Back in my misspent youth, I dropped 60 cents on the then-new February 1973 issue of Bike World Magazine. In it was the first-ever article by a guy named John Forester.
The city of Palo Alto, California, had decided it wanted bikeways. The city got them by putting up signage, requiring bicyclists to ride on the sidewalks. Forester tried them and found them dangerous at very ordinary cycling speeds of 10-12 mph, and so he chronicled the hazards in a two-page article.
Forester cited two fatal bike/pedestrian collisions to underscore the danger of mixing bicycles and pedestrians. He wrote about turning conflicts, poor sight distances at driveway intersections, and the impossibility of making a safe and sensible left turn. Forester wrote that he hoped to get arrested, so he could challenge the city’s sidewalk requirement.
That article sparked an epiphany for me. Until then, I’d dreamed of sidepaths along all my favorite roads. Three feet wide, and just for me! Wheeeeee!
The epiphany was, “Be careful what you wish for.” Because even a city as sophisticated as Palo Alto got it completely wrong.
I learned: Sometimes, a well-intentioned intervention is far worse than leaving well enough alone. And that is just the beginning of what I learned from John Forester.
Forester died on April 19, half a year shy of his 91st birthday. The cause of death was a lingering flu, not suspected to be Covid-19. Forester left behind nearly 50 years of immense contributions to the cycling community, in ways that weren’t even imaginable before he articulated them.
My own Forester-related epiphany pales in comparison to those of many thousands of others. I was already a bike rider. Forester made me a better bike rider. Others were liberated to use their bikes to go anywhere, when they previously couldn’t.
Independent mobility for a legally blind person
No one has expressed this better than Eli Damon, a resident of western Massachusetts whose eyesight is not good enough for him to get a driver’s license:
Socializing was especially difficult for me for many reasons, but an important one was that my mobility limitations hindered my ability to act spontaneously or to interact with others on an equal basis. . . . Asking for a ride . . . left me in a constantly dependent and inferior social position. I was lonely and isolated. . . .
. . . My principal social outlet [in 2005] was my weekly choir practice, which . . . was fifteen miles away (ten miles was my limit at the time) on unfamiliar, difficult, scary roads, so biking seemed impossible. I was too far out of the way for other members of the choir to pick me up. There were no buses that could take me.
And Damon had lost his ride to the choir practice.
He found a cycling book that had been given to him.
In desperation, I dug the book out and started reading it, hoping to find a clue to my mobility problem. The book was Effective Cycling, by John Forester.
As I read the book, I became very excited. It suggested that I should ride my bike according to the same rules drivers of motor vehicles use and that I should stay away from the edge of the road, sometimes riding in the center or even on the left side of a lane, thus occupying the entire lane. I knew that the designs of roads provided a simple and predictable environment for motorists to travel with ease and flexibility. If I could use the roads in the same manner on a bike, then I could go anywhere with the same ease and flexibility. This was a totally new concept to me, and I was somewhat skeptical of it, but I recognized its immense potential.
I quickly became comfortable riding assertively on small quiet roads. I advanced my testing to bigger, busier roads. And then even bigger, even busier roads. . . I was ready to take on the scariest road I knew of: Route 9 in Hadley, a major four-lane arterial.
. . .
It was as if I was no longer disabled. . . I was still [legally] blind, but ignorance, not blindness, had been my disability all along. I had been healed. I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I could do all of the normal things that other people did. I could live a full, normal life. I could go to choir practice.
That’s what John Forester did for people.
(You can read Damon’s entire 2013 essay at https://iamtraffic.org/equality/overcoming-ignorance-and-fear.)
And yet, Forester made many enemies in bicycling, thanks to a famously abrasive temperament. Sadly, Forester’s detractors are mercilessly dancing on his grave.
For years, Forester’s detractors have shamelessly mischaracterized his opinions with demeaning distortions and outright falsehoods. Some have written hit pieces disguised as obituaries. One obit called Forester a “Dinosaur” in the headline.
John Forester’s contributions . . . far outweigh those of his detractors.
A man who gives legally blind people independent mobility deserves a better remembrance than that.
More like this:
“John’s contributions to bicycling — as transportation, recreation, sport, a vehicle for fitness, social interaction, and discovery — far outweigh those of his detractors, wrote Pete Van Nuys, executive director of the Orange County (California) Bicycle Coalition. “John stood for, and rode for, human dignity and equality. He advocated respect for law and common sense; he trusted civility over fearmongering; he promoted responsibility of the individual above government overreach.”
Yes, one had to look past Forester’s famously abrasive temperament to get the value he offered. But there was immense value.
Because what Forester did was far better than complaining about bad bicycle facilities. He gave us the vocabulary and the framing to understand good versus bad facilities, good versus bad riding, and the root causes of crashes. He gave us the revelation that we could control the behavior of other road users to make ourselves safer. We didn’t have to be passive victims. We could create our own success on the road. On almost any road. Today.
That vocabulary and framing didn’t exist before Forester. If I may exaggerate only slightly to make the point, how good a chemist could you be if you didn’t have the periodic table of the elements?
Before John Forester, we were all road sneaks.
Before Forester, almost every bicyclist rode in a style we call “road sneak,” hiding from other traffic, believing s/he didn’t belong, and even hoping to go unnoticed. Forester replaced all that with a concept well articulated by one of his best instructors, the late Steve Schmitt: “Visible plus predictable equals safe.”
Before Forester, other famous bicycling writers pretty much endorsed the “road sneak” vision of a cyclist’s place (or lack thereof).
Even the great Fred DeLong instructed people to ride in the door zone, with the absurd notion that you could swerve to avoid an opening car door and yet be safe. Writers Richard Ballantine and Eugene Sloane, whose books sold in the millions in the early 1970s, offered similarly hapless advice. Other authors of that era were also hapless. They were well-intentioned, but they didn’t know any better.
(In 2013, our colleague John S. Allen wrote a very good critique of the “dark ages” of bicycle safety advice before Forester. It’s at http://john-s-allen.com/blog/?page_id=5273.)
Five core principles guide our thinking
Forester’s framing began with articulating the core principles of traffic law, and telling bicyclists to follow the core principles. Today, they sound pretty mundane:
- All vehicle operators keep to the right.
- Yield to cross traffic according to pre-defined rules and traffic-control devices.
- First-come, first-served (meaning that if someone wants to pass you, s/he must do so safely, and you still have the right to be on the road).
- Destination positioning at intersections (Left-turn lanes and right-turn lanes are for everyone.)
- Between intersections, you choose your position on the roadway based on your speed and on the usable width of the road.
Traffic collisions are caused by disobeying these core principles, and not by obeying them.
In 1982, Forester explained to me that these principles were not articulated in traffic engineering classes. He had ferreted them out by thinking and observing the unspoken common principles of all traffic, and seeing how they would be applicable to bicyclists.
Here’s what he said at the time (from a June 1982 article I wrote in Bicycling Magazine):
Highway people had training deficiencies because of the overwhelming success of motorization. They never had to teach any traffic engineers how to drive. They never had to teach the theory of traffic safety — the theory was implicit in everyone’s driving knowledge. Therefore, these people never questioned the principles of the ‘bike safety training’ they had received. They didn’t recognize that it conflicted with the theory behind vehicle safety.
The legislators put up money for very specific things — bikeways. So basically, society bribed the highway departments to do the wrong thing.
So, Forester preached the principles of traffic law to any bicyclist who would listen.
Forester was also a keen student of the characteristics and limitations of bicycles and motor vehicles, bicyclists and motor vehicle operators. His early experience in Palo Alto made him a vigilant watchdog for unreasonable sight distances, curb radii, reaction times and intersection turning conflicts. Forester coined the term “rolling pedestrian,” and noted that even a slow bicyclist is several times as fast as a pedestrian, with very different ability to manage sharp turns and short stops. Forester observed that most bicycle facilities were designed with obliviousness to how a bad sight distance or a sharp turn could make a bicyclist crash.
(Even that observation got distorted by Forester’s opponents. Forester once wrote that a bicycle facility should be designed for a bicyclist going as fast as 30 mph, to accommodate all extremes of bicyclist behavior. His opponents turned that into, “Forester brags that he rides 30 mph.” And Forester’s advice to make traffic law work for you was twisted into “compete with the cars,” or “think you’re just like a car.” That level of distortion can best be described as mean-spirited.)
Without Forester’s innovative instruction, bicyclists of the 1970s, including those who considered themselves safety advocates, simply didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about how a bicyclist’s operating characteristics would interact with a given facility design, to produce a crash. They certainly had little notion that a bicyclist’s own behavior could make him safer.
Forester knew why bicyclists thought that way, and gave it an annoying, but accurate name: the “cyclist inferiority complex.” The cultural pull of the cyclist inferiority complex — the belief that we don’t have the full right to use the road — was, and is today, so strong that it subverts safe behavior.
We all thought we should stay out of the way of “real” traffic, hug the curb, and hope for the best.
Abrasive . . . but he wanted to sit next to me!
And with all the diplomacy of a professor dressing down an ill-prepared student, Forester told us all to think again.
So, let’s talk about his abrasiveness.
Many of us have been on the receiving end of it.
You could be in 98 percent agreement with Forester, and he’d come down on you like a ton of bricks. It sure happened to me plenty of times. I disagreed with Forester on technicalities of retro reflectivity and night time conspicuity; on developmental maturity and teaching children to ride in traffic; on an aspect of rider position during maximum-performance braking; on the political tactics of opposing or not opposing dangerous bicycle facilities; and a few other topics. I learned to ignore — and often not even read — his, uh, disagreements with me.
Still, he must have disagreed with me less often than he disagreed with many others. Because he always wanted to sit next to me in various national committee meetings.
And I watched him make an arse of himself in those meetings, grinding my teeth while it unfolded. If a well-intentioned mayor or traffic engineer used one wrong word, Forester would stand and attack. The vitriol made many of us wince, because we knew it undermined his persuasiveness.
But in some instances I can explain it. Forester was using science and engineering to describe how bicyclist behavior and bicycle facilities could either help or hurt people. Forester took very seriously the immense responsibility of telling the public what was good for their own safety, and he expected others to gravitate to the facts he presented. When Forester’s opponents displayed obliviousness and/or defiance to the reasons why they were risking serious personal injury or death — not for themselves, but for others — Forester would attack.
It’s a shame so many people never saw past the vitriol, because there was much wisdom underneath it.
John Forester’s books, the curriculum, courses
So, let’s talk about that wisdom — and about how he promulgated it.
That first Bike World article gave birth in 1975 to the book Effective Cycling, which Forester self-published with his own printing press in his garage. It would go through many editions and get published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Press; it is now in its 7th edition.
Forester also devised a 30-hour course, also named Effective Cycling. That course made novices into cyclists who were self-sufficient and proficient in every way. In keeping with the more self-reliant ethos of that era, Effective Cyclists were expected to be capable of doing their own repairs, sewing their own cycling clothing, and making various adapters and accessories for their bikes. And, of course, they could ride confidently and safely on big arterial streets just like my buddy Eli Damon.
Forester wrote a second curriculum, called Effective Cycling at the Intermediate Level. He successfully taught it to middle-school students in Palo Alto for a time. He created an instructor’s manual. He scripted and directed Iowa State University’s 1979 film, Bicycling Safely on the Road. and was behind the 1992 Seidler Productions film Effective Cycling.
Forester also saw the need for professional training, so that engineers would not design bad bicycle facilities. This led him to write the book Bicycle Transportation Engineering, later renamed Bicycle Transportation after MIT Press picked it up.
The book Effective Cycling has a defiant, angry tone. Forester believed that you couldn’t be a safe cyclist without being aware of public policy’s endorsement of the cyclist inferiority complex, and the book gives a lengthy dressing down of that policy. Forester offered his rants, expected the reader to take his side, and then showed the reader how good cycling works. It’s not the most welcoming sales pitch I’ve ever seen. But it created an aha moment for many thousands of people.
Forester reached an agreement with the League of American Wheelmen (which subsequently changed its name to the League of American Bicyclists) to train instructors nationwide.
Forester travels the country for policy advocacy
The man went to conferences everywhere, to offer his advice on designs, and on the bad assumptions behind bad designs. No one was paying him. He did it out of a passion for safety.
In the 1970s, many people were working with this newly popular concept of adults riding bicycles. Government agencies everywhere wondered what they should be doing about it. Palo Alto’s sidewalk bikeways were only one small piece of a nationwide let’s-try-this approach to bicycle facilities.
Forester was willing and able to tell them all how it should be done. Having written his books and taught his classes, he set his sights on government policy documents.
Forester was afraid, not without cause, that government policy for bicycle facility design would shunt bicyclists off to sidewalks, leading to turning-conflict collisions and other bad outcomes. Along with other stalwarts of that era (notably the late college professor John Finley Scott and traffic engineer Bob Shanteau), Forester worked hard to make sure that the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) policy would be good for safe cycling.
The CalTrans policy went national in 1981. Much of the language in the CalTrans policy was used in the 1981 edition of the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials’ Guide for the Development of New Bicycle Facilities (AASHTO Guidelines). “That AASHTO document explicitly states the detriments of bike lanes and mentions the alleged benefits in the subjunctive mode,” Forester said at the time. For once, he was actually pleased.
Forester advocated for competent, safe cycling.
But by necessity, that meant he spent most of his energy, and his audience’s attention, talking about things he was against — laws and societal customs that prohibited safe cycling. The big three such laws were laws requiring riders to ride far to the right, laws requiring bicyclists to ride in bike lanes, and laws requiring bicyclists to use sidepaths. Almost every conversation with Forester quickly turned to the bad consequences of these three.
Forester spent about $50,000 of his own money, and months of his time, in support of the California Association of Bicycle Organizations (CABO) for bicyclists’ rights in a well-known lawsuit, Prokop v. City of Los Angeles. The problem Forester was fighting was government immunity. Under certain circumstances, the government could build a bicycle facility and if the facility was dangerous, there would be no recourse for an injured cyclist. Sadly, Prokop lost that lawsuit. Forester again showed generosity to CABO when he had to give up bicycling. He donated his bikes, equipment and tools to CABO, and CABO sold them on eBay. (Not incidentally, Forester was the founder of CABO.)
Held up by Downward Pull. Yes, really!
And although Forester was known primarily for opining about traffic riding, he was a top-shelf expert in many other areas of cycling. I’ll mention my three favorites:
- In August 1980, Forester published the provocatively titled “Held Up by Downward Pull” in the League of American Wheelmen magazine, explaining with great clarity the counterintuitive way a tension-spoked wheel supports the rider’s weight. (Writer Jobst Brandt is widely acclaimed for explaining this in his book The Bicycle Wheel, but Forester was a year ahead of Brandt.)
- In April 1983, I had the pleasure of publishing in my very own magazine, Bike Tech, Forester’s eye-opening and ground-breaking “Physiology of Cyclist Power Production.” Forester deftly explained why measuring efficiency on an ergometer was misleading, and how the makeup of muscle tissue meant that a faster riding technique would score less efficiency in the lab.
- In the 1971-1976 time period, Forester sued the then-new U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) on the grounds that many of its proposed regulations were technically incompetent. He had many spot-on arguments. Accordingly, the CPSC 1976 Bicycle Safety Standard — which remains federal law today — has many numbered paragraphs that simply say “[reserved]”. The court picked through Forester’s points and upheld some and rejected others.
Back in 1977, I spent some time in a Washington, DC courthouse studying the lawsuit documents, and I marveled that a non-lawyer could get to first base arguing on his own behalf in federal court. Forester would write incisive technical stuff, and the attorneys defending the CPSC would get it struck down because he’d used the wrong-size paper. Nevertheless, he persisted. (How does this affect you today? The bikes you buy today are not burdened with useless design constraints they would have had without Forester.)
These are only three examples. There are hundreds more.
Time does not permit a listing of all the unfair criticisms of Forester’s work. But one I’ve seen repeated endlessly was that he was “against all infrastructure.” He was certainly against unsafe infrastructure. But he had no objection to rail trails, and in certain circumstances (bridges and high-traffic-volume arterial streets) he was okay with well designed bike lanes. I never asked him about secure parking or bike stations, but I believe he would have supported them.
Forester was the son of C.S. Forester, the famous British author. There was a complicated father-son relationship, and Forester’s two-volume biography of his father (available for free download at JohnForester.com) will test your attention span. Forester was born in England, and his childhood years cycling there, sharing roads with motor vehicles, demonstrated to him that bicyclists could do so safely. He frequently cited his experience in England as informing his advocacy when he moved to the U.S.
Ballroom dancer, model boat racer, photographer
John Forester was an industrial engineer with two masters’ degrees and a couple decades of work experience before he quit engineering in 1972 to go full-time on bicyclist advocacy work. He once said, “If you can’t make it as a mechanical engineer, you become an industrial engineer. If you can’t make it as an industrial engineer, you become a traffic engineer.” He wasn’t particularly modest, but that was his way of saying he had insights that many traffic engineers didn’t, without sounding too imperious about it.
The man had a human side too. He was enormously talented in more ways than I’ll ever know.
John Forester was an avid photographer with his own darkroom, an accomplished ballroom dancer, an avid square dancer, a downhill skier and active swimmer.
Forester had interests you might expect of an engineer: a broad knowledge of train engines and aircraft. He built radio controlled model airplanes and ship models. He built and raced radio-controlled model boats. He had an aquarium and, of course, lots of papers and books.
His own cycling got slower as his years went on, and continued until about age 80. His last bike had five-cog half-step gearing, with a top gear of about 78 inches. That’s about right for an old man.
“I just got rear-ended.”
Once, I saw John Forester look a bit embarrassed. It was 1986, and I was interviewing him in his house, which at that point was in Sunnyvale. It was raining cats and dogs outside.
The front door burst open, and in stormed a teenage girl. It was Forester’s significant other’s daughter. Not only was she soaking wet. She was carrying the pieces of a broken bicycle, and she was mad as a wet hen.
“I just got rear-ended,” she shouted. “The Ken Cross study says that motorist overtaking collisions are only four percent of non-fatal car bike collisions, and I just had one.” Forester responded with . . . embarrassed silence. You could see his pride that the girl knew to cite the Cross study, his horror that she’d been hit, and his relief that she wasn’t hurt.
I smiled inside. It was a unique interaction between a teenager and a semi-parental unit.
Cyclists fare best when. . .
John Forester usually spoke and wrote in long paragraphs, but his best sound bite was 13 words:
“Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”
As long as this remembrance is, it leaves out many, many things. There is so much I failed to mention. Forester’s work was very far-reaching, and his motives were always to help us be better bicyclists.
Shortly after I first met John Forester, at a mini road course he taught in Washington DC in 1977, I launched on a spectacular solo 4,000-mile transcontinental tour. I was grateful for Forester’s wisdom to make myself a safer rider on that tour. My buddy Eli Damon is glad he could go to choir practice. Many thousands of others thank Forester too.
We’ve come a long way since 1977. The way we teach safe cycling behavior is far easier for a novice cyclist to learn and do. That’s the way of all improvement. Complexity starts. Simplicity follows. In future articles, John S. Allen will describe how Cycling Savvy was able to stand on Forester’s shoulders.
For that instruction to be improved on, it had to start. And it started with Forester.
With thanks to Jim Baross, Bill Hoffman, John S. Allen, Clint Sandusky, Robert Seidler, John Brooking, Eli Damon, Keri Caffrey and many others.
Countless other people had remembrances about Forester. Read some here.