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Who Really Benefits From Bikeways?

By John Forester
MS, PE, Bicycle Transportation Engineer

John Forester, of Lemon Grove, CA, is nationally, and internationally, known as the author of Effective Cycling. [1]  This pioneering work codified vehicular cycling--the best method yet devised for bicycling on roads and other types of facilities.  He is also the author of Bicycle Transportation, a how-to manual for traffic engineers and bicycle "facilities" planners.  He is a frequent presenter of bicycle transportation engineering seminars.

Rather than hoping for some ideal transformation of society, we need to follow the strategy that is appropriate for a minority, that of protecting its rights, advancing its social standing, and improving the physical problems that affect us.  Using vehicular-cycling policy as our goal has the best prospect of making cycling safer, more useful and more enjoyable.


Bikeway program is for convenience of motorists

The bikeway program is not run, and never has been run, as a program for better cycling.  It was originally designed, and the design has never significantly changed, to remove cyclists from the roadways for the convenience of motorists.  Since then, two other purposes have been attached to it.  The second added purpose is to increase the number of cyclists by promising them that they can ride safely without learning how to operate properly.  The third purpose is to reduce motoring because, it is hoped, many of these new cyclists will be cycling instead of motoring.

Many people are upset at the assertions made above.  The fact that they are upset demonstrates the strength of their belief in the misinformation that has been so widely spread.  History shows that the significant existing bikeway programs were started by the motoring establishments:  Germany, 1930s; Britain, 1937 (beaten back by British cyclists); Holland, 1940s under German occupation, then again in the 1960s.  In China, where urban streets are crowded with bicycles, the advent of modern motor traffic has caused the government to build bikeways to push the cyclists aside for the convenience of motorists.

History of bikeway program

The American bikeway programs started in California beginning in 1971 through the Calif. Highway Patrol and Auto Club of Southern Calif., which got legislation to authorize Bikeway Planning Criteria and Guidelines, by UCLA Traffic Engineering.  (We cyclists killed this as far too dangerous for cyclists).  Then the process continued in California, 1972-4 (CHP & ACSC again) Planning and Design Criteria for Bikeways in California, largely opposed by cyclists.

Simultaneously, the Federal Highway Administration started to investigate its bikeway program.  This resulted in Bikeways - State of the Art - 1974, which was followed in 1975 by the three-volume Safety and Location Criteria for Bicycle Facilities (FHWA-RD-75-112, -113, -114).  This latter was opposed by cyclists and was not adopted.  Instead, in 1976 the FHWA and AASHTO (Amer. Assoc. of State Highway & Trans. Officials) adopted California's design standard as Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities.  Revised versions of the Guide are still used for bikeway designs.

Rather than hoping for some ideal transformation of society, we need to follow the strategy that is appropriate for a minority, that of protecting its rights, advancing its social standing, and improving the physical problems that affect us.  Using vehicular-cycling policy as our goal has the best prospect of making cycling safer, more useful and more enjoyable.

Claims for bikeway program

Motorists never have to argue their case that bikeways clear the roads for motorists.  That argument is so obvious that it doesn't have to be argued, and so politically dangerous that they avoid mentioning the issue.  Instead, both motorists and anti-motorists argue three other claims.  1) Bikeways greatly reduce accidents to cyclists.  2) Bikeways are so safe that children and beginners, those who do not know how to ride safely, can use them safely.  3) Bikeways reduce highway congestion and improve the environment by persuading transportationally significant numbers of motorists to switch to cycling.  Not only does no evidence exist to support any of these claims, but the evidence that does exist either suggests that the claims are unlikely to be true or demonstrates that the claims cannot be true.

There has been so much false propaganda spread around about bicycle transportation, generating so many improbable hopes, that people angrily object to the truth.  The two bikeway safety arguments above are easily disproved, but the public still believes that bikeways make cycling safe.  Therefore, both governmental and unofficial bikeway advocates rely on this superstition for political support, among other improbable arguments, for their desire that bikeways will reduce motoring.  The hoped for reduction in motoring simply will not occur.  Our cities, societies, and activities have developed around the usefulness of private motor transportation.  Not many of our transportation tasks can be practically done by bicycle, and most of those that can involve significant extra costs in time and complications.

Those who oppose motoring magnify the disadvantages of motoring and minimize its utility, while minimizing the difficulties of bicycle transportation and overstating the degree to which fear of motor traffic reduces bicycle transportation.  Thus they argue that production of bikeways will unleash a great unsatisfied demand to switch from private motor transportation to bicycle transportation.  Nowhere in America or elsewhere in the world have bikeways produced this effect; wherever there is competition between private motor transportation and bicycle transportation, the car has been winning for many reasons.  Therefore, this is the environment in which cyclists have to operate.

Need to enjoy cycling

Because of the extra complications of bicycle transportation (except for a few special locations, such as university campuses), bicycle transportation in prosperous societies will be done by those for whom the enjoyment of cycling outweighs those extra complications.  Such persons are most likely to appreciate the advantages of being treated as drivers of vehicles while recognizing the disadvantages of being treated as bikeway users.

Treating cyclists as drivers of vehicles is the best policy for lawful, competent cyclists.  It is also best for the motorists with whom they share the roads.  As I see it, a national vehicular-cycling policy, by making cycling better both physically and socially, has the best chance of making the greatest possible increase in the amount of bicycle transportation by those who choose to do it.

We want to protect cyclists' use of the roadways as drivers of vehicles, to improve the roadways for cycling, to improve traffic operation for their safety.  These changes will aid us in encouraging more cycling by those who choose to do it.

However, we have to accept that bicycle transportation, within the current planning horizon, will always be a small part of the transportation picture.  Furthermore, we have to present that position in a persuasive manner.  The position of bicycle transportation has been blown up out of all reasonable proportion by the confluence of two opposing interests.  These are the motorists, who magnify bicycle transportation, as a problem, to get cyclists off the roads, and the anti-motorists, who magnify bicycle transportation, as an illusion, to get motorists off the roads.

Rather than hoping for some ideal transformation of society, we need to follow the strategy that is appropriate for a minority, that of protecting its rights, advancing its social standing, and improving the physical problems that affect us.  Using vehicular-cycling policy as our goal has the best prospect of making cycling safer, more useful and more enjoyable.


Footnote

1.  Effective Cycling, MIT Press, 1993 is available from MIT Press or any good bookstore.

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© Copyright 2004-2006 John Forester and LAB Reform.  May be reproduced, with attribution.
Last Revised 1/15/09