To: The Board of Directors, League of American Bicyclists
Subject: The Government's Use of Pseudo-Scientific Propaganda
Discloses the Fundamental Conflict Between Its Cycling Program
and the League's Effective Cycling Program

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1 Superstition versus Fact

For years, the League has tried to avoid the consequences of the fundamental conflict in cycling safety between the public superstition and the facts,[1]: between bikeway programs and Effective Cycling.

The public superstition says that the prime danger to cyclists is same-direction motor traffic [2]: and that therefore the way to make cycling safe is to provide bikeways, be they paths or lanes. Because bikeways supposedly make cycling safe, there is no need for training cyclists in traffic-safe cycling, a program which has failed [3]: and which frightens the public in any case.

For urban areas in particular, which are the only areas where significant cycling transportation programs will exist, the following are the facts. The only known way that cycling can be reasonably safe is for cyclists to operate properly, as drivers of vehicles, on well-designed roads. Cyclists who operate properly have accident rates only 20%, and car-bike collision rates only 25%, of those for typical cyclists.[5]: Typical bike paths are certainly more dangerous than normal roads and there are very few urban locations where safe bike paths are possible. Bike lanes do not protect against the significant dangers of motor traffic, they increase the number of errors by both cyclists and motorists, and therefore probably increase car-bike collisions by a small amount.[6]: In addition, they directly make traffic-safe cycling more difficult to learn, and government's advocacy of them strengthens the public superstition that traffic-safe cycling is both unnecessary and dangerous.[7]: The public superstition is named the cyclist-inferiority superstition, not because the main fear is of same-direction motor traffic, but because its other tenet is that cyclists can do little to prevent the dangers of cycling from injuring them. The superstition says that motorists are in control of their destiny, cyclists aren't.

2 Government, Superstition, and Bikeways.

The great majority of Americans believe the cyclist-inferiority superstition. A majority of those whom the general public thinks of as cyclists believe it. [8]: Even many League members believe it. The motoring establishment10: finds it useful to promote this superstition because it helps the establishment keep the roads clear of cyclists. [9]: The governmental cycling policy and program has, since 1972, consistently been one of building bikeways under the subterfuge of helping cyclists. The claimed assistance has had two types; reducing accidents to cyclists and increasing their access to the highway system. Neither is the truth. The government's bikeway program certainly has not decreased accidents, and the bikeway program reduces cyclists' access to roadways, the important part of the highway system. To conceal that limitation, the FHWA Administrator proclaimed that cyclists are legitimate users of the highway system while simultaneously refusing to admit that cyclists were legitimate users of the roadways of that highway system. [27]:

The government has tried to support this policy with several eras of pseudo-scientific cycling research [11]: and has actually supported its policy, when it has chosen to do anything substantial, with politically effective sums of money and much propaganda.

For decades the motoring establishment has supported its policy by propaganda asserting that the way to be safe on a bicycle is to stay out of the way of cars. This has been so successful that it now seems self-evident to most people that bikeways make cycling safe because bikeways seem to protect them from the supposed greatest danger of same-direction traffic.

2.1 Government Has Officially Abandoned the Safety Justification

For this reason, for about 20 years government used bicycle safety as the ostensible justification for its bikeway program. This attempted justification was criticized from the very beginning, when I demonstrated that the nation's first bikeway design standards, California's first attempt in 1972, were horribly dangerous for cyclists. The criticism continued for each of the later pseudo-scientific studies and proposed standards, although the standards became less dangerous as cyclists got the more dangerous proposals eliminated. By the present time the standard designs consist of bike paths whose dangers of car-bike collision are so well recognized by the engineers who write the standards that their instructions suggest installing bike paths only where there is no motor traffic at all, and of bike lanes that probably increase car-bike collisions only slightly.

However, despite this nominal increase in the safety of bikeways over the years, there has never been scientifically acceptable evidence that cycling on urban bike paths or on streets with bike lanes has reduced accidents to cyclists to a rate below that for well-designed roads. In short, 25 years of effort by a great many interested people with the resources of the government behind them have not been able to demonstrate that bikeways make cycling safe. That claim, if it had been true, would have been very easy to observe.

Probably for these reasons, government has now abandoned using cyclist safety as the ostensible scientific justification for its bikeway program. The Effects of Bicycle Accommodations says nothing at all about safety. [12]: The Bicycle Safety-Related Research Synthesis argues that safety is irrelevant because, so it says, there is no difference in safety between normal roads and bikeways, provided that the bikeways are properly located. [13]:

2.2 Government Now Argues That Bikeways Make Cycling Popular

However, because government still wants bikeways, it had to find other arguments for them. The only piece of research in The Effects follows up the argument that bike-lane stripes make motoring more convenient. [14]: While motorist convenience may be why the motoring establishment has always wanted bikeways, that is not a politically acceptable argument.

Government has adopted the argument that bikeways make cycling popular. Government argues that the nation needs less motoring and more cycling to assist in overcoming our urban environmental problems, and that building bikeways is the only way that large numbers of people can be attracted to cycling. [15]:

2.3 The Safety Contradiction in the Government's Argument

This line of argument makes the government lie. The government has officially, but very quietly, abandoned the argument that bikeways make cycling safe because the scientific evidence is against that argument. However, the argument that only bikeways will make cycling popular depends on the public's belief that bikeways indeed make cycling safe for beginners. That is the only reason why the public supports bikeway programs. While the government cannot say that bikeways make cycling safe, neither can it deny that belief without jeopardizing its bikeway desires. Therefore the government tries to conceal the issue of cyclist safety. While its authors, such as Wilkinson, have been forced by the scientific evidence to say that there is no significant difference in safety between bikeways that are properly applied and normal streets, it conceals such statements in documents that the public is unlikely to read. [20]:

3 Government Invents Classes of Cyclists

To support its bikeway policy, government declares that only 5% of cyclists are, or ever will be, capable of cycling competently and lawfully. These are the expert cyclists who can exist on normal arterial streets. Everyone else requires the protection of a bike-lane stripe from any traffic more intense than that on a low-speed residential street. Of course, this does not agree with the government's other statements that bikeways don't protect, but consistency is hardly to be found in the propaganda of governmental cycling policy.

The classes of cyclist are:

A: Advanced, experienced, 5% of total

B: Basic, ordinary

C: Child, pre-teen

For all street design purposes, government lumps Basic and Child cyclists together. Government allows that there may be a few places that only Advanced cyclists wish to visit, but everywhere else must be designed to be suitable for access by child cyclists. [24]:

The government assumes that its bikeway program will develop much more cycling transportation than exists at present without the cyclists doing it becoming experienced. One would think that absurd, but that is the government's position in saying that the system has to be designed for the 95% who are inexperienced. Given some reasonable assumptions, about 85% of the adult transportational cycling population will be experienced at any time. [28]: The alternative explanation is that the government wants to keep cyclists on bikeways regardless of their experience and, therefore, wants a system in which they are unlikely to learn as a result of experience.

By combining child cyclists with most adult cyclists, government has raised the stakes, both emotionally and physically. Designs for B and C cyclists must be suitable for the least competent, the pre-teen children, even in those places where we would not let unaccompanied pre-teen children go without bicycles, among which are many places of employment, railroad stations, and airports that adults wish to use. Bikeways that are suitable for young children are probably too slow for working adults and too dangerous when used at adult commuting speeds. [29]:

4 The Government Against Effective Cycling

There have long been two competing systems for cyclist safety: bikeways to keep cyclists out of the way of cars; cyclist proficiency to allow cyclists to operate cooperatively with other traffic. The government could simply keep quiet about the failure of its argument that bikeways made cycling safe. However, keeping quiet would not conceal the cyclist proficiency system, because that is in accordance with traffic law and its design and operations have been taken over by cyclists.

The government has criticized the Effective Cycling Program by two routes. It first pretends that the Effective Cycling Program is merely a publicity method that has failed to attract the general public. [16]: It then blames Effective Cycling for the present failed state of national cycling policy by claiming that past national cycling policy failed because it was largely determined by Effective Cycling principles. [18]: (These are both lies; considering that the only results effective cyclists have had on national cycling policy have been removing the most dangerous parts of the bikeway standards, this shows how little the government cares for cyclist safety.) Since Effective Cycling has failed to produce a mass of cycling commuters, it no longer should be considered, leaving the field open for the government's bikeway program. [21]:

The attack against Effective Cycling takes four forms.

1: Ignore all safety aspects of vehicular-style cycling. Never mention Effective Cycling in any context of safety; never mention safety at all. Divert attention by claiming that Effective Cycling is merely a publicity program that has failed. [16]:
2: Claim that vehicular-style cycling is the province of expert cyclists and is only useful for their cycling on very dangerous streets. [17]:
3: Claim that Effective Cycling has been the basis of bike planning up to the present and is the reason why current bike planning has failed to generate mass cycling transportation. [18]:
4: Claim that bikeways make vehicular-style cycling unnecessary. [19]:

5 The Conflict Between the Bikeway Program and Effective Cycling

One might argue that there is no conflict between Effective Cycling and bikeways. Cycling on streets with bike lanes requires at least as much skill, probably more, than cycling on normal streets. Cycling on typical urban bike paths requires much more traffic-cycling skill than does cycling on normal streets. Effective Cycling teaches the skills necessary for cycling on bike lane streets and teaches the need for great caution if one decides to use typical urban bike paths. In that sense, there is little significant conflict.

However, it is different with respect to the programs by which bikeways are promoted, built, and operated. The conflict between bikeway programs and Effective Cycling is deep and irreconcilable. Effective Cycling teaches that skill, not bikeways, makes cycling reasonably safe. Government cannot admit that vehicular-style cycling actually does a better job of reducing accidents to cyclists than do bikeways. That would be fatal for its desires. Therefore, government denigrates Effective Cycling as an elitist program, [22]: requiring rigorous training, [22]: unnecessary, and suitable only for expert cyclists; [22]: a program that has little connection with cyclist safety and whose benefits apply only when riding on arterial streets without bike lanes. [23]:

Government's cycling policy and program is predicated on keeping cyclists ignorant. Well-informed cyclists have always been the only serious critics of its program. Government is probably assuming that its bikeway program will provide the psychological conditions under which even those who cycle frequently will remain ignorant.

6 The Political Problem for the League

The League has to decide the strategy that will best serve its members and their purposes in these new conditions and will best develop a successful national cycling policy. Should the League choose popularity or should it choose safety? To put it crudely, should the League choose to represent the present 5%, its present members, or the present 95%, the large number of potential members?

Twice in its recent history [25]: the League has chosen popularity and bikeways, and both times it became technically bankrupt before clearer heads rescued it. In the intervening times the League has tried the balancing act of supporting both its own program of competent cycling and the governmental program of popular cycling, a program that consisted largely of bikeways. The League could do so because people believed that the governmental program was one of cycling safety, and therefore that the League was pursuing a policy of cycling popularity with safety.

The League could continue in this practice, but if it does so it must relinquish all intellectual consistency. The governmental documents that I have been reviewing demonstrate that the government wants its bikeway program regardless of its effect on the safety of cyclists, and that the government sees competent, well-informed cyclists as the as the crucial opposition that must be discredited, even though they have the only effective cycling safety program that exists.

If the League continues to support the present governmental policy and program, the following is likely to occur. The League may gain more members, but it will lose influence. That is, it will be reduced to assisting in advocating the bikeways that others want. Its ability to influence the safety or competence of cyclists will be limited by the desires of those with whom it collaborates, who have their own compelling reasons for opposing cyclist competence.

The nation may gain more cycling transportation; after all, that is the supposed purpose of the program. However, the cyclists will be people with strengthened beliefs that traffic is very dangerous, that they need bikeways for protection, and that safe cycling knowledge is both dangerous and unnecessary. These cyclists will be like Dutch cyclists, slow cyclists who ride incompetently, accepting the slow speed and greater delays as the price of safety, and therefore going for only short trips. The cyclists who ride competently on normal roads, the present League members, will be less accepted by society than they are today. This type of cycling will not produce in America the quantity of cycling transportation that appears in Holland, because our distances are much greater and our motoring is more convenient.

Instead of short-term popularity, the League can choose competence and safety. This is initially less popular. However, it protects the interests of the League's current members and the similar cyclists who today perform the bulk of America's cycling transportation, while laying the groundwork for an increase in cycling transportation that is based on safety, competence, convenience, and confidence.

To make that effective, the League must adopt a specific strategy and stick to it. It must proclaim the safety virtues of the cyclist competence approach (with its Effective Cycling Program the best example) and contrast them against the absence of safety virtues in the bikeway program. With the government critizing the Effective Cycling Program and implementing its own bikeway program, the League must both proclaim the virtues of its program and confidently and accurately criticize and oppose the government's program.

The League has in the past failed to criticize the government's program for fear that this would jeopardize the League's popularity and credibility. The government's own documents have shown that the government has no such compunction. However, those same documents have demonstrated, in the government's own words, the contradictions and lies that we always suspected were behind its policy. These documents demonstrate that the government has raised the stakes, but they also give us the opportunity to prevail, if we would have the courage to try.

The Effective Cycling Program is criticized as not having a scientifically sound study demonstrating that taking the EC course reduces accidents. We have to accept that; such a study is very difficult to do properly and we haven't had the resources to do it. However, Effective Cycling addresses the known causes of accidents to cyclists in effective ways, its techniques can be learned in reasonable time by average people, even children, and those people who are most likely to practice its techniques (American bicycle club members and experienced CTC members) have accident rates only 20% of those for other adult cyclists. [26]: While Effective Cycling makes cyclists more confident and happier, it does so because it makes them both safer and more effective, and they recognize those effects.

On the contrary, the bikeway program is directed against only a minute portion of accidents to cyclists, [30]: it doesn't lower the required level of skill,31: and some of its facilities are more dangerous than normal streets. In acknowledgment of these problems, the government has abandoned the claim that bikeways significantly reduce accidents to cyclists, the popular claim that bikeways make cycling safe. [32]:

It will also be necessary to explain that those who advocate the bikeway program have other motives than cyclist safety. The other motives are the desire of the motoring establishment to clear the roadways of cyclists and the desire of environmentalists and transportation reformers to reduce the amount of motoring. The desire to clear the roadways of cyclists, once disclosed, loses its political acceptability. Using bikeways as the bait to attract new cyclists, when bikeways don't make cycling safe, also loses its appeal and allows for a different, safer, approach.

The League must offer a balanced program that covers all the items that cyclists need in addition to cycling skill. Good roads with wide outside lanes, sensitive traffic signals with protected left turn phases, smooth surfaces. Government support for lawful competent cycling. Adequate bicycle parking. Social approval and support of cyclist training programs similar to the Effective Cycling Program. With a comprehensive program whose core is cyclist safety that is achieved through cyclist competence, and the accompanying speed, convenience, and confidence, the League can both protect its own members and lead a sound cycling transportation system for America.


1: This document is intended to be a summary and a call to action. In it I make many references to the three review documents that I send with it. These provide the factual basis for my statements and references to the original published studies. The three documents are:

Forester, John ; Review of: Studies of the opinions of cyclists about different street conditions ; 1996. Hereafter cited as Opinions .

Forester, John; Review of: The Effects of Bicycle Accommodations on Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Safety and Traffic Operations ; 1996. Hereafter cited as Effects .

Forester, John; Review of: Bicycle Safety-Related Research Synthesis ; 1996. Hereafter cited as Synthesis .

2: Opinions reviews 6 published studies, all of which conclude that same-direction motor traffic is what cyclists fear most and is the only significant characteristic in their evaluation of roads.

3: Synthesis pp 4, 5, 6, 11. Effects p 2.

4: Forester, John, Bicycle Transportation

5: Synthesis p 13. Discussed in greater detail in Forester, John; Bicycle Transportation, 2nd ed. MIT Press, 1994, chap 5.

6: Effects p 11. Bicycle Transportation chap 5.

7: Effects pp 12-13.

8: Synthesis pp 2, 4. Effects p 4. Opinions, all.

9: Effects p 10. Bicycle Transportation chap 13. Forester, John; Effective Cycling, 6th ed. MIT Press 1993; chaps 43, 46.

10: By motoring establishment I mean all the persons and organizations primarily devoted to the operation of motor vehicles upon highways, including those who administer the highway system.

11: The older pseudo-scientific research is discussed in Bicycle Transportation, esp. chaps 4, 9, 13 and App 2, and in Effective Cycling chaps 43, 46, 48. The newer research is that in Opinions, Effects, and Synthesis.

12: Effects 3.2 p 7-8, 3.5 p 11-12

13: Synthesis 2.4.4 p 6, 2.4.13 p 9, 3.4 p 11, p 12

14: Effects pp 3, 4, 5

15: Effects pp 2-3, Synthesis pp 2, 5

16: Synthesis pp 4,5, 10. Effects pp 2, 3, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13

17: Synthesis pp 5, 6,7. Effects p 3

18: Effects p 1

19: Synthesis p 12

20: Synthesis 2.4.13, p 9

21: Synthesis 2.4.1, 2.4.2 p 3-4

22: Synthesis 2.4.1 p 4, 2.4.3 p 6

23: Synthesis 2.4.2 p 5

24: Effects pp 2, 2.9 p 6

25: 1975, 1983

26: Synthesis 3.8.4, p 13

27: Effects 2.1 p 2

28: Effects 3.4.2 p 9

29: Effects 3.4.1 p 9

30: Effects 3.3 p 9

31: Effects 3.5.4 p 12; Synthesis 3.7 p 12, 3.8.4 p 13-14

32: Effects 3.2 p 7-8, 3.5 p 11-12; Synthesis 2.4.4 p 6, 3.4 p 11

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