Listening to Bike Lanes: Moving Beyond the Feud

by Jeffrey A. Hiles, 1996

Review by John Forester

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1 Hiles's Position

I think that the first way into understanding Hiles's position is to consider his specific recommendations, and then to consider why he has reached them.

1.1 Hiles's Recommendations

1.1.1 Opening

Hiles starts his recommendations with three sentences that describe his view of American bicycling: "Bicycling in America is an eclectic activity. The cyclist who wants to pursue bicycle advocacy in this country with both eyes open must understand, and embrace, the diversity that makes up the United States' transportation culture. This is no easy task." Throughout his paper, Hiles makes it quite clear that he has no intent of changing opinions about cycling; he considers this to be impossible. He wants the system to accommodate all the existing opinions. After several more sentences about this difficulty, he makes specific recommendations.

1.1.2 "Replace `experience' or `skill' levels and theories with the concept of a normal and natural continuum of levels of traffic tolerance."

Hiles writes: "Drop the idea that there are two kinds of bicyclists," meaning vehicular and non-vehicular. The "environment ... will elicit different emotions and behaviors from different cyclists."

1.1.3 "Know, but don't worship, crash statistics; and respect cyclists with all levels of traffic tolerance."

Hiles is here saying that the individual level of tolerance of motor traffic is purely an individual preference.

1.1.4 "Advocate more flexibility in bike lane design to make the system image more closely reflect an accurate mental model of healthy car-bike interactions."

This recommendation is meaningless. Since Hiles accepts all the views as equally valid, it is impossible to tell which view, or combination of views, is the "accurate mental model of healthy car-bike interactions."

1.1.5 "Take a problem-solving approach to bicycle transportation planning."

Hiles explains this as: "That is, start by gathering information about the bicycling obstacles and opportunities specific to a site, analyze the problems, then--and only then--choose fitting solutions from among many possibilities." This is another meaningless recommendation. Since Hiles accepts all the views as equally valid, it is impossible to tell which are the "fitting solutions."

1.1.6 "Beware of miracle cures and silver bullets."

"When someone claims fantastic accident-reducing powers for bike lanes, or bicyclist education, or whatever, you can bet it's an estimate, not documented fact, and that it's based on limited and biased information. There is no single `miracle drug' that alone will create a healthy bicycling environment."

 This is a reasonable caution. All claims ought to be evaluated against the quality of the information available in the field. However, claims that are well supported should be accepted as good. Hiles is so intent on being equally critical of all approaches, because he wants to attract all types of cyclist, that he fails to weigh the relative weights of the evidence on each side of the issue.

1.1.7 "Broaden safety-oriented and comfort-oriented programs by striving to nurture bicyclists' `sense of competence'."

"The word `sense' embraces the subjective feelings that bicyclists have in response to the environments in which they ride. The word `competence' embraces the more objective questions of how efficiently and safely bicyclists succeed in getting around. In linking these two realms, `sense of competence' covers a lot of ground." If Hiles's phrase meant anything concrete, it would mean advocacy of vehicular cycling, since that provides the greatest sense of competence. However, Hiles denies this connection by accepting all opinions about cycling as equally valid. Hiles also explicitly recommends against using safety as a prime objective, citing its misuse. Therefore, Hiles's recommendation simply means attempting to make cyclists feel better about whatever it is that they do. Not a very promising recommendation.

1.1.8 Research into "get[ting] to the heart of the emotional responses that determine whether people feel encouraged or discouraged from riding," as indicated by stress.

Hiles praises the recent research into the feelings of cyclists with respect to same-direction motor traffic. In short, the criterion is how the present mix of cyclists feel, as listed in "stress levels." Despite his praise of this system, Hiles expresses the following caution: "The stress level is not the same as the actual danger level, though. Remember, for example, that the relationship between traffic volume and the risk of a car-bike collision is weak at most. Yet, volume is one of the three major criteria in this rating system because heavy traffic is a major stressor to most bicyclists." In short, Hiles pays far more attention to how bicyclists feel than their level of danger or what to do about it.

 Hiles makes a more explicit statement on the feelings of stress as the most important factor in his system of recommendations. "Psychologists have developed a number of ways to measure stress through the body's physical responses (Asterita, 1985, pp. 160-167). They can analyze blood and urine for chemicals that increase when a body is under stress. There are also measures of muscle tension, heart and breathing rates, brain waves, skin temperature and galvanic skin response. If you actually put subjects into traffic situations, though, the physical effects of the act of bicycling would make many of these measures difficult to use.

 "Another approach might be to use a variation on the Mood Adjective Checklist developed at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, which asks subjects to look at a list of adjectives and choose those words that best describe how they feel (Matthews, Jones & Chamberlain, 1990). Closer to the subject of bicycling is the Driving Behavior Inventory developed by Gulian et al., which has subjects choose from a list of statements such as "I feel anxious when overtaken at a junction" (Glendon et al., 1993)."

1.1.9 Contrary to the above, stress varies with the belief.

Hiles then contradicts what he has just recommended. "One of the problems with the stress-oriented research projects is that if we get very focused on which environments create the most stress, it is easy for us to forget that it's not just the environment that creates stress, it's our interpretation of the environment--the old primary and secondary appraisals. Change the interpretation and you can help the bicyclist ride more comfortably in any environment, whether or not it has special facilities. This is why it is important that researchers find ways to go beyond measuring stress, risk assessment, and bicyclist behavior. We also need to find ways to uncover how bicyclists interpret the environments in which they ride. Both education and engineering can influence bicyclists' and motorists' abilities to form accurate mental models of car-bike interactions. When we understand the potential and the limits of that influence, then we will be able to choose the kinds of programs that do the most good." By these words, Hiles is contradicting all his other assumptions and conclusions, both with respect to stress and with respect to traffic modeling. It is well known that vehicular cyclists feel less stress under high-volume motor traffic than do other cyclists; there have been many reports by individual cyclists of how much less stress they feel once they have adopted vehicular cycling technique. It is also obvious that understanding the traffic pattern provides the most easily understood, accurate, and most useful mental model of car-bike interactions. By Hiles's own standards, then, promoting vehicular cycling is the most desirable program.

1.1.10 "Encourage experimental designs, whether for bike lanes, traffic calming, or whatever."

"As I promised in the first chapter, my recommendations outline a general philosophy; they aren't meant to advocate specific facilities."

 In short, Hiles makes no recommendations for what to do; all he does is to suggest a "general philosophy" which, if pursued with vigor, might, or might not, produce good results, whatever might be meant by "good".

2 Some of Hiles's Factual Errors

I here describe some of Hiles's factual errors. Others, and defects in reasoning, I will discuss at the appropriate points in my review of his paper.

2.1 Some Inaccurate History, from the Conclusions Section

Hiles has attempted to demonstrate that the two contrasting views of cycling and bikeways, the vehicular and the cyclist-inferiority views, have common origins. His purpose is to argue that each of them is a rational development from the same circumstances of heavy traffic and nasty motorists.

 "Bicycle advocates and planners must understand the story of bikeway opposition. It is, among other things, a story of cities building narrow, bumpy, dangerous side paths and forcing bicyclists to ride there, either by law or by the hostilities of motorists who lay on their horns, shout obscenities, and throw beer bottles at bicyclists who dare to use streets in defiance of glorified sidewalks. It is a story of individuals struggling to preserve bicycling as a fast and efficient mode of transportation. It is a struggle that can easily make one suspicious of any form of bicyclist-motorist segregation.

 "We must also understand the story of bicyclists who want to travel to their destinations quickly and directly, as they can only do on a city's arterials. But on those routes they feel crowded by hordes of fast-moving motorists, some of whom lay on their horns and shout obscenities at bicyclists who dare to use the primary streets. It is a story of individuals struggling to preserve bicycling as a fast and efficient mode of transportation. It is a struggle that can easily make one yearn for some sort of visible symbol, at least, to confirm bicyclists' right to be on those roads."

 Both of these "histories" are false. Vehicular cycling had always been the standard in Britain, was clearly and repeatedly enunciated by George Herbert Stancer of the Cyclists' Touring Club from 1920 on, and was known, partially through his publications, to American club cyclists from early times, certainly by the 1930s. The American opposition to bikeways was caused by the attempts by American governments, particularly that of California, to impose bikeways on cyclists for the convenience of motorists, using the excuse of cyclist safety, for which there was no real evidence. These cyclists certainly opposed those facilities, sidepaths, that required that the cyclist, for his own safety, reduce speed to childish levels. However, they also opposed transportational facilities that mixed cyclists and pedestrians, such as multi-use paths, for the same reason, and facilities that contradicted the normal rules of the road, as bikelanes do. The bases for this opposition were safety at normally attainable cycling speeds and protection of our rights as drivers of vehicles that provided this function. This opposition had nothing to do with individual angry motorists. The cyclist-inferiority view that logically resulted in bikeways was that held by American motorists and trained into American child cyclists through the "bike-safety" training programs that were created by American motoring organizations. The source of this view was among American motorists and American motoring organizations, who certainly did not accuse themselves of being nasty to bicycle riders. Indeed, the excuse that they offered for their view was that they were being excessively nice to immature bicycle riders who needed protection. At no time have the advocates for this view, or for bikeways, claimed that they were defending the right of cyclists to ride fast; in fact, almost all of them have claimed to be advocating the safety of slow cyclists and have derided, as does Hiles, those who ride fast. In short, the common factor that Hiles asserts, nasty motorists, was not present in either origin (except as motorists wanted cyclists off the roads, which is nasty, but not the kind of nastiness Hiles describes), and all the other factors were different.

2.2 Hiles's Errors About Cyclist Speed and Vehicular Cycling

Hiles gives two arguments, both of which he says are based on my work, that vehicular cycling can only be done by strong cyclists who can ride fast. This is the standard argument that has always been made by those who oppose vehicular cycling, even in the way that Hiles does. Hiles admits that he practices vehicular cycling, seems to say that it is the only way to get around cities fast by bicycle. However, he opposes and desperately criticizes the theory of vehicular cycling as presented by me, and he does so by devious means.

2.2.1 Hiles's First Error About Speed and Vehicular Cycling

Here are Hiles's words that claim that I (Forester) give high speed and endurance as the requirement for vehicular cycling.

 "Forester's system relied upon a high level of skill and (especially) strength. So much so, in fact, that he used average sustainable speed as the indicator of a cyclist's skill level. In Forester's judgment, a competent cyclist was one able to maintain a speed of 18 mph for a lengthy period of time, despite the fact that only two to three percent of the population can sustain the requisite 120 watts of energy output for more than a few moments." That's a pretty definite claim, isn't it? However, notice that Hiles has not quoted any words by me. In fact he gives the source from which he has quoted as "(Epperson, 1994, P. 6[sic])". That is: "Epperson, Bruce. (1994). `Bicycle planning: Growing up or growing old?' Bicycle Forum, 35, 12-13." Well, where did Epperson get his information? The reference that Epperson gives in his 1994 paper is: "Lott et al, 1978; Forester 1978". The first of these is: "Lott, Tardiff, and Lott, 1978. `Evaluation by Experienced Riders of a New Bicycle Lane in an Established Bikeway System"; Transportation Research Record 683. Transportation Research Board, 1978." The second of these is my discussion of the Lott et al paper, published with it. Sounds reliable, doesn't it? But did I actually make the claim in my 1978 paper that Epperson claims that I did, the claim repeated by Hiles? Here are all the relevant words from that paper, taken from my own typescript.

 "The authors assume, both herein and in other contexts, that riding for a few years in Davis makes one an experienced cyclist. This does not match the dictionary definition of the word, which is one who is wise and skillful through experience. I say without hesitation that the action of riding in Davis is insufficient to develop skill or wisdom. Davis is a small city (pop 34,000) isolated from others and with only its internally generated traffic. Contrary to the Lotts' claim that it is a 3 x 7 mile rectangle (5), its built-up area is 2 x 3 miles and the maximum one-way commuting distance is about 3.5 miles (6). The average student cyclocommuting distance is about 1.6 miles (7). Davis cyclocommuters average 12 mph. In contrast, employed adult cyclocommuters to the Sunnyvale aerospace complex about 100 miles away average 16 mph with an 85th percentile speed of 18.5 mph, and the slowest observed speed is equal to the Davis average. Their average one-way commuting distance exceeds 4 miles, and significant numbers travel over 10 miles. Their trip is largely through normal metropolitan area traffic (8). Davis cyclocommuters rarely ride elsewhere, and in Davis they have not the need to travel efficiently through heavy traffic, so they do not learn how to do it. Further evidence of their incompetence is given in paragraph 3." It is very clear that Epperson's claim that I say that vehicular cycling requires lengthy high-speed cycling is false. I wrote nothing of the sort.

2.2.2 Hiles's Second Error About Speed and Vehicular Cycling

Hiles invents an argument that he claims is based on my work, that if the speed of motor traffic exceeds the cyclist's speed by more than 15 mph, vehicular cycling is impossible. He bases this on quotations from my chapter in Effective Cycling on lane changing. The first four sections of that chapter are titled (1): "Fear or Confidence"; (2): "Low-Speed Lane Changes"; (3): "Medium-Speed Lane Changes"; (4): "Changing Lanes in High-Speed Traffic". The first section encourages the cyclist to have confidence that, while lane changing, he is both obeying the law and doing it safely. The two sections on low-speed and medium-speed lane changing tell the cyclist that, if traffic at that time and place is so congested that there is not room between motorists to make a lane change, the cyclist can negotiate with the appropriate motorist so that the motorist will give the cyclist the right of way to get in front of him, even though the rules of the road give the motorist the right of way to continue at speed. When changing lanes in high-speed traffic, which for this purpose I define as more than 15 mph faster than the cyclist, I say that this negotiation is not possible and that the cyclist will have to wait for the appropriate gap in traffic before changing lanes. Hiles selects two quotations from these five pages, as follows.

 "As a competent cyclist, you persuade motorists by negotiation; you ask, and you watch for the answer, be it yes or no. Generally it is yes, because motorists often find themselves in exactly your position, wanting to change lanes through crowded traffic. They agree because they know that if nobody allowed anyone else to change lanes, traffic would stop and nobody would get home (Forester, 1993, p. 309).

"When the traffic is moving more than 15 mph faster than you," Forester writes, "negotiation is impossible.... You have to play the road sneak and move left only if there is a gap in traffic long enough that you won't affect any vehicles"' (1993, p. 311).

Upon the basis of these quotations, Hiles erects the argument that vehicular cycling is impossible whenever traffic is more than 15 mph faster than the cyclist. Here are some of his statements. "Remember, Forester says that bicyclists must resort to being `road sneaks' when the motor traffic is moving more than 15 mph faster. Forty-mile-per-hour motorists have less ability to respond to cyclists' body language than 25-mph motorists." "More than that, the relationship between bicyclists and motorists changes as the difference in their speeds increases. Remember, even Forester admits that in high-speed traffic bicyclists must play `road sneak' because negotiation becomes impossible."

 "If that is true, then for a cyclist riding less than 10 mph on a street with a 25 mph speed limit, negotiation would not be an option. Where motorists tend to travel slightly faster than the limit, a cyclist may have to ride as fast as 15 mph or else `play the road sneak.' That's a respectable cruising speed for a seasoned touring enthusiast. Children, the elderly, people who ride heavy old one-speed bikes because they can't afford a car, and many others may ride at speeds closer to eight mph."

 Notice how Hiles's words have led you, the reader, to conclude, not only that vehicular cycling is impossible even for the elderly on residential streets, but that that is the proper conclusion from my words.

2.2.3 Conclusions Regarding Hiles's Errors About Cyclist Speed and Vehicular Cycling

Hiles has read liberally in Effective Cycling and in Bicycle Transportation, for he quotes from them repeatedly in his criticism of vehicular cycling. He has read other items in the literature as well, as his list of references shows. With respect to the speed and strength argument, it is obvious that Hiles wants to use this traditional argument against vehicular cycling. However, he has not been able to find the appropriate quotation in my work, for the simple reason that I have never made such a statement. However, he finds the paper in which Epperson falsely claims that I maintain that vehicular cycling requires high speed. It is obvious that Epperson has not quoted anything of mine, but merely claims that in another document I did state that vehicular cycling required 18 mph for a lengthy period of time, a statement that astonishes Epperson. Hiles then quotes Epperson's claim without examining the source that Epperson gives, even though Epperson claims to be astonished by it, to see whether or not Epperson was correct. With respect to the negotiation during lane changing argument, it is obvious that Hiles has sought this as a new argument to support the previous traditional speed and strength argument. Hiles uses these direct quotations from my work to provide the credibility provided by my own words, to supplement his failure to find quotations supporting the speed and strength argument. The fact that my words are relevant only to the different methods of changing lanes, not to the general ability to operate in the vehicular manner, does not bother him at all. There are only two reasonable explanations for these errors: phobia or mendacity, otherwise described as unconscious lying or conscious lying. In the first case, Hiles is so imbued with the cyclist-inferiority phobia that this forces him to interpret everything he observes or reads according to its precepts; that is the only way that he can understand the cycling world. In the second case, Hiles is desperate to prevent vehicular cycling from becoming the predominant theory of traffic cycling, thus preventing bikeway construction and thus discouraging the mass of cyclists whom he hopes will take up bicycle transportation. In his desperation, he invents lies that he hopes will be persuasive to most people. I don't dispute the practical possibility that there is some of each in Hiles's work. That's possible because one supports the other, that it is easy to consider a little bit of fibbing once one has decided on the virtue of the goal that one seeks.

3 Hiles's Conclusion: My Summary

Hiles is dissatisfied with all of the current systems or theories about bicycle transportation. He asserts that the American bicycle transportation system ought to be emotionally attractive to people with all the different opinions about bicycling. He explicitly states that he makes no suggestions about the design of a system that might achieve this goal. In fact, his suggestions about the philosophy that might be followed to start to learn about that design are mutually contradictory.  

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