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John Forester's Contributions to U.S. Cycling

By Pete Medek - 5/7/20

Cycling advocate John Forester died April 14th at the age of 90. Being a controversial figure who was often spurned by advocates today, unsurprisingly, Forester was not given a fond farewell.

While some attempted to summarize his career in more restrained terms, others openly took the opportunity to throw some extra dirt on his grave. So, since none of the posts that I've read bothered to give him any credit for his contributions, I'll do that here.

The Story Behind 'Taking the Lane'

John Forester was a champion of "Vehicular Cycling." The premise that one should ride a bicycle in the roadway in the same manner as one would drive a motor vehicle. Today we call that "taking the lane," or "controlling the lane." And it is still regarded as the safest way for a cyclist to navigate roads today, when no adequate bike infrastructure exists.

This safety practice is not only recognized by savvy cyclists, it's also been embraced by DOTS who created signs to promote it's use and educate drivers who may be uninformed.

bike may use full lane

And since many parts of the U.S. still have little or no bike infrastructure, vehicular cycling continues to play an important role in helping riders to travel more safely on roads today.

You can thank Forester and his cohorts for that.

Defending Your Right to Ride on the Road

In Forester's time, car culture that was shaped by auto manufacturers, had become king and was successful in forcing virtually all others off of roadways (think Jaywalking). Forester knew that bicyclists had to fight for their right to be on the road. And of course, that fight continues in many places today.

You can thank Forester for having your back regarding your rights to the road, before many of you were even born.

Yes, There are Dangers on Side Paths

Forester believed that side paths (bikeways that parallel streets) were less safe and could be used as an attempt to remove cyclists from roads. This may have been the foundation for his firm stance against any type ofl bike infrastructure. And this is where he and I -- and many other advocates -- disagree.

But that doesn't mean there is no truth in his beliefs. Many bike paths (multi-use trails) are unsafe. I should know, I've researched and written about one particular danger that you can find on many multi-use trails or side paths. And there are more.

Sure, Forester's issue was with other side path dangers, but we're still in the same ballpark.

Side paths should never be inferior to roads. Unfortunately, in the U.S. today, many are.

The Demand for Separation

The majority of cycling advocates today -- myself included -- clamor for separation from cars for cycling safety. Separate bikeways, protected bike lanes, etc. But be careful what you wish for.

Forester likely viewed side paths -- or separation -- as a device by which bicyclists could be cordoned off of roadways, much to the delight of the car culture set. This is not inconceivable.

Advocates know that cars still rule the roads in the U.S. and that bicyclists and pedestrians generally remain at the bottom of the pecking order. So, imagine a day when bicycling infrastructure is seemingly ubiquitous in a given city or county. What's to prevent community leaders and residents in that area from suggesting, "We've spent millions of dollars to give you a robust network of safe places to ride. Now it's time for you to ride there and not on the roads."

My-Way or the Highway!

Many felt that Forester was resolute and unbending in his beliefs, particularly against bike infrastructure. This was, and still remains, a real thorn in the side of modern-day advocates.

But at least Forester was open to debating his beliefs. Today, real discussion and debate holds little or no value for most. You're either with us, or against us. There typically is no middle ground, and therefore, no value in Forester's work, for many.

Forester Fan-Boy?

I am no fan of bicycle advocates that have no use for bike infrastructure. So no, I wasn't a Forester follower. But that doesn't prevent me from acknowledging his contributions or giving credit where it's due.

In what is said to be the final extensive interview that Forester gave, you can learn more about the man from his own words.

And while the information is still online, here were some of his advocacy pursuits.

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