To continue our celebration of National Bike to Work Week with posts inspired by John Forester's Effective Cycling, seventh edition, Justin Kehoe, another bicyclist and MIT Press staffer (acquisitions department), discusses the lively debate over bike lanes:
Today, the government program for bicycle transportation pretends to make cycling so easy, by bikeways, that cyclists no longer need to learn how to operate as drivers of vehicles.-–John Forester on “The Why and Wherefore of Traffic Law” in Effective Cycling
After 12 years of bicycling in Boston, the seemingly inevitable caught up with me last month: I was doored. It was silly: I was half a block out from a stop light, so I hadn’t really built up any significant speed; I was on a particularly narrow stretch of Broadway St. in Cambridge, and against my own better judgment (and that of author John Forester), was hugging the right hand side of the road. The driver carelessly flung his door open, and for both of us it was just the unlucky confluence of two otherwise isolated moments of inattention. This is exactly the kind of situation that John Forester fears is the unfortunate bi-product of bike lanes—a false sense of security for bicyclists who instead of having to deal with antsy drivers behind them, must now contend with motorists trying to edge past them on the left when they perhaps don’t really have the room, and doors flung open from parked vehicles on the right.
John Forester’s opposition to urban bike lanes has made him a polarizing figure in bicycle policy debates. It has put him at odds with many of the more notable bike advocacy groups, who tend to see mileage of urban bike lanes as one of the best measuring sticks for effective urban transportation policy. For instance, this week’s Boston Phoenix features an article on the resignation of Boston’s Bike Czar, Nicole Freedman, who, the article boasts, since 2007 has increased Boston’s bike lane mileage fifty-fold. Forester, on the other hand, believes that bicycling as a mode of transportation functions best when all vehicles behave the same. This means following the same rules, which would preclude the inclusion of separate lanes for bicycles. He advocates “lawful, competent bicycling” and most advocacy groups with any real voice in transportation policy debates would also stress lawful bicycling. However, for Forester, truly lawful bicycling requires that bicycles be treated as vehicles the same as automobiles. This means that they incur all the same rights and restrictions, rather than having their own bastardized sub-set of laws—laws which are, to Forester’s mind, an unworkable hodge-podge of pedestrian and motorist policies. But it is the issue of competency that raises the most ire. Where transportation policy is geared toward making it easier for anyone to get on a bike and get out on streets, Forester thinks that a base level of competency is necessary for the safety of all—and knowing the laws is only part of that competency. This is one of the reasons why Forester opposes bike lanes, and it is one of the things that has put him at odds with other advocacy groups.
Charges that emphasizing this level of competency amounts to a kind of bicycling elitism, along with his public defense of the automobile (he’s a member of the pro-auto group American Dream Coalition), have set him at odds with many of the most vocal and visible bike advocacy groups. At a time when advocacy groups are trying to get more people out on the road, Forester’s opposition to bike lanes has been disruptive to the current thrust of transportation policy, especially in urban environments. Yet the 46 page pamphlet Bicycling Street Smarts, which is one of the most widely distributed works of bicycle education in the U.S., is culled from an earlier version of Effective Cycling. And his arguments about the relationship between safety and competency, however unfashionable they are among urban transportation planners, are hard to dismiss. I for one, despite an occasional lapse (see getting doored above) try to keep Forester’s recommended distance of five feet between me and the cars parked to my right. If this is on a narrow stretch that invites motorists to pass me when they don’t really have the room, for my own safety I will take up my right of way in the middle of the road along with the other vehicles on the road. Dealing with the occasional irate honk from impatient motorists is trumped by the off-chance of being laid out on my tailbone by a fool who can’t be bothered to check his side-view mirror before opening his door. And while I myself, unlike Forester, am a fan of bike lanes, I think his opposition serves an important function in the debate about bicycle policy. Honest acknowledgment of the limitations and shortcomings of bike lanes is an important step in making bicyclists more aware of others as well as of their own visibility.