John Forester is one of the most influential voices shaping how cycling is represented and understood in modern society. As a professional traffic engineer and a bicyclist since 1937, his research has brought credible scientific data to support the philosophy of vehicular cycling -- that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.
Mr. Forester is the creator of the Effective Cycling Program, which teaches both adults and children to ride properly in traffic as drivers of vehicles. His efforts over the years have protected cyclists against the pressures to treat them as children or pedestrians to justify limiting their right to use the roads. We had the recent opportunity to ask his some questions about his research and his views on bicycles and their place on the roadways.
How did you come to focus your experience as an traffic engineer on the issues related to cycling? Was there a specific event that sparked your activity?
I had been an active cyclist since my childhood in London, and I knew something about British cycling history. When cycling to work through Palo Alto in 1970, I saw signs posted prohibiting cyclist from using the roadway, relegating them to the sidewalks. I knew both that that was dangerous and that British cyclists had fought off a mandatory side path law in 1937. So I persevered cycling on the roadway until it came to a court case. I lost my defense and was fined $25, but the city council then repealed the law, because I had made the dangers so obvious.
While this was going on, two different governments had initiated other bicycling regulations. California had started the design of its bikeway system and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission had proposed a regulation for the design of bicycles. Both of these were bad for cyclists because they institutionalized and enforced the American concept of cycling as a childish activity of playing with toys. I had some savings and I thought that in two years cyclists could teach American governments what the rest of the world knows about cycling. It hasn't happened yet, though; we are still fighting the same issues thirty five years later.
What have you found over the course of your career to be the biggest misconceptions about cyclists and cyclist safety?
The widest generalization is that whatever the public believes about bicycle transportation is wrong. In the field of bicycling opinion, everything is upside down, topsy turvy.
However, to be more specific, the public seriously overestimates the danger of motor traffic and overestimates the levels of skill, speed, and courage required to ride safely, and so enormously overestimates the danger of same direction motor traffic (as opposed to the dangers of crossing and turning traffic) as to make it the prime duty of cyclists to stay as far away from same direction motor traffic as possible, which view destroys the ability to ride safely.
Your book, Effective Cycling, has been very influential since its publication in 1984. What, in a nutshell, is Effective Cycling?
Effective Cycling is the skill and knowledge that enables a cyclist to ride a bicycle safely and usefully under any reasonable conditions of road, traffic, topography, and weather, for any purpose that the cyclist desires. This includes choosing and maintaining bicycles, clothing, equipment; riding for speed and comfort; knowing traffic operation; knowing about the various purposes that cycling can serve and the enjoyments it provides; understanding the historical background of cycling.
What does this look like when put into action?
The public should see the vehicular cyclist as simply one more driver on the road, operating like the others. However, the cyclist should understand that because his vehicle is both narrower and, often, slower than the others, he has a duty to cooperate with faster drivers by facilitating their overtaking where that action is safe for both drivers. That is not a duty to cringe out of the way regardless of danger or inconvenience to the cyclist, but a duty to move right only when it is safe to do so and is in accordance with the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles.
This is just the same as if a motorist were driving slowly to identify a house number or a street sign, or was nursing a defective tire. Indeed, when a cyclist operates vehicularly, nearly all motorists recognize what he is doing and treat him as just another driver.