A SUNDAY CONVERSATION WITH JOHN FORESTER

Peter Flax

If you ride a bicycle or care about the design of modern cities — or even if you hate bike lanes — you should care about the life’s work of John Forester. After all, probably no individual in American history has had a greater impact on how US cyclists experience riding on the road.

On a Sunday near the end of June, I drove down to the San Diego area from my home in Los Angeles. In a modest cottage in the city of Lemon Grove, I sat down with a man named John Forester. He wore suspenders and sandals and his living room was jam-packed with hobby and craft supplies. We talked for a good two hours.

Forester is a pivotal and controversial figure to many people who are involved in bike advocacy. He’s become known as the father of vehicular cycling, a small but passionate and influential group who believe the bicycles should be operated like any other vehicle — ridden in the same lanes and manner as cars and trucks rather than in bike lanes or separated infrastructure. His positions shaped policy and street design in the US for decades.

I wanted to talk to Forester, now 89, about many things — his early riding life, the circumstances in the 1970s that turned him into an activist and policymaker, and the ways his unyielding philosophies have made him so controversial and sometimes despised by bike advocates in the modern era.

Forester was at first reluctant to participate in an interview because he’s felt burned in the past — by writers who ultimately wanted to take aim at his positions or character. In the end, he agreed to this interview after I offered to publish it as a long-form Q&A, without involving other sources or a creating narrative beyond our conversation.

As someone who has followed John for years, well aware of his long-held positions and his age and his approach to discourse, I decided going in that I wasn’t out to stage or win a debate — I was interested in a genuine conversation about his life and point of view. I still disagree with John on some important topics — namely the battle to carve out a safe place for American cyclists on the road — but I came away with some respect for how he’s spent decades fighting for the rights of cyclists based on his own life experiences.

Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited slightly for clarity.

PF: John, thank you for inviting me to your home. To start, could you introduce yourself?

JF: Sure. I’m John Forester. I call myself a bicycle transportation engineer. I’ve been active in bicycling affairs since 1970. Before that, I was an active cyclist.

PF: Can you tell me a bit about where you were born and your early riding life?

JF: Well, when I was a boy, we lived in England in a three-decker apartment, with a long and narrow garden sloping down toward the local park, with rose bushes at the bottom. And at the age of 6 or so, I was set on my bicycle headed downhill. Until I learned to turn around, I ended in the rose bushes. But I learned enough to turn around and come back up. And after that I was on the street. My parents had both been cyclists, although they gave it up when my father got a car. But they had friends who kept on cycling. So it was all around me

PF: So this was in the 1930s — was riding a bike in England different than it was riding in the States?

JF: I was told you act like any other driver — that’s the way you behave on the road. That also was the official statement of the cyclist’s touring club. But there were different sides about it. In those years, a British transport minister publicly called cyclists “road lice.” On the other hand, there was no official action against cyclists.

PF: And when did you come over to the US?

JF: I came over in 1940, when I was 10. We lived at the top of the Berkeley Hills, where my mother rented a house and my father was traveling around on government business. I didn’t get a bicycle until after America entered the war. It wasn’t new; it was a rebuilt bicycle. New bicycles only went to war workers.

PF: But eventually you got serious about riding in Berkeley, correct?

JF: Yes. To begin with, we lived at the top of the Berkeley Hills and when I got to junior high school and then high school, both of those were down on the flats. So I had a lovely downhill run at speed, through traffic, and on the way up it was a little harder. But with effort I could beat the streetcar up the hill.

PF: So at what point did you start riding beyond just transportation to and from school?

JF: In 1944, my brother and I cycled from Berkeley to a little town near Mendocino. My parents were separated at that time, on the way to divorce, and my father had rented a group of summer cottages in a place called Little River. And he got special dispensation in gas — he was partly crippled by that time, and he drove up there with the cat, Fluffy. My brother and I cycled up. We had friends to stay with on the way up, and then we returned the same way.

PF: So that sounds like a couple hundred miles each way — is that about right?

JF: Yup.

PF: Was this something many American teenagers did in the 1940s?

JF: I think it was not common.

PF: So for you at that point, what did bicycling represent to you?

JF: A way to get around!

In 1946, I was sent for my last year of high school to a prep school in Newport, Rhode Island. My brother went with me, too — he was three years younger than me and eligible for the lowest grade in the school — and my father asked, “Look my boys are bicyclists, will you let them have bicycles and ride as long as they stay in the country?” — to not go into town in other words, where the evils might lie. And so he bought us the first British bicycles built after the war. They were postman models — three-speed bicycles, with an oil-bath chain case, rod brakes, raised bars, three speeds, and a generator light. Just what you’d see the postman or village policeman riding in movies at the time.

And when I decided to go to UC Berkeley, I started riding with, let’s call it the Berkeley Wheelmen — that was a name people used some time later. We were a mixture of students, foreign students, and other people. And we went on rides locally, and we could cross the San Francisco Bay on the ferry boat, and also on the ferry boat between Richmond and Marin County.

Then during my spring vacation in 1949, a cycling friend and I decided we were going to ride south down the coast, to somewhere near Hearst Castle. I was riding my roadster bicycle and he had a custom-made touring bike built in New York. But we got down to the junction that takes you inland, and from there he went inland and went north up the interior valleys while I continued inland and went north to Fresno because one of my school friends lived on a farm in Fresno and they’d gathered there for the vacation. So I met them there and we all came home by train together.

PF: So you rode from the Bay Area to the Hearst Castle and then cut over toward Fresno? I can’t imagine that many Americans were doing that kind of touring in 1949.

JF: Oh no, you never saw them.

PF: And what were the attitudes towards people riding bikes in the general public in that era?

JF: My first connection with official American bicycling policy came when I was in sixth grade, I think. Officer Friendly came to school and talked to us about riding bicycles. And what I heard from him, I didn’t believe. Everything countered what I had thought and had done. But by the 1950s, America was growing so fast, switching over to automobile transport so fast as the amount of suburbanization jumped. In this era, America despised cycling — it was a bad time for cycling.

PF: So that term you used before — road lice — do you think that’s how a lot of people perceived cyclists on the road, as sort of vermin in the way?

JF: Yes.

PF: But it was such a small number of riders that no one really did anything about it?

JF: Exactly, that’s correct. Cycling was disappearing and motoring was growing.

PF: So is this around the point you started to dabble in bike racing?

JF: Well, as a result of my trip down the coast, I was convinced that a postman-style bicycle was not the thing, a touring bike was the way to go. My friend had one custom made in New York and I like the design of it, the way it was made, and so I ordered a frame from the same maker and ordered a big box of parts from Holdsworth in England. You see I kept reading the cycle journals, so I had access to advertisements. I knew what to order. And it all came and I put it all together and I was riding a first-class touring bike. It had only three speeds because I could use a standard 1/8-inch chain I could buy anywhere. Sources for things like 2-millimeter chains were far apart — and I didn’t know what they were. There was one good bike shop in San Francisco, and we could buy common supplies there.

So then I realized that around my house there existed a perfect 25-mile European-style race route, which became the first two or three Berkeley Hills races.

PF: And so you were racing around Tilden Park and the hills around Grizzly Peak?

JF: Well, you know where Inspiration Point is? The race started at Inspiration Point, down the hill to the Orinda Valley, south along the Orinda Valley to Moraga, turn right just about where the college was, go up Pinecrest, go make the climb up, then along the top, then zig zag down into the park, through Inspiration Point, for a second lap.

PF: I used to live in Oakland and ride on those roads all the time. So what year roughly was this race started?

JF: I think it was ’49.

PF: So there wasn’t anything like a circuit road race going on at that time in the Bay Area?

JF: There were a few other races, too.

In ’49 I had a job in Boston for the summer, so we found out the hosteling in New England was well developed, and one of the favorite places to go for a weekend was Cape Ann, and the house manager, the hostel manager at Cape Ann, he was a fisherman with a wife and family and five blonde daughters, one for every age of cyclist. And so it became a point of honor to be the first cyclist down their driveway on Saturday morning.

So then, when I came back from there — that was my first summer with a good bike — I did a race from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay and back. I didn’t even have racing wheels; I had touring wheels with Dunlap high-pressure tires. And only three speeds. They put me with Group D because they didn’t know what I could do, and by the second of the little hills going down the coast I was alone. So I kept going alone, I climbed the major climb and started coming back along Route 35. And I did a final lap around Lake Merced to the finish line, and I was just worn out. I mean I couldn’t ride more than 15 miles an hour, maybe not even that much. But I was first! And the rest of bunch came piling in five or ten minutes later, all racing to be first.

PF: Do you think being an early adopter of that kind of riding, of doing long-distance bike touring and being part of bike racing making a comeback in the US, impacted the way you looked at cycling?

JF: I just enjoyed it. I had no social program in mind. I can tell you; you’d be out in the country; you hardly ever saw another cyclist.

PF: What about riding in towns and cities — what were the conditions like to ride a bike in a place like San Francisco in that era?

JF: You see, we’d come off the Golden Gate Bridge and we’d ride over to the Transbay ferry, after a ride in Marin County, and there was nothing to it. I just followed the rules — I knew how to ride properly and so I did.

PF: I don’t to want flash forward too fast, but I’m obviously interested in the experiences you had in Palo Alto in the early 70s. Is there something in between that you think is important to talk about?

JF: Well, I had moved from Berkeley, seeking work — I moved to Southern California and back again, chasing better jobs. And in the course of things, I’ve been a member of Los Angeles Wheelman and Marin Cyclists and the cycling club that’s based in Palo Alto.

PF: Well, as someone who presently lives and rides in Los Angeles, I’m curious what it was like to ride a bike in LA in the 50s and 60s

Well, when I was with Los Angeles Wheelmen, we published a newsletter that got posted in bike shops, and some rides would start at a corner of Venice Boulevard somewhere in West LA. Or else they would car start — go in a car to a certain location and unload your bike and go off for the ride. Even then we knew that Los Angeles was just too damn big — if you wanted to get out of town, about the only way you could do it was on the coast highway. On any other route it a long, long time to get out of town, other than the mountains just behind Los Angeles. And the same sort of mix took place in Northern California — some rides starting at a local place, but for Marin rides I’d go up by car.

PF: So talk to me about this period, you’ll probably know the exact start of it better than I do, the late 60s and early 70s, when this bike boom finally came to the US.

JF: What I noticed toward the end of the 60s — I was still in Los Angeles in this time — was that there were road people, meaning Americans who drove sports cars, showing up with bicycles aboard. Good bicycles — I mean semi-racing or racing bikes. I’d upgraded my equipment by that time, too. I ordered a Holdsworth bicycle and parts to make up an all-Campy bike, and I switched to tubulars because they rolled easier. So I saw more people coming in cycling and they were not poor people, they did it because they enjoyed doing things on the road — driving cars and riding bikes.

PF: Right. And at the same time was there a rise in the pushback against cyclists?

A little later, I was living in Northern California; I’d moved to Palo Alto. And I was informed that there was a government- established, statewide bicycling committee that was going to reform the bicycling laws in California. And they had no cyclists on it. And their next meeting was to be in San Francisco.

So I went up to that meeting, and it was completely crossed purposes. You see, I told them I was a law-abiding cyclist, that cyclists need to obey the rules of the road. And they let me on as a member. But they thought cyclists would obey any god damned rule or law they inflicted on us.

The first meeting of the Statewide Bicycle Committee I think was in 1970. They never told me what they were going to do. But I eventually figured out their intent was to get a mandatory bike lane law and a mandatory sidepath law. Then I was informed that in fact this proposal was being put before the California legislature at the end of 1970 by the California Highway Patrol and the Automobile Club of Southern California. And the meetings started in 1971, and I of course I had to fight the proposed two new laws. I was fighting for cyclists obeying the rules of the road for drivers and vehicles and against laws that proposed to contradict that. And frankly, I was treated badly. I was lied to by the powers that be, Motordom.

PF: Yeah, tell me what that word, Motordom, means to you.

JF: Ah, it was the title of a series of journals put out by the New York State Automobile Association in the 1920s. And proclaimed motorist supremacy of course. And then we had the automobile user societies — I’m not talking about the Bentley owner’s association; I’m talking about the regional things like the Auto Club of Southern California and the Auto Club of New York State — and their governmental allies, who are the traffic police. These people had a program of motorist superiority — “The world’s going to motoring; everything else is dead. The only time you see a horse is when a policeman is riding a horse to control crowds.”

This was not quite true of course — but there it was, and cycling was dying. Thinking in the 50s, we damn near died. There were very few of us. When cyclists started coming — partly with the people I told you about who’d arrive at a car start driving a sports car carrying a bike, but also there was another generation. You know, suburbanization had been growing; people moved out to the suburbs — they did so because they had a car. Because they had a car it could be used to drive the worker to work, and for everyone else on the weekends and evenings. Or it was used to drive the worker to a train station and back and then used for everyone else. But only one car at that time.

Who got left out? The teenagers. They took to riding bikes. That was the ten-speed revolution. They had moderately good bicycles and the desire to get around. So there was an increase in young adult cycling — that’s what frightened the motorists.

PF: So all of these teenagers riding around on ten speeds was an issue?

JF: Oh yes. Because you see motoring people saw this increase in cycling and projected it ahead — “They’re going to plug up our roads. Our roads — plugged up by bicycles.”

PF: I was surprised when looked up data that in the early 1970s more cyclists were killed by cars than anything happening now. Over 1,000 riders a year were killed in that era so obviously there were lots of crashes.

JF: Oh yes.

This influx of young adults plus well-to-do adults cyclists worried motorists so much that here in Southern California, the Highway Patrol and the Southern California Auto Club took action to restrict cyclists as much as they politically could — to keep them out of the way, off the road if they could, on sidepaths, but at the edge of the road if nothing else.

And that brought on the first scientific look at the effect of these cyclist restrictive laws on traffic operations. Did they make motoring easier? Did they make cycling safer, which is what motorists claimed. Nobody in the world had done that before. And the US DOT funded a program, an investigation done by Kenneth Cross, to a pseudo representative sample of one year’s worth of reported car-bike collisions in four different states.

And Cross started out doing a preliminary job in Santa Barbara County, and I saw the results of that. I had a copy of the results, which were suppressed. But in any case, we had the formal Cross study of several states for a whole year’s worth of car-bike collisions, and Cross did an admirable job of collecting statistics. The statistics he collected are robust and since then two attempts have been made to check up to see whether the pattern that he saw still existed and both those studies concluded there was no perceptible changes in behaviors and the kinds of crashes that were occurring.

In the same era, something related was happening — people were worried about the safety of household products. In the early 70s, the Consumer Products Safety Commission was established to study consumer products — although firearms and automobiles were explicitly excluded — like lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners. And the first project of this commission, because it had the largest number of incidents reported, was bicycles.

PF: And do you think there was a conclusion to be drawn by the fact that bikes were the first product to get such attention?

JF: Well they started out badly. But quickly it became obvious that it wasn’t that bicycles were defective and causing lots of crashes, it was that people were riding them off the road. But still, the bicycle manufacturer’s association — in other words the people in America who made bicycles for children, not the small number of custom makers who were making real bicycles — had a safety standard, and the CPSC [the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was created in 1972] took over that standard, believing that it was to make bicycling safe. But it wasn’t; it was to convince father that the bicycle he bought for his son would be durable. And at first the CPSC said the standard wouldn’t affect real bicycles, it was just for children’s bicycles. Another lie. Because then they proclaimed that it would apply to every bicycle sold in the United States.

PF: So I think this is something that for people who are my age and younger, that this is a hard idea to get your head around, that in this era there really did appear to be this broad effort to push people away from riding the way they had been, right?

JF: No.

PF: No? Then how would you put it?

JF: The effort, for both the bicycle design and the traffic operations was behave like a frightened child. That’s what they wanted us to do.

PF: Why would they want you to behave like a frightened child? Because they wanted you out of the way of Motordom?

JF: Yes. That’s right.

PF: And that’s part of how the rest of your life and the work you did came from realizing that there was this powerful entity that wanted riders to behave like frightened children?

JF: That’s right.

PF: And do you still feel like the dynamics you observed then are something that has persisted in the decades since then?

JF: With respect to road behavior, yes. But not with respect to bicycle design. Because now you have people like Trek building real bicycles.

PF: Got it. So can you tell me specifically about what happened in Palo Alto and how you got involved in activism.

JF: Yes. I had a lady friend who was a biochemist at Stanford Research Institute, and I would often ride up to meet her after work. And sometimes we’d come back the short way, and do some shopping as well — you know, with racks and panniers — and other times we’d take the high road and climb over the mountains and have a fun ride. So I was familiar with the route between Palo Alto and Redwood City up Middlefield Road. I’d ridden it at rush hour times for several years, with no trouble at all.

Then Palo Alto, to make cycling safe, prohibited cyclists from riding on Middlefield Road — they required you to ride on the sidewalk instead. If there’s any doubt, I will show you one of the signs that they posted. Because I stole some of them. Well, I didn’t really steal them — Palo Alto took them down but didn’t seem to know where they’d put them all up. So one night me and a friend went out with a car and a step ladder and took down the remaining signs. I thought I’d make tea trays out of them, but I never did.

PF: So they actually posted signage and created their own municipal code saying that cyclists were no longer allowed to ride this road?

JF: That’s correct. On several roads. And I thought, oh hell. In 1937, British cyclists had faced the same thing and fought it down. We’ll do the same in California.

So I continued to ride as I always did, on Middlefield Road, and finally a cop comes up alongside me and says, “You’re not supposed to be doing that.” I kept on riding until he pulled me over.

And so I said, “How come?” And he said something about the Palo Alto local ordinance, a municipal ordinance. So I got him to cite me; I had a citation to look up and work it over. Afterwards, when I looked it up, it actually said that on a road with a bike lane, you had to ride entirely within the bike lane, including making a left turn from the curb lane. And I worked out why it was that riding on a sidepath was dangerous when you intended normally to obey the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. And, of course, I was riding along at 20 miles per hour, more maybe, because that was my usual speed.

Somewhere along the line, I actually did what the ordinance required riders to do. I had Doris follow behind me on the road and observe what went on. And I dodged in front of several cars, and it was damn risky. But I’m an expert bike handler and I knew what to look for. So I was prepared and I made it a mile and a half or whatever it was, that length of Middlefield. When Doris caught up to me, she was just white in the face, the danger she’d seen me going through.

But anyway, I diagrammed — I worked out the dangers, the fact that you’re trying to insert another stream of traffic between the two streams you got — vehicle traffic and walking traffic. And you’re expecting motorists turning right to be able to see and yield to traffic coming up on their right. You can’t expect that to work. And there are some other aspects too where you could only ride the way they wanted you to if you had eyes in the back of your head. And people ain’t built that way.

PF: And you were able to defeat the ordinance that way?

JF: Well, no. You see, they claimed they won. Sure, I got prosecuted and paid a fine of $25. But at the next city council meeting, they repealed the laws.

PF: So I guess one point to make is that the way they tried to implement this, to have riders operate on sidewalks and make turns, was impractical idea for many riders, and definitely for the kind of rider you were. People don’t understand how fast a competent road rider can go.

JF: Yup, that’s right. And nobody, none of these supporters of sidepaths, which have now come back into prominence, has ever dared repeat my test rides. It’s dangerous.

PF: I’ve read a lot of your writing and one term that I see a lot is cycling inferiority. I’m wondering if you can tell me what that means to you.

JF: Well, as I said, they want us to ride like frightened children. Does that imply an inferior position? Certainly it does. It makes you an unwanted discouraged, despised road user. It’s certainly inferior.

The other side of that coin is motorist superiority. With motorist superiority you have the idea that, eh, bike riders get out of my way. Now, let me point out to you that by 1925, Motordom had frightened pedestrians on to sidewalks or the edge of the road. The next target of course was cyclists.

So starting in about 1925, Motordom started a campaign to frighten cyclists off the roadway. With pedestrians, they had drawn pictures of pedestrians dodging out from between parked cars and getting smashed. But when they tried to frighten cyclists off the roadway, they couldn’t make such pictures. The only pictures that they could make would have shown a cyclist on the road and a motorist unlawfully smashing him from behind.

So they switched it to a safety argument, saying that cyclists who ride on the road are in immediate danger of being hit from behind and killed. If you ride on the road, you’re liable to be killed. By motorists of course. And they got away with it.

But they got away with it because America was becoming a motoring society extremely rapidly. This is what I first heard when I was in the sixth grade and Officer Friendly came to talk about bike riding, and he told us to “stay out of the way of cars.” That when I was exposed to this propaganda campaign. And since then, we’ve had three or four generations of Americans raised to believe that if you ride in the road you’ll get smashed by cars.

PF: I understand. This is a part of the conversation where I have big questions. Like a lot of the time when I see you use the term cycling inferiority, you put the word complex or superstition after it, which appears to make a strong statement that it’s just not factually based.

JF: That’s correct.

PF: When I listen to you explain your history, I can see that there was something resembling a conspiracy, a concerted effort to frighten cyclists off the road — that what you call Motordom led a complex effort to frighten riders off the road. And yet I also see riders who are not like you and me, people who never raced and don’t want to go fast and aren’t experienced, who have concerns about getting hit that are real to them. Right? So to call it superstition or a complex feels like an insult to people who feel genuinely afraid.

JF: Yeah. But you see, only 5 percent of car-bike collisions are caused by same-direction motor traffic. The other 95 percent are caused by turning or crossing movements by either or both parties. There’s no scientific reality to this fear of being hit from behind. The fact that they ride slowly makes no difference. The rules of the road don’t require you to ride as fast as the car ahead. The fact that these people are so worried is also that they haven’t learned how to ride properly.

PF: This is super interesting to me. I want to talk about how road and riding is different here versus Europe. Can you tell me whether you’ve done much in places like the Netherlands or neighboring countries?

JF: No, not much.

PF: OK. Because what I see when I look at data, is that in the United States the use of helmets is the highest in the world, while in these other countries, where almost no one wears a helmet and they have all of this protected infrastructure, the rate of people riding is much higher than here and the rate of people dying is much lower than here. And I recognize that Los Angeles is not Copenhagen, so I understand that there are variables that are not the same, but it does seem like there’s reason to think that American roads are dangerous. Right? That some of the problem could be solved by education but some of it is bad road design, and I think people have a legitimate reason to feel that American roads are not super safe to ride a bike on. Do you disagree with that idea?

JF: Yes I do. Well, I disagree with bits of that argument. There is no reason that you can figure out why riding on a sidepath would be safer. When you analyze the kinds of car-bike collisions that occur — if you prevent getting hit from behind which supposedly sidepaths do at least when they exist — then you haven’t gained much because that’s a small proportion and you’ve unfortunately made the 95% more difficult. Now, when you start thinking about say, the Netherlands or Copenhagen, you find an entirely different situation. In the first place, those cities always had a cycling commuting population. They did so before motoring came in, which in those places didn’t happen until after World War II. Sure there was motoring in the Netherlands before, in the 1930s — you can see films of that — but there wasn’t so much.

PF: But I’ve seen film and photographic and written testimony that demonstrates how when the decision was made there to start installing separated infrastructure, that these cities don’t look like they do now, that changes had to be made to the physical structure of those cities to make people feel safer. Right? That it wasn’t like it always was just there and therefore the culture’s different, someone made decisions in regard to transportation policy to install things that didn’t get installed here in the US.

JF: That is correct. But those cities are unsuited for mass-motor traffic. They grew up without it; they grew up with people walking, people taking street cars, and the pattern of employment, residence and other tasks such that you could live and do your daily life without motoring. When motoring came in, it was so immediately popular and motorists simply overloaded everything. And they were a pain to themselves, as well as to everyone else, so they had to figure out how to apportion the space they had between the modes — walking, cycling, and motoring.

But while all the talk came about children getting killed by car traffic — Kindermoord — they did not do anything about investigating the safety; they simply made an arrangement to split up the areas so that motoring wouldn’t overtake their cities and allow cyclists to have space. The fact that they were able to restrict the amount of motoring reduced the killed and injured — you’d expect that — but they did not design those facilities according to whatever safety knowledge they had.

PF: Right, I understand. But how do you feel about the popularity of road dieting in the US right now? Do you disagree with the trend for big US cities to try to reapportion space so that the motoring public has less real estate to work with and there’s more space given for people who walk and ride bikes?

JF: I’m opposed to your statement of it. Yes I am. You see, city streets in America are not as crowded as the streets of Amsterdam got when motoring got fashionable and affordable, there are a couple of exceptional places in America. Manhattan is one.

PF: I was going to ask you about New York. There’s been hundreds of miles of infrastructure for bicyclists put in and as someone who grew up around New York and goes there a lot now, it seems really different now because of that. Would you agree with that?

JF: Because of what?

PF: Because of the amount of infrastructure put in, the creation of highly successful bike share program, these protected lanes on the north-south avenues — that there’s a different number and demographic of people riding bikes around New York than there was before all that.

JF: Well my brother lived in New York for quite a long time. I lived near New York for a while. And bicycle riding was no problem in New York. The problem with New York is that it’s completely overcrowded by motorists. Why? Because there are high-paying jobs in great number on Manhattan island and people come to those jobs. That’s what brings them. And they overload the transportation system, which was never designed for that. So like I said, Manhattan island is a peculiar place.

PF: I’m confused what point you’re trying to make. Like my mom lives on the corner of 72ndStreet and 1stAvenue, and maybe seven years ago New York DOT removed a lane of traffic from 1stAvenue and created a parking-protected bike lane on the west side of the street. In your mind is it a good thing or a bad thing that they reapportioned space on a bike north-south avenue and turned it from a four-lane road into a three-lane road with a protected bike lane. Is that a bad thing?

JF: Sure. Because it entices some cyclists into facilities that are inherently more dangerous than riding in the street. And you can prove that because New York has to put in special traffic signal phases to try to prevent that are created by the sidepath.

PF: Right, the intersections might be tricky. But what I see is data indicating that way more women are riding bikes in New York than before those protected facilities went in. And Citi Bike has led to something like 100 million miles of bike riding since it was put in, that if that infrastructure gets a lot more people riding and out of cars and those people feel safe, and because of that exponentially more people go riding. Isn’t that a positive thing?

JF: Well, like everything else there are two sides to it. I’m not in favor of enticing people into dangerous activities, which is what I consider enticing cyclists without any training and with the wrong laws into road cycling. The problem is that people are frightened beyond all reason of the troubles and dangers of riding on the road.

PF: So here’s another question. One of my personal obsessions is that through the Internet and Google alerts, I think I read news stories about nearly every cyclist who gets killed in America And I read…

JF: I debate you on that. You hear about some of them.

PF: I’m sure there are people who die that I don’t read about. But what I do read are a lot of stories about people who are hit by drivers who’ve been distracted by mobile phones and in-car technology, that there are intoxicated drivers and people who were speeding or running red lights. And so there’s some real level of hazard and when people read those stories, they think they have a rational reason to want to be separated from those drivers.

JF: But they aren’t safer.

PF: Because of intersections?

JF: All the conflicting traffic that ever existed is still there. And that’s made it more difficult to handle.

PF: Can you explain that to me?

JF: Well, since when does a sidepath chop off driveways and intersections? It doesn’t. They still exist. Nothing you do, besides possibly putting cyclists on a viaduct, is going to reduce his conflicts.

PF: They put in a protected bike lane on Venice Boulevard for a mile a couple years ago, and I ride that stretch often. And what I perceive as a rider is that probably more than before I have to be more attentive when I get to intersections, but when I’m on the mid-block portion, I feel more relaxed because I feel protected. Perhaps it’s rearranged the risk, but my perception is that when you look at both the US and abroad, the data indicates that there are fewer fatal crashes when that kind of infrastructure is put in. That there are instances — like just a couple months ago in San Francisco where a young woman who works in the tech industry had someone open a car door in front of her and she swerved to avoid the door and got hit by a delivery truck. People see those kinds of incidents happening and then when protected lanes go in, they feel like that particular kind of risk has been erased for that kind of rider.

JF: Well, in the first place, don’t ride in the door zone. That’s one of the early rules of the game. And also, what you’re reading is people killed; you don’t read about broken ankles, concussed brains, cracked ribs, they don’t make the news. Only 2% of car-bike collisions are fatal; you’re making the tail wag the dog. And not only are just 2% of car-bike collisions fatal — they’re much more likely to occur during darkness and on rural roads than other car-bike collisions. Furthermore, as I’ve said only 5 percent of car-bike collisions are caused by same-direction motor traffic; 95 percent by turning and crossing movements. In other words, the people who you are quoting are making the tail wag the dog. And doing that because they are more frightened of traffic from behind than they are of anything else. That’s their phobia; it is a phobia because it is an unrealistic fear contrary to scientific knowledge.

PF: And so you feel like when you look at data, whether it’s from Europe or from New York or Chicago, that seems to indicate that building certain kinds of separated infrastructure makes cycling quantitatively safer, you just disagree with that conclusion from that data?

JF: There’s a strange part about this. You see, I base my evaluations comparing the behavior that’s produced by these facilities and laws to obeying the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. Now, it’s an unhappy fact that because of Motordom’s pressure for cyclists to behave like frightened children, there’s no force in America devoted to getting cyclists to ride in according to the law.

PF: When you’re talking about behavior are you saying there are a lot of cyclists who just aren’t well educated?

JF: It is not only are they not well educated, because Motordom put an end to cycling education, but they are miseducated by being made afraid of the wrong things. That’s the phobia.

PF: Obviously, this isn’t an interview about me, but my background is not that unlike yours. Like I’ve been riding a road bike for decades, I raced in the past, I ride around Los Angeles and I’m not afraid to take a lane and get out of the door zone and command my space, and yet there are spots in Los Angeles where I ride on the sidewalk. There are roads that to me are so poorly designed and where people drive so fast that that I feel legitimately threatened and thus make a calculated decision get on the sidewalk. And I’m not suggesting as public policy that cyclists be told to get on the sidewalk, but the problem seems far deeper than education. It seems like in a city like Los Angeles there are major road design issues and if a rider like me doesn’t feel safe on the road, why is my wife going to feel safe on the road? Why are my kids going to feel safe on the road?

JF: What are these design defects you’re talking about?

PF: Like there’s a stretch on Fairfax, say between Wilshire and Melrose, where it’s four tight lanes and there’s no shoulder or margin, the road is poorly paved.

JF: I know where you’re talking about. I used to live in West LA.

PF: So if there’s open space people will drive 50 miles an hour on that stretch of road; it just feels that if you want to get over to the farmer’s market area from Wilshire there’s not a good alternate, quieter road to get to, and so you feel like your choices are to ride on a horribly maintained sidewalk or to get in the center of a lane and ride 20 miles per hour and presume you’re making enough of a visual presence. I would agree that it’s statistically unlikely that someone is going to rear end me, but I still feel threatened, and it’s unpleasant enough where I don’t like to do it and I know that if I don’t like to do it that 95% of the people who ride a bike in Los Angeles aren’t going to do it. They’re going to feel like “I’m not going to ride to the farmer’s market because I don’t feel like there’s a safe way to get there.”

JF: Long ago I got to the point where I didn’t give a damn what ignorant motorist superiority people feel about me. I ride the way I should. And to hell with them.

PF: I don’t know. I’ve been on the Facebook group for Cycling Savvy, a group that’s a descendent of your movement, and the demographic is 95% white men of a certain age. And I’m in that demographic myself just to be clear — I’m over 50, an educated white guy who’s been riding a road bike my whole adult life. But there’s this other, much larger and more diverse demographic that doesn’t share the philosophy that you just expressed, and my perception is that there’s not one reality where you’re right and they’re wrong, or I’m right and you’re wrong. People have their own perspectives and it’s just not a legitimate option for a lot of people who ride bikes to not be scared of motorists. And what to do about that, that they don’t share your attitude?

JF: Well they are suffering from the cyclist inferiority phobia. The other side of that is the motorist superiority superstition. And as long as American society suffers from that, you’re going to have nasty problems. My view is to fight the source of the problem, which is the phobia. And Motordom’s program of creating that phobia in order to only have motorists on the road. That’s the thing to fight.

PF: But isn’t the road design of Fairfax part of the problem? I mean we can have a lot of conversations about the attitudes of people who ride bikes, but can’t cities be configured in a way where it’s more amenable to vulnerable road users who want to exist without having to become fearless expert riders like you are?

JF: Well, if you bow down to their fear, and do things to comfort them, you end up doing things that don’t make them any safer. You see what happens, it’s pointless.

PF: So you just don’t feel like any of these kinds of changes make anyone safer? Your feeling is that beyond teaching people the ideas of Effective Cycling and putting yourself in the road in a way that maximizes your visibility and safety — that that is a better choice for the general public than trying to redesign roads in any way to make them safer for people who ride or walk.

JF: Your design does not make them safer. It makes them more comfortable. So you’re wrong in that respect.

PF: So what do you do about the fact, or my perception that if people feel more comfortable that more people ride. So even if it just started with a perception, that a rise in the number of people riding then does have a very real impact on safety.

JF: That’s dubious.

PF: You think it is? You think that more people on the road is not making things safer?

JF: No. I want to go back to what I was trying to say and had forgotten just how to say it when you came back. We’ll get back to yours in a moment. I will point out to you that there never has been any investigation that I know of that demonstrates how special bicycle facilities make cycling safer. The claim is always made but it’s never been demonstrated. And the mechanism by which it might occur has never been demonstrated.

PF: Right, but you do have country by country comparisons…

JF: Those don’t count. I’ll tell you why.

PF: Why.

JF: Take the Dutch system. As I said, their bikeway system was originally designed to split up the space between the three modes. Simply because they were thoroughly overcrowded by motorists. So they had to do something about that. But they never designed it according to safety. When you analyze how these special bicycle facilities affect cycling by comparing them against the legally required obeying the rules of the road, you find that they don’t reduce car-bike collisions and more likely increase them a bit.

PF: My own perception is from riding in some of those cities and countries, and that it feels entirely safer. That perception feels very visceral.

JF: Are you talking about other nations?

PF: Yes. But also in New York or Chicago or lots of cities where protected infrastructure is going in

JF: Now you have two different situations — domestic and international. Lots of people make the international comparison and you’ve just made it. So let’s start with the international one first. And as I’ve said, those cities grew up without motoring. The whole system that they have and the reasons for the system they have, the history of what happened, is also different. You can’t make comparisons between Dutch cycling and American cycling.

PF: I understand that point but I grew up around New York, and so the earliest experiences of riding on the roads of New York City are in the 80s, and that I understand that in the 80s that if you were a competent road cyclist or a messenger that you certainly could get around by bike in Manhattan then, but that now it’s radically different. I’m not a transportation policy person but I would guess that there’s data now to demonstrate that on avenues where protected infrastructure has gone in that incidents with serious injury or death have gone down since that infrastructure go put in. So I feel like I see evidence in the US that in some places at least where it’s practical, that protected infrastructure can make a difference and vastly increase the number of people who feel safer riding a bike.

JF: Your statement is full of false assumptions. In the 80s I was in Manhattan a few times, but not by bicycle. And I can remember driving around Manhattan in the 40s. It was very different. But as far as I can recall, Manhattan has been overcrowded by motor traffic ever since the big buildings went in and people started coming in by cars, started coming in by train. There are far too many cars in Manhattan because of the quality of the jobs it presents. As I’ve said, there are a few places in America that are more like Manhattan which is the extreme of extremes. Like Boston and the center of Philadelphia. They are places where motoring has really done itself in, just by having too many of them. But that does not mean there’s no place for cycling, you can cycle in Philadelphia on those streets which are narrow and overcrowded because there’s no other place for you to go, and they know it. So you ride your bike.

PF: Do you think that people who call themselves bike advocates have an anti-motorist quality? In a place like LA, the roads are so wide and so it feels like there’s more room for infrastructure for bikes but it’s obviously a turf war over real estate. Do you think there are complex motives about how people feel about Motordom?

JF: There’s no question about it. The rise of motoring, how much of it is due to the political activities of the automobile associations is unknown. They had their program — motorist superiority; cyclists inferiority. And it’s led to a rise in anti-motoring for a variety of reasons. Well, motoring consumes oil, produces fumes, and carbon dioxide, all of that is a reasonably scientific argument. But the anti-motoring people add on to it — the anti-suburbia. They believe that people who live in the suburbs don’t have souls or something, where if you have a soul you have to live in a vibrant downtown. The anti-motorists have their own slogans like caged in boxes. But there have always been these kinds of social force, you can call it anti-motoring now, but back in the 1820s it was against mechanization of industry.

PF: So how personally for you has been to be in the crosshairs of those people? Right, you’ve been accused of being pro-motorist….

JF: I’ve been accused of being a murderer.

PF: But you’ve had some affiliations with some groups that represent motorists’ points of view. That doesn’t make you pro-motorist but I’m curious what your experience has been with bike advocates who feel like you’re serving the interests of motorists when what got you into this whole thing was trying to stop Motordom from kicking you off the road. That’s a weird paradox to be in.

JF: You are quite right. And because I recognize the emotional basis for their arguments, I just ignore them. When possible. If I have to answer, that’s different. But normally I don’t even bother.

PF: What’s confusing to me is that I think that you feel like people who are pushing for protected bike lanes are in one way serving the interests of Motordom and bike advocates think that you’re serving the needs of motorists by agreeing with them on certain policy issues, and so it seems like both sides feel like the other is serving the needs of Motordom. In the end, it seems likely to me that both sides are trying to make life better for cyclists in the ways that they think make sense.

JF: Well, let’s not worry too much about what people feel; it’s what they do. And a person who advocates cycling paths is doing exactly what motorists want.

PF: But it’s also what a lot of cyclists want.

JF: Well, there are a lot of foolish cyclists around, too. Think that all that makes them safe when all it does is make them more comfortable, undeniable, but whether it changes their safety, if anything it makes it worse.

PF: I guess the flip side is that whenever I hear or see road diet arguments in Los Angeles, inevitably there are people in the community who don’t want change who say, “Well we have avid cyclists in our community who oppose the project.” And they tend to be vehicular cyclists, so from other peoples’ point of view, those people are representing the views of what motorists want. It’s like a no-win situation for everyone, I guess.

Anyway, when you look back at the last 40 or 50 years, how do you feel about the way in which communication within the cycling community has gone? I recently was looking at Bicyclingmagazine pages from the 70s. And there are actual dueling editorials published in the pages of Bicyclingin the 70s about bike paths in Davis. It’s like this debate has been going on for 40-plus years and there’s been a lot of arguing by people who ultimately all care about wanting cycling to be safe and popular. Do you feel good about the fight? Are there things you’ve said or done that you feel most proud of and things you feel most ambivalent about?

JF: No, I don’t feel ambivalent about any of that. I recognize it as what’s happened. That’s our history.

PF: And what are you most proud of?

JF: I kept rules of the road cycling alive. Legally and politically. If I hadn’t done it, we would have been beaten.

PF: And what about what you see now, where in the last five or ten years there’s a big push in another direction. How do you feel about what’s happening in big US cities now?

JF: I don’t see a big push in the other direction. What changed?

PF: Well I think while 15 or 20 years ago, the people who are transportation planners universally followed principles that you had put forth, now there’s a broader, more diverse action where cities are putting in the kind of infrastructure that you’re not a fan of.

JF: Your statement is completely erroneous.

PF: Ok, how so?

JF: Governments in the Unites States — state, city, county — have never strayed away from the cyclist inferiority program. It has never promoted vehicular cycling. The only thing they’ve ever done is accept, from 1976 until 3–4 years ago, is that sidepaths should not be required for use by cyclists. Because they’re too dangerous for cyclists. And they’ve given that up. That’s the only change I’ve ever seen.

PF: So you really don’t think there’s any other shift you’ve seen within the advocacy or transportation spaces, that it’s just the same as it’s always been, the same fight against cycling inferiority and not much else different?

JF: When you put it in that way, you’re looking at only a small part of it. My part has been fighting against cycling inferiority. But we were talking about society, American society as a whole. And it has been promoting cycling inferiority since the 1920s.

PF: I agree with that, I see in Los Angeles there are still a lot of expressions of people when they really start being honest, they want cyclists off the road. That’s a piece of this that is real and has not changed, where there’s still a large component of people who would be happiest if riders just went away.

JF: And those people are largely in charge of transportation. Now the anti-motorists have had some degree of success in getting, with respect to facilities anyway, some road changes. But so far as I can see, the American opinion has been that cyclists are less legitimate road users than are motorists. And it’s been that way for as long as I’ve known it, and it’s been that way as far back as I can trace in history, as far back as 1925.

PF: You seem like someone who just follows your convictions without worrying so much about what other people think, but I’m still curious whether you care as people try to assess your contributions and your legacy? Do you care or do you want people to think of the life’s work you’ve put in on these issues?

JF: Two years ago in Davis, California, there was an international cycling safety conference. I was there. I had a small presentation to make. Do you know what happened there?

PF: I think I’ve read an account of what happened there. But I guess if you have a reaction to it or you just want to say from your point of view what happened there, please do.

JF: Well, I’ll tell you my side of it. Whether it agrees with yours I don’t know.

PF: Well I wasn’t there and like I said, I’m coming to this from being mostly outside that community.

JF: Well, can you give me a one-sentence statement of what you heard?

PF: I think that a lot of rejection from the bike-safety community came forth.

JF: That’s not an unrealistic statement. There were a couple of named speakers, people who were named in the prospectus that they were going to speak. One of them, a professor of traffic at Northwestern University — professor F-something or other, it may come back in a moment — so he was scheduled to speak as one of the keynote speakers. And about a half an hour before he was to speak, I was informed that he changed the subject of his speech to be an attack on my views.

Well, then I was like you better let me speak if he does that. And they agreed. So he gave his attack on my views and I had only a few minutes to figure out how to answer him. And I was given very few minutes to speak. And all I could figure out in that time was about him violating standard engineering ethics in four or five different ways. That he had abandoned the standard rules of the road, which is the standard way for traffic to operate, and that he advocated for a facility that was more expensive than what we had for no particular purpose, and took up more space and made traffic operations more complicated.

Well, I hear — his name was Furth, professor [Peter] Furth [from Northeastern University]— was astonished at my reply. And I was hoping that with the conference being held in Davis, I’d hoped that there would be a sufficient number of people who had participated in what went on and who’d say, “What Forester said — that’s the way I remember it, too.”

And nobody did. I got talked down about by every participant in the place. Mostly inaccurately. But there was nothing I could do but sit there and take it. I was also at that point only one month after a knee replacement and I wasn’t feeling too mobile and vigorous but there it was. A pretty bad time.

PF: So how does feel a couple years later? Is it frustrating or upsetting or neither of those things to feel that a lot of people in this community express those kinds of feelings about you or your work?

JF: The people who had worked alongside me — if they were there, they did not speak up. And the people who ran the show were people I never worked alongside.

PF: So they’re people who work within the transportation space now, right?

JF: Oh yes, they have the control of it as regards to bicycle traffic.

PF: And a lot of those people don’t think favorably of your point of view?

JF: I believe they despise it.

PF: And do you care? Like you spent your whole life trying to do what you thought was right for people who ride bikes, so I would think you might care.

JF: Of course I care. But I also know what’s politically possible and what’s politically impossible. I have to accept that as far as bicycle traffic is concerned, America is run on the bicycle inferiority complex. But there still is a legitimate legal requirement that cyclists obey the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. And I’ve said, since I can’t stop the cycling inferiority crowd, my task is to keep alive the right, legally and socially, to obey the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. That’s our fight; it’s been our fight for a long time. And that’s the best we can hope for.

PF: Well do you feel like, that the hands that it’s in for the future, do you feel good about the people who will lead that fight?

JF: Well, Cycling Savvy has come along, and they do it well. They’re particularly good at making visual and video presentations. That’s how they started. And in that respect, they’re far better than I was able to do. I think I’ve kept alive the idea that it is right and proper for cyclists to obey the rules of the road and to whatever extent we can prevent that from being pushed out of the way, socially or legally. Am I defensive? Hell yes.

PF: I think that part of it is a noble fight. Where even though I may support certain kinds of infrastructure that you don’t, I think all cyclists still expect to be able to ride on the road when they want to and that’s not something to necessarily be taken for granted.

JF: That’s right. That’s correct.

PF: Before we wrap up this interview, is there anything else you’d like to express.

JF: No, I’ve talked a lot.

PF: I hope you’ve found it a fair and interesting conversation.

JF: Oh yes.

PF: So thank you.

JF: You’re very welcome.

Peter Flax

Written by

Peter Flax is committed to cycling, longform, and a diet rich in gluten. He’s been writing and editing stories for 25-plus years.

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