that Gutierrez had been discussing on Facebook and it was the method that I ripped a page out of when I abandoned the gutter forever and took charge of the streets I was on.

What John did for me, he did for tens of thousands of other people, many of whom live right here in LA County. As a result of my revelation that bikers needn’t be gutter bunnies, and that we were safer following the rules of the road than we were cowering on shoulders, gutters, sidewalks, and deadly bike lanes, I began a series of rides on PCH that controlled the far-right travel lane.

Local cycling leaders labeled this insanity, and Big Orange made a point of separating from me on the Sunday rides up PCH. I still remember that first ride with Gary Cziko, Tara Unversagt, and a handful of others. We pedaled the gnarliest stretch of PCH all the way to Cross Creek and back with maybe one honk and more than twenty miles of clear, unobstructed roadway lining the beautiful Pacific Ocean. I think I called PCH, when you take the lane, the most beautiful bike lane in the world.

At that time Velo Club La Grange, the NOW Ride, and most other large groups rode gutter-style on PCH. It was always miserable and scary, especially when the pace picked up. But after less than a year, and thanks to coordination with CHP and LA Sheriff’s Department in which Eric Bruins, along with Gary and several others, educated law enforcement about our right to control the lane, it became normative riding for a lot of people. The outreach was a key step because law enforcement’s first reaction to a group of cyclists following the rules of the road was to pull them over and write a ticket.

I defended several of those tickets successfully, and the outreach worked. CABO, with Pete Van Nuys and Jim Baross, helped stage a protest in Malibu protesting the illegal ticketing. CHP and LASD now accept that cyclists should follow the rules of the road on PCH. It’s a small step for mankind, but it was a massive step for the entire cycling community.

Eventually Big Orange, a fierce opponent of the “insanity” of lane control, became an equally vociferous advocate for taking the lane on PCH. So did other clubs. How many tens of thousands of cyclists in the intervening years have benefited from this revolution? I don’t know, but I know that it all came about because of John Forester and a relentless advocacy that spanned six decades.

As John fought the prevailing philosophy of what he called “motordom,” he was called every name in the book up until and after his death, with the harshest criticism leveled at him by fellow cyclists whose idea of safe cycling is spending billions of dollars on paint, “infrastructure,” and supporting laws that marginalize cyclists, literally, on the edge of the road.

John suffered those insults because he could never be shaken from the facts that supported his approach. John suffered as does every person who, in the face of harshest opprobrium, dares to speak the truth. And what his critics never understood, and never will, is that to speak the truth is no suffering at all.


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11 thoughts on “You can thank John for that”

  1. I got to ride PCH in the Laguna Beach area about 5 or 6 years ago when I was traveling for work. While it was narrow in spots, I felt absolutely safe in the late afternoon and in the early morning, then next day. One car in 75 miles of riding cut it close but everyone else was respectful. And you’re correct about PCH being the most beautiful bike path in the world. The views are stunning! And the weather, in January, was glorious – especially when compared to back east where it was in the 30s.

    Thanks for awakening that memory, Seth.

    And thanks John!

  2. Dean Patterson

    I attended a small gathering about five years ago in Lemon Grove, CA, where John spoke about his passion for, of all things, writing (his father was a novelist and playwright) and the developoment of ammunition and weaponry from the civil war through 1900. It was a strange and rambling talk, but he dressed in period stle (boater, suspenders, linen shirt and pants) and was completely enjoyable, if a bit eccentric. I knerw him from the 70’s and 80’s, and he remembered me, so we chatted a bit, after the talk, about cycling and the freedom it gives.

    1. You have to be eccentric if you love bicycles because they accentuate your uniqueness. Sounds like a great talk!

  3. Great memories. I was lucky to move to L.A. in 2013 and have my first ride up PCH with you and that trail-blazing group!

    Like you, Seth, it was Dan Gutierrez and his videos with Brian de Sousa that liberated me from the gutter. But it started with John Forester, and continues and gets even better with CyclingSavvy developed by Keri Caffrey and Mighk Wilson.

  4. It should also be noted that you, Seth, sponsored the first CyclingSavvy workshops for Big Orange which got the ball rolling for other bike clubs in Southern California including Long Beach and San Diego and Riverside counties.

  5. Serge Issakov

    My commute almost 20 years ago was a short but hilly six miles between La Jolla and the UTC area in San Diego, but much of it was along fast and busy multi lane arterials where the left turns were a big frustrating challenge.

    Until I read Forester’s Effective Cycling.

    Not only did I learn to take the lane by default and thereby reduce the close calls and uncomfortable incidents from a few per week to one every year or two, but I learned from two pages in the book how to negotiate my way across the multi-lane traffic sewers one lane of 50+ mph traffic at a time, instead of waiting, sometimes pulling over for what felt like an eternity, for a red-light-induced-gap that allowed me to road sneak across all the lanes at once.

    So that commute, and all my riding, improved immeasurably. Applying what I learned from reading his book liberated me to be able to ride safely while feeling comfortable riding anywhere in any kind of traffic.

    And, yeah, I thank John for that.

  6. F’ yeah, Seth! Thank you so much for your ‘vehicular’ cycling advocacy. Even up here in Thousand Oaks, this riding behavior is becoming more normal (fewer honks). There is some larger lesson here in forcing oneself into the middle of the lane where one feels one ‘shouldn’t’ be. Eventually people will forget that ‘cyclists’ ever lived in the gutter. Thank dog for leaders with the guts to force society to recognize everyone’s rights.

    1. John dedicated his life to it. He didn’t seek admiration or reward, only safer and more intelligent riding. Thanks for carrying on his great work!

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