Tag Archive for: savvy cyclist

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.

John Schubert during his transcontinental tour

John Schubert during his transcontinental tour

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.

Thanks, John.

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.

Should I Be Riding Now?

Should bicyclists be riding now? Should bicyclists wear face masks now to avoid the risk of catching the COVID-19 disease?

Common sense suggests that masks help, but the US Centers for Disease Control until recently downplayed them. With masks in short supply, the highest priority has been to ensure first responders and medical professionals have protection.

Judgments like that are about the Greater Good. They aren’t just about saving you in particular.  They are based on epidemiological risk assessments from one point of view or another.

Good Health and the Greater Good

I like to think that I advocate for the Greater Good, but I do better at that if I am in good health. I might take that idea farther than some people. By 1978, bicycle helmets were becoming common, and like many people I wore one.   But I was unique in wearing an industrial respirator mask when riding in the city.

Should bicyclists wear face masks? The author wore one in 1978.

The author riding with helmet and mask in 1978 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Anita Brewer-Siljeholm

Cities were smelly in 1978.  Most cars did not have catalytic converters. Brake shoes were made of asbestos, and they shed asbestos fibers into the air. But my respirator worked great. Car exhaust had a heavy, oily smell back then, but it came through the mask odorless. Acrid diesel-bus exhaust exited the mask’s activated charcoal filters smelling like a fresh slice of whole-wheat toast.

If I hadn’t been wearing a respirator mask while cycling in the late 70s, the damage to my lungs and body would have been as significant as if I smoked cigarettes. Then, things got better.  As pollution control on cars improved, I used the respirator less. It deteriorated in storage, and eventually I threw it away.

Now we have a different problem.

The pandemic has created a new and different problem.  CyclingSavvy outdoor sessions have been postponed or canceled. Bicycle clubs have suspended their group ride programs.  Should I ride at all? Wear a mask?

There is no absolute social distancing. The widely cited 6-foot rule reflects a balance of  risk against what people will tolerate.  The good news is that you don’t get infected by just one individual virus spore. Exhaustive research on the AIDS virus has established that there is a threshold level of contamination below which it does not take hold in a person. With the virus that causes COVID-19, the principle is the same, though the amount is not yet known. Individual susceptibility varies, and a higher dose appears to result in worse symptoms. Wearing a mask does lower the risk of catching the disease, or transmitting it.

Are Masks Practical?

I happen to have a few N95 masks left over from sanding and painting projects (opened box, not accepted for donation). I have shaved my beard for the first time in 50 years to make the masks work better.

My wife and I reserve the masks for shopping trips. We use them only once every several days, so they have time to decontaminate themselves.  (Viruses die outside of the host animal’s body.) Three or four masks between us will probably hold out until supply improves. I  wear eye-protection goggles over my eyeglasses. We also happen to have a couple of surgical masks.

My experience:

  • An N95 mask proved practical only for short bicycle trips, especially in cold weather, because I couldn’t lift it off my face to blow my nose.
  • A surgical mask is not practical for me when cycling in cool weather, because it doesn’t seal, and fogs my glasses. Lifting this mask is possible, though, without unbuckling the helmet.
  • There are too many kinds of improvised cloth masks for me to come to a single conclusion. A bandana that hangs down and can be lifted up is probably going to allow blowing the nose.
  • An industrial respirator mask is practical, though it could become uncomfortable on a long ride. The degree of protection it provides depends on the type of filters.

Any mask will somewhat impair breathing.

Should Bicyclists Wear Face Masks For Shopping Trips?

While I have access to a car, I prefer to shop by bicycle. The bicycle is more convenient when I am bringing home a small load. Cycling to the store alone generally carries far less risk of infection than riding public transportation. But when shopping, I have to interact with people, and sometimes go into a store.

Should bicyclists wear face masks for this kind of trip? Yes, at least when going into the store, but also if having to ride under crowded conditions.

For shopping trips, I wear gardening gloves with rubber fingers and palms. I carry a small bottle with disinfectant solution, and disinfectant wipes. I disinfect the shopping-cart handle before gripping it. I also disinfect my gloves, then my hands after I leave the store. When I get home I disinfect them again after removing the mask, goggles and helmet.

The reusable shopping bag in the picture below does not go into the store. Stores in Massachusetts don’t accept them any more, as they might carry infection. I use the bag after I’m done shopping, to increase the carrying capacity of my bicycle.

Should bicyclists wear face masks? The author in full kit for a shopping trip.

The author, April 2020, in full kit for a shopping trip. Photo by Jacob Allen

When I get home, I lay out items that I bought in the driveway to disinfect them, or pour food out into clean containers. Apartment dwellers have to disinfect indoors. There’s plenty of good information online about how to disinfect foods, and yourself after handling them. Here’s one example.

Should Bicyclists Wear Face Masks For Recreational Riding?

Should you wear a face mask while riding?  Or not? Or just hang up the bicycle? Strategies are different if you’re riding solo or with someone else.

Each person’s circumstances are unique. In my case, it’s only a mile from my home to semi-rural outer suburbs.  Traffic on roads there is very light now, and I’ll go on solo rides without wearing a mask.

Urban and suburban traffic is also light, though a friend a high-mileage recreational road rider has had to dodge many newbie wrong-way riders. (This is one more reason to stay away from riding on the edge of the road.)

Another friend who is a strong advocate for shared-use paths avoids them now, because they are crowded, largely with people who don’t know how to be safe on them.

In some places, notably New York State, masks are now required for everyone where social distancing is impossible.  Spain and Italy have banned recreational cycling, allowing cycling only for some kinds of essential trips. That seems excessive to me, at least where I live, considering the low risk of contagion on lightly-used rural roads.

If You Ride With Another Person

The 6-foot rule doesn’t apply to bicyclists riding together, because bicyclists are moving, and the risk depends on which way the wind is blowing. One recommendation was to maintain 35-foot spacing, and greater at higher speeds. The front rider uses hand signals to indicate turns; the rear rider repeats them to confirm. Checking for confirmation is easier if the front rider uses a rear-view mirror.

Crash Risk

I do think about the risk of a crash that would require care in an already overburdened hospital. It could happen, but my last crash that required a doctor’s attention was in 1984, to no small extent because of the kind of skills that CyclingSavvy teaches. There is a balance to achieve.

Should bicyclists wear face masks? The author headed out on a recreational ride, no mask. Photo: Jacob Allen

April 2020: The author headed out on a recreational ride, no mask. Photo: Jacob Allen

I’ve been riding on the nearly empty semi-rural roads without a mask, to stay in shape and avoid going stir-crazy. But you have to make up your own mind about this.

Something to Do at Home

CyclingSavvy online courses are available, and discounted during the pandemic. And my booklet Bicycling Street Smarts is for sale in print and as an e-book, with Keri Caffrey’s all-new illustrations (shameless promotion, sorry).

Even if you have hung the bicycle up for the duration, the time will come when you dust it off and ride again. This is a useful way to while away the time until then.

door zone riders

Where Bike Lane Design Collides with Savvy Cycling


If you’re an urban bicyclist, you probably know what “dooring” means. When bike lanes are entirely within reach of the doors of legally parked cars, it’s harder for bicyclists to ride safely.

Even the cyclist who knows it’s not safe to ride in the door zone may feel that riding in the lane adjacent to an unusable bike lane is like riding with a flashing “Harass Me” sign.

bike lane dooring

Door-zone bike lane

Why do cities continue to make it hard to ride safely?

I address this issue in a new article in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention. Door zone bike lanes (DZBLs) continue to be installed because design guidelines still allow them.

For decades, it has been conventional wisdom that crashes involving bicyclists and opening car doors are rare. This belief is based on motor vehicle crash reports, but these reports generally exclude this crash type by definition.

The crash hiding in plain sight

National and state databases only include crashes involving motor vehicles in transport. Since a parked car is not in transport, and a bicycle is not a motor vehicle, crashes where a bicyclist hits a parked car door are excluded.

A few dooring crashes make it into national and state crash databases anyway, which has led some studies to erroneously conclude that dooring accounts for less than 0.2 percent of bicycle crashes.

Dooring accounts for 12 to 27 percent of urban car-bike collisions, making it one of the most common crash types.

I found 10 sources in cities in North America, plus one from Australia, that include dooring incidents, unlike official crash data. These police, hospital, insurance or EMS reports indicate that dooring accounts for 12 to 27 percent of urban car-bike collisions, making it one of the most common crash types.

Substandard standards

I reviewed four studies of bicyclist riding position with bike lanes and parking lanes of varying widths. With the minimum dimensions allowed (5-foot bike lane and 7-foot parking lane), almost all bicyclists were observed riding within reach of parked cars.

However, when there was another three feet between the bike lane and parked cars, almost all bicyclists rode outside the door zone.

When there was another three feet between the bike lane and parked cars, almost all cyclists rode outside the door zone.

Only one of the North American bike lane design manuals I could find (the Ontario Traffic Manual) requires a buffer between bike lanes and on-street parking. Paradoxically, the guidelines for separated bike lanes — where the bike lane is on the curb side of on-street parking — all require one.

Why require a buffer from car doors when the bike lane is on one side, but not when it’s on the other?

Designing to avoid dooring

buffered bike lane

In 2014, the Transportation Research Board published the results of a three-year, $300,000 study of bike lane width. The authors recognized that “the design of the bike lane should encourage bicyclists to ride outside of this door zone area and should account for the width of the bicyclist.”

The report found that bicyclists need to center themselves 12 feet from the curb to be outside of the door zone.


Bike lane with door buffer in Cleveland (photo: Andrew Cross)

Change is slow, and stubborn

The Transportation Research Board’s report recognized best practices. Yet its authors still recommend installation of bike lanes that are less than 12 feet from the curb.

Even where there was enough room for a door buffer zone, the report recommended using half of the buffer zone on the travel lane side.

The authors are aware of the problem with their own recommendations. “Where bicycle lanes are designed according to the guidance [in this report], it should be recognized that bicyclists will still likely position themselves within the door zone of parked vehicles,” they wrote.

The researchers did not consider the possibility of recommending shared lane markings where there is insufficient room to install a bike lane outside the door zone, because their goal was to provide “design guidance for a bicycle lane given the decision that a bicycle lane will be installed.”

How bicyclists use shared lane markings

Some say that cyclists will ride in the door zone, even when not directed to by DZBLs. But is this really so?

shared lane markings

Shared lanes marking in Washington, DC

I looked at four studies that observed the position of bicyclists before and after shared lane markings were added in the center of a travel lane adjacent to on-street parking. The SLMs were centered about 14 feet from the curb; on average bicyclists were centered 11 feet from the curb.

In the most successful case, 85 percent of bicyclists were riding within the door zone before SLM installation, and only 45 percent after. In addition, there was a large drop in sidewalk bicycling. The posted speed limit was 25 MPH in this case, compared to 30-35 MPH in the others studied.

Shared lane markings can prevent dooring

Where there is on-street parking and insufficient room for a buffer from doors, SLMs can help keep cyclists out of the door zone. They could be more effective if supplemented by lower speed limits, eliminating statutes that require bicyclists to have an excuse to leave the right edge of the road, retraining police officers, and making the public aware of the right and need of bicyclists to keep a safe distance from parked cars.

Requiring a buffer for standard bike lanes will require design guides to acknowledge that bike lanes do not fit next to on-street parking without at least 3 feet more of width than is currently provided in the minimum guidance.

With less than 25 feet for a parking lane and travel lane, bicyclists should be encouraged to ride in the travel lane with shared lane markings and Bicyclists May Use Full Lane signs.

The future of door-zone bike lanes

Currently the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities is being revised. However, unless the committee reviewing the current draft intervenes, DZBL designs will be retained. Although there will be new material on buffered bike lanes, the primary concern is a buffer between the travel lane and the bike lane, not on the parking side.

Accounting for the door zone properly would mean that bike lanes could not be installed with less than 25 feet between the curb and the center line.

There’s a pervasive belief, unsupported by evidence, that bicyclists using travel lanes are likely to be hit by overtaking motorists. Following this belief, the new AASHTO guide not only maintains designs that essentially require bicyclists to use the door zone, but also promotes designs requiring bicyclists to stay to the right of right-turning traffic.

Another pervasive belief is that bike lanes make bicycling easier. In fact, cyclists need more education to safely use bike lanes in urban contexts. The dooring risk is merely one of a host of issues with DZBLs.

avoiding dooring

How savvy cyclists protect themselves

If possible, find another route. If you find yourself on a road with a door-zone bike lane, you could use it with CyclingSavvy’s “control and release” strategy.

Because of traffic lights, motorists tend to travel in platoons. This leaves even busy roads empty for various stretches of time. When the regular travel lane is empty, use it, moving over as necessary to the door-zone bike lane to “release” other traffic.

When you move into any door-zone bike lane, slow down. Go slow enough so that a door opening in your path will not surprise you. For safety’s sake, this won’t be much faster than walking speed.

Be aware that while you’re in the bike lane, you’re not relevant to motorists. Beware of drivers who may turn right in front of you, or left across your path. A door-zone bike lane also shields you from motorists who may be driving onto the road at an intersection or from a driveway.

Never use a door-zone bike lane as a “freeway” to speed by motor traffic stopped and stuck on your left. In these situations, filter forward cautiously (no faster than pedestrian speed).

If door-zone bike lane designs proliferate, savvy cyclists will increasingly have to take longer routes in order to avoid the possibility of harassment (or citation, in cities and states with mandatory use laws for bike lanes). The door zone is a real hazard that must be accounted for in designing for safe bicycling.

savvy cyclist

Learning A New Street Dance

I am a proud savvy cyclist…and I have a confession.

I took CyclingSavvy twice, first in Philadelphia and then Charlotte.

You might ask: Didn’t I learn anything the first time?

bike skills drills

Using the top floor of a downtown Philly parking garage for Train Your Bike, the parking lot skills session. Even experienced cyclists – like Marc – learn new things. From left: instructor Karen Karabell, Marc Caruso, Camille Gervasio, Shannon Walsh and John A Petty II


I learned an incredible amount about training my bike and how to ride comfortably and confidently with traffic. But some things don’t sink in until later or, in my case, the second time around.

In Philly, I learned from Karen Karabell that there’s nothing scary about empty pavement behind you. How do you get “scary” roads to yourself? You make the lights and the law work for you.

A great example is choosing where you enter a road from. Use traffic lights to your advantage by turning right on green. You have no obligation to turn right on red.

By turning right on green, motorists on the road you’re turning onto are stopped at a red light. When they finally get a green, they’ll be far enough back to use one of the adjacent travel lanes to pass you, in whichever lane you’re not in.

Strategy, Courtesy and Mindfulness

We practiced the right-on-green technique in Charlotte, too. Before I tell you what happened, you need to know that the on-road Tour is like nothing you’ve ever done before.

You’ll be riding on roads you can’t believe you’re using — and you’ll be doing it by yourself, unless you don’t want to. Then an instructor will ride with you. But by the time you get to that point in the workshop, almost everyone wants to try on their own.

savvy cyclist charlotte

Marc making a left turn in Charlotte

A Savvy Cyclist Can Go Anywhere

As a savvy cyclist, I’m not a road warrior. Just the opposite!

CyclingSavvy instructors teach strategy, courtesy and mindfulness. They figure you’re probably OK riding on your neighborhood cul de sac, or on a trail. What they want is to show you how to make connections, so that you can ride out of your neighborhood, or not have to put your bike on a car to go to the trail.

When Motorists Want to Turn Right on Red

In Charlotte, we watched each student set off to practice right-on-green. It was a busy road and motorists would appear behind them. John Allen instructed the students to move to the left side of the lane and wave the motorists to pass on their right.

savvy cyclist facilitating right on red [orlando]

Staying to the left side of a lane allows motorists to turn right on red while you wait for a green light.

The motorists passed and made the right on red. When the light turned green, the student doing the feature would turn right.

The result was obvious: No cars on the big “scary” road behind the student. By turning right on green, motorists on that road were held back by a red light.

After making the turn, we were instructed to go directly into the lane we wanted. Motorists turning right on green with us could choose another lane and pass us easily.

Epiphany In Charlotte

Instructor Pamela Murray shook my thinking about shoulder checks.

savvy cyclists charlotte

Marc leads other savvy cyclists on the Tour of Charlotte

I use a helmet mirror, so some shoulder checks seemed unnecessary in my mind. Before taking CyclingSavvy in Charlotte, I only did shoulder checks when making lateral movements.

When I merged or turned, I’d do a shoulder check, signal, and shoulder check again to make sure it’s safe. Otherwise, I just used my mirror and then communicated with hand signals like “slow,” or “pass” when it was safe to pass me.

What this does, though, is make it seem like the motorist is communicating with just an inanimate piece of metal.

A Fellow Human

When you turn your head over your shoulder, you’re showing your face to the person behind you and making yourself recognized as another human being, not just a bike.

As a result of seeing your face, they’ll be more apt to take direction from you. People like to help other people out.

I’m grateful for the incredible, knowledgeable CyclingSavvy instructors who’ve helped change my street game into a savvy cyclist dance.

savvy cyclists charlotte

Celebrating last November after a great day in Charlotte. Left to right: Carl Fenske (who became a CyclingSavvy Instructor in February 2018), Marc Caruso, Doug Guerena, Pamela Murray, Charlene Poole, John Allen, John Gaul and Shannon Walsh


savvy cyclist

Discovery and Choices

I’m a “loner” cyclist. To me, cycling has always been an individual adventure. A block of time appears on my calendar… the weather cooperates… and suddenly I’m thinking, “Where can I go on my bike? What excuse do I have to roll around outside for an hour or more?”

Maybe I have an errand to run, and can do it on my bike. If not, I’ll pick a destination in range, or drive to a farther away spot, and plan a route.

Maybe I’ll take a picnic, ride across a bridge to an island then hike around the island.

Much of the day’s pleasure is in anticipating all the possibilities!

The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait until that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.

Henry David Thoreau said this, and it’s a conscious reason why I rarely plan a bike trip with anyone else. Spontaneity rules my rides! I choose the destination, the route, the pace, and the intensity.

Another Choice: Lane Position

Before Cycling Savvy, I didn’t completely understand the option of choosing where to be in the traffic lane. I knew that in Maine I had the right as a cyclist to be given three feet of clearance by passing vehicles. But until taking CyclingSavvy, I didn’t think of my bike as a vehicle.

Cyclists are legally drivers in all 50 states.

A slide from “Truth & Techniques of Traffic Cycling.” Cyclists were classified as drivers before the rise of the automobile. More than 100 years later, cyclists are legally considered drivers in all 50 states

The course I took here in Portland last summer validated my core sense that I did have a right to travel safely on roadways. I learned about the door zone and reasons to ride clear of traffic lane debris, which is typically pushed to the edge of the road by motor vehicles. I now feel much more comfortable when controlling the lane when needed.

Controlling the traffic lane with authority, assurance and comfort is what Cycling Savvy preaches and teaches. I learned specific information on clothing choices for visibility, and motion and signal cues to alert drivers to my intentions.

In addition to this, I try to practice wisdom, patience, and trust balanced with caution while riding. The final element I now bring to my rides in city traffic is “largeness.” As a small person on a small bike, I consciously aim to enlarge my presence on the road by standing on my pedals, weaving slightly at times to give the impression that I really need the space I’m taking, and keeping my arms out farther from my body, just to be more “seen.”


Mapping Congress St. Portland ME

Analyzing the Congress Street feature of the CyclingSavvy Tour of Portland.

I’ve been a city cyclist for years, obedient to traffic lights and stop signs, and was delighted to learn in my Cycling Savvy class about how to pre-plan a passage through a complicated intersection with dedicated turn lanes. Our class observed the process of planning, then executing several of these in Portland, before we came to the most complex one of the day.

As soon as this particular passage was laid out for us, I asked the instructor’s okay to go for it. He later told me he wasn’t really thinking it through when he absent-mindedly said “yes.” The other instructor was supposed to go first to demonstrate! Before that could happen, I began pedaling away, as all the other students stood watching.

Almost immediately, a skeptical driver passed me on the right and loudly called out to me: “You’re in the left lane!” My reply — totally emboldened by my training — was, “I know!”

I sailed along to complete the upcoming left turn, easily and safely avoiding traffic merging in from the right.

Cyclists on Congress Street Portland ME

Two students begin the Congress Street feature.

SueWall (center)

Sue Wall, smiling big in the center, at the end of the feature

Now, in addition to all the other choices I make when planning a ride, I’m aware of and grateful for my choice to ride freely wherever I need to in the traffic lane.

I choose an approach of appreciation for all my fellow travelers, and of freedom from fear and anxiety. Cycling Savvy training shows everyone how to make these choices!

savvy cyclist eli damon

Let’s Talk About Being “Reasonable”

If you’re a savvy cyclist, you’re not shy about claiming your space on the road.

You know about all of the difficulties you can get into when you cling to the edge, and how much more practical bicycle transportation becomes when you use the technique of lane control.

savvy cyclists avoid riding too far to the edge of the lane

Has anyone ever told you that you’re being unreasonable by controlling a lane?

Have they told you that it exposes you to dangerous motorist behavior?

Have they told you that you’re unnecessarily inconveniencing motorists?

I certainly hear those things. But it only takes a little bit of observation to see that motorist behavior around you is consistently safer and more cautious when you control the lane.

Here’s my video response to one such critic:

In the video, I ride the same stretch of road twice, once at the edge of the lane and once in the center of the lane. These rides are shown simultaneously in the video, with each pass highlighted.

In the center of the lane, all passes are safe. At the edge, about half of the passes are unsafe, because the motorist comes too close to me, too close to oncoming traffic, or both.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re being unreasonable by controlling the lane.

Show them this video, or make your own to show the benefits of lane control on your local roads. I’d be happy to share my filming and editing techniques with you. Just ask.

Bike Wonk: Ride Like You’re Invisi … Relevant

It was a typical winter morning in Downtown Orlando. Clear, cool and sunny with normal rush hour traffic. Because it was cool, I was wearing my usual neon yellow jacket. I’m not obsessive about “hi-viz” clothes, but if I’m going to wear a jacket, I figure it may as well be a bright one. I’d just turned onto Rosalind Avenue, a one-way three-lane street with short blocks, lots of signalized intersections and a bike lane. I normally use the bike lane.

On this particular morning I made the right turn onto Rosalind at such a time that it held off most of the heavy northbound traffic. I had the street almost entirely to myself. In my helmet-mounted mirror I could see