Bicycling Renaissance in North America?
Recent trends and alternative policies to promote bicycling

John Pucher, Charles Komanoff, Paul Schimek
Transportation Research, Sept Nov 1999

Review by John Forester

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1 Introduction

Bicycling Renaissance is another of those papers whose authors attempt to provide scientific reliability, or at least validity, by listing a large number of references, and by using some of them, as if quantity of reading represents validity. Garbage in, garbage out, is often the expression, but that is not always correct. If the authors had recognized their garbage, and so evaluated it, they could have had a good paper. However, they swallowed their garbage whole in the belief that it was wholesome food, so that the result is intellectual vomit. Schimek is different from the other two, as shown by his other work, but his contribution to this paper is practically invisible.

2 Are Bikeways Good for Cyclists?

The authors fail to recognize the differences between propaganda, intent, and results. They write: "In recognition of the benefits of bicycling, and in response to strong public pressure, public policies in the United States have become more supportive of bicycling, especially since passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991." All that one can say with certainty is that the government, representing society, was in favor of the acts specified by ISTEA. The propaganda certainly said that those acts "were more supportive of bicycling." The real questions, which the authors never discuss, are:

1: Do those acts do good or do bad for cyclists? and:
2: Do those acts do good or do bad for motorists?

The idea that ISTEA might not do good for cyclists apparently never crosses the authors' minds. I know that Schimek has written about just this problem, but there's no sign of his thinking in this paper. Although the authors refer to America's first bikeway design standard (never issued because I killed it), they fail to mention that it was commissioned by the motoring organizations and written by a university group of motoring specialists who hadn't the faintest idea of proper cycling, but a strong idea of what motorists wanted to do about cyclists. This is the Original Sin of American cycling policy.

Of course it is pointless to simply argue as if this Original Sin were a theological certainty. It could have been conquered when it first appeared, had the safety of cyclists been the main consideration from thenceforth. But that did not happen. Every official American highway design standard for bicycle traffic (One outstanding exception in New Jersey, but that has apparently died.) has been based on the principle of reducing the inconvenience to motorists that might be caused by bicycle traffic. While the proponents of such standards nowadays refer to the safety features built into them, those changes are merely the correction of the worst of the dangers that those standards created. Furthermore, those changes were forced onto the unwilling bikeway designers by the actions of cyclists. That is, the only significant early actions of cyclists regarding the bikeway standards were opposition because of the dangers that bikeways created for cyclists. There have been some minor safety features added since, such as the marking of traffic-signal detector loops on roadways.

3 Societal Commitment to Cycling

The authors accurately state that "As argued in this article, the lack of a societal consensus and commitment to protect cyclists' right of way is a powerful impediment to increasing cycling levels in the US." However, without realizing it in the least, the authors spend the bulk of the article arguing for policies aimed at reducing cyclists' right of way, in the sense of the right to use the public roadways with the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles, a most important phrase that only crossed their keyboards in a paragraph rather critical of vehicular cycling.

Later in the article, under the heading of Bicycling Dangers, the authors comment that "Many motorists and even some police officers appear unaware that vehicle codes of all US states and Canadian provinces grant cyclists the right to ride on most roads." Again, a correct statement, but, again, the authors fail to understand that most of their argument is for facilities that get cyclists off the normal roadways as if that is the most desirable policy, as if cyclists ought to be segregated from motorists.

4 Bikeways or Roadways?

Bikeways or Roadways? is the title of a section of the paper. There is a short inaccurate historical and substantive account of the US bikeway standards. There is a short account of European standards with some recent doubts among European designers about bicycle sidepaths, a design that decades ago (replicated by a recent study by Wachtel et al) was here shown conclusively to be extremely dangerous for cyclists.

"Vehicular Cycling" is the title of one section. Here is one of their descriptions: "A leader of this movement, John Forester, subsequently codified club cycling techniques in Effective Cycling... " Sure, there is a more complete description of my belief that cyclists should follow the traffic laws for drivers of vehicles, but to read their words literally one has to conclude that they believe that, for example, using left-turn lanes when turning left is a club cycling technique. Surely, all those left-turn lanes were not installed for cyclists, but for all traffic. Rather than showing some novel techniques to be called club cycling techniques, all that I was doing was to show cyclists that they could follow normal driving practices that every other driver followed, which is exactly what I was taught according to century-old British practice.

The authors make only one comment, either for or against, the concept of vehicular cycling: "Critics counter that few people are interested in working to develop vehicular cycling skills. (quoting those who oppose such development.) Further, they argue, most people will not even attempt to cycle unless they are provided with paths or lanes separated from motor traffic." There is no recognition that the person who does not obey the standard driving practices must either give up his right of way (which they argued before is something that should be protected) to become a road sneak incapable of traveling usefully, or be smashed.

Transportational efficiency and safety these authors care nothing about, that is the conclusion that their own statements lead to. All that matters to them is the opinion of ignorant and misled people who don't use bicycle transportation.

5 The Authors on Bikeways and Bicycle Safety

The authors describe why urban sidepaths cause more car-bike collisions. Then they describe European methods of "mitigating" these dangers, without any discussion of the net effect on cyclists' safety or mobility. So much for the authors' consideration of the safety of cyclists.

6 Forester on Bikeways, Roadways and Bicycle Safety

Every bit of justificational propaganda for bikeways is focussed on the superstition that bikeways make cycling safe for ordinary people. That is the message of the authors own words about vehicular cycling: "most people will not even attempt to cycle unless they are provided with paths or lanes separated from motor traffic." There is no need to analyze that statement any further. It is a clear statement that people believe that cycling is dangerous unless separated from motor traffic by some kind of barrier. Safety in cycling is what people say they want, safety in cycling is the basis for the propaganda for bikeways, safety is what these authors presume they are acting for. And yet, the only discussion that we get is a tiny bit about how Europeans think that they mitigate the dangers of bicycle sidepaths. This paper is a clear example of the fraud that is the fraudulent governmental cycling policy, stated unmistakably by the authors' own unwitting words. In other words, the authors' minds don't realize the intellectual fraud that they have just written up.

I have called this the Cyclist-Inferiority Phobia, a condition whose existence some others have denied. Here it is again, exhibited in unmistakable form by authors published in a refereed journal, whose referees apparently didn't observer it because it fit their own mental images of cycling.

7 Government Spending on Bicycle Facilities

The authors say that we have increased spending on bicycle facilities. They also report that for ISTEA, 86% went for off-road paths and trails, 13% for bike lanes, 1% for bicycle parking or bicycle connections to public transit.

8 Case Studies

The authors discuss New York (largely Manhattan), San Francisco, Boston (with Cambridge and Brookline), Toronto, Seattle, Madison, Davis. By and large, the authors discuss geographic conditions, density and distance, amount of bikeways, and sociological conditions. Not much that is controversial as to fact, except when they discuss Davis.

8.1 Davis, California

"Davis city and campus resemble the best cycling cities and towns of northern Europe, not just in high cycling percentages but in attitude and custom." Here is Davis. A small, isolated rural city, isolated from all through traffic (all through traffic uses the e/w and the n/s freeways), modern, with wide streets designed for the free movement of motor traffic (only a few original streets are narrow by American standards), whose only industry is a university campus (the authors give 50% of the population as students), and whose populace have extremely "green" opinions. Just like other European cities? If so, which ones?

How about safety. "If its cycling fatality rate were the same as the nation's as a whole, the university could be expected to suffer at least one cycling fatality every few years. In fact, the campus has never had a bike-related fatality -- a tribute to the quality of its facilities, its philosophy of separating motor vehicle traffic from bikes, and seemingly equitable rules that command obedience by all." Hurray, hurray, a really correct statement from these authors. I couldn't agree more. Wonderful, aren't they?

The UC Davis campus is a small area, designed for teaching, into which the only permitted motor vehicles are those of a few high-status individuals (professors and high administrators) and the delivery and service vehicles that operate the university. These operate slowly. Because distances are short, topography flat, and the bikeways extremely crowded, bicycle traffic is slow. Having a fatal accident to a cyclist would be a very rare event in such a place, entirely unexpected, one could reasonably say.

Consider this hypothesis. Do the authors have so little understanding of the real world that they think that cities operate like isolated university campuses? One would have to say, of course they don't. To do otherwise would be to accuse them of insanity. But understand this point. When these authors discuss bicycle transportation, they are completely oblivious of the fact that they praise as potential national bicycle transportation policies and designs those that are possible only for isolated university campuses, and are impossible either for existing cities (you can't convert existing cities in this way) or for potential new cities (they would go bankrupt for lack of productive enterprise). I point out, again, the effect of the Cyclist-Inferiority Phobia in blinding people, when they consider bicycle transportation, to facts of life that are otherwise obvious to them when they consider anything else.

9 Factors Affecting Cycling in North America

9.1 Many general factors

The authors discuss public attitude and cultural differences, public images of cycling, as one might expect. American society doesn't think much of cycling. The authors discuss more physical conditions: city size and density, climate, auto ownership and cost, personal income, public transport, all showing that Europe has conditions that make cycling more competitive with motoring. The authors discuss cycling infrastructure, saying that while the authors know of no rigorous studies showing that bikeways increase cycling, they recognize that "every European city with high cycling levels has an extensive route system."

9.2 The Danger Factor

The authors write: "As discussed in Section 3, the possibility of accidental injury and death is a major obstacle to bicycling." That section gives statistics for accidents; it does not address the extent to which the statistics are a major obstacle to bicycling. "Making bicycling ... safer ...will require behavioral changes by both drivers and bike riders, as well as development of more cycle-appropriate infrastructure." The authors then comment that American efforts at making bicyclists drive more safely have been less successful in the US. The authors get quite close to the theory of the public perception that since cycling in traffic is very dangerous and requires extreme skill, those ordinary people who do it are fools who deserve their punishment. The authors attribute this theory to Komanoff in 1977, although I stated it decades ago as: The Cyclist-Inferiority Superstition: The cyclist who rides in traffic will either delay the cars, which is Sin, or, if the cars don't choose to slow down, will be crushed, which is Death, and the Wages of Sin is Death. In other words, the authors seem to recognize that the public perception of the dangers of cycling is much exaggerated.

10 Steps to Increase Cycling in North America

Here is the authors' list:
1: Increase cost of motoring
2: Clarify cyclists' legal rights
3: Expand bicycle facilities
4: Make all roads bikeable
5: Hold special promotions
6: Link cycling to wellness
7: Broaden and intensify political action

10.1 Cost of Motoring

If the cost of motoring is increased to levels that would drive a significant proportion of Americans to cycling, cycling will be seen as the resource for the poor, and therefore be more disdained than ever by those more powerful.

10.2 Clarifying Cyclists' Rights

By and large, the clarifying called for is to correct the public misperceptions that cyclists are not drivers of vehicles, although the authors don't use those words. The authors fail to recognize that practically everything else they advocate denies that cyclists are drivers of vehicles. The authors also fail to recognize that all the European systems that they otherwise praise also deny that cyclists are drivers of vehicles.

The authors recommend one change, which they call a key first step: "a principle of law that cyclists have precedence over motor vehicles where both are vying for the same road space and neither clearly has right of way over the other. With their preferential right of way established in law, cyclists might improve their adherence to traffic laws."

Consider the assumed situation. Assumption: We have a traffic situation in which two drivers are vying for the same space but the law does not say which one has the right of way. Wherever this situation exists, wouldn't one consider it to be dangerous and a cause of collisions? Sounds reasonable, at least. Then, if this collision situation existed, why didn't the traffic-law experts write it up long ago? If they did, the assumption can't be true, because there would already be law to fit the situation. The assumption requires that there now is a dangerous collision situation that is not covered by traffic law. If this is so, then it would be most appropriate to write a law to handle the situation, a law that would apply to all drivers, since, obviously, such a situation would most probably involve many more motorists than cyclists. I suggest that traffic law has been developed so that law has been developed to handle practically all such situations. Therefore, it is very unlikely that such a situation as is presumed actually exists.

The authors say nothing at all about what that situation is. Obviously, either they know nothing about it, or they think that there are far too many such situations to list in their paper. Which is more likely? Here we have another example of the supposed bicycle transportation experts recommending something about which they know absolutely nothing, and getting away with it in a referreed journal. Only when the subject is cycling is such incompetence accepted.

10.3 Expand Bicycle Facilities

The authors write that all places with large proportions of bicycle transport use bikeways. That is their major justification.

Then they write that bikeways are necessary for those "unable or unwilling to do battle with cars for space on streets. ... [Cyclist] traning courses may help, but they do not eliminate the inherent danger of cycling on the same right of way with motor vehicles, particularly for those whose mental or physical conditions limit their capacity to safely negotiate heavy traffic. The slowed reflexes, frailty, and deteriorating hearing and eyesight of many elderly make them especially vulnerable, while limited experience, incomplete judgement, and unpredictable movements put children at special risk on streets. ... Bicycling should not be reserved for those who are trained, fit, and daring enough to navigate busy traffic on city streets." Wonderful stuff, this, the best statement I have ever read of the argument that bikeways are intended to make cycling safe for the incompetent, not only for those who haven't bothered to learn how to drive a vehicle, but those who are physically and mentally incapable of doing so. That is exactly what the authors mean; there can be no doubt about their meaning and intent.

Therefore, equally so, there can be no doubt whatever about the authors' complete ignorance of the subject of their paper. I wouldn't ride around the block with either of the two principal authors for fear that he would smash me through his ignorance and incompetence.

How so? Consider the ideal bikeway cyclist, incapable of obeying the rules of the road. Here he is starting a ride from a driveway onto a road with bikelanes, and needing to turn left onto that road. He exits the driveway, and BAM, he's dead or on the way to the hospital.

Well, let's resurrect him and get him going along that bikelaned street. There is a motorist waiting at a driveway on his right. So the cyclist stops, to avoid a collision with the car, just like the one that we resurrected him from. You see, this cyclist doesn't know that all drivers are expected to yield before entering streets. Well, at least this time there is no collision, just a lot of delay and confusion while they sort the situation out.

The cyclist comes to a street that is protected by a traffic signal. What does he do? Must we assume that he doesn't know what to do about traffic signals? But if we know that he is capable of knowing what to do about traffic signals, what is there about his condition that makes him unable to know what to do before entering the street? One takes about as many smarts as the other. So let's assume that, whatever he does, he gets away with it.

A bit later he comes to a street that is protected by a stop sign. Oh, yes, he has learned something about stop signs. You stop. So he stops. The next moment, BANG, he is a quarter way across the road, again smashed and ready for another trip to the hospital or the graveyard. Yielding is much more difficult than stopping, so, while he learned to stop, he is incapable of learning how to yield. That, after all, is the assumption that is built into traditional American bike-safety instruction. Just what our society has ordered, in fact.

Let's resurrect him again and send him on his way. A bit further along, there is a right-turn-only lane with a bikelane to its left (considered the proper place for it). He turns to reach the bikelane, and, BAM, there he is, dead again. Of course, had the bikelane been in the improper place, on the right of the right-turn-only lane, he would have been smashed there, instead, as he came up behind a motorist who was turning right.

Resurrected again, he finally reaches the place where he intends to turn left. Whether or not there is a left-turn bicycle lane doesn't matter. He turns left somehow, and is finally as dead as this story.

The authors, who are supposed to be experts about bicycle transportation, should have known from their own experience that bikelanes cannot make cycling safe for those incapable of obeying the normal driving rules. The authors, who are supposed to be experts about the literature of bicycle transportation, even if they don't know how to ride a bicycle, should have read this discussion in my writings of at least twenty years ago. The most reasonable conclusion would be that the authors don't know how to drive a vehicle in traffic and have never read the relevant literature. However, I think that we should not consider the authors so ignorant and incompetent. They know these things, but, in the matter of bicycle transportation, their minds are incapable of understanding what they know. One more example of the Cyclist-Inferiority Phobia. I write phobia deliberately, because this mental condition that is contrary to fact debilitates them from acting rationally.

10.4 Make All Roads Bikeable

The authors list the common items that improve cycling on roads. What the authors fail to realize, is that doing this is all that is required in a facilities way.

10.5 Hold Special Promotions

Might do some good.

10.6 Link Cycling to Wellness


10.7 Broaden and Intensify Political Action

Utter baloney here. The authors argue for more of what has produced, and been produced by, the absurdly paradoxical and irrational thinking that they think to be rational. The less we get of that the better.

11 Errors and Omissions

Ah, errors and omissions, the traditional term. Well, I have discussed many errors above this. Here I discuss the three major omissions.

11.1 Safety Program

The first is failure to discuss the safety controversy in any substantive terms. What are the causes of accidents to cyclists and what measures should be taken to reduce them? Since so much of their argument is based on supposed dangers and safety, they should have discussed this. Of course, had they discussed these subjects in any meaningful way, they would have been forced to conclude that their recommended program was all wrong. Were they aware that any scientific discussion would discredit all that they wanted to advocate, and therefore acted as hypocrites? Or are their minds so blinded by the Cyclist-Inferiority Phobia that they cannot understand the facts? Work it out for yourself.

11.2 Vehicular-Cycling Training

The authors dismiss vehicular-cycling training as being unpopular. That ought to be beside the point. The only way for cyclists to travel usefully in reasonable safety in the cities of the modern industrialized world, where most traffic is motorized, is to operate with the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles. Nothing else has been shown to work. Even bikeways require the skill of operating as the driver of a vehicle, as has been discussed in this review.

Therefore, if anything is to be done to make cycling safer, the major component must be to teach people how to ride safely as drivers of vehicles, which has the additional advantages of being also faster and more convenient.

11.3 Vehicular Cycling to be Public Policy

However, no rational recommendations can be implemented until the basis for public policy is changed. The most important recommendation for any governmental policy concerning bicycle transportation is that such policy must be based on the vehicular-cycling principle that "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles." Very few Americans believe this; in fact most believe the opposite. That is why this paradoxically absurd paper has been written, a paper that recommends more of the same foolishness. The only way for cyclists to travel usefully (that is, with reasonable speed in reasonable safety over convenient routes) in modern cities in the industrialized world is for them to act and be treated as drivers of vehicles. All systems that pretend to do otherwise sacrifice either cyclist safety or cyclist efficiency (stated in the broadest terms of convenience, shorter trip times, shorter distances, etc.). Furthermore, it is historical fact that, in America at least, where the facts are known, non-vehicular systems of cycling were designed and instigated by the motoring organizations for the convenience of motorists. That is why they endanger and inconvenience cyclists. That public policy must be turned around to give cyclists an equitable position, just like that of other drivers of vehicles.

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