Friday, January 23, 2009

Review of John Forester's talk at Google headquarters

John Forester's talk at Google HQ, May 17, 2007

I wrote this review in May 2007. A friend just brought it to my attention, and I figured I would post it here.

John's basic point was that bike lanes and bike paths are not consistent with vehicular cycling. He described vehicular cycling as
  1. First come, first served (leave room in front of you and don't cut drivers off)

  2. Ride on the right side of the road

  3. Between intersections ride to the right (if safe) and don't impede other traffic if you don't have to

  4. When entering a road or changing lateral position, yield to traffic already on the road (don't dart out) and look over your shoulder before changing lanes

  5. Get into the appropriate position at intersections (left to turn left, right to turn right, and in between to go straight

But he skips right past his opinion that bicycles and cars can mix safely. I myself am a vehicular cyclist, so I happen to agree. Perhaps John thinks that his opinion (that vehicular cycling is safe) is so obvious that it goes without saying, but most people disagree.

I find that those who have opinions about cycling on public roads appear to be in one of two camps: those who think that bicycling around cars is dangerous no matter what and therefore bicycle facilities are needed to segregate cyclists and cars, and those who think that bicycling around cars is not dangerous when cyclists follow the rules of the road. In my experience I have encountered many more people in the former camp than the latter. In discussions with people in the former camp I think that most do not know how to follow the rules of the road on a bicycle and cannot imagine that it is even possible (particularly for children). This is a major bone of contention. He says it is easy to follow the rules of the road and it is easy to teach, while most bikeway advocates think exactly the opposite. It is not possible to design a single road network that satisfies both camps.

He points out that another reason for bikeways is so that drivers will not be inconvenienced by slower bicyclists. Recall that John first got involved in bicycle politics when the City of Palo Alto established mandatory sidewalk use along Oregon Expressway, so his point is well taken. But that does not make such efforts a conspiracy in favor of cars. (It is also true, for instance, that the main purpose of left turn lanes is to keep left turning cars from interfering with through traffic, so this kind of thought is common in traffic engineering.) Most engineers who design sidepaths, for example, think that they are doing bicyclists a favor. That's a lack of knowledge, not a conspiracy. There is a saying, "Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence."

John made an interesting point about cyclists positioning themselves to make turns at intersections, He said that he favors right turn lanes because they allow drivers to get themselves into position before reaching the intersection. I agree.

He briefly mentioned that it is unrealistic to expect children to position themselves correctly at ramps (he calls them high speed right hand curves). I am not a child and I find it difficult to position myself at ramps and much prefer right angle intersections.

John makes the questionable assertion that a white stripe does not help with positioning of cars and bicycles between intersections (he was arguing against bike lanes). Traffic engineers know that drivers tend to follow stripes; that's why we use them. In my experience, I have found that longitudinal stripes improve positioning a lot.

He also dismissed people's fear of taking the lane when cycling in a narrow lane, saying that drivers simply won't run into you (he joked that they don't want to scratch their paint). He quoted the small percentage of bicycle accidents that involve being hit from the rear, but left out the fact that most result in serious injury or death, making it a big deal. John is an advocate of wide outside lanes, so I do not understand his lack of empathy with most people regarding their fear of being struck from behind.