The stubbornness of a good idea

July 16, 2016 § 43 Comments

Few people are as infuriating as John Forester. I’ve never met him but I have read countless of his commentaries on bicycling safety. To call him a thorn in your side is like calling a lobotomy a “minor procedure.”

John is a real old dude and I doubt that he rides a bike much, if at all. I’ve certainly never heard of him showing up on a group ride. That’s kind of weird because all he ever writes about is bikes and bike safety.

Not only that, he has an unparalleled ability to aggravate. When he puts pen to paper, there is an edge to his writing that just pisses you off. I’ve often tried to figure out what that edge is. It’s not the commentaries that sometimes spill over into ad hominem attacks, although that’s part of it. What really gets me is his tone, which is the tone of “STFU, I’m right and I know it, and if you had half a brain, you’d know it, too.” Takes one to know one, I guess.

John was the subject of a hit piece in the Los Angeles Times the other day in which the author announced that John’s philosophy of “vehicular cycling” was officially dead. If you wanted to sum up John’s approach to bicycling in traffic, it’s this: Bike fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

In other words, for us to be safe we don’t need bike lanes or protected cycle tracks or anything other than the roads we currently have, along with a set of equally applied rules. The hit piece essentially says that John got it wrong. The best way to boost ridership is by shunting riders out of traffic and into bikes-only infrastructure. Create a parallel, separate-but-equal system (that conveniently costs billions), and you will have more cyclists and fewer car-bike casualties.

While I loves me a good hit piece, and while John is a super annoying, crotchety old curmudgeon, I don’t loves me a shit piece. And I especially don’t loves me a shit piece when it’s dumping on a super annoying, crotchety old curmudgeonly sonofabitch who happens to be right.

Not simply right, but one-hundred-fucking-percent right. The language may have changed from “vehicular cycling” to “sharrows” and “BMUFL–Bikes May Use the Fuggin’ Lane,” but Forester’s principles are as ironclad and correct as they were when he first proposed them.

Riding off to the edge, stuck in the gutter, dodging trash and glass and cracks and manhole covers and used dildos (yes, Knoll once found a giant pink dildo on PCH) makes cyclists less visible and much more likely to get clipped, right-hooked, rear-ended, or otherwise hurt. John’s principles embody the Savvy Cycling course and they give cyclists control over what happens to them in traffic. Unlike the false perception of safety afforded by bike lanes, BMUFL gives cyclists the real protections of a) being seen, and b) not being treated as inferior road users, but rather as vulnerable ones deserving of special attention and care by bigger, faster, deadlier cars.

In his inimitably annoying way, Forester demolishes the shit piece in the LA Times with diamond hard prose, not a comma out of place, relentless, unapologetic, with the force of an artillery shell hitting a cardboard box. To wit:

“Pitting cars against cyclists” is the first lie. Vehicular cycling holds that motorists and cyclists have equal right to use the roads. Is that pitting cars against cyclists? The logic is all wrong: cars are obviously not motorists. So are the politics; making sure that black people have the same legal rights as white people cannot, justly, be held to be pitting blacks against whites. Besides, the only cycling alternative to advocating legal equality was accepting Motordom’s motorist supremacy policy and its Jim Crow laws that demeaned cyclists. There’s no doubt about it: I stood up for cyclist equality and fought motorist supremacy.

The claim that vehicular cycling had any dominance in American cycling policy at any time in the past is the second lie. At no time, at least since 1925, have cyclists been officially considered equal to motorists, and they were made legally subservient to motorists in the 1944 Uniform Vehicle Code. The idea that American governments had a policy that cyclists were legally equal to motorists is just plain false. If any jurisdiction differed in that, it certainly had insignificant effect. At all times (with maybe some insignificant exception) cyclists were legally inferior to motorists and instructed to be subservient to them.

The argument that American governments supported cyclist equality because they failed to put up money for bikeways is another lie. They failed to fund bikeways because they didn’t care to spend money on bicycling facilities, not because they supported vehicular cycling. While some bikeway advocates make that argument, they fail to produce the official budget arguments stating the support for cyclist equality.

The fact that American governments now fund bikeway construction demonstrates only that America has now decided to fund the bikeways that Motordom has always demanded to instutionalize motor supremacy.

It is correct that the bikeway funding by American governments is now also supported by bicycle advocates in a program designed to accommodate fearful, traffic-incompetent, rules of the road rejecting cyclists with only the maturity of an untrained eight-year-old. That program has won its political battle and is now irreversible. But the political victory does nothing to change the content of the program. What it means is that those of us who reject the emotionalism and anti-science bases of that program have the legal means to refuse its imposition upon us simply because it is trying to unlawfully impose Motordom’s selfish motorist supremacy upon us. Rejecting Motordom and teaching vehicular cycling to all we can reach, and maintaining our legal opposition to Motordom’s motorist supremacy policy, are the two tasks to which we should devote ourselves.

John’s methods have made me a better rider, kept me alive and unhurt longer, taught countless motorists about how to safely deal with cyclists, and inspired thousands of people to ride bikes with confidence and competence.

If the price for that is a cranky old dude yelling at people from his porch and shaking his fist at passing cats, it’s well, well, well worth it.



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Going down the road feeling bad

June 12, 2014 § 132 Comments

I belong to a listserv called “CABO,” the California Association of Bicycling Organizations. It is an amazing place, where traffic engineers argue with one another about whether bikes should be in the road or shunted off to the side in bike lanes, cycle tracks, hamster wheels, etc.

It was from CABO that I first learned about riding in the middle of the lane. I tried it out on Del Amo eastbound between Prospect and Hawthorne one day and it scared the crap out of me. However, it scared the crap out of me less than being shoved up against the nonexistent shoulder and having close-passing pickups shave me by inches.

The thing I learned is that no matter how pissed off my presence made the cagers who had to slow down behind me, they always changed lanes and passed. I’ve never been hit from behind or even had brakes squeal from a rear-approaching vehicle.

Eventually I tried it on Hawthorne. Same thing. The occasional honk or middle finger, lots of (presumably) pissed off people slowing down, changing lanes and then passing, but that’s pretty much it. Riding my bike and hogging the lane was better than scrunching up against the edge and having people pass me within a few feet or a few inches.

Taking it to the next level

After getting comfortable with riding in the lane on local streets I took this method to PCH. I did it with a group of 8 or 10 riders, and I have done it several times since then. The results were unsurprising (to me). We got a few honks but people slowed, passed in the other lane, and left us alone.

I have used these experiences as the basis for encouraging people to get out in the lane on PCH.

Then yesterday I found myself in a new situation. I was on PCH with just one other person, Jay. I suggested we ride in the lane and he looked at me like I was crazy. “Okay,” he said. “But I’m fine in the gutter.”

And he is. As one of the most skilled off-road and on-road bike handlers I know, he’s not the least bit fazed by rocks, glass, chugholes, car doors, trash cans, the ends of surfboards, Cher, etc.

What I found during this little experiment was amazing, and a lot of it was bad. Whereas a medium-to-large sized group attracts little motorist hostility, two riders taking up the lane evokes the Wrath of the Cagers. We rode from Temescal Canyon to Decker Lane, averaging 15 or 16 mph, and we were met with an endless stream of honks, shouts, middle fingers, and plain old-fashioned road rage.

I was tenser after the first five minutes than I’ve ever been in any bike race. This was as to nothing when we hit Pepperdine Hill after Cross Creek. Still taking the lane, we climbed at a very slow speed, perhaps 10 mph or less. With 30 or 40 drivers backed up behind us, I fully expected to be run over.

Cars came raging by us in the next lane after having had to slow to a crawl on the hill, and they revved their engines, honked, flipped us off, screamed, and were livid. Of course the point is that they all slowed and passed, but the other point is this: how much fun is a bike ride when you feel like everyone wants to kill you?

Answer: no fun at all.

When the weird turn pro

On the return ride it was pretty much the same until we reached Cross Creek. I told Jay that I was done, I couldn’t take any more of the honking and screaming, so we rode for about two miles in the gutter up against the long line of cars parked at Malibu. What’s weird is that as awful as the lane had been, the gutter was now worse by orders of magnitude.

Despite the cager rage, I have become so accustomed to the smooth, wonderful riding surface of the lane, where you have better visibility, no obstacles, and lots of room to maneuver, that getting back in the gutter is intensely stressful. The other amazing thing about riding in the lane is that you ride side by side and get to talk. So we got back in the lane and started to take advantage of a good tailwind and flat road. Averaging 22 or 23, with sustained segments of 25-27 mph seemed to result in much less cager rage and not a single honk.

And here is where the CABO advocates have their work cut out for them: if it’s this hairball for a pair of riders who can carry a steady speed over the course of a 100-mile ride, what would the experience be like for an elderly traffic engineer pedaling up Pepperdine Hill at 4 or 5 mph? I’m not easily cowed or intimidated, but the unending torrent of honks and curses was unnerving, to put it mildly, and it didn’t seem like the rage abated until we were cruising in the mid-20’s and up.

In other words, it’s really easy to advocate lane control and vehicular cycling on PCH, but after my experience there’s no way I’d recommend that the average cyclist take the lane on PCH solo. Unless of course you want to!

How educational was it?

For the drivers, I’m convinced it was very educational, although also rage-inducing. One woman roared by us honking and flipping us off, then pulled over about 1/4 mile ahead to talk on the phone. We passed her, and after she finished talking she came by again.

This second time she didn’t honk or rev her engine. She expected us to be there and acted accordingly. I think she was educated by our behavior.

Another educational encounter was less prosaic. At the light past Latigo a sow in an SUV put down her window. “Why don’t you get out of the road?” she asked.

“Because we have the legal right to be here,” I answered.

“Yeah, but it’s really dangerous.”

“Only if you don’t know how to use your brakes and change lanes,” I said.

“It’s DANGEROUS!!!” she screamed, roaring off at the green light. There were several cars backed up behind us and behind her. Several of them honked and gave the middle finger salute.

Still, the implication is that only by getting more and more people in the lane will PCH drivers come to expect us to be there and make accommodations, maybe even to the sluggard dragging ass up Pepperdine Hill at 4 mph. There’s no way to know for sure, but I think a lot of the anger was because people simply didn’t expect us to be there.

What this means in practical terms is that if vehicular cycling advocates really want to make a difference, at least on PCH, they need to get off their keyboards and out in the traffic, preferably in ones or twos. It is hairy and will scare the crapcakes out of you but there’s no other way to acclimate cagers to the presence of single riders in the lane on PCH.

We’ll be out there again this morning, although with a larger group. My sphincter’s already clenched.



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Taking the lane

April 30, 2013 § 14 Comments

I had a great experience Saturday commuting to work. I normally only ride on Hawthorne from PV to my office in Torrance in the very early morning hours because of the traffic. There are many other routes I can take to work even though Hawthorne is the fastest, and I never object to spending a few extra minutes in the saddle before the onslaught of the workday.

Yesterday, however, I had a client appointment at 1:00 PM and it was already 12:15. There would barely be enough time to get to the office and change unless I took Hawthorne on a sunny SoCal Saturday afternoon. From the top of the Hill to my office, which is just before Del Amo on Hawthorne, I took the lane. The only place I edged over to make way for traffic was on the section of Hawthorne after PV Drive North where there is a nice wide section that allows cars to pass safely at speed.

All the way on Hawthorne the traffic was incredibly dense. At first I was apprehensive, but I just took the whole right lane, and rather than scooting up the side when I caught a red light so that I could be first off the line when it turned green, I patiently waited in the car line for the light to change. The result was awesome. I had zero conflicts and didn’t even try to hammer to “keep up with the flow” which would have been impossible anyway. I’m not sure if it was because weekend traffic is less angry than weekday commuter traffic, or if this is really how “take the lane” works most of the time, but it certainly raised my confidence level and left me feeling like an equal on the road rather than a hated obstacle.

Vehicular cyclists believe that bikes are vehicles and therefore entitled to use roadways without being forced into riding like gutter bunnies, or having to navigate crazy-ass bike lanes that stop after a mile or that scrunch you into the door zone.

A good experience like Saturday gets me a lot closer to seeing it from the vehicular cycling point of view.

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