Tag Archive for: Lane Control

Safe passing -- you can see my hand signal in my shadow.

“Control and Release” for safe passing

Several weeks ago I posted an article with dashcam video about roads with double yellow lines. I was driving the car, and slowed to follow a bicyclist at a blind curve on a two-lane rural highway. A large dump truck with a trailer appeared, coming from the opposite direction.

If I had held my speed and passed the bicyclist, I could not have merged left far enough to pass the bicyclist safely.  Neither could the truck driver see me in time to make more room.

Safe passing-- the location on Route 117 in Lincoln, Massachusetts, USA

The location, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, USA

The bicyclist kept to the right as far as he could. He relied only on hope —  and my good judgment —  to avoid a close pass, or worse.

The video held a message for motorists: “What you don’t see can hurt you” — or hurt someone else (in this case, most likely the bicyclist).

Blind curves hold a message for bicyclists

To clarify this message, I later rode the same stretch on a bicycle with front and rear video cameras.

As this video shows, I mostly rode on the shoulder. Several cars and a pickup truck passed me —  no problem. No oncoming traffic prevented safe passing clearance.

But as I approached the blind curve, the shoulder narrowed to almost nothing. A big truck or other large vehicle could be approaching ahead. Who knew? Who could know? Neither I nor the driver of the car approaching from behind me could see around that curve.

Here’s what I did — what I always do — to protect myself:

I checked in my rearview mirror and took a look over my shoulder. If vehicles had been closer behind, I would have have used a hand signal to negotiate my way into line.

This car was far enough back that I simply merged to lane-control position. Then I made a hand signal: “Slow.”safe passing: the car's slowing confirmed that the driver had seen me and was acting safely.

The driver slowed to follow me for a few seconds. Once I had rounded the curve and could see far enough ahead, I released to the right and give a friendly wave. The driver accelerated and passed me.

How control and release promotes safe passing

What did my actions achieve?

  • They indicated that I was aware of the driver’s vehicle behind me.
  • They indicated that I knew it was unsafe to pass. Maybe I knew something the driver didn’t know!
  • In case the driver was impatient, they made it clear that passing would have to wait until we could both see far enough ahead.
  • The car’s slowing confirmed to me that the driver was aware of me and acting safely.
  • And by releasing as soon as it was safe, I demonstrated courtesy. No motorist wants to be “stuck” behind a cyclist.

As it turned out, there was no large truck, or not even a small car, approaching from the front.

But that isn’t the point. One could have been.

Might the driver behind me have passed, unable to see far enough ahead, if I had hugged the right edge of the road? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, because I took active control of my safety in a potentially dangerous situation.

When my safety is at stake, I choose not to rely on others to do the right thing. As we say in CyclingSavvy courses, drivers get smarter when we lead the dance.

Would You Ride A Bicycle Through Here?

If you’ve taken the CyclingSavvy course, you’ll recall the video of John Alexander’s bicycle ride across a huge highway interchange.  At less than 10 miles per hour, on an Elektra Townie bicycle.

If you haven’t seen the video, watch it here, and relax. John’s bicycle ride was boring, not daring.

John — and Keri Caffrey, riding behind him with cameras to record it all — had the road almost entirely to themselves, through thoughtful choice of lane position, and by taking advantage of traffic-signal timing.

My own gnarly bicycle riding challenge

I face a similar situation later this month. I have two doctor’s appointments about a mile apart. By far the shortest route between the two doctors’ offices passes through a similar huge highway interchange. I could take a much longer way there, and this longer ride would also include backtracking on a poison-ivy-infested sidewalk.

On Monday, I checked out the route in a car, with a dashcam running:

OK, here’s a challenge for you:

How would you ride this?

Would you ride it at all?

Have a look in Google maps

The image below shows my route, from right to left, in Google Maps. (When I drove, I went straight through on Route 9 rather than turning into William Street. That doesn’t change anything important.)

Google map of gnarly route for bicycle ride

Google will let me share the location but not the route information. Here’s the location in Google Maps. You can play around with Google Street View and get a closer look.

map view of Google Maps, featuring yellow Google Dude
Google Dude is the yellow fellow in the lower right corner of Google Maps

Not familiar with Street View? If you’re using a computer, click on Google Dude, the yellow fellow in the lower right corner of Google Maps. Drag the green fog under his feet to any street that lights up in blue, release the mouse button, and there you are.

You can move around using the the keyboard’s arrow buttons.  The right and left buttons turn you around. The down button is your reverse gear, up button moves you forward. Or click on the image and drag with the mouse.

Once you’ve dropped your Dude, there’s a “compass” in the lower right corner that also makes it easy to turn around:

Google Dude view of William Street
Compass in lower right corner (in Google maps) spins map to the view you want.

Once I dropped Google Dude on the road, I spun the compass to point Dude in the direction I’ll be riding next week. I clicked on the street to move forward, and stand with Dude in the middle of any road.

The arrow in the black box at the upper left corner of the screen takes you back to the overhead view.

On a tablet or smartphone, you can tap and swipe the screen to access these same features.

This bicycle ride is possible!

I have discussed this route with a few other people and found at least two, maybe, three different ways to manage it. I don’t consider the ride difficult even for a novice cyclist, but savvy strategies can make it much more convenient. (Hint: see my description of John Alexander’s ride above.)

Please post comments and suggestions. I’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks with video of my ride.

I love to ride my bicycle, but I have my limits. Arriving at the doctors’ offices drenched in sweat during a pandemic or with rain would exceed those limits! If necessary, I’ll ride the route on a different day to shoot the video.

Your turn now.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this ride.

The Madrid Model

Note from Editor John Allen: This post started with a request from Madrid Ciclista in Madrid, Spain, to publish a translation of an article on this blog into Spanish. We were happy to comply. A look at their website revealed that Madrid has been thinking outside the box about bicycling. Miguel Cardo of Madrid Ciclista wrote the post below describing the “Modelo Madrid” in 99.44% perfect English.

Fire up Google Maps.

Switch to satellite view and have a look at any large avenue in my city, Madrid:

Madrid boulevard with ciclocarriles 30 marking



Madrid boulevard with ciclocarriles 30 marking

Lanes marked with that symbol have a speed limit of 30 km/h (about 19 mph). The default of 50 km/h (about 31 mph) is allowed in the other lanes. The marking with the oversized sharrow means:

  • Bicyclists can use the lane;
  • They have to ride in the middle of the lane.

All this started in 2013.

The city government was still reeling from the excesses of a real-estate bubble. Debt had ballooned to 7.4 billion euros after a failed Olympic bid. [1] The city could not even dream of any significant infrastructure project. A giant fine from the European Commission was looming for the city’s failure to reduce its pollution levels. [2]

City officials had to come up with something. This time they just couldn’t buy their way out of trouble. So they tried something different: a plan to increase cycling modal share without any large infrastructure projects.

The first plan was modest.

City officials started with a timid plan of “ciclocarriles 30” along the avenues and boulevards surrounding the Old Town. “Ciclocarriles 30” means 30 km/h bike lanes. The plan also included a municipal bike-share scheme that would use electric bikes, because Madrid is notoriously hilly. [3]

Municipal bike-share bicycle riding over a CC30 marking - photo by permission of @MadCycleCuqui

Municipal bike-share bicycle about to pass over a CC30 marking. Photo by permission of @MadCycleCuqui

In the beginning, nobody thought much of the plan.

In a chaotic and aggressive environment, motorists would not welcome the new users on “their” roads. Madrid city police have a well-deserved reputation for not enforcing traffic laws. Most people thought of the plan as some low-cost desperate measure to postpone the EU fine for a while, at least until a different administration was in charge. I’m not even sure that the city officials who created the plan had much faith in it.

Onward to Modelo Madrid.

Modelo Madrid makes urban cycling a transportation mode equal to any otherFast forward five or six years. Madrid city police still turned a blind eye to speeding, but the unexpected happened.

Madrid’s undisciplined, chaotic, aggressive motorists can be seen moving slowly behind a cyclist, waiting for the right moment to overtake — changing lanes to pass in the lane to the left.

The true benefit of the 30 km/h (19 mph) speed limit is not that motorists comply with it, but that they drive at 15 km/h (9 mph) behind cyclists without even revving their engines. A new generation of cyclists — many of whom started riding on the new municipal white electric bikes — uses these roads with confidence.

Every road user is mandated to control his or her traffic lane.

A third measure sustaining this change was a city ordinance issued in 2010, which not only allowed but made mandatory riding on the center of the lane. [4]

In the video below, shot by the rider of a folding bicycle, nothing exciting happens, so don’t feel compelled to watch it all the way through.

The number of cyclists is still modest (2-3 percent in the central area, according to counts by Madrid Ciclista) but growing. [5]

Percentage of bicycles in central Madrid with respect to other vehicles, counts by Madrid Ciclista

Percentage of bicycles in central Madrid with respect to other vehicles, counts by Madrid Ciclista

The graph below, from the city’s lower, less accurate counts, shows the trend from year to year:

Yearly trends in bicycle use in central Madrid

Yearly trends in bicycle use in central Madrid

When compared with other European cities, the number of crashes per million trips is encouragingly low. [6].

City counts showing trend in bicycle use

We can now say that slow lanes were the origin of the so-called Modelo Madrid. The Madrid Model recognizes urban cycling as a transportation mode equal to any other, not requiring special infrastructure but granting the same rights to cyclists as to other vehicle operators. [7]

No cyclists ride on the sidewalk. Cyclists grant the same respect to pedestrians as they demand from motorists. Modelo Madrid puts in practice many of the principles pioneered by John Forester and refined in the United States by CyclingSavvy.

Modelo Madrid: the way of the future?

As with any other aspect of public policy, we can’t “ride” on our laurels — to paraphrase the English idiom — and expect equal treatment for cyclists in Madrid forever.

Economic stimulus money spent on “sustainable” projects is always a threat for urban cyclists, especially in these COVID-19 times. Going back to the segregated model is still possible. Some very loud cycling activists and associations are always demanding narrow bike lanes in the door zone or on sidewalks, following the North European model.

Here’s an example from Seville:

Sidewalk bikeway in Seville, Spain

Bikeway in Seville, Spain, 2018. Photo credit: Gary Cziko

On the other hand, more Spanish cities are introducing slow lanes, especially after the COVID-19 lockdown: Valladolid, Burgos, Leganés, Granada…

Cyclist in Ciclocarril 30

Photo by permission of @MadCycleCuqui

Additional thoughts from Editor John Allen:

Which way should US states go? Could there be slow lanes on multi-lane streets in the USA? Keep in mind that higher speeds are common now on e-bikes, which probably did not in exist when Seville bikeways were planned and constructed.

Consider that automated crash avoidance is becoming common on motor vehicles, and improving. A transition to autonomous vehicles will follow, in time.

Suppose that a hoped-for decrease in motor traffic occurs with autonomous vehicles. Consider also the dangers of edge riding, and the reduction in efficiency and safety when turning vehicles must cross the path of through-traveling ones, rather than merging before turning.

All of these factors suggest that an integrated model like the Modelo Madrid could become more compelling as time passes.

Does US practice support the Modelo Madrid?

There is no specific mention in the model US traffic law [8] of different lanes with different posted speed limits. Yet these are in wide use, established indirectly.

In several states, large trucks are held to a lower speed limit than other vehicles [9], and are prohibited from using the leftmost lanes on multi-lane highways [10]. Edge-of-the road “friction” with parked vehicles, walk-outs, drive-outs and parking decreases the safe speed in the rightmost lane on city streets.

The general rule is to pass on the left, in the “fast lane”. But faster vehicles may pass bicyclists on the right in a right-turn lane, and sometimes a bus lane.

In all of these cases, the basic speed limit applies: to drive no faster than is reasonable and prudent. That speed is established by the design of the street and by the users who are present. Here’s an example of a bike lane to the left of a bus lane on University Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin. [11]

Bike lane to left of bus lane, Madison, Wisconsin, 2001

Bike lane to left of bus lane, Madison, Wisconsin, 2001. Photo credit: John S. Allen


(Web links in the body of an article are more usual, but we prefer not to sidetrack readers into articles which need explanation, some in Spanish. So, these footnotes – Editor.)

[1] Newspaper article about the debt

[2] Newspaper article about the fine

[3] Online news article describing the original plan, with map

[4] City ordinancetranslation of relevant sections into English

[5] Madrid Ciclista’s article “en Madrid no hay bicis” (“There are no bicycles in Madrid”) describes and promotes bicycle counts by citizens, and asserts that the city government has been undercounting.

[6] Crash rates in different European cities, and bicycle trends in Madrid. Article is in English: http://madridciclista.org/city-of-bikes/

[7] Madrid Ciclista article describing the Modelo Madrid.

[8] https://iamtraffic.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/UVC2000.pdf — see pages 147-148. Each US state enacts traffic law separately, and so there are differences.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_limits_in_the_United_States

[10] https://static.tti.tamu.edu/tti.tamu.edu/documents/policy/congestion-mitigation/truck-lane-restrictions.pdf

[11] The University Avenue installation serves a large student population. The buses, on their fixed route, stay in the bus lane. More details here.

Passing a City Bus Safely on a Bicycle

A savvy cyclist shot this video.

Little did he know that a yet-to-be savvy cyclist would play a starring role in it.

Here’s what the savvy cyclist did in the video.

  1. He sees the bus stopped ahead. Well in advance of reaching it, he looks over his shoulder to check whether there is a vehicle behind him.
  2. There is, so he makes a left-turn signal with his left arm, indicating the desire to merge left to pass the bus.
  3. He verifies that the driver behind him is yielding to let him move left before he does so.
  4. He passes the bus with safe clearance, ready to brake and fall back in case the bus starts to merge out from the curb.
  5. Once in the bus driver’s forward field of view, he signals to the bus driver the desire to merge back to the right.
  6. He positions himself so that he can see a pedestrian crossing the street right in front of the bus. He allows ample time to slow down or maneuver if  a pedestrian pops into view.
  7. After passing the bus, he adopts an appropriate lane position, preventing being overtaken by two lines of traffic at once and jammed against the curb.
Protected by SUV
The next driver behind the savvy cyclist has let him into line.

The yet-to-be savvy cyclist:

  1. Keeps far right as long as possible before reaching the bus, and does not check for overtaking traffic.
  2. Does not signal to indicate the desire to change lane position.
  3. Swerves out shortly before reaching the bus, again without checking to see if there is any traffic behind.
  4. Rides close to the side of the bus! This puts the yet-to-be savvy cyclist in danger of being swept underneath if the bus merges out.
  5. Would not see a pedestrian crossing the street from in front of the bus until the last split second — and therefore would be likely to collide with that pedestrian.
  6. Merges to the right without signaling to the bus driver.
  7. Merges all the way over to the curb, inviting drivers of motor vehicles to “share” an un-sharable lane.
Swerve out
The other cyclist merges out just before passing the bus. What if a car, rather than another cyclist, had been following her?

I, the savvy cyclist

I’ll admit it, I was the savvy cyclist. What were my expectations?

  • I believed I could communicate with the driver of the vehicle behind me using a hand signal and head turn.
  • I knew the driver behind me had to digest my request to merge into line, so I started my communication early.
  • I did not assume the motorist would cooperate and let me merge, so I checked — trust but verify. This is easy to do with a quick glance into a rear-view mirror.
  • I understood that passing a bus close to its side places me in deadly danger if the bus merges out, and also invites unsafe overtaking.
  • I knew the bus driver would have an easier time knowing my intentions if he or she could see me as I prepared to merge right.
  • I understood that I could safely allow only one line of traffic to overtake after passing the bus. I had to position myself to avoid unsafe passing by two lines of traffic at once.
  • I had a mental inventory of things to watch for: the bus pulls out abruptly, an overtaking motorist moves too soon, a pedestrian abruptly emerges in front of me. But I was ready, so none of these things would cause me a problem, or even require quick action on my part.

This sounds like a lot, but it’s not. It becomes second nature when practicing “driver behavior.

Too close to bus
I am passing the bus safely. The other cyclist couldn’t see a person crossing the street in front of the bus, and couldn’t avoid the bus if it merged out.

The cyclist in the video was practicing “edge” behavior

Her behavior indicated that she wanted to take up as little space as possible. She was an “edge rider,” naive about potential hazards in front of her, and fatalistic about those behind her. This made her moves unpredictable and turned potential hazards into real ones.

What behavior is truly easier for motorists?

I have long contended that having to slow and follow a bicyclist disturbs motorists much less than the following confusing situations:

The cyclist is inviting me to pass, but the available width looks iffy. The angel on one shoulder says that I should wait till there is more room. The devil on the other says: ‘It’ll be close, but I’ll make it.’

Or perhaps:

The cyclist can’t continue riding behind the bus. She is either going to stop behind it, or swerve out. The angel on one shoulder says: ‘Slow down so she can swerve out in front of me.’ The devil on the other shoulder says: ‘Damn bicyclists.’

How about if you’re the bus driver:

I lie awake at night worrying that I’ll crush a cyclist under my bus.

This has happened in my city.

How much better it is for the mental health of everybody concerned for a cyclist to act as a participant in traffic, rather than a nobody!

Correct lane position
The shared-lane marking properly indicates my line of travel. The bus changes lanes to pass me safely. The other cyclist’s wheel is visible in the corner of the picture.

Lower stress and more safety passing a bus

As for cyclists, it is infinitely more satisfying to interact as a full participant in  traffic, rather than be a wallflower!

For savvy cyclists, stress levels go way down, safety goes way up — and there’s even more: A rewarding sense of interaction with other people. Almost every motorist will cooperate with you, if you only help them know how to do that.

One more thought

The driver of the vehicle behind me, intentionally or not, was standing guard for me. I was protected from following vehicles. (The word “protected” has been used and misused in other ways related to bicycling, but that is a discussion for another post.)

On any typical ride, a cyclist interacts directly with tens or  hundreds of strangers, sometimes thousands. Cycling and motoring are the daily activities in which a person interacts directly with more strangers than in any others.

It’s a dance, and as we say in CyclingSavvy, the dance is yours to lead. I find it soundly rewarding to do that assertively yet cooperatively.

I shot this video in May 2017 on Boston’s Longwood Avenue — here, in case you would care to know. This neighborhood has a high concentration of medical, and research facilities. I may well have been photographing a doctor or scientist. Brilliance in another field doesn’t help you understand safe behavior near a bus. That’s why we need to teach all people, no matter how smart, how to ride safely.


I wish that I could offer a bright and sunny conclusion to this article: Longwood-area cyclists signed up for a CyclingSavvy course, discovered how easy it is to communicate with other road users and control safe space around themselves.

Not so. Since I shot the video, the shared-lane markings on Longwood Avenue have been replaced with bike lanes.

bike lane on longwood avenue boston
2019: Google street view of Longwood Avenue

These bike lanes direct cyclists to ride like the one in my video, and give motorists to understand that this is bicyclists’ proper place and conduct — as shown in the image above downloaded from a 2019 Google Street View.

Enough for now. The reasons bicyclists get set up for failure like this are a topic for another post.

Requiem for a Heavyweight-••-John-Forester-1929-2020

(Also in Spanish — este artículo está también disponible en español en la web de Madrid Ciclista.)

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.

John Forester photo with note of appreciation.Forester was steaming mad.

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.

Eli Damon's copy of Effective cycling 6th Edition

Eli Damon’s copy of Effective Cycling, 6th Edition

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.

. . .

Eli Damon Rides Route 9

Eli Damon rides Route 9 in Hadley, Massachusetts

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.”

Fred DeLong's illustration of how to avoid a car door

Fred DeLong’s illustration of how to avoid a car door. Well-intentioned, but this exact behavior causes many collisions, some of them fatal. Forester liberated us from this thinking.

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.

John Forester around 1980

Forester around 1980, wired up to score students in a road test. A switch in his glove starts the cassette recorder in his backpack. Credit: IPMBA

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.

I can’t defend the vitriol.

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.

Cover of Bicycle Transportation, by John ForesterForester 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 1981 AASHTO Guidesubjunctive 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.