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Letter to MIT President Charles Vest
from John Forester

John Forester is the author of the books Effective Cycling and Bicycle Transportation Engineering, published by MIT Press. He is a past president of the League of American Bicyclists.

John Forester, M.S., P.E.
Cycling Transportation Engineer
Consulting Engineer, Expert Witness & Educator in
Effective Cycling, Bicycles, Highways & Bikeways, Traffic Laws
7585 Church St., Lemon Grove, CA 91945-2306

forester *at* johnforester.com

Friday, June 14, 2002

Dr. Charles M. Vest
77 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge MA 02139

Re: Vassar Street Project

Dear Dr. Vest:

I have reviewed some published documents regarding the design for Vassar Street, and I have concluded that the design is unduly dangerous for both bicyclists and pedestrians. Therefore, I predict that accidents caused by that design will have several effects.

  1. Subject MIT to financial liability for damages in personal injury law suits.

  2. Degrade the value of the degrees that MIT awards.

  3. Reduce the stature of MIT as a reputable institution of engineering excellence.

Item #1 is easy enough to explain. If the design of a facility causes an accident, in this case possibly a collision between a bicyclist and a pedestrian, but also possibly a collision between a bicyclist and a motor vehicle, the designer and owner of the facility are liable for paying both actual and punitive damages.

Items #2 and #3 are indirect results of the above, although it is quite likely that the information would become public even before the first accident occurred, because construction of this project will attract public attention and criticism of the design..

Leaving the description of the errors in the design until later, I describe the errors in engineering procedure that MIT has made, and will perpetuate if it does not change the design. These errors would be detrimental to MIT's reputation in the engineering field.

Procedural Error # 1: Use of unqualified designers

MIT contracted for the design of a street with a firm that does not possess the qualifications that are required for highway design, under the supervision of an MIT employee who also is not qualified in highway design. Those people have presented and defended the design without reference to employment of qualified traffic engineers.

Procedural Error #2: Disobeying engineering standards

A standard for the design of bicycling facilities has existed for over twenty years, issued by the Association of American State Highway and Transportation Officials, and periodically revised to current opinion. (AASHTO: Guide for Bicycle Facilities)   [print version; CD-ROM version]. For many years that standard has advised against the type of bicycle facility, the sidepath in urban areas, that MIT's contractor has designed for Vassar Street.

Procedural Error #3: Contradicting the standard knowledge in the field

The AASHTO Guide for Bicycle Facilities and its predecessors have from the first been extensively criticized. The criticism alleges that the Guide is based on motorist convenience rather than the reduction of accidents to cyclists, as a normal safety standard would be constructed. The result is that following its recommendations is more likely to increase car-bike collisions than reduce them, without at any consideration at all for the approximately 90% of accidents to cyclists that have no involvement with motor vehicles. In other words, a safe cycling facility design must do far better than AASHTO requires; simply avoiding the worst designs (such as that for Vassar Street) is insufficient. The plans for Vassar Street contradict this additional knowledge. The appropriate knowledge is widely available. My books Effective Cycling and Bicycle Transportation are published by The MIT Press. The MIT graduate John Allen, living in Waltham, has published Bicycling Street Smarts (not his most relevant work with respect to Vassar Street), has posted numerous references to research works in bicycle transportation on his Web site, and has critically reviewed the Vassar Street project plans. The knowledge is familiar also to David Gordon Wilson, professor emeritus of MIT.

Procedural Error #4: Using engineeringly incompetent spokespeople

MIT has employed Paul Smith, AICP, to defend the Vassar Street design against the criticism made by expert engineers that it is dangerous to life and limb. Consider this: You have a traffic facility, call it a bridge for this discussion, which has been designed by gardeners, but whose safety is criticized by engineers, and you bring in a sculptor of majestic bronze to defend its structural integrity instead of seeking a structural engineer with the appropriate qualifications. Paul Smith is a city planner, and it is well known that city planners know very little about bicycle transportation, and most of their beliefs are incorrect. See my article The Bicycle Transportation Controversy; Transportation Quarterly, Vol. 5 No 2, Spring 2001 for a listing of more than the 20 basic references in the field that were apparently unknown to Professor John Pucher of Rutgers Urban Planning. Smith uses Dutch and Danish bikeway documents, which recommend sidepaths, to justify the Vassar Street design, without recognizing that the American standard, the AASHTO Guide, giving very good engineering reasons, specifically warns against that type of facility.

Smith evidences no familiarity with the nearest parallels to Vassar Street, the bicycling experiences of the university campuses in Santa Barbara, Davis, Boulder, Stanford. In all of those, separation of bicycle traffic from pedestrian traffic was found to be very important; Santa Barbara went to the expense of installing steps in the pedestrian paths to keep out bicycle traffic.

The discipline of bicycle transportation engineering contains an intense controversy, at its most intense with respect to sidepath designs such as that for Vassar Street. One can describe it as the conflict between treating bicyclists as drivers and treating them as incompetent children. A person who does not know of this, and therefore has no opinion on it, is hardly to be judged qualified to render an expert opinion on the subject.

It is a pity that MIT does not teach highway traffic engineering; had you a qualified faculty member you might have had the appropriate expertise on hand. In short, MIT's choice of a consultant without any engineering qualifications to defend the engineering aspects of its plan for Vassar Street shows how little MIT values the subjects that it teaches.

This letter does not discuss the engineering technicalities of designing for bicycle transportation. Rather, it discusses the extent to which MIT has ignored and failed to observe the recognized engineering procedures, standards, and knowledge regarding bicycle transportation in the process of preparing and defending its design for Vassar Street. To say that this is dangerous is obvious. To say that this exposes MIT to some degree of disparagement for neglecting to do what it teaches should be done should also be obvious.

Yours truly,

John Forester

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