Monday, September 12, 2016

Is John Forester a Car Guy?

Traffic arrows, Asbury Park.

John Forester is widely known as the apostle of Vehicular Cycling, and he dearly loves bicycles. But there's another side of him that peeks out occasionally in his 800-page book, Effective Cycling.

Consider the following tidbit: "Whether America (and large parts of the rest of the Western world) was wise in adopting urban designs that rely on personal mechanized transportation is a very serious question. Whether it would be wise to try to return to the mass transportation city is an even more difficult question. However you may answer these questions, our present cities that rely on personal mechanized transportation will be with us for a long time, probably as long as you, dear reader, are likely to be interested in cycling." (John Forester, Effective Cycling, 7th ed., MIT Press, 2012, p. 498.)

In other words, the war is over, the cars have won, and you need to find a way to fit into the new order. Henry Ford couldn't have said it better.

Actually, Aldous Huxley did say it better, in Brave New World: "Ford's in his flivver.... All's well with the world."

So is John Forester actually a car guy? Can a bike guy also be a car guy?

A Special Kind of Bike Guy
It's important to remember that Forester is a very special kind of a bike guy, and his views are very closely linked to a place (California) and a time (the 1950s). In this experience, bicycling was an activity carried out by a select few. As he puts it, "In Northern California I could ride all weekend without seeing another adult on a bicycle. If, by chance, I did see one, I knew him." (Pp. 711-712.)

For Forester, the threat to his happy little world came with America's second bicycling boom, which got started in the 1960s and took off in the 1970s. (The first bicycling boom came in the 1890s. For more information on that boom see James Longhurst, Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, University of Washington Press, 2015, and Evan Friss, The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s, University of Chicago Press,  2015.)

In the second bicycling boom, cycling increased "from substantially zero to considerably less than 1 percent of traffic," as Forester puts it (p. 712), but that was enough to get people talking about creating separate bicycle lanes.

In case you don't know it, I'll let you in on a little secret. John Forester hates bicycle lanes. As an advocate for vehicular cycling, he feels that bicycles should always travel in the same lanes as motorized traffic. Not just some of the time. All the time. He liked things just the way they were in northern California in the 1950s.

This picture includes no bike lanes and almost no bicyclists.

Forester's History of the American City
Forester makes some remarkably peculiar statements about the shape of American cities and the ways people get around. Remembering his frame of reference, we can more easily understand sentences like the following: "In modern cities, the only reasonable and available transportation modes are motoring and cycling; walking takes too long for the distances required and mass transit is ineffective." (P. 712.)

A few pages later, Forester takes on the advocates of bike lanes. Although he concedes that European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen have been very successful at encouraging bicycling, he claims that the example of "old walking cities" is irrelevant  to modern cities that "developed in the automotive era." (Pp. 737-738.)

And apparently old walking cities - like the central parts of Philadelphia - require no further consideration.

Bicycle advocates also like to talk about Portland, Oregon. Forester calls Portland a city "with very strong antigrowth and antimotoring policies" and refers approvingly to unnamed experts in urban affairs who "consider Portland a failed city." (P. 738.)

Effectively, in Forester's argument, the city based on the automobile (and its attendant urban sprawl) is the inevitable city of the present and the future. (For a more insightful analysis of the rise of the automobile city, see Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, MIT Press, 2011.)

Forester even takes a swipe at what he calls "the induced traffic argument. That says that building new roads always increases traffic, so the anti-motoring person should oppose road building so that congestion will limit motoring." Based on his experience over the years, "the reasonable conclusion appears to be that the induced traffic effect is rather small." (P. 766.)

I'll give you one final paragraph from Mr. Forester. "Bicycle advocates argue for returning cities to the shape they had in 1920 when bicycle transportation was quite useful. However, over the space of my memory - say, 1940 to the present - the proportion of trips that are suited to bicycle transportation has steadily decreased. That's a fact of present life, and no bikeway system is going to alter it." (P. 739.)

A Few Points in Rebuttal
I could expend several reams of paper - or the electronic equivalent - rebutting Forester's oddly ahistorical historical analysis, but I am going to confine myself to a few highlights.

1. Forester probably doesn't think he's a car guy, but he is. Over the years, he has been quite forceful in presenting his views, even to the extent of initiating litigation, and it seems fair to say that his efforts helped to hold back the development of urban bicycle networks in the U.S. by several decades. And who did that benefit?

I expect that his arguments were music to the ears of the typical state Department of Transportation. They could listen to him and keep building out a monomodal transportation system focused on the private car. And they could ignore those pesky advocates who called for a more balanced transportation system - what we might today call "Complete Streets."

2. While it's certainly possible to criticize Portland for things such as failing to meet affordable housing goals, it seems a bit harsh to call Portland a failed city.

3. Induced demand is a trivial phenomenon. On this point, Forester is just wrong. If you're inclined not to believe me, I've got another 800-page book for you: Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking.

For more than you probably want to know about John Forester, here's an autobiographical essay that he posted on his website. I particularly enjoyed the bit about the German Schwarzkopf track bike from about 1935.

See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, Learning to Dance Together, Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different? 

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