The Bicycle Driver

page 22-25, Issue #5
– David Smith

The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan will have a powerful influence on the future of cycling. However, the plan segregates cyclists from traffic without regard for the training they need to ride confidently with traffic. This is ironic in light of the history of cycling.

When the League [of American Wheelmen] was formed the bicycle had no legal recognition; now it is universally recognized as a carriage, and may travel with impunity wherever any carriage does.
— LAW pamphlet on the rights of cyclists

…In all courts where the question has arisen it has been without exception decided that the bicycle is a vehicle, and as such has equal right with other vehicles to the use of the streets without discriminating restrictions….
—Legal Opinion of Charles E. Pratt, 1897


She has been led to believe the bike lane keeps her safe from traffic.

Not everyone had welcomed the bicycle. There were claims that a cyclist could frighten horses and pedestrians. Opponents challenged the bicycle in court, calling for restrictions. The LAW and it’s legendary leader Colonel Pope, successfully “promoted the public good will toward the bicycle” whenever opposition showed itself, to secure the future of cycling.

Cyclists had to fight and wage a comprehensive campaign to gain acceptance and the right to use the public streets—as vehicle drivers, and as equals even before the automobile. They wanted to set a good example and develop laws, expecting cyclists to be lawful.

Pioneer motorists joined the LAW and worked with cyclists for good roads and lawful behavior, which benefited both. Cooperation and sharing the road were seen as essential. However, it was the more expensive auto that became the popular vehicle. By 1920, the bicycle came to be seen as a toy for children and the craft of adult cycling in America had virtually disappeared. The child cyclist was expected to stay out of the way of the adult motorist and told that automobiles were dangerous. Child cyclists and those few adult cyclists, who either could not afford to buy, or learn to drive, the superior auto, were viewed with disdain. Cyclists were admonished that if they got in the way of motorists, ultimately they would be run over and killed. Over time this admonition, however contrary to fact, law and former custom, came to prominence as automobile interests swept other interests aside.

A second bicycle boom in the 1970’s brought a surge in young adult cyclists. Prejudiced drivers, city planners, and the highway establishment, fearing cyclists would impede motorized traffic, responded with programs to restrict cyclists—even those cyclists able to ride competently on the road.

Society considers cyclists to be low-status people. The bicycle design regulation treats all cyclists as children. Bike-safety programs treat all cyclists as incompetent. While traffic law says that cyclists are drivers of vehicles like any other driver, it then restricts their actions and rights merely for the convenience of motorists. The bikeway program was devised by the highway establishment to get cyclists off the roads and is justified by the excuses that cyclists are incompetent to ride on the roads safely and that bikeways make cycling safe for incompetent people.

—John Forester, Effective Cycling

John Forester was born in England, where he was taught to drive a bicycle in traffic. Motorized vehicles and adult cycling coexisted well until the 1950’s whereas in the US it had largely ended by the 1920’s. He moved to California before the second bicycle boom. In America, Forester was amazed to see adults cycling in childish ways but he found a few bicycle clubs and taught people how to ride with traffic. He witnessed the most motorized state in America developing and implementing restrictions on cycling. Forester understood and challenged these restrictive programs.

Before “bicycling” became “popular” we few cyclists laughed at the pitiful attempts of American noncycling adult society to teach toy bicycling to its children. …they thought that they knew so much about traffic cycling while their actions showed that they knew nothing at all.

—Effective Cycling

Forester used data from crash studies to show that cyclists, who learned how to ride with traffic by following the rules of the road, had a mere fraction of the crashes of typical cyclists. Road restrictions and bike lanes/paths inevitably led to errors known to produce the most crashes, which occur at intersections and involve crossing and turning traffic. The fewest crashes are from faster traffic passing cyclists but bike lane planners and prejudiced motorists claimed this to be the primary cause and pandered to people’s fear and ignorance to promote their facilities as the only safe bikeways. He found resistance to reason, logic and crash data among the public and to his great consternation, among bicycling advocates and anti-motoring environmentalists.

Forester demonstrated that bike paths and bike lanes perpetuated a style of pedestrian and immature cycling that accommodates cyclists’ fear of traffic while failing to reduce bicycle crashes. By his unstinting efforts, he was able to stall the implementation of the worst bikeway designs.

Traffic principles MUST treat vehicle drivers equally to reduce conflict. For example, drivers position at intersections for destination, regardless of vehicle type. All vehicle drivers get in line with the traffic going their direction, position left to go left, center to go straight, right to go right, this is the only way to avoid conflict. Between intersections drivers position by speed. Bike lanes abolish the safety of equal treatment. Positioning based on vehicle type introduces conflict as shown in the photos below.


Cars swerve across the bike lane to turn right. This driver would have to look in his blind spot to see a cyclist approaching from the rear.


Riding in the bike lane is dangerous because roadside hazards often develop too quickly to avoid. Swerving left into faster traffic is deadly.


Painting a bike lane stripe creates a de facto “gun barrel” lane where drivers think they are entitled to put their foot down. The cyclist must travel more slowly in a hazard zone/bike lane. This is the opposite of traffic calming. The cyclist should be able to travel at an appropriate speed. It is the automobile driver who should be made to slow down.

“…In all courts where the question has arisen it has been without exception decided that the bicycle is a vehicle, and as such has rights equal to other vehicles to the use of the streets without discriminating restrictions, and that no authority exists by which the peculiar form of a vehicle for its motive power can be arbitrarily determined to the exclusion of some other particular class. Your Committee believes this to be good law and common sense.”
—Legal Opinion of Charles E. Pratt, 1897

The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan (BMP) and the national Complete The Streets program, continue the segregation where cyclists are expected to behave like pedestrians. The BMP process ignores competent cyclists while pandering to motorists and cyclists in favor of segregation. Striped bike lanes are prejudicial towards competent drivers (motorized and bicycle) who share the road through the traffic principles of destination and speed positioning, not segregation by vehicle type. Wide outside lanes and paved shoulders would allow shy cyclists the space they prefer to separate from motorized traffic while the competent traffic cyclist would feel free to get in line with traffic and position right when safe to allow faster traffic to pass. This design would represent a win-win situation for all drivers and overcome the divisive nature of striped bike lanes. With more segregation, cyclists are closer than they have ever been to losing their ability and the right to use the public roads as equals—as vehicle drivers, not as trespassing pedestrians segregated into inferior space. The work of the League of American Wheelmen is being subverted and discarded; indeed the LAB is now a champion of bike lanes having forgotten the history of their founders.

The LAW was re-named the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) and they moved to K Street in Washington DC to reflect their new emphasis on lobbying Congress for bicycle facilities programs like Complete The Streets. Forester gave his training program to LAW but the LAB failed to implement Effective Cycling to Forester’s satisfaction and he withdrew his permission to use the name. The LAB also failed to study the effects of training students to ride in traffic. To this day no one has implemented a study of training. The LAB training program is now called Bike Ed and Cascade Bicycle Club has a training program with instructors trained by LAB. CBC, planners and Bicycle Alliance of Washington and LAB are all politically aligned in promoting bike lanes.

Planners have systematically developed and funded programs that ignore the advice of competent cyclists while directing their public relations towards building an overwhelming majority of motorists and pedestrian cyclists focused on segregation. When their bikeways were stalled due to Forester’s criticism of their most dangerous features, bikeway promoters then began implementing demonstration projects selected to avoid the worst hazards and minimize the criticisms. Carefully and gradually they built a constituency and a language in favor of expanding the segregation. A dangerous door zone bike lane, even on a steep hill was called “bicycle friendly”. Segregation was called “your own space”. A system of restricted access to our public streets was called “a bicycle network”. A street without a designated bike lane is an “incomplete street”. Motorists who do not want cyclists in “their space” are invited to give their support. The planners assume that motorized traffic makes cycling unpleasant and dangerous—they also talk of “traffic calming” and imply that they can do it by imposing a “road diet”. They also assume that automobile drivers are the only relevant cause of bike crashes and that cyclists are incapable of taking care of themselves by learning how to drive a bicycle.

The first section of the segregated Burke-Gilman Trail was constructed away from roads where there were few of the hazards identified in crash studies. . , With a popular constituency from the demonstration projects, later sections of the Burke-Gilman Trail were shoe-horned into developed areas requiring many intersections and routing next to roads both of which produce high crash rates. . The first bike lane in Seattle was on the inside of Ravenna Boulevard away from roadside hazards such as parked cars. Now we have door-zone bike lanes on hills. Toole Design, the contractor for the BMP has advised limiting some of the worst features of our bikeways such as the door zone bike lanes on hills but retains the segregationist perspective.

However, crashes are not the only concern. The more segregation, the less cyclists learn to ride with traffic and the more motorists think that the roads belong exclusively to them. This undermines both the ability and the right of cyclists to use our public streets – as equals.

Bicycle driver training is the missing element and must be comprehensively instituted for the benefit of all or segregation will continue and cyclists will become just rolling pedestrians rather than drivers of vehicles


Cycling in line with traffic makes you visible, predictable, and free of roadside hazards while reducing turning conflicts. This cyclist moves with traffic and provides a public service of traffic calming. He can also choose to allow a faster vehicle to pass, then look behind again to get back in line.

David Smith is a lifelong cyclist, a League Certified Instructor (LCI) with the League of American Bicyclists and the author of Looking Sharp! A Visual Language for Cyclists. This training program emphasizes communication and cooperation, and is designed to improve conditions and promote bicycling.

To find out more about David’s training program be sure to visit him online at:

For further information on this subject:

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