Saturday, May 5, 2018

A "vehicular cyclist" goes swimming

Let's imagine, for a moment, that John Forester (who is this? read on) teaches swimming lessons.

First, he assembles potential swimmers in a classroom. He lectures them on the particulars of swimming for several hours, noting that not everyone is cut out to be a swimmer, and that if they're not comfortable in deep water at first they shouldn't even try. Then they go to the pool. Do they start blowing bubbles, then move to kick boards, and slowly become comfortable with swimming? Nope, straight in to the deep end (the pool has no shallow end). If you don't make it, you get fished out, and told to do something else when it's warm outside. A few people probably don't make it out, but then they were never cut out to be swimmers in the first place. They should have thought about that before jumping in a deep pool.

A few people, however, survive. These are probably people who are young, fit, and maybe stubborn. Some of them might go on to swim a lot. They may go to a lap pool, take the lane, and swim back and forth, becoming more and more comfortable with deep, open water. But most of the newer swimmers are discouraged. Without infrastructure for beginners, they're left clinging to the edge of the pool, scared to move away without some kind of safety net from infrastructure which allows them to ease in to swimming. So they get out, and never come back. Forester is undeterred: he tells them they won't be able to swim if they're not planning to be "effective swimmers", and that they can't become effective swimmers if they start in the shallow end of the pool.

So what happens if everyone is taught how to swim by John Forester? First of all, not many people swim. It may be a nice warm summer day, but most people will be too afraid to enjoy the water, because they've been taught that it is dangerous unless you're able to swim a 100 meter freestyle in under two minutes. What this means is that without many swimmers, there's little demand for swimming facilities. Sure, some serious swimmers will go and find lakes and rivers to fulfill their needs, but most people will find other pastimes. That's fine with Forester. In his mind, if everyone learns to swim, they'll probably just crowd the serious swimmers out of the pool altogether.

We don't teach swimming this way. But for many years, it's how we attempted to teach people to ride bikes. Who is John Forester? He's what we'd call a "vehicular cyclist." He came up with the phrase. And he argued that he was right, and for many years, people listened. But he is little more than a privileged white male imposing his ideas on a public which doesn't want them. It's a good thing he never instructed swimming.

The Outside/In podcast had a great episode (to be fair, most of their episodes are, hi Sam) about the history of vehicular cycling. What the mantra vehicular cycling says is that there shouldn't be cycling infrastructure; rather, cyclists should behave like cars, taking the lane when necessary, and that better, safer infrastructure would just have people riding bikes cast off to side paths and banned from the road. He became a force for decades, and during that time, very few people actually rode bikes, and most of the people who were were fit men comfortable at 25 mph making a left in traffic.

Forester is nearing 90 now and is unrepentant, taking his opinions to the grave. Good riddance. In the past 15 years, his followers have been seen for the charlatans they are, and we've slowly, and often begrudgingly, begun to build infrastructure for people riding bikes which is safer and more welcoming. Like magic, more people are riding bikes. No one has banned bikes from the road because we've build bike lanes, and people comfortable in the road are free to use it. Some do. Most don't. But there are a lot more people in the latter camp.

This past week, I was at a meeting discussing what the City of Cambridge is planning for South Mass Ave (believe it or not, I have some thoughts on this). Someone suggested at a breakout session (the city did a great job of setting up the meeting to have people talk to each other) turn boxes so people who weren't comfortable making a left could do so. A local vehicular cyclist—who will remain nameless to protect the guilty (but needless to say, he's an older, white male, fancies himself a bicycling expert, and I've told him he is culpable in the deaths of many cyclists because he has argued against bike lanes for years)—said "you wouldn't need that if they made a vehicular left."

I snapped. [I'm paraphrasing]
You know what? Not everyone is comfortable doing that. Not everyone wants to shift across two lanes of traffic to get in to the left lane to make a turn, then sit in a line of cars waiting for a turn light, and if they don't move fast enough the car behind them will honk at them, or worse. No one is keeping you from undertaking that movement, but other people should have a safer option. Imagine if you were a woman, or a person of color. Imagine if you weren't as strong as you are. Put yourself in someone else's shoes. Your ideas have been proven wrong for years, and a lot of people have been injured or died because they've tried biking on the roads as you'd have them designed and all you do is blame them for not being out in the lane of traffic moving fast enough. Don't give me this baloney where you tell me that 'if they only knew how to bike correctly, they would have been fine.' That's nonsense. You're asking people on bikes to jump in to fast-moving traffic with cars and trucks and buses. That's fine for you. But it's not for everyone. So what we get is more fast moving traffic, and fewer people on bikes. Apparently that's what you want."
I'm not about to let these people get a single word in edgewise. Their time has long since passed. Vehicular cycling is dying, clung to by a few old men. It's failed, with often tragic results. It's time for it to be relegated to the dustbin of history entirely. I'm all for an open discourse, but I am done—done—giving time of day to vehicular cyclists.


  1. I like your blog, but I gotta say your focus on this individual's age, race, and sex does your cause no service. I'm not exactly 100% on board with bike lanes in every situation, but your general point seems solid here, regardless of referencing your opponent as an old white man. Just food for thought.

    1. You're right, anonymous, old white men should be given a full seat at the table, because they've never been wrong about anything.

      But really, most vehicular cyclists fall in this demographic, with an apparent inability to empathize with anyone else. I'm just describing it.

  2. I think it's relevant to note Forester's background, because it's that background which gave him an abundance of free time and allowed him to hijack the public engagement process, and which to some extent also informed his ideas of what the "ideal" cycling conditions are like. I think the people in charge of the public engagement process need to have a long, hard think about what happened here and whether this is the kind of voice they want to privilege in their process for informing government policy.

  3. Forester lives in California, in a suburb of San Diego, where the streets are wide and level, the weather is always nice, and the drivers aren’t maniacs. In other words, he lives in a dream world.

  4. I called myself a "vehicular cyclist" for a long time, and I didn't understand why people seemed to have so much against "us". But, now I think I understand.

    I think there are actually two types of people who might be called "vehicular cyclists".

    I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s. If I wanted to ride my bike to my part-time job near the Burlington Mall, I had to ride on awful roads designed exclusively with cars in mind. Vehicular cycling strategies allowed be to be more efficient and safer as I tried to navigate around that hellscape. If I had shown up at the Burlington DPW in 1985 and asked for them to install a protected bike lane on the Middlesex Turnpike... well, let's just say that would not have gone well. In that time and place, it was entirely appropriate that the techniques of vehicular cycling were taught and promoted.

    Our attitude: Most of the roads we have to ride on are designed assuming everyone is in a car, therefore it's best to ride your bike like you drive a car.

    But, the vehicular cyclists that you're talking about get this backwards. For them: "Because it's best to ride your bike like a car, therefore we should design all of our roads assuming everyone is in a car."

    There's nothing wrong with the first group -- they're just trying to get around quickly and safely in hostile settings. It's the second group that are the problem, as they are actively trying to keep the settings hostile!

    I've stopped calling myself a "vehicular cyclist" for fear that people would think I was in the second group!

  5. What's with all the "white male" hatred? I'm sure there are couple "people of color" that can be curmudgeon bicyclists.

    1. Stop playing the fucking victim.