How I Learned to Love Bicycling Among Noisy, Polluting, Dangerous Motor Vehicles
A Review of Effective Cycling, by John Forester
Mike Vandeman, June 5, 1994
When I was in college, I decided that I would try to learn how to meditate. So I joined a yoga group that offered to teach me, and went to my "initiation". When I found out that they were actually selling a religion, I quit. The experience of reading Effective Cycling was similar. The basic thesis of the book is that all cycling ills can be eliminated by using the proper equipment, maintenance, and cycling technique. This is a reasonable idea, but when you find out that Forester divides all riders into two groups, the stupid and inefficient, and those who ride like him, you are very inclined to quit reading.
I don't recommend that. The book is full of useful facts and ideas. Although I have been riding and maintaining bikes for about 46 years, I still found the sections on bike selection, bike maintenance, and riding techniques helpful. Forester presents many good arguments that can be used in dealing with traffic engineers, public officials, and others involved with transportation planning. He provides several good arguments, for example, against bike lanes (they fill up with trash and cause conflicts with right-turning vehicles) and bike paths (they present an unusual, and hence dangerous, interaction where they cross roads). I especially enjoyed his expose of how highway engineers use questionable "safety" excuses to exclude bicyclists from roads, in order to prevent motorists from being delayed. (The latter seems, lately, to be the preeminent goal of our society.)
Many of Forester's "facts", however, I find questionable. On the very first page, he encourages riding at 25 MPH. Besides the obvious danger, I don't see how one can fully enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells you are passing at that speed. (But then, Forester seems to feel that the ideal biking style is to go as rapidly as possible from point A to point B, without "worrying" about minor things like enjoying the view and avoiding noise and exhaust fumes.) He asserts that "without question, the 'sports' design [front and rear derailleurs and dropped handlebars] is superior for all uses" (p.3). All uses? Hogwash. Then why, when you look at parking lots in Japan, do you see hundreds of unsexy black 3-speed bikes, and almost no "sports" bikes?
"Handlebars must be the dropped type" (p.5). Yes, if your only object is to race as quickly as possible to a distant destination, but not if you want to enjoy the ride! Apologists for dropped bars are fond of telling you how many different hand positions they afford. But they neglect to mention that when you sit upright on a bike, with conveniently placed handlebars, rather than hunched over like a pretzel, you aren't putting a lot of weight on your hands, so they don't get tired and don't need continual changes of position! Forester is equally adamant about using a narrow seat, a men's frame, metal pedals, etc. Anyone who disagrees with him has their "[head] filled with misinformation and harmful habits" (p.115) or simply are "idiots" (p.120).
I think he greatly exaggerates the importance of wind resistance, forgetting that we are people, and not bullets. Most people enjoy the breeze, and are willing to travel in somewhat less than ideal aerodynamic form, in order to be able to enjoy the scenery without getting a kink in their neck. Many people never learn to shift a 10-speed bike properly (you can almost feel their chain rubbing as they go by), and would do much better with a 3- speed. I don't care how or what John chooses to ride, but I don't like to see others bludgeoned into believing that there is only one right way.
Forester also hates biking maps. Apparently, he thinks everyone is as strong as he and doesn't care about how to avoid hills or "smell the flowers" along the way. "Selecting a commuting route is not like selecting one for a Saturday ride. You pay attention to efficiency, not scenery ... or lack of traffic" (p.237). (This comes in the section on "Enjoying Cycling"!) I guess those who care about such things are wimps, and not worth bothering with.
Forester complains endlessly throughout the book about cyclists being unnecessarily fearful about riding in traffic, never admitting that their fears may be realistic, or that there may be other good reasons to avoid being around motor vehicles (noise, pollution, and just plain unpleasantness, for example!). He argues that bike lanes and paths are more dangerous. There are two fallacies here. First, it is absurd to simply compare the number of accidents, without looking at their severity! Aren't there more deaths and maimings on roads than on bike paths? He doesn't tell us. This is the same trick that highway engineers use to promote freeways. Throughout the book, he often omits information that might conflict with his arguments.
Second, "danger" has two meanings: probable injury, and potential injury. The (statistical) likelihood of an injury on the road may be small, but there is the potential of dying! Thus, I think it is disingenuous to say "paths are more dangerous than roads" (p.165), although the fact that paths can be dangerous is certainly useful information. As long as there are drunk, drugged, angry, and simply absent-minded drivers on the road, riding in traffic will never be "safe". (A woman reaching for a tape killed four cyclists in San Jose. A mentally disturbed woman apparently deliberately mowed down some bicyclists in Alamo.)
Forester misses many good arguments that could help his cause. For example, two of the best reasons not to build bike paths are the added cost and the destruction of open space. And when the oil runs out (I expect to see some of the panic starting within 10 years), all roads will be bike paths!
It is understandable why so few people bike. From inside a motor vehicle (especially a bus or truck), a bicycle looks tiny, frail, and very vulnerable (and it is). Bent-over "pretzels" leaning on their forelimbs sucking in exhaust fumes don't look like they are having any fun! I invite John to join a "Critical Mass" ride. We don't ride in a straight line ("drivers ... have the right to expect you to continue in a straight line" (p.119)), and we aren't trying to earn the respect of drivers through our good, predictable behaviour ("Cyclists have the duty of not impeding traffic flow unnecessarily" (p.187)). But from the smiles and cheers of the people we pass, even many of the people in cars, it is plain that we are not only building on Forester's important contributions to biking, but demonstrating that bicycling (and life) is more than just travelling. (But we need a way to fix bikes in people's minds every day, not just during Critical Mass.)
I am eagerly awaiting John's thoughts on "Effective Dancing", "Effective Lovemaking", and "Effective Living".
The book is published by MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.