|[This book did far more harm than good.]|
Wow. John Forester? I did not know he was still alive. I hate to be in poor form, but Damn if that guy did not epitomize toxic white male mansplaining class privilege.
I first came across Forester in graduate school the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, researching my dissertation on bicycle planning. I well remember the shock of paging through Forester's book, Effective Cycling
, for the first time. The giant, smug tome was in its 7th (!) edition at that point back in the early 2000s, and I remain astonished that his misguided opus became the bible of bicycling in the United States.
Well, it shouldn't be that surprising, because if Forester's ideology did one thing really well, it was to further empower the hegemony of automobiles.
Sure, there's some good advice in there about riding a bicycle in traffic. But the key problem, as I explore in my dissertation (see below), is that Forester presumed everyone on a bicycle had the same concerns, abilities, and desires that he did. In other words, everyone is going to want to ride a bicycle like an aggressive, athletic, technologically-equipped, wealthy, culturally-empowered, white male. Any other kind of attitude about riding a bicycle, Forester considered to be childish and irresponsible. Forester believed that planners, advocates, and traffic engineers should never encourage alternatives styles of bicycling, and to do so would be tantamount to malpractice.
(Like many faulty ideas
in transportation engineering, he had one poorly-done study to prove it.)
Forester's wide-spread beliefs dominated US bicycle planning from the 1960s well into the 2000s, and formed a bicycling ideology that fit perfectly into the problematic and inhumane automobile-dominant approach to traffic engineering that still reigns supreme in our country. Forester's advocacy and acolytes made it very difficult for cities and advocates to design bike infrastructure for people who did not want to -- or could not -- embrace his aggressive and privileged attitude. Most importantly, the Forester approach completely ignored the elephant in the room for bicycle planning: reducing the danger posed by automobiles in cities.
Though the tide has certainly turned against his inflexible ideology, his damaging legacy lives on in the minds of thousands of influential transportation officials in DOTs around the country. Fighting that approach is very difficult, but after years of shifting the conversation away from "vehicular cycling", some cities have begun to do the hard work of shifting our streets away from the culturally suicidal path that privileges driving and allowing everyday bicycling to survive.
So, yeah. Good bye, John Forester. I don't know anything about him personally, other than his dad wrote books bout war. But given how callously he disregarded others in his "advocacy" for bicycling, it's difficult for me to imagine he was a good person. Thank goodness his fundamentally misguided perspective is almost entirely forgotten.
All that said, I'm attaching the section from my dissertation that discuss John Forester's work and legacy. For some necessary context, the term "affect" can be understood as one's emotional attitude. If you'd like to read the entire dissertation, it's available here
[from Chapter 3: Historic Bicycling Bifurcations]
The crucial difference between these egalitarian bike planners and the “vehicular” plans that would soon dominate the planning conversation was a question of audience and affect: Who was riding bicycles, and why were they doing so? The answers to these questions shaped how bicycle infrastructures were designed, and the kinds of places that were built. For the egalitarian “bikeway” planners, the needs and desires of “experienced and competent individuals” were not important. On the contrary, designing a bicycle facility meant “crimp[ing] the style” of this group in favor of spaces that would accommodate slower-moving, younger, and less well-to-do people riding for necessity and transportation (Sommer, quoted in Epperson 2013 36).
Perhaps understandably, this philosophy provoked a negative reaction by influential bicycling advocates, who at the time were focused on working through some early attempts at guides for bicycling safety and bicyclist education. For example, one influential bicycle engineer described “transportation and utility aspects” of cycling as being “only offsprings” of recreational riding and competitive racing (Konski, quoted in Epperson 2013 31). Konski was emphatic about the need for competitive bicycle racing to serve as a model for riding. In 1973, he wrote:
Why is it important to advance the sport of racing if we are to provide bike routes and bike paths? Because if the public understands the sport and learns why the serious cyclist does the things that he does, the individual, though he may not be interested or capable of racing, will be better able to apply this knowledge to his own riding.
According to this philosophy, competitive male bicycle racing was a model for everyday riders throughout the nation. For example, correct posture of the “world’s great bicyclists,” and riding using aggressive speeds was deemed safer for everyone. Similarly, in a series of safety columns in Bicycling magazine (of which he was an editor), an influential advocate for the League of American Wheelmen described cyclists without professional training as “over-aged child cyclists” with “unsafe bicycles” (Delong 1970, 1971, 1972). For Delong, proper bicycling involved an attitude of intensity and competition, either with others or with one’s self. The fundamental affect of cycling was one of increasing skills:
Bicycling is a sport of skill – a skill that increases throughout your life. Take every opportunity to test yourself. Then when an emergency comes, your reactions will be correct and automatic.
Delong’s columns attempted to shape how cyclists ride, performing critiques of their spacing, posture, and attitude towards riding on the roadway [See Figure 3.5.].
Figure 3.5. Educational bicycling illustration depicting good and bad riding placement (Delong 1971).
During this era, advocates used safety as a frame around which to construct a narrative and gradually developed professional courses intended to instruct riders in bicycle skills. Unfortunately, particularly once state governments focused on legislating cycling, separate safety regulations set in motion heated battles over how to ride properly, and derailed the momentum behind the construction of off-street bicycle paths. Most of these arguments centered on John Forester, a prominent bicycle safety advocate and the self-proclaimed leader of the “vehicular cycling” movement. The way that Forester played a role in the history of bicycle planning illustrates how differing understandings of skilled riding, combined with a restrictive notion of the affective concerns of bicyclists, limited the field of bicycle advocacy in important ways for years to come.
Any history of US bicycle planning is bound to include John Forester, likely the individual who has most influenced 20th century bicycle debates in the US. The British-born Forester, son of the military novelist C.S. Forester, was a bicycle advocate and safety instructor during the 60s who was launched into national prominence after a series of legal fights at different levels of government over bicycle safety regulations. For example, Forester challenged the “mandatory sidepath” law in his hometown of Palo Alto, losing in a series of court battles where he elected to serve as his own lawyer. These kinds of laws, passed in many cities around the US during this period, declared riding on city streets to be illegal if there was an off-street bicycle path in the area (Epperson 2013). Based on safety grounds, Forester’s ultimately unsuccessful series of challenges of court decisions about the law were well-publicized. The popularity of his position led him to sue the Federal Consumer Product and Safety Commission, which was developing safety regulations for both children’s and adult bicycles, on the grounds that the rules would prohibit importation of high-end European road bikes. Drawing on the publicity he had garnered from these legal fights, Forester’s subsequent advocacy against off-street and separated bicycle infrastructure placed him at the center bicycling debates during the 70s and 80s. Particularly through his later roles as the president of the California
Association of Bicycling Organizations and the League of American Wheelmen (the oldest advocacy group in the US, now named the League of American Bicyclists), Forester’s thoughts on the social and safety benefits of off-street bicycle infrastructure made him the de facto leader of the influential “vehicular cyclist” movement.
The simplest definition of Forester’s vehicular cyclist approach, of which DeLong and Konski were also key players, is that “bicycles fare best when they act and are treated as [motor] vehicles” (Furth 2012). This concept, which is still repeated like a mantra by many bicycling safety instructors, resists attempts to develop separate sets of rules, regulations, or infrastructures for bicycles and cars. In its most dogmatic form, vehicular cycling will even argue that bike lanes do more harm than good, and should not be installed within city streets. Apart from his legal battles, Forester’s main influence over cycling policy stemmed from his widely available bicycling manual, Effective Cycling, first (self) published in 1975 and now in its seventh edition (Forester 2012). Some of Forester’s sprawling book can be easily dismissed: for example, his claims that bicycle planning is a massive conspiracy to “deliberately discourage safe and competent cycling”, his ad hominem attacks on advocacy groups, or his frequent use of condescending name-calling (e.g. the “safety freaks” or planners derided as “mistaught children”) (Forester 2012 664). It’s also necessary to point out that Forester is simply incorrect about some of his statements: for example, his claim that “riding to work, done largely on main arterial streets at rush hour, is the safest of all known cycling activities” (Ibid 343). But while the book is filled with dismissible claims, at the same time much of the content is useful, technically accurate, and still taught in bicycle instructor classes. Many of Forester’s presumptions about bicycling are commonplace amongst planners and advocates today (Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee Meeting 2012a). Through examining more closely Forester’s arguments about how, where, and why people should ride bicycles, key differences about affect and mentality emerge.
Like many of the available bicycle manuals, Forester’s Effective Cycling goes through a range of topics that might be important to people riding bicycles at different skill levels (e.g. Petersen 2012, Hurst 2006, Haynes 2009). He includes chapters on what kind of bicycle to ride, how to perform maintenance, what to wear, and (most importantly) where to ride on the street. Not entirely unique amongst these guidebooks, Forester claims that his system is “universal,” that his approach can and should work for anyone (Epperson 2013). But unlike most guide books, as he builds his case for his style of cycling, Forester bases his claims on argument about human nature, naturalizing the idea that the bicycle and the human body have a synergistic relationship that dwells deeper than ideology or surface opinion. Forester goes farther, broadening his claims to include the “natural desires” all of humanity:
We like cycling because its suits our nature. However, our natural desires are not good guides for enjoyable cycling. We must operate in accordance with scientific laws and human behavior. The cyclist on a bike is a new kind of creature: part man, part tool, and part process, like the hunter and the bow or the dancer and the dance.
Here, Forester naturalizes the affect and experience of bicycling, in order to align it with or against a particular set of innate instincts, particular understandings of human body and capacities.
Forester uses these kinds of naturalistic assumptions to outline an evolutionary telos of bicycling, to create stages through which cyclists move as they gain experience. According to his implicit list, untrained beginners are “childish” or “silly bicyclists” and fail to understand how “the built-in control system [of concern and anxiety] should be overcome” (Forester 2012 302, 515). Eventually, as people move past the “toy bicycling” phase, the “facts and reason [of Effective Cycling] are overwhelming.” In this way, bicyclists slowly move to and from distinct categories, from being “people-on-bicycles” to becoming proper “cyclists [...] when they became strong and supple enough to spot out in the gear they started with” (Ibid 303). Implicit in this transformation is a gradual increase in speed and progressive upgrading toward higher levels of bicycling technology. At the endpoint of bicycling evolution, Forester places “the great road racing cyclists [who display] effortless performance, mile after mile, with no movement other than smooth leg and ankle rotation” (249). Fully evolved bicycling is thus synonymous with efficiency of time and energy, a machinic devotion to movement, which might be one reason why Forester claims that certain male- dominated professions make the best type of bicycling subject. He explains:
Cycle-commuting is more prevalent amongst technically complex professions and civil-service jobs. If you are technically proficient at a difficult job that requires lots of education or training, you are the kind of person most likely to see the practicality of cycle-commuting, and your employer is least likely to think less of you for doing it.
(Forester 2012 503)
Through his development of particular safety criteria for bicycling, Forester engages in an affective exclusion that eliminates young people, women, and people with less education from the pool of proper cycling subjects. It is perhaps for this reason that US cycling has been demographically disproportionate, skewing to older, upper middle-class male riders (Garrard, Rose and Lo 2008; Garrard, Handy and Dill 2012).
Forester’s other key affective assumption hinges on what is commonly considered to be the largest barrier to bicycling in the US: the role that fear and anxiety plays to intimidate potential riders (Horton 2007). How Forester suggests overcoming fear, particularly though how he narrates the decision making process, points to the affective assumptions implicit in some theories of bicycle planning. For Forester, fear of car traffic is an irrational behavior that he terms the “cyclist inferiority complex”, and he devotes multiple chapters to its role in the development of proper bicycling technique (Forester 2012 413). Here Forester uses early safety studies to argue that the fear of being hit by traffic from behind is misguided, and that these kinds of accidents rarely occur. Rather, the real dangers for cyclists are cars turning through intersections. For this reason, Forster’s key Effective Cycling tactic is lane positioning, moving far out into the traffic lane, particularly around and through intersections. Adopting this bicycling technique involves overcoming the "cyclist- inferiority complex,” which can be done solely through skill building and boosting one’s self-morale. In this way, the key to Effective Cycling is the adoption of a particular cycling affect. As Forester describes:
Changing lanes really highlights the difference in morale and technique between expert cyclists and those who feel inferior to cars. Morale? Yes. You’ll never do it right until you feel deep down inside that you are as important as motorists. But jumping into traffic with an “I’ll show ‘em” attitude and no technique is simply setting the scene for an accident.
(Forester 2012 413)
Forester unambiguously aligns safety with a particular “careful but forceful” affect, and anyone unwilling to adopt this affect is dismissed as incompetent or childish (Ibid 514). Extending Forester’s logic, the key barrier to increasing bicycling in the US becomes not a problem of engineering or infrastructure, but a problem of creating a particular affective subject. As Forester succinctly explains, the “the most important problem in the American cycling transportation system is the incompetence of cyclists” (Ibid 344).
Exclusionary assumptions are hardly unusual in the small world of cycling. Indeed, most dedicated riders have strong opinions about how and where to ride bicycles, about the right and wrong way to approach intersections, choose routes, outfit their equipment, etc. These discussions are commonplace at bike shops, during group rides, and in online forums. However, the crucial difference between those assumptions and Forester’s is that Forester was able to leverage his positions as an author, safety instructor, and influential advocate to translate his agenda into national policy. Forester’s normative claims – for example, he presents his rules as “all you need to know to use your bicycle any day you want to go, to any place you want, under all conditions” – derive from affective assumptions about how decisions are made and how he understands the values of bicyclists (Epperson 2013 30). For example, while many decision making models include different qualitative and quantitative variables that factor into decisions, Forester argues that time and speed trump all others (Forester 2012 499). Similarly, people evolve into vehicular cyclists whether they intend to or not:
This [desire to avoid traffic] may not be your original intention, but you realize soon enough with regular riding that cycling in traffic is not particularly difficult or dangerous... just like everybody else commuting, you will attempt to find a better route or shortcut. Your criterion will be speed or effort, not scenery or lack of traffic.
(Forester 2012 513)
Forester universalizes his own affective considerations, where environment or comfort are irrelevant, into a universal experience.
The affective exclusions characteristic of vehicular cycling have affected US planning policy two primary ways, both of which have limited the construction of a wider variety of bicycle infrastructure in the US. First, by resisting the philosophy of separated bicycle facilities on safety grounds, particularly through institutional positions within advocacy groups, bicycling advocates like John Forester managed to insert vehicular cycling assumptions into official transportation design guides. Most importantly, these policies institutionalized an “effective ban on separated paths” within the highly influential American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Guide to the Development of New Bicycle Facilities in 1981 (Furth 2012 117). Adopting a doctrinaire vehicular cycling philosophy, early versions of the document made almost no reference to on-street bicycle facilities (e.g. bike lanes), implicitly advocating for the vehicular mantra of riding within the middle of the regular car lane. Not only are these types of Federal guides extremely influential over transportation engineers at every level of government, once policies are instated within an official document they are slow to change. For example, the 1999 AASHTO Guide (the current version) continues to use “confidence” to describe a hierarchy of bicyclists, so that,
Basic or less confident adult riders may also be using their bicycles for transportation purposes, e.g. to get to the store or to visit friends, but prefer to avoid roads with fast and busy motor vehicle traffic unless there is ample roadway width to allow easy overtaking.
(AASHTO 1999 6)
Riding in ways that prioritize traffic avoidance is here sign of incompetence, of less evolved bicycle riding styles. The implicit hierarchy of these kinds of policies implies that advanced riders require little infrastructure, lessening the need for alternative designs for streets that might accommodate a greater variety of desires. In this way, Forester’s normative assumptions continue to guide discussions about bicycling in the US, privileging vehicular affects over others in ways that place limits on the kinds of infrastructures and treatments that are accepted and implemented within US cities.
The second key way that Forester and vehicular cycling have held influence over bicycle planning debates is through the inclusion of many vehicular cyclists within city transportation bureaucracies, influential advocacy groups, and or advisory committees. As Furth (2012) describes,
In many cases, bicycle planners hired by state and local government have been VC [vehicular cycling] adherents who used their influence to prevent rather than promote bikeways.
Two examples are Boston and Dallas, both cases where an influential bicycle planner maintaining a vehicular cycling approach effectively banned and curtailed discussions about alternative designs (Ibid 115). Similarly, though the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) has shifted its position regarding on-street and separated bicycle facilities, it continues to adopt an approach that places a great deal of emphasis on bicyclist education over the construction of more “forgiving” bicycle infrastructure. For example, the LAB focuses on the training of “league certified bicycle instructors” (LCI’s), who are encouraged to take lengthy classes designed around vehicular cycling techniques, to teach them to other riders in cities (St Paul Bicycle Coalition 2011a). As we shall see, these education-centered attitudes play key roles in official policies of the bicycle planning approach for Minneapolis and neighboring cities.
The influence of vehicular cycling over the debates and direction of US bicycle planning is difficult to over-emphasize, and, despite Forester’s age and obstreperousness, continues to this day. The crucial difference between a vehicular cycling approach and that of European-influenced “third way” bicycle planning is the degree to which the responsibility for improving bicycling is placed on the individual cyclist, as opposed to the larger assemblage that includes infrastructure and road design. In his book, Forester focuses on education, so that “the most important problem in the American cycling transportation system is the incompetence of cyclists” (Forester 2012 344). Problematizing a shift in mode-share in this way, stating “that almost all Americans riding bicycles are not competent cyclists”, gives transportation officials at all levels of government permission to neglect or marginalize expensive infrastructure solutions in favor of largely fruitless education campaigns or enforcement debates (Forester 554). Particularly during fights over the allocation of scarce funding resources, this education-first attitude results in the defunding of infrastructure approaches that might accommodate a broader range of affect.