Anti-cycling John Forester versus the facts about Holland

I know that John Forester is older than Mr. Burns (if not quite as pleasant) but while he’s still as sane as he’s ever been then I don’t see any reason to rebut his nonsense any less robustly than I would if he was younger.

He’s a man who, apparently, has never visited the Netherlands and yet feels able to make bold claims about what it’s like to cycle there (passing through on a train in the 1930s does not count, John!).

I’ve never visited wherever the hell Forester lives either, but I can guarantee you that the trees are made of old gloves, and the roads are full of custard. Obviously, this is ridiculous, but I have as much authority there as Forester does on the Netherlands, i.e. none at all. Coincidentally, ‘none at all’ is the amount of sense which Forester frequently makes in his online ramblings.

Someone sent him a link to my post which put two of his comments about the Netherlands in context and he responded by accusing me of having no evidence to back up my assertions.

How much evidence do you want, John? How about an entire country? One which I have been to, and you, apparently, have not! Are you really going to die having never visited the one place on the planet which has achieved high levels of safe cycling across all sections of society? It’s like being a life-long Elvis fan — a self-proclaimed Elvis expert, no less — yet you’ve never even visited Graceland.

How can anyone take this incoherent drivel seriously?

“The posting critical of the views of John Forester and John Franklin … is just one more of the illogical and sophomoric position papers in the spiteful controversy concerning bicycle transportation in the USA. Those with a fervent anti-motoring faith that if the USA copied Dutch bikeway designs and traffic law practices the USA would have an enormous switch from motor to bicycle transport. This is a faith for which there is no evidence whatever. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that such an outcome would be most unlikely, evidence from sociology, urban design, traffic engineering, psychology, and similar fields, areas in which the anti-motorists do not show expertise.

The sophomoric nature of the presentation comes across immediately. For example, the photograph of a cyclist in sporting clothing riding on a bike path between a rural highway and open fields does not disprove the argument that, in urban areas, side paths get involved with a nasty tangle of driveway and intersection traffic. No single example of an exception disproves a general statement; only a contrary description of all the instances could do so. However, a picture of a crowded bicycling area does demonstrate the argument that such places are not suitable for cycling at American bicycle transportation speeds.

I have written before that the combination of anti-motoring motivation and traffic-fearing cyclist faith not only does not require any factual support, but it actually requires contra-factual arguments to pretend to be persuasive. I advocate changes that make cycling safer and more useful, based on valid theory and supported by factual studies. However, the anti-motoring, Dutch-favoring bicycle advocates have not been able to present such studies based on American conditions.”

There is so much wrong with this that I hardly know where to start. But I’ll start here: a picture of a crowded bicycling area does demonstrate the argument that such places are not suitable for cycling at American bicycle transportation speeds”. What is he talking about? Is he suggesting that all US citizens are fast cyclists? Because the last time I looked, the average US cycling speed was almost zero, considering that pretty much nobody rides a bike there. He seems to be arguing for elitism in cycling, showing his belief that riding a bike should be reserved for the fast and the fearless. Anybody not fit and in a rush need not apply.

The photo in question shows commuter traffic heading into Utrecht central station at rush hour. Is he suggesting that everybody should be able to travel at racing speeds, even in crowded city centres? Cars aren’t allowed to do this, and I wouldn’t recommend going for a jog around Paddington station at 5.30pm unless you really enjoy bumping into commuters. The fact that busy areas in city centres become crowded is proof of the success of cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands. It’s proof that people are choosing to cycle because it’s the fastest, easiest option.

He also argues that “in urban areas, [bike] paths get involved with a nasty tangle of driveway and intersection traffic.” Well this just isn’t true, and I can say this because I have been to the Netherlands and studied their infrastructure, and John Forester hasn’t.

He goes on to pre-empt this response by then saying: “No single example of an exception disproves a general statement; only a contrary description of all the instances could do so.” So what he’s saying here is that he won’t admit he’s wrong unless someone documents every inch of the Netherlands for him? Or maybe he’s saying that my photographs don’t mean his quotes aren’t true (although he’s happy to use just one photograph to back up his assertion about American speeds). How many photos do you want, John? I’ve got hundreds, and each one of them proves you wrong. Or maybe you want some statistics again?

Well the Netherlands has a very high rate of cycling – far higher than the UK and the USA – and yet it has the world’s safest roads. That’s not “contra-factual argument” or “traffic-fearing cyclist faith” but cold hard statistics.

In the spirit of my previous post, here are two photos of every-day Dutch scenes:

"…in urban areas, [cycle] paths get involved with a nasty tangle of driveway and intersection traffic." - John Forester. Juxtaposed by a photo of a cycle path and driveways, and a large intersection, without problems.

A nasty tangle of driveway and intersection traffic in the Netherlands, recently.

Just because John Forester isn’t clever enough to envisage any practical solutions to make cycling attractive to everyone, it doesn’t mean that these solutions don’t exist.

Do you get it yet, John? You don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to cycle infrastructure, and the VC fundamentalism which you spread has failed to deliver anything but a risible amount of cycling – and a high accident rate – in the US.

People in the Netherlands choose to use the bike for transport because the infrastructure makes it so quick and easy. Almost nobody in the US cycles, and it’s partially because John Forester backed the wrong horse in 1972 and spent the next 40 years shouting about it.


I welcome comments on this blog, but please understand what this post is about before typing: I’m criticising things that John Forester has said about cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands. This post has got nothing to do with the USA or any other country, so I can do without a load of comments about how it’s politically difficult for you, or how it’s economically impossible where you are, or how you ride on the roads and you’re 97 years old with one eye and you love it. All those things are fascinating but they have nothing to do with Forester being wrong about the Netherlands.

The above message mainly goes out to Forester’s faithful army of “bicycle driving” zealots, especially “Erik”/”Clare Wolff” who posted the same message nine times on this page.

Footnote: Forester thinks I’m someone called Paul Nevins – it was on a group email thread, so I guess this name got mixed up in there somehow. I don’t know who this Nevins guy is, but if he’s annoying Forester then he must be a fairly decent bloke. [Update: It turns out he is a decent bloke — Paul Nevins comments below!]

Also, I know that Forester pushed against helmet compulsion and hates ASZs (“bike boxes” in the US) which shows that he’s not wrong all the time. But why can’t he see that people simply don’t want to ride a bike amongst motor traffic?


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27 responses to “Anti-cycling John Forester versus the facts about Holland

  1. Lol, “. I don’t know who this Nevins guy is, but if he’s annoying Forester then he must be a half decent bloke.”

  2. davidhembrow

    Having met Mr Schrodinger’s Cat, I can confirm that his name is not Paul Nevins.

    As for John Forester, I understand that he no longer cycles because he’s “too old”. Meanwhile, one of our neighbours here in the Netherlands, born a couple of years before John, rides past our window almost daily with a cheery smile on her face. That is the result of the safe cycling environment which has been built up around us and which encourages everyone to cycle.

    In fact, the greatest growth in cycling in the Netherlands in recent years has been amongst retired people. The growth in cycling by over 65s has been so strong that it has lead to an increase in the overall cycling modal share despite rapid aging of the Dutch population.

    Want another example ? How about mass cycling events which take place all across the Netherlands during the summer attracting tens of thousands of people, largely retired ? My mother came over to take part this year, the first time in her life that she has been able to do so because such an activity with this demographic is impossible to organise in the UK where the cycling infrastructure does not exist. Take a look at our home video and note the age of people taking part. This is what retirees have to look forward to in the Netherlands. Riding peacefully through their senior years in pleasant conditions, sometimes with their grandchildren or even great grandchildren. It’s mainstream. All Dutch people do this when they retire. I’m looking forward to it myself.

    Or you can view another youtube video in which a rather bitter sounding John Forester tells the world that people cycle in the Netherlands because Amsterdam is “a pre-automotive obsolete city, which even if it were true is completely irrelevant given that the Netherlands also has lots of other cities, including some which are very new such as Almere where construction didn’t start until the mid 1970s.

    Do you honestly still not feel at all like you backed the wrong horse, John ? You would still be able to cycle on a daily basis if you lived in the Netherlands.

  3. i have just come back from Amsterdam with my girlfriend, a delicate flower of a thing who does not cycle regularly. We cycled about rush hour with cars, trams, pedestrians, other bicycles and did not bat an eyelid. We were cautious for sure but everyone around us knew what they were doing and seemed to allow for the newbies on their hire bikes. What seemed to be a pickle or a mess from the outside, once entered in the flow of traffic was a smooth regulated safe seemless flow. The one thing that stuck us was that the person was king. No matter if walking or cycling, they had a respect of other route users and that is what makes the difference. This car culture in which we live takes away the human element of moving. and with cars come fear. Take away that fear and you will be surprised at what a pleasant and safe experience moving around can be. Mr Forester uses phrases like “anti motoring motivation” and “traffic-fearing cyclist”. A few days riding in Amsterdam proves to me that its not traffic that we fear, there is plenty of it, bike and foot traffic, its riding in close proximity to cars that have not respect for other users of the road that provides the health and safety risks. Good design combined with respectful users makes for a delightful addition to any transport network. Don’t believe me? get a £30 easy jet flight and hire a bike in Amsterdam. If you wonder why people bang on about riding a bike in the Netherlands, it will be an epiphany.

  4. 3rdWorldCyclinginGB

    My Dutch is a bit rusty but:
    Fietsen in Nederland – heel gezellig voor iedereen – natuurlijk!
    Fietsen in Amerika of UK…? Niet.

  5. Let’s give Mr Forester a break. No, seriously – hear me out!

    After all, when you have devoted your whole life to something and been hailed as the great expert for many years, it must be extremely hard to accept that you’re wrong.

    It’s must be like believing that the Earth is flat only to have your views confounded by some irritating young mathematician or explorer proving that it’s actually a sphere (more or less).

    Having ridden round parts of the Netherlands with Schrodinger’s Cat, I can confirm that it is much easier and more pleasurable than anywhere else I’ve ever cycled.

    Of course, I can’t possibly intellectualise the theory in the same way as Mr Forester, having but a tiny brain. However, I’m quite happy with the conclusions from my rather simplistic, empirical studies:

    Dense network = good.
    Segregated cycle routes = good.
    Routes continuous across side-roads and junctions = good.
    Filtered permeability = good.

  6. It is truly fascinating that the Forester/Franklin opposition to cycle infrastructure, whilst clearly ideological in nature, is repeatedly claimed to be evidence-based. The evidence quoted by Forester/Franklin relies on taking an average of the safety of all approaches to segregated infrastructure versus the vehicular approach. The problem with this is obvious when you think about it; all cycle tracks/lanes are not created equal. By lumping all these disparate approaches together in this way, the safety of separated infrastructure, such as at junctions is grossly misrepresented; the failure of the UK approach to separation taints the runaway successes of the Dutch. It is easy for the average cyclist to be taken in by this argument, but the self-proclaimed experts who present it should know better, and I find it hard to believe that their false dichotomy is not a deliberate construction.

    • “The problem with this is obvious when you think about it; all cycle tracks/lanes are not created equal. By lumping all these disparate approaches together in this way, the safety of separated infrastructure, such as at junctions is grossly misrepresented”

      Very true! While I have criticized the anti-infrastructure crowd on the basis that their complaints are solvable (as demonstrated by the Dutch, and to a lesser extent the Danes, Swedes, etc) but never thought about how unfair their analysis really is! Thanks for the enlightening comment!

  7. Gareth

    “Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that such an outcome would be most unlikely, evidence from sociology, urban design, traffic engineering, psychology, and similar fields, areas in which the anti-motorists do not show expertise.”

    Except of course, the existence of the Netherlands. So is this American Exceptionalism, or Dutch Exceptionalism? Or just bone-headed parochialism?

  8. haagse hop

    Being born in 1950 in the Netherlands , i cycled my way trough the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s 80’s 90’s and into the new century. I rode my bike like everybody else, we didn’t know any better. When i was young, my parents with their friends and their young children, rode with us on the bike to the sea side, 2 dogs running next to the bike. Now i’m not so young anymore and there is a lot more car traffic but other parents with other children are still riding their bikes to sea or other sides and i’m happy we can still do that. Due to an illness i can’t ride my normal 2 wheel bike anymore, but i have a trycicle that i can use and wich gives me the freedom to go where i want. I’m soooo glad nobody in my country listened to John Forrester.
    I would wish other people in other countries to have what we , Dutch have .

  9. haagse hop

    What i forgot to mention is that i never would have dared to ride my trycicle in a Forrester kind of traffic jungle. Well, the kind you have ,i suppose. Having 3 wheels doesn’t make me go faster, the bike is heavier for one thing . So, at a slower pace in wild west traffic i wouldn’t stand a chance to survive nor would i dare to cross roads with all those angry cars coming at me. I’m better of getting old in the Netherlands where i still get my exercise and the possibillity to do my shopping by bike and visit friends . John Forrester, ( maybe we shouldn’t say his name out loud) would like to take that away from me, the misguided fool.

  10. haagse hop

    Forester, i mean Forester off course. Not some unsuspecting , nice and maybe bike loving person named Forrester.

  11. BC

    Max Planck may have said it best:
    “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    I hope, but am not convinced, that the internet is speeding up this process (the triumph of truths, that is).

  12. Paul Nevins

    I am Paul Nevins, I live in San Diego not far from Forester. I’m a board member of a recreational bicycling club, past board member of the local County Bicyclig Coalition and member of two local city bicycle committees as well as a LCI ( league certified instructor ). LCI’s teach vehicular cycling as authorized by the League of American Bicyclists. I do not subscribe to Forester’s foolish notion that all bicycles should be ‘driven’ as if the rider was an motor vehicle driver. My heresy was to refute this absurd notion, request John amend his theory to provide for the 99% of the populace who will never fight it out on a road with motor vehicles and I also requested he apologize for the carnage his shortsighted (patently idiotic) theory has caused over the last 40 years. He is now fixated upon my online demise.

    • Hi Paul,

      In that case I’m quite happy to have been mixed up with you! It sounds like we’re on the same page. Have you had the pleasure of meeting the man?

      The more I learn about cycling and infrastructure, the more amazed I am when people can’t see that proper infrastructure is the only way to make cycling safe and popular. I can’t decide whether Forester et al are driven by ignorance, or whether they’re being secretly paid by the oil companies. Both seem as likely as each other!

      All the best, and good luck!

      • Human Power

        “The more I learn about cycling and infrastructure, the more amazed I am when people can’t see that proper infrastructure is the only way to make cycling safe and popular.”

        I’m going to be a bit of a stick in the mud here, but my experience says this is not quite true. In the ’70s (OMG, Forester’s era!) and first half of the ’80s, Davis, CA had a modal share for bikes of over 80% (estimate because no one was counting, but I was there). That city of 60,000 people had one little-used side path (the site of the majority of the bike-car crashes and broken bones that I knew of) and a half-dozen bike lanes as well as a university core area that was closed to private automobiles. So, it wasn’t completely devoid of cycle-specific infrastructure, but it had far less than the typical American city currently boasts. Davis also had a population that enthusiastically supported cycling. The annual Davis Double Century attracted approximately 5% of the city’s population to either ride or support the ride.

        If you’re willing to count traffic law enforcement with a zero-tolerance for scofflaws as part of proper infrastructure, then I would have to agree with your statement as it is my belief that this was what led to Davis having its short-lived reign as the Bike Capital of the World.

        • BC

          ” So, it wasn’t completely devoid of cycle-specific infrastructure, but it had far less than the typical American city currently boasts.”

          Ridiculous. Davis in the 1970s/80s had, and still has, more bicycle infrastructure, per capita and per acre, than any American city today. The only way to claim otherwise is if you exclude the campus from the city. But the campus is the economic and physical heart of the city. with less than a kilometer from a small ‘downtown’ to the center of campus.

          The University, is, and was, riddled with bicycle paths and lanes. As impressive as it looks on Google Maps,
          that’s not the entirety of it because most ‘streets’ on campus are effectively bike paths closed to cars most of the time. These campus paths and bicycle streets have existed since the 1960s.

          And many of the bike paths at Village Homes and other off campus neighborhoods have existed since the late 70s.

          This is a small town – 10 square miles, 13 if you include the main campus. It had a population of only 23,000 in 1970, and 37,000 in 1980 (not “60,000”.) More than 50% are students, faculty and staff.

          “…had a modal share for bikes of over 80% (estimate because no one was counting, but I was there).”

          Another ridiculous statement. Maybe 80% of students owned bikes, or 80% rode part of the time, but get real.

          Bicycling declined in Davis because of the growth of the University’s free bus service, and growth of non-student residents who commute by car to Sacramento.

          But Davis still has the highest modal share of cycling in the US, and it’s because of the University’s and the city’s bicycle infrastructure.

          1960 – ‘City’ of Davis population is 8,900; University of California at Davis has 3,000 students.
          1970 – Davis pop. is 23,000; UCD has 13,000 students.
          1980 – Davis pop. is 37,000; UCD has 19,000 students.
          2010 – Davis pop. is 66,000. This includes over 80% of students (30,000 total) who live in town. There are also 11,000 faculty and staff.

          Click to access Davis_bike_history.pdf


          Click to access ptotlpop_ycurr.pdf

          Click to access ehistav_a65cr.pdf

          • Hi BC,

            Thanks for that thorough and informative reply, and for the links!

            The previous commenter’s quoted statistic of 80% modal share sounded very unlikely to me, especially as it’s based on a 30 year old anecdote rather than actual statistics. (It would mean that cycling was four times more common as all driving, walking and public transport put together!) Sure enough, the first PDF you linked to shows modal share was 28% in 1980, which sounds much more likely.

            Seeing those photographs of the protected cycle path – in the 1960s! – in the USA! – made my jaw drop. I could hardly believe my eyes!

            Looking at Davis on Google Streetview, it’s clear to me that there is better and more substantial cycle infrastructure than almost anywhere outside of the Netherlands. There’s even a cycle roundabout! Sure, it’s not quite up to Dutch standards (though it’s not a million miles off) and it might not have the coverage that the Netherlands has, but it looks fairly good to me. In almost every Streetview frame there are people riding bikes – and where there’s a cycle path they’re using it, they’re not choosing to ride on the road.

            Certainly, to suggest that Davis’ bike paths and its 15% modal share are unrelated – that people there are cycling despite the infrastructure, not because of it – is patently ridiculous!


  13. I am so pleased that someone (else) is taking this up. The link to my Copenhagenize article doesn’t work, by the way. 😉

    John Forester will go to his grave with blood on his hands. What a legacy. And to think that MIT republished his book twenty years on.

    • Oops – thanks for spotting the broken link! I’m happy that people find this blog useful – I’m standing on the shoulder of giants such as yourself with all this stuff, really.

      The scariest thing about Forester isn’t the man himself (goodness knows the world has plenty of cranks) but that he has such a strong and vocal following.

      We’ll keep up the good fight though!

  14. Erik Griswold

    In which I take on the disciples of the Cult of VC (see comments):

  15. thebikeboy

    I remember well my first encounter with John Forester — online site called Bike Forums, where he (at another’s invitation), confounded and tangled online discussions about on-road riding to NO END. His long-standing habit, which I recognized in the quote piece of the article, is to restructure another’s argument in order to make his verbose answer seem correct, thereby discrediting the other person. It was effective on BF for about a week and a half.

    I characterize Forester as a querulous old man who was/is out of touch with life on earth post-1975. I could never really bring any resolution to the way he thought people should ride, because his tactics were based on the idea that drivers would notice us, and therefore not hit us, because no one wants to murder another.

    Say what you want about my riding style (MTB on side streets and sidewalks), I am using travelways that are little used (I see less than 10 pedestrians per DAY, anywhere!). Side streets that see a car every five minutes or so make good alternatives, and if it’s a little out the way, well…more bike time!

    • Yes, Forester’s pseudo-intellectual writing style is really irritating. His diatribes are so impenetrable, full of convoluted and tortured prose.

      I try really hard to write in a clear and concise fashion which I hope everybody could understand. Forester is the opposite of this.

      He has few facts and little logic on his side, so he has to hide behind his tangled web of words!

      (PS. +10 points for the word “querulous”)

  16. John Forester wrote a letter to the Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal after an article was published about separate facilities (see this link):
    Several engineers responded with what I hope is a reasonable counterpoint.

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