John Forester is an asshole

Despite journalists who talk of a cycling “community”, and those beneath them in the bottom half of the internet talking of cyclists and all the evil things that cyclists do, people who use bicycles are a diverse bunch with diverse styles and, as is frequently demonstrated, diverse opinions. But I hope there is one thing on which British cyclists might be able to agree.

John Forester says of The Times Cities Fit For Cycling campaign:

The whole agenda is nothing more than a mix of half-baked ideas. … Consider the emphasis on HGVs. Fit them up to prevent “cyclists from being thrown under the wheels”.

Well, the exact approach to dealing with trucks was an issue we raised with the The Times at the Street Talks brainstorming session. On entirely friendly terms, of course, and all are agreed that there were problems with trucks to solve — they are, after all, a disproportionate source of danger and contributor to the barriers to cycling. Where I think Forester can unite us is in what he says next:

Crazy, who or what is it that reaches out and throws cyclists under the wheels of HGVs? While I don’t know the statistics from detailed studies, and apparently nobody knows, I suggest that the main problem is that cyclists throw themselves under the wheels of such vehicles during turning movements.

Well the Americans might not know much about the problem with trucks, but we know plenty, both from reviews like Morgan et al, and from the cases which make all too frequent headlines.

via Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest

Eilidh Cairns, an experienced commuter cyclist, was killed in February 2009, when a tipper truck driven by Joao Lopes ploughed over her from behind. Lopes was fined £200 for driving with defective vision, but the death was ruled “accidental” and he was free to kill again.

Catriona Patel, an experienced commuter cyclist, was killed in the Monday morning rush hour in June 2009. Pulling away from the Advanced Stop Line as the lights turned green outside Oval Station, a 32-tonne tipper lorry driven by Dennis Putz accelerated into her. Witnesses had to bang on the side of the truck before the oblivious Putz stopped. Putz was a serial dangerous driver, was hung-over — 40% over the limit — and talking on his mobile phone. He denied a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, but was sentenced to 7 years for it.

Brian Dorling, an experienced commuter cyclist and motorcyclist, was killed in the morning rush hour in October last year. A tipper truck turned across his path at the Bow Intersection. They had to use his dental records to identify him.

Deep Lee was struck by a lorry from behind as the lights turned green; Svitlana Tereschenko was killed by a tipper truck whose distracted driver failed to indicate before turning and driving over her. Daniel Cox was run over by a truck which did not have the correct mirrors and whose driver had pulled into the ASL on a red light and was indicating in the opposite direction to which he turned.

Try telling Ian McNicoll that his son Andrew, well versed in cyclecraft as a road and commuter cyclist, should have known better than to throw himself under the wheels of the articulated lorry that side-swiped while overtaking him in Edinburgh. Try telling Debbie Dorling that her cycle and motorcycle-trained husband should have behaved differently at Bow. Try telling Allister Carey that the death of his daughter Eleanor under the wheels of a lorry in Tower Bridge Road was her own fault.

The cycling “community” in this country might not always agree about the most appropriate or desirable method for reducing exposure to danger and its role as a barrier to cycling, but I think at least one thing can unite us: anyone who, knowing little about the world beyond California, says that the problem here is all cyclists’ own fault for throwing themselves under the wheels of trucks, is an asshole who can keep his discredited half-baked ideas to himself.

39 thoughts on “John Forester is an asshole”

  1. Well spotted Joe and Forrester’s comments show how deeply out of touch both he and his campaigning ideology is. I’m disgusted, yet sadly not surprised. What a disgrace this man is.

  2. Not generally a fan of ad hominem abuse (attack the ideas, not the man) – but an exception to the rule seems justified here ;-)

  3. Forrester goes on to write that ‘the problem’ is

    “Cyclists so ignorant that they ride up alongside a vehicle that may turn across their path.”

    and that we should

    “Fix the cyclists’ behavior so that they don’t do that, and you’ll fix much more besides.”

    Note that, beyond his disgraceful assumption that the problem lies exclusively with the conduct of cyclists, Forrester’s approach to remedying the problem of HGV/cyclist collisions relies entirely on perfect behaviour from cyclists. The trouble is that cyclists are not perfect – they are human and fallible. The penalty for their mistakes shouldn’t be death.

    Instead of keeping cyclists and HGVs in the same space, and only hoping that perfect behaviour from both parties keeps cyclists alive, the correct solution is surely to re-engineer the street environment to separate HGVs from cyclists, so that miscalculations are not fatal. It’s not rocket science – look at how it’s done in the Netherlands/.

  4. Did you know that Forester is the son of the novelist CS Forester (this pearl gleaned from Wikipedia)? Perhaps we should call him Hornblower!

    The same source tells me that he is a mere 2 years younger than my mother (he is 83), so perhaps we can forgive him for senile dementia ramblings. It’s hard to find any other explanation.

    Why does anyone take any notice of what he has to say, and indeed why did they ever? Presumably because he is, as his adopted countrymen would say, an Uncle Tom. His philosophy in effect demands that bicycles fit in with motor vehicles – ride fast, accelerate faster, share the same road – and that will play well with the second or third most powerful commercial lobbies (after farming and military-industrial complex, not necessarily in that order) in the land of Henry Ford and Motor City.

    When the Alternative DfT blog penned his “F*ck you John Franklin” piece, in my mind I was thinking “and John Forester too”, so thankyou for this.

    That’s not to say I have no reservations about the Times 8 point plan. The identities of some of the people or organisations who have signed up for it makes me wonder whether it is being taking to mean all things by all people, and that some of those will only take from it the bits they like (the bits that they can absolve themselves of personal responsibility for, or the bits which cost very little money) and conveniently ignore the others.

  5. Given only a few seconds of horrible realisation that an overtaking lorry is about to run you over with quite terrible results, I wonder what John Forester/Franklin would advise a cyclist to do in this situation?

  6. I tend to agree with the sentiment. Especially after arguing with the VC crowd on their forum and being called a coward by someone who doesn’t ride in the LA area. Along with the rest of the vehicular cycling crowd that populates the disproportionately influential California Association of Bicycle Organizations. They blame the cyclist first, they have state influence and will often nit pick pro cycling legislation into a watery impotent meaningless blather. With their influence in the state, they miss opportunities to reduce speeds on mixed use urban / residential roads through engineering, education and enforcement.

    The vehicular cycling crowd believes only in education and demand so much perfection of cycling infrastructure it never gets implemented. This isnt North Korea, you arent going to simply educate people to resist driving fast in fast cars on racetrack like conditions.

    I want to see the VC crowd actually work on legislation that works to achieve slower more consistent vehicle speeds so that the desire for infrastructure melts away.

  7. @aseasyasriding – I agree, both cyclists and drivers are human and fallible. Rather than having roads that expect all road users will be able to accurately predict the behaviour of others every time, and never make a mistake, we should be designing out conflict, to reduce the risk that making a mistake could result in death. Forester’s comments are frankly reprehensible, but sadly, not surprising.

  8. Why did anyone ever take notice of Forrester? Same reason as Franklin. They both wrote books. In the pre-internet age, writing a book on such a minority-interest subject as cycling safety, and having it widely distributed, conferred a mystical authority on a person that was quite hard to counter. It’s a major benefit of the information revolution that we have now moved beyond this, and claims and ideologies in minority-interest subjects generally are much easier to contest. I suspect we will see no more Forresters and Franklins.

  9. I suspect he is unwilling to acknowledge the dangers posed by HGV in a way that is not such a pathetic attempt at victim blaming for fear that it will demonstrate that he is aware of the limitations of vehicular cycling techniques around vehicles that can present a severe danger at even the lowest speeds, which would therefore make it look like he was wasting his time all these years. Or to put it a bit more bluntly, the techniques are usually OK but actually, they ain’t shit against 44 tons of HGV driven by some nut-job who shouldn’t be entrusted with a Scalextric set.

  10. He has definitely jumped the shark now and/or being in his 80s lost the plot in other ways but his and Franklins concepts were in their day a reaction to a situation, one method, just one, given the tools available (a bike, a rider and hostile road environment) of riding on busy roads. Basically in those days there were two other tools – the footpath or not riding.

    Time passes and David Arditti’s point about the information revolution is spot on, enhanced communication enables other methods of dealing with the situation come to the fore. Those methods were strong locally in a couple of European countries but unheard of most of the rest of the world. Even 10yrs ago, let alone in Foresters heyday if you suggested allocating the sort of space that is now routinely allocated for cycle facilities to road authorities you would have been deemed to be even more of a nutter than those bike riders in their primary position.

  11. @PaulM – you are correct, “Uncle Tom” is the appropriate term.

    The history is rather unfortunate, if you consider that what got him started was boneheaded bike facilities and laws in California (specifically, Palo Alto). He just went way overboard in his reaction. You could still see remnant idiocy there 20 years ago — a bridge over 101, but (a) with a “dismount gate” that (b) did not force a “regular bike” cyclist to dismount but (c) did completely prohibit the passage of a child trailer. Compounding this, whoever was responsible for maintaining that thing would never deal with the huge pile of slick leaves at the curve at the bottom of the bridge.

  12. It’s not true that Forester has “jumped the shark” as he has always argued nastily; it was dubbed “Invective Cycling” back in the 1980s. It is ageist to attribute his views to senility, and inaccurate given that he’s been consistent in the rigid and vehement adherence to his own dogma for decades.

    The good news is that the great majority of the cycling world has moved beyond this dogma, but we’re going to have its adherents with us for a while. They ride bikes, so they’re going to be long-lived.

  13. Attention fellow “Anglo-Saxon heritage” types: We don’t like him either.

    “Then I moved to Holland. My strongest memory was realizing everyday how John Forester had hoodwinked our entire country into dangerous infrastructure that denied the actualization of joy and freedom that I saw each day: children gaining freedom of mobility, moms with 3 kids on a single bike, and seniors having healthy lives.

    This book belongs in the dustbin of history as the failed ideology that it is.”

  14. “It is a small, yet vocal, group that is male-dominated, testosterone-driven and that lacks basic understanding of human nature. They expect that everyone should be just like them – classic sub-cultural point of view – and that everyone should embrace cycling in traffic and pretending they are cars. They are apparently uninterested in seeing grandmothers, mothers or fathers with children or anyone who doesn’t resemble then contributing to re-creating the foundations of liveable cities by reestablishing the bicycle as transport.

    Calling them a Sect is cheeky, sure. But so many aspects of this group resemble a sect. They have a Guru or two, whom they seem to worship. There’s John Forester in the US and John Franklin, to a lesser extent, in the UK. Their numbers are few but they are noisy. They are aggressive. And their influence is destructive.”

  15. Jeff Mapes, in his book, Pedaling Revolution (the source of all these quotes), takes a diplomatic tack in his overall description of Forester’s efforts for cycling, but he also portrays a man who despised most other cyclists: “[Forester] savaged the bike industry for supporting bikeway proponents and what [he] saw as misguided safety regulators. The industry … wanted to encourage more people to become cyclists. Forester wanted to see only properly trained riders on the streets.”

    I find it cruelly indicative and galling to read Mapes’ small footnote about Forester in a chapter otherwise describing bicycling in Amsterdam:

    Forester … said that, besides a childhood train journey through Holland before World War II, he has never been in the country. “However,” he told me in an e-mail, “I have several cycling associates who have cycled there, and they inform me that they didn’t like cycling there for reasons which I see as eminently reasonable and conforming to my feelings about the few imitations implemented here.”

    In other words, Forester argued vociferously against infrastructure that he had never seen, that he had never ridden on, that he hadn’t experienced. It’s a crushing spirit that denies the visions and dreams of others without having experienced them firsthand. If you haven’t been to the Netherlands, you simply cannot understand cycling as a way of life — the immersive, encompassing, and encouraging way of it, and not the peripheral, excluding, and callous version we have in much of the U.S., and certainly in Los Angeles.

  16. I wonder if it might be worthwhile raising money on Pozible or a similar fundraising website to pay for John Franklin/Forester to fly to Groningen and do one of David Hembrow’s study tours. I know I would contribute. I cannot believe this “vehicular cycling” drivel is still followed.

  17. Finally left a reply on the Bikeforums page. Gave some background info on UK cycling (as I understand it) and the general situation with large vehicles. Forester’s replies are frankly shocking, even ignorant – we should atleast attempt to educate ourselves on the matters in which we wish to dissect.

  18. Cycling round Lambeth roundabout on Friday, I was overtaken by a tour bus which then turned left and effectively cut the corner so that I was left with nowhere to go except basically into the side of a bus. Fortunately I cycle slowly enough that I could just hang back and stay out of its swinging rear end but had I been going a little bit faster or a little bit less hyper alert it could have ended very differently. I remember distinctly thinking – as the side of the bus passed inches from my handlebars – ‘if this thing hits me everyone’s going to say “oh well, that’s why you never overtake a bus on the inside”‘. There’s almost nothing you can do against the driver of a large vehicle that decides to overtake you and then forgets you’re there. Yet there’s a persistent need to blame the victim – possibly because that way we can persuade ourselves that it will never happen to us

  19. Forester has to defend his legacy and his life’s work, so it makes sense for him to refuse to back down from his rigid thinking even as the world changes before our eyes.

    The thing that kills me is that, Forester’s disciples in San Diego have distanced themselves from him but continue to ardently promote his ideology. We had a rash of cyclists killed by drivers recently and the local bike advocates gave several interviews to the media about how bicycle education would help bicyclists. It so sickens me. Even LA is changing before my very eyes. San Diego just sucks thanks to Forester and his disciples who continue to carry the torch for him.

  20. The ‘vehicular cycling’ evangelists like Mr Forrester appear to me as being as deeply conservative as the kind of person who insists women dress conservatively to avoid ‘provoking’ harrassment from men on the street – while making no attempts to get men to behave better. They are the victim-blaming hijab-advocates of the transportation world.

    Note, in both cases there is a huge difference between people making their own private pragmatic decisions about how to keep themselves safe and those who try to turn this into a public agenda, – condemning anyone who fails to follow their particular approach and arguing that if they suffer any misfortunate at the hands of other people’s bad behaviour (men or drivers) they somehow ‘bought it on themselves’.

    1. On relfection, for ‘hijab’ I should have said ‘burka’. As, to be fair, hijab as such can be interpreted in less extreme or one-sided ways.

  21. I had hoped Forester would apologise for his comments. He has failed to acknowledge that he doesn’t know the circumstances of the UK cashes; failed to acknowledge that vehicular training hasnt increased cyclist numbers, or RETAINED any proportion of existing who have been trained/utilised the methods; he’s asserted that vehicular cycling reduces crash rates (something I’m not convinced by now), and asserts that it increases enjoyment of riding

    Not entirely sure I can take the conversation any further as he a) wont listen to others’ points on there and b) I have other things to do. I feel it is a great shame that people react like that, I think it makes you wonder what non-cyclists make of Forester.

  22. You have taken Forrester’s words out of context for a headline. I doubt very much he was reffering to a distracted driver running down someone from the rear. You can call the people who are drunk distracted or even worse, those who use cell phones assholes. Instead of complaining about comments someone makes or how many people are dead you should do something about it. You can not fix all of the problems but some of the simple ones that can save lives are right in front of your nose in Effective Cycling.

    1. Not at all. Forester was taking issue with those who are, in association with The Times, calling for changes to HGVs such as better mirrors and sensors that would alert the driver to proximity to other road users. That is, the families of Catriona Patel, Brian Dorling, and others. Those are exactly the cases that Forester is talking about — though he may well have been too ignorant of the situation he was commenting on to know that. His comments were indefensible.

  23. I disagree.

    The gentleman in question bluindered into a tragic situation about which he knows very little. People _have_ died from being run over from behind by HGV drivers who didn’t look where they were going, indeed many recent deaths have been due to mistkaes by drivers, contrary to Forrester’s glib remarks. For him to maike flippant and insensitive comments about such a serious situation was always going to elicit an angry response. For you to then complain about that response is unfair..

    But I agree, _something_ needs to be done. In my opinion that something is to vote and campaign politically to control motorists and significantly reduce their numbers. To change the infrastructure so allowing motorists to travel through an area at excessive speed is no longer the number one priority.

    Pedestrianising streets, inforcing much stricter speed limits, extending congestion charging, spending more on public transport, having much stricter driving tests, banning bad drivers for life as a matter of routine, and (most of all) imposing real, legal penalties for bad driving that causes death or injury (in place of the utterly ludicrous slaps on the wrist that the UK legal system currently dishes out for such things – I mean, seriously, 12 month driving bans, suspended sentences and token fines? For reckless incompetence that kills people? The current situtation is just bizarre, its essentially legal to kill as long as you use a motorised vehicle to do it – the state sends a clear message that the lives of cyclists and pedestrians are worth very little)

    What ‘effective cylcing’ is and how it relates to the above I don’t know. I seriously doubt it will make any difference to the safety of pedestrians or to the vast majority of potentional cyclists who decide its too risky to actually cycle in the current conditions. I assume its just the same old failed strategy of ‘educating cyclists to know their place’.. Aimed at the tiny number of people who actually cycle on the road at present.

    The fundamental limitation of ‘vehicular cycling’ is that a bike is simply not treated as a ‘vehicle’ by motorists. It is more vulnerable than motorised vehicles, it travels more slowly, and (most of all) it doesn’t pose the reciprocal threat that they do. In short its not really a ‘vehicle’ in the relevent sense at all. So the entire concept is flawed from the get-go.

    It also ignores the fact that the real problem is the motor car and road planners’ pandering to it. Cyclists are actually a marginal aspect of this problem, given their low numbers (motorists kill pedestrians in far greater numbers – do you recomend ‘effective pedestrianing’ as the solution to that?).

    1. @PM – The “Effective Cycling” approach to changing infrastructure is to declare it politically infeasible. The fact that it’s become politically feasible all over the world is a terrible inconvenience, so now their only way to cope is to pretend it’s not really happening, or working. Their cherrypicking of factoids from research has gotten even worse, most recently in their version of Søren Jensen’s conclusions that Jensen himself disputes.

    2. This post was supposed to be a reply to Richard E Blanton II rather than to the article itself – hope that’s obvious by context, something went awry when posting!

  24. Thank you for collating this clear proof that it is so rarely that cyclists are crushed because thay place themselves in that danger zone. I’d add Cynthia Barlow’s daughter Alex who died under the concrete truck which hurrying to take an illegal short cut swung from the right hand lane across her path, well positioned in the nearside lane – I was at the scene a few minutes after the crash and watched the Police reconstructing the vehicle movements. I later discovered that the SAME TRUCK had run over a further 2 young female cyclists, killing one and putting the other in a wheelchair. And in the same month that Denis Putz was sentenced another driver working for the same company and also drunk at the wheel, killed a car driver on the M4

    Quite simpley there is one particular type of truck that dominates the killer listings in our cities – the 4-axle 32T tipper the largest rigid vehicel for bulk muck shifting and deliveries of stone or tarmac. The same chassis also features on the large skip wagons and concrete mixers. It is the most damaging type of vehicle free to roam on our roads without restriction – the 40T articulated tipper is less damaging and cheaper to run – but more expensive to buy and requires a Class 1 driver whilst the rigid vehicle only requires a lower Class 3 licence. Good Class 1 drivers are able to get nice clean and well paid regular work on trunk haulage or distribution with goods for retail chains or parcels delivery, and so the rougher and less pleasant work, with the tight margins to win contracts, has a bad tendency to attract the rougher and less pleasant drivers at the bottom of the pile.

    Notice how rarely the name of the company which provided the trucks to drivers appears even when they have failed to check for a poor driving history, and are the provider of those vehicles with defective mirrors etc. Have you a listing?

    Licences for driving and operating trucks are issued by the Traffic Commissioner, who has powers to revoke these vocational licences and call-in or reduce the licence an operator has to run a specified number of vehicles The picture Is I suspect (by the phone number on the cab) the crash that killed Catriona. The company is a relatively large operation, and the indications are that they have taken their responsibility on board, possibly persuaded by the power that the Traffic Commissioner has to deal with an operator who fails the tests of due diligence in managing and recruiting staff, and tyhe more general good repute.

    The Cycling Silk reported that Lopes (Eilidh Cairns & Nora Guttman) had 4 incidents in the period between the 2 fatal crashes, and had been sacked for a ‘failure to stop’ incident by one employer. The picture emerges that we actually need to deal with a very small number of seriously dangerous drivers and an equally small number of operators who fail to manage those bad drivers off the road.

  25. Well, had never read any of John Forester’s threads before. Glad to have had the opportunity to do so, and confirm my prejudices…

  26. So what now? I agree with everything on this page. I’ve been side swiped twice by cement mixers and I dove off onto the pavement and they drove off oblivious. I’ve been overtaken and turned on by cars deliberately too, they were shouting “now now now!” as they turned. I actually developed a technique for diving off my bike as it wasn’t until I was hit by a car turning right I broke my collar bone. I have no idea why I’m still alive I had so many near misses in London. I never cycled down the sides of lorries, it was always on a free running road where there was no excuse for not seeing me before overtaking and turning. I’m a size 20, my arse is huge!!!!
    Again, so what now?
    I live in rural Cambridgeshire now and cycle with my kids. Every day drivers do impatient stupid manoeuvres that thankfully down to my experience and bloody minded presence on the road, I generally anticipate and deal with without injury. I was practically in tears watching my husband and two kids trying to cross a busy road on the way to school with one lane of queueing traffic then fast flowing, knowing that it would only take one of my boys to bolt too quickly for it to end very badly.
    I have already decided to move to Holland next summer when my eldest will have finished year 2. We will have to swap the comfort of a mortgage and our jobs for rental and what work we can find as foreigners but I will get the freedom of movement and life without needing a car that I so miss living in the UK.
    This country has failed and I will not let it fail my kids.

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