Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Pasadena Mayoral Runoff

Pasadena voters will decide on April 21 whether Vice-Mayor and Councilmember Jacque Robinson or Councilmember Terry Tornek will be the new Mayor.  With an ambitious new mobility plan expected to come before the Council in the Mayor’s next term, I wanted to get a sense of which candidate would provide stronger leadership for the plan and which would be more likely to support sustainable transportation and walkable, bikeable, neighborhoods.

While there are a number of important issues in the campaign, a lot is at stake for those who walk, bike, and/or use transit in Pasadena—and for those who’d like to, but are intimidated by the idea of riding a bike in traffic.  My family and I regularly bike, walk, and use transit in Pasadena, so installation of better bike infrastructure is very important to me.  As the “Crown City” goes, so goes much of the San Gabriel Valley, thus the election of a bike-friendly mayor has regional implications, too.

Pasadena is in dire need of a bold new bike plan—and that plan must be implemented sooner, not later.  Anyone who rides here knows that Pasadena’s bike infrastructure is at least 20 years out-of-date, and Pasadena’s deadly streets have been the cause of several deaths in recent years, such as that of Phillip O’Neill in 2013.  And while the city benefits from good transit, with numerous Gold Line stations, Metro, Foothill Transit and ARTS bus lines, transit users who wish to use a bike for “first mile/last mile” transportation will find very little in the way of bike infrastructure.  The city lacks virtually any street that incorporates the latest designs in protected or buffered bike lanes that other cities have been installing.  It’s a shame, too, because Pasadena has such potential to be a bike-friendly city.  Pasadena’s draft bike plan, while far from perfect, is a good first step toward remedying this, but there will undoubtedly be pushback from car-oriented residents and it is imperative that the next Mayor possesses the vision and political courage to withstand the pushback.

A good place to start an assessment of the two candidates is with their responses to the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition survey on issues such as bicycle and pedestrian safety, which both Tornek and Robinson answered.

Most urgent transportation needs:  On the question of the city’s most urgent transportation needs, Tornek cites “traffic calming” and “protected bike lanes” as the main elements of improving roadway safety and he specifically mentions Colorado Blvd as a potential “great street” project.  These are excellent ideas.  Unfortunately Tornek’s brief answer left me wanting to know more.  What elements of the complete streets policy should be prioritized?  How would he deal with the notorious timidity and foot-dragging of Pasadena DOT?  What about other streets and road treatments short of protected bike lanes (i.e., bicycle boulevards, greenways, etc.)?  How about bike share and connectivity to transit?

In her answer, Robinson mentions that she supports the mobility plan, but she specifies an approach focused on “traffic mitigation” to be achieved by “synchronizing lights on thorough fares to encourage movement of traffic.”  Unfortunately, this car-prioritized approach would neither encourage a modal shift from cars nor improve safety for bikes or pedestrians.  Robinson also notes that in her efforts to revitalize the Lincoln Ave. corridor she has “pushed for a traffic diet [road diet?] to narrow the street in certain sections and slow traffic to encourage walkability and make the area safe for bikers and pedestrians.”

While Colorado Blvd. includes protected bike lanes as part of the proposed bike plan, Lincoln Ave. does not.  A road diet that would significantly slow automobile traffic on Lincoln would be welcome, but without any plan for bike infrastructure on Lincoln it is difficult to see how it becomes “safe for bikers,” let alone how it would encourage others (i.e., schoolchildren, families, commuters) to ride Lincoln Ave.  And, note to candidates: if you don’t want to appear out-of-touch or downright hostile to the cycling community it’s best to avoid the term “bikers.”  Bikers wear leather jackets and ride Harley-Davidsons.

Advantage: Tornek.

Reducing Pasadena’s carbon footprint:  Robinson prefaces her answer with the claim that Pasadenans are “very dependent” on their cars and says residents would drive less only after transit alternatives “become more frequent and efficient.”  I’m certainly supportive of more frequent transit service, but without a concrete proposal for more frequent transit and a plan to fund it, this answer looks like an excuse to maintain a status quo of continued car dependency.  Tornek says he supports “mixed use development and high density housing in appropriate locations,” which have been shown to reduce a city’s carbon footprint by promoting more walking, bicycling and transit use, especially when located near transit.

Advantage: Tornek.

Safe Routes to School:  Asked what they would do to promote active safe walking and bicycling to schools, both candidates say they would promote neighborhood schools . . . (cue crickets chirping).

This partial answer by both candidates ignores the fact that neighborhood schools in PUSD already suffer from very low levels of walking and bicycling to school.  Simply encouraging families to attend neighborhood schools without following through with infrastructure improvements, safety programs and walk/bike to school programs will fail to change this.  The problem is not primarily distance, it is lack of bike infrastructure leading to/from schools.

Here was an opportunity for both candidates to knock one out of the park, to promote local schools AND Safe Routes to School programs AND safer sidewalks AND better bike infrastructure near schools.  Encouraging active transportation for our youth is a no-brainer, instead we’ll continue to suffer from the same unsafe car-choked streets around schools twice daily, continuation of the obesity epidemic (along with much hand-wringing about how our kids don’t get enough exercise), air pollution, stressed-out parents, and another generation that thinks it’s “normal” to be chauffeured in an SUV a mile and a half to school every day.

Advantage: Neither.

Reducing collisions between cars/bicycles (“vision zero”):   Robinson emphasizes “a bike safety initiative to help drivers and cyclist [sic] better understand how to co-exist on the roads together.” Good answer.  However, Robinson’s answer says nothing about the problem of infrastructure.  While I’m not opposed to bike safety programs, anyone who’s ridden a bike on the streets of Pasadena knows the main problem is a lack of safe infrastructure for people on bikes (a result of streets primarily designed for rapid “movement of traffic”).  For his part, Tornek answered that the city should “provide protected bike lanes wherever possible.”  I love the idea of protected bike lanes, but where are the specifics?  And, since even in my wildest dreams we’re not realistically going to have protected bike lanes on every street any time in the near future, shouldn’t bike (and driver) safety also be mentioned?  What about road treatments short of protected bike lanes?  What about a citywide safety program for youth and adults?  Stepped-up enforcement of traffic violations?  We need a network of infrastructure improvements, safety education programs, and enforcement.  Unfortunately, neither candidate really gets this one.

Advantage: Neither.

Riding a bike:  This may seem like a small thing, but it’s not.  There’s no way around it:  riding the streets of your city gives you a significantly different perspective on traffic and road safety than one behind the wheel of a car.  Having a mayor who understands what it’s like to ride a bike makes a huge difference.  Neither candidate, to my knowledge, rides a bike regularly, but even riding occasionally broadens one’s perception about streets.  Last year, PasCSC did outreach to all members of the city council, inviting them to schedule an organized ride in their individual districts.  Such events offer a concrete opportunity to see and feel how the streets work (or fail to work) for pedestrians and cyclists.  It’s something that cannot be fully understood from behind the wheel of an automobile.  Tornek went on a district ride with PCSC.  Robinson expressed interest, but was unable to fit it into her schedule or send a staffer.  I’d feel better about Robinson if she’d made the effort to actually get on a bike with PCSC volunteers and see what the streets in her district are like from a bicyclist’s perspective, as Tornek did.  It makes a difference.  Former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was not thought of as a pro-complete streets Mayor until he was knocked off his bike by a cab driver while on a ride and saw the serious need for better bike infrastructure.  In other words, actually riding a bike in the city can wake a person up to the serious need for specific infrastructure changes like protected bike lanes.

Advantage: Tornek.

Websites:  What do the websites of the two candidates tell complete streets voters?  Robinson’s website has no section dedicated to complete streets, but on a statement about development promises to “increase pedestrian and public transportation options with areas south of the [210] freeway.”

Tornek’s website includes a more specific statement about complete streets as part of his issues page regarding “reducing traffic and increasing walkability” in Pasadena:

Pasadena needs wider sidewalks and more welcoming public spaces. As Mayor, I will prioritize reducing neighborhood traffic while increasing the walkability of out [sic] streets and making them more bicycle friendly. I believe streets are for people to walk, bike and ride transit…not just drive cars.

Advantage: Tornek.

Debate 1:  What have the candidates said about complete streets and/or active transportation in the two debates they’ve had?  During the first debate, moderated by Star-News editors Larry Wilson and Frank Girardot, the only transportation-related question was regarding the proposed 710 freeway tunnel.

Robinson and Tornek both told the debate audiences they opposed the 710 extension.  Robinson specifically mentioned “alternative modes” of transportation for the route and Tornek said the tunnel would be expensive and the route would soon be every bit as congested as it currently is (see the 405, for example).  Of course, they are both correct.  The well-documented phenomenon of “induced demand” or “latent demand” will mean that the 710 route will soon fill up with cars, solving nothing, and the only real long-term solution is transit—either light rail, or real BRT.

Unfortunately, during the debate neither candidate took the opportunity to tout the benefits of complete streets as part of a well-rounded social and environmental policy.  On questions about the city’s economic situation, for example, they might have brought up the ways walkable, bikeable streets have been shown to benefit local businesses, but neither did.  When asked about local schools, they could have mentioned how encouraging walking and bicycling to school through programs like Safe Routes to School (SRTS) benefits students’ health, improves safety, reduces traffic congestion around schools, and has even been shown to improve test scores, but they didn’t.  They might have mentioned the benefits of active transportation to overall public health and lower healthcare costs, but they didn’t.  When addressing the needs of the city’s low income residents, they ought to have discussed how redesigning our streets for alternative modes of mobility can foster social equity, but they didn’t.

Advantage: Neither.

Debate 2:  During the second debate, hosted by KPCC’s Larry Mantle, candidates were asked what they would do to promote complete streets and improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.  Robinson explicitly said she supports the bike master plan and the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition’s efforts to “educate the public” that roads should be multimodal.  However, when Mantle pressed her on whether she still supported a road diet for Colorado Blvd., even if it meant, in Mantle’s words, “losing a lane of traffic,” she hedged.  “Yes,” she answered, “provided that we have the complete information.”  She said the Council would need to be “mindful that it [a road diet] may not always have a positive impact.”

Unfortunately, I thought both the question and the answer reflected a singular windshield perspective.  Yes, there’s an adjustment at first, but (a) road diets don’t cause roads to “lose” a lane, they repurpose a travel lane in a way that will encourage a transportation mode shift and provide protection for vulnerable road users who already use the streets; and (b) there are a wide variety of long-term positive impacts that far outweigh any temporary inconvenience to motorists.

When Mantle pressed her about her “qualms” on the road diet, a centerpiece of the draft bike master plan, Robinson backpedalled further.  The road diet, she said, “is something we should consider.”  She then explained:

When you remove a lane … the number of cars is not going to go anywhere so there’s either going to be more cars traveling on the street in a single lane, which will create more traffic, or they’re going to move to other streets, so we have to be mindful of that as we move to these new ideas.

The answer raises a troubling question in my mind about whether she’d actually vote for the road diet (rather than just “consider” it) let alone whether she’d have the determination to defend it when opposition arises.  Moreover, road diets don’t “create more traffic.”  They may shift it, they may slow it (not necessarily a bad thing from a safety perspective), and they may actually reduce it if alternative modes of travel are convenient and safe.  Blaming bike lanes or road diets for “creating” traffic reflects a narrow windshield perspective.

Tornek noted that everyone says they support multimodal transportation, “until you actually have to remove a lane.”  He reiterated his support for the road diet and parklets on Colorado Bl., despite the “great resistance” he anticipates this will initially generate.  The complete streets concept, he said, is now state law, and it forces cities to come to grips with the reality that streets are not just for cars.  “All of us,” he continued, “will learn to view the way our streets operate in a different way.”  As for the Colorado Blvd. road diet and its effect on traffic, he cited the DOT’s data that showed only a 2% reduction in travel speed for cars, and noted that there is capacity on adjacent streets and “if it’s not going to work there [on Colorado Blvd.] it won’t work anywhere.”

Advantage: Tornek.

Conclusion:

Both candidates appear to support the city’s draft bike plan, but voting for the plan when it comes before council and implementing road diets and bike lanes are two different things.  I get the impression from the second debate that Tornek would be more likely to follow through on the latter, even in the face of opposition.  When pressed on the more ambitious specifics of the bike plan in the second debate, Robinson’s support wavered.  Contrast it with her unequivocal (and admirable) support for raising the minimum wage, which she said she’d support even if some local merchants were opposed.  She offers no specifics about bike lanes and sometimes betrays an uncritical windshield perspective on traffic and safety issues.

There is much I like about Robinson, such as her support for public schools, her work on the Lincoln corridor, and her advocacy of a higher minimum wage.  It would be inspirational and historic for Pasadenans to elect a woman, a person of color, and a product of Pasadena’s public schools to the highest office of this staid old city.  That said, her positions on complete streets issues tend to reflect a cars-first mentality.  Even when she says she supports an element of the bike plan, she almost always hedges her answer.  This is especially disappointing since she represents a district where a relatively higher proportion of low-income residents rely on walking, bicycling, and transit for transportation.  One wishes she had been able to find time to go on a ride or walk in her district to see what her constituents on bicycles or on foot experience every day.  Her answers on the Complete Streets survey were not as strong as Tornek’s and her apparent waffling on the Colorado road diet during the second debate was also extremely disappointing.

On the other hand, on his website and in the second debate, Tornek offers explicit support for specific infrastructure improvements such as protected bike lanes that we need on our streets.  His answers in the second debate suggest he’s willing to support the proposed road diet on Colorado Blvd. even when opposition arises.  His answers demonstrate a bit more insight into the way mobility choices can be reconfigured when infrastructure and development patterns are steered in that direction.  On the City Council, Tornek, along with Councilmember McAustin, was instrumental in getting Pasadena DOT to revise and strengthen its draft bike plan last year and he made the time to go on an exploratory ride in his district.

Shifting away from car dependency is not going to be easy, but, aside from health and safety concerns, the issue is critically important as we face an unprecedented crisis of climate change.  We need to think anew about transportation planning, especially in urban areas.  We must view our streets differently to meet different transportation needs for the 21st century and shift our priorities accordingly.  Fortunately, shifting to transportation alternatives brings with it a variety of added benefits for the economy, public safety, and public health.

Pasadena, like the rest of our society, cannot afford to waste more time.  Bold leadership is required, as is the willingness to stand up to the inevitable resistance to change.  Pasadena needs a mayor who thinks of streets in terms of moving people, not just moving cars.  Though I’m somewhat disappointed in the brevity of some of Tornek’s answers on the PCSC survey and I have some minor reservations, for the most part he seems to get it.  His answers on the issues and his strong performance in the second debate suggest he is more likely to help the Council approve the new bike plan and its timely implementation.  For these reasons, I would recommend a vote for Tornek.

So, I encourage Pasadenans to read the Complete Streets survey, read the candidates’ websites and view the debates, and make up your own minds.  But by all means please “bike the vote” on April 21.  I also recognize that the work is just beginning.  Those who want complete streets in Pasadena must continue to organize, speak out, and vigorously press the city’s leaders and staff to follow through with a bold vision for sustainable, equitable, safe, and people-friendly streets … regardless of who wins on election day.

CicLAvia and Bike Lanes

Much has been happening in the bike-sphere, but I’ve been buried under a hectic schedule at my university, and it is only a brief spring break that allows me to break my silence.  We’re still fighting bad ideas like Sen. Carol Liu’s ill-considered mandatory helmet law and the multi-billion-dollar 710 freeway tunnels, but there are some hopeful signs here and there.  Here in the San Gabriel Valley, the Gold Line extension is nearing completion, and there is potential for this light rail to be a game-changer for commuters in the foothills of the SGV, especially if local cities make an effort to connect bike lanes to the stations.

One of the other bright spots is the growing willingness of cities to consider protected bike lanes (sometimes called “cycle tracks”) that have some form of physical separation, such as planters, curbs, medians, bollards, or other decorative barriers between cars and bikes.  For decades, the traffic engineering profession in the US has resisted protected bike lanes, but they have been extremely popular where they’ve been installed, and now they are starting to appear in cities all over the United States.  Long Beach was the first Southern California city to install one, and Temple City recently installed another on Rosemead Blvd.  There is a proposal by LADOT for the first one in Los Angeles, and I hope that there will be at least one in Pasadena’s pending mobility plan.  Once these protected bike lanes begin to proliferate, I believe they will significantly change perception of cycling for transportation in US cities.

Another bright spot is the growth of the “Open Streets” movement throughout Southern California and the US.  LA’s own “CicLAvia” is a prime example of an open streets concept that has spread and gained popularity wherever it has been tried.  Last weekend, CicLAvia held an open streets festival in the San Fernando Valley, and it was extremely popular (a bad cold kept me from attending).  The Valley was in many ways the epicenter of Southern California’s traditional car culture, so the success of a car-free event in the Valley is an indication of how far we’ve moved from the stereotype of American Graffiti.  The Valley’s CicLAvia also featured a “pop-up cycle track” on Chandler Ave. that gave people a taste of what it feels like to ride in a protected bike lane.  These events are important insofar as they provide people with a vision of street space radically flipped from cars to people and bikes.  The popularity of these events underscores the reality that people are hungry for public space that is safe to walk and bicycle in.  And where there is popularity, politicians will follow, perhaps even changing their own perceptions.

People who participate in these events often realize they haven’t really seen their city until they’ve seen it on a bike.  Businesses realize there is money to be made from clientele on bikes.  Open streets events also introduce people to the idea that distance is not really as much a barrier to bicycling as people assume.  When you realize that (with car free space) you can easily bike from one end of LA to the other, or one end of the Valley to the other, it erodes the automobile imperative just a little bit more.  These events bring people of different backgrounds together in an atmosphere of healthy, active, fun.  Every time CicLAvia occurs, I hear someone say I wish it was like this every day.  Gliding down the street, free from the fear of cars, free from the noise and the pollution, people begin to imagine car-free space every day.

I’m excitedly awaiting the next iteration of CicLAvia, which will come to Pasadena at the end of May.  As it becomes regularized, expected, and anticipated, I think it will continue to grow in popularity and, with it, the subversive idea that streets are not just for cars.  To paraphrase Che, we need “one, two, many CicLAvias,” to overthrow the tyranny of the automobile.

SB 192

Last week, CA state senator Carol Liu proposed a mandatory helmet law for California.  First, let me say that I almost always wear a helmet when I ride my bike.  I say “almost” because there are a few times when I don’t.  Riding the quarter mile to the bus stop, for example, most of which is on an off-road path where I’m unlikely to encounter any cars.  I also generally wear a hi-viz vest when I ride at night and I have two sets of lights for the front and rear of my bike, as well as a helmet-mounted light set.  I want to see and be seen when I ride.  That said, I think most mandatory helmet laws are misguided at best and pernicious at worst.

Senator Liu’s proposed bill (SB 192) would mandate helmets for all bicyclists as well as hi-viz clothing for anyone riding at night.  Currently, bicycle helmets are required for anyone under the age of 18 riding a bike.  Liu’s bill would expand that requirement to adults and also require hi-viz clothing for anyone riding a bike after dark, or be slapped with a $25 fine.

Senator Liu’s office claims her bill was drafted in response to a recent Governor’s Highway Safety Association report which found that the number of bicycle fatalities increased nationwide between 2010 and 2012.  The report caused a predictable scary media reaction, such as that of the near-hysterical headline in the Los Angeles Times,”Bicycle Traffic Deaths Soar” complete with a sensationalistic photo showing a crash test dummy on a bicycle flying through the air.

As a number of analysts pointed out, however, there were serious problems with the GHSA report, including short-term cherry-picked years that distorted the rise in bicyclist deaths, ignored local variations and the long-term decrease in the rate of bicycle fatalities on America’s roads.  In other words, as more people ride bikes for transportation and recreation, the US saw a short-term uptick in the total number of bike fatalities, but a drop in the rate of fatalities.  For the individual on a bicycle, riding is getting safer, especially because of the increased number of cyclists on the road and the spread of good bike infrastructure.  The GHSA report focused on the total number rather than the decrease in fatality rates and erroneously concluded that helmets for bicyclists were the solution to this alleged “problem.”  This raised yet another inaccuracy in the use of the GHSA data: there was absolutely no evidence that helmets (or lack thereof) were the primary reason for the fatalities, or how many of the fatalities could have been prevented by a bike helmet.  It’s easy enough to make that inference only if you assume that bicyclist behavior is the main safety problem.  The GHSA report ignores the elephant in the room: motor vehicles. The main culprit gets off scott free.

Statistically, the number one thing we could do to decrease roadway deaths (of all kinds: drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists) is to reduce the speed of cars.  As motor vehicle speed increases, fatality rates increase, helmets or no.  Of course, infrastructure also matters.  In bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, most people on bikes don’t need to wear helmets or hi-viz because the infrastructure is designed to accommodate them.  As a result, their road fatality rates are significantly lower than the U.S.

The other thing we can do to improve safety is to increase the number of people riding bikes, because research has shown that when drivers expect to see people on bikes they drive more carefully.  Unfortunately, where mandatory helmet laws have been enacted (such as New Zealand), they have been shown to reduce the number of people who ride.

The GHSA report came from a typical windshield perspective: blame the victim and don’t change the destructive behavior of the “kings of the road.”  As the old saying goes, figures don’t lie, but liars figure.  Both Senator Liu and the GHSA report offer what seems to be a nice quick fix: change bicyclists’ behavior rather than that of motorists (or heaven forbid, build some protected bike lanes and road diets to slow traffic speeds and increase road safety for all).  That way you can appear to be doing something for roadway safety.

If Senator Liu is really interested in increased safety for people on bikes, there are other ways: (1) secure more funding for California cities to build networks of bike lanes—especially protected bike lanes; (2) slow down motor vehicle speeds by redesigning roadways to increase safety; and (3) encourage more people to ride by working with bicycle advocacy organizations like LACBC and CalBike on safety campaigns.  Mandatory helmet/hi-viz laws are not themselves going to increase safety.

In fact, a good case in point is the case of Senator Liu’s own nephew.  According to the Sacramento Bee story on her proposed helmet/hi-viz law:

Liu’s nephew, Alan Liu, was killed in 2004 by a drunk driver while riding in Sonoma County. Liu was wearing a helmet.

With all due sympathy and respect to the Senator and her family for their irreversible loss, was Alan Liu’s tragic death the result of not wearing a helmet?

Another case in point was my own experience riding home on my evening commute from work last week on the very same day the Senator’s bill was announced.  As I approached a red light, the driver of a late-model minivan decided she had to beat me to the red light, gunned her engine, sped around me into the oncoming traffic lane, and swerved in front of me dangerously close before slamming on her brakes to stop at the red light.  Wouldn’t it have been safer for her to take her foot off the gas pedal for—literally—three seconds and arrive at the red light after me?  I was riding fast enough that it wouldn’t have inconvenienced her to slow down behind me.  Her life-threatening driving had risked my life and saved her exactly no time on her drive.  It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with shit like that when I ride.  Here’s the kicker: I was wearing a helmet and a hi-viz vest, as I always do on my commute home.  I was riding legally, visibly, and predictably, as I was taught to do in the numerous bike safety courses I’ve taken and taught.  As I mentioned, I also have 2 sets of bright lights in the front and rear of my bike as well as a helmet-mounted front and rear light.

Question: what was the glaring “safety” issue here?  Lack of a helmet?  Lack of hi-viz clothing?  Lack of safety training for the bicyclist?  Or dangerous, irresponsible, impatient, and possibly distracted driving?

Look, nobody’s a bigger advocate for roadway safety than I, especially now that I ride a bike, and I’m generally a supporter of wearing a helmet and being visible on a bike.  California state law already requires lights and reflectors on bikes.  If a driver isn’t paying attention enough to see a cyclist with lights, how is further shifting the burden/blame onto the cyclist going to change things?  I think people on bikes should be encouraged to wear helmets and reflective material (especially at night), but a requirement that everyone do so will be a burden to many lower income riders and result primarily in lower rates of bicycling.  Perhaps this is really what Sen. Liu wants.  Discourage cycling and you reduce the “problem,” right?

The real safety problem on our roads has very little to do with what people on bikes are wearing, but dangerous, unsafe, and illegal behavior by people driving shiny motorized death-boxes.

It’s not the bikes, it’s not the helmets, it’s not the hi-viz.  It’s the cars, stupid.

East Pasadena Exploratory Ride

Noreen Sullivan (2nd from left) joins members of the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition on a District 4 exploratory ride.

Noreen Sullivan (2nd from left), field representative for Councilmember Masuda, joins members of the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition on a District 4 exploratory ride.

Saturday morning members of Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition were joined by Noreen Sullivan, field representative for Pasadena City Councilmember Gene Masuda, on an exploratory ride around Masuda’s District 4 in east Pasadena.  PasCSC has been hosting exploratory rides for council members and their staff around Pasadena in order to raise awareness of the need for better bike infrastructure and build support for a citywide bike plan that addresses these needs.  The rides are an excellent opportunity for city council members to get a first hand idea of the importance of a bike plan and the need for specific improvements.  Nothing does this better than getting on a bicycle and experiencing it for yourself.

PasCSC members embark on their exploratory ride from the Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station.

PasCSC members embark on their exploratory ride from the Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station.

Our ride was organized by Candace Seu, an energetic volunteer for PasCSC, and took place on a gorgeous January day.  The ride started off from the Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line Station, and the group discussed the need for better bike access to the station, especially the need for bike lanes on Halstead, the safest bike approach to the station from the north and east.

Ride organizer and PasCSC member Candace Seu photographs motorists encroaching on bike lane on southbound Rosemead at Sierra Madre Villa.  The group also witnessed a motorist illegally cutting off a cyclist on the northbound side of the same intersection. Pasadena DOT, are you listening?

Ride organizer and PasCSC member Candace Seu documents speeding motorists encroaching on bike lane on southbound Rosemead at Sierra Madre Villa. We suggested that DOT needs to install bollards or some other means of keeping autos out of the bike lane.  The group also witnessed a motorist illegally cutting off a cyclist on the northbound side of the same intersection. Pasadena DOT, are you listening?

From Halstead, our group turned left on Rosemead Blvd, which has relatively new bike lanes for one block between Halstead and Sierra Madre Villa.  We proceeded to the corner of Rosemead/Orange Grove and Sierra Madre Villa, which is a dangerous intersection for bicyclists because of design features that encourage high motor vehicle speed and have insufficient protection for cyclists.  I’ve complained about this intersection before.  This intersection includes a right-turn merge lane from north(west)-bound Rosemead Blvd to northbound Sierra Madre Villa.  The traffic was too fast for bicyclists to feel safe because of the road design that prioritizes automobile speed over safety.  Indeed, while discussing the problems of the intersection, we witnessed a cyclist riding in the bike lane get cut off by a right-turning motorist who couldn’t be bothered to slow down for the cyclist.  We suggested to Sullivan that DOT redesign the right turn lane of that intersection and add green paint to the bike lane and signage to enhance motorists’ awareness of the bike lane.  She seemed concerned about the problems of this intersection and promised to share those concerns with Councilmember Masuda.

From there, the group rode west on Paloma street to Craig, Craig to Villa, and Villa back to Sierra Madre Blvd.  This part of the ride went mostly through quiet residential streets that are very pleasant to bike.  People in this neighborhood could easily bike to schools, parks, shops, and the Gold Line, but we stressed that the major streets surrounding the neighborhood connecting to these destinations need better bike infrastructure, otherwise most people won’t feel comfortable or safe bicycling them.

The group subsequently turned left on Sierra Madre Blvd and followed it past the farmers’ market at Victory Park and Pasadena High School then east as it climbs from Eaton wash to Hastings Ranch.  This portion of Sierra Madre Blvd has bike lanes, but as I’ve written before, they are narrow gutter or door zone bike lanes on a street with very fast traffic and wide traffic lanes.  By narrowing those traffic lanes just a bit the city would have space for wider, buffered bike lanes, which would make this stretch of roadway much safer and more comfortable for cyclists.  Since Sierra Madre Blvd is the main route to two high schools (Pasadena H.S. and LaSalle H.S.) and a major city park (Victory Park), safety for young people and families bicycling on this road is a crying need.  We also raised the possibility of a multi use path in the wide median on the boulevard, and this might be a good long-term project, but the buffered bike lanes are something that can and should be done right away.

From Sierra Madre Blvd., we glided down Hastings Ranch Road from and stopped at Rosemead Blvd, where we pointed out that there was room for bike lanes, and perhaps even protected bike lanes (sometimes called “cycle tracks”) on Rosemead Blvd.  We pointed out that Temple City has installed protected bike lanes on the section of Rosemead that runs through it.  Wouldn’t it be great, we said, to have those protected lanes continue into Pasadena?  Yes!

We concluded our tour back to the Gold Line station.  I was pleased that someone from the city council member’s office was able to hear our concerns, and see for herself some of the problems related to car-centric road design in this part of Pasadena.  I was also very pleased that the young people on the ride spoke up and asked for safer bike lanes for cyclists.  At the end of the ride Noreen thanked us for an enjoyable and informative experience and said she would report her observations to Councilmember Masuda.

The draft bike plan for Pasadena has many positive elements–especially for downtown—but east Pasadena is relatively neglected in the plan and I hope Councilmember Masuda will insist on the Pasadena DOT addressing key problem spots in east Pasadena as part of the bike plan.  Among these, the most pressing are the Halstead approach to the Gold Line station, buffered bike lanes on Sierra Madre Blvd, bike lanes on Rosemead Blvd., and the seriously dangerous intersection at Rosemead/Orange Grove and Sierra Madre Villa.

These exploratory bike rides are a wonderful way for city leaders to get out and explore their districts in a way that driving can’t.  In so doing, PasCSC hopes they see the need for prioritizing an ambitious new bike plan and—most importantly—implementing it sooner rather than later.  In so doing, Pasadena would move closer to its potential as a healthy, green, multimodal city.

Being an Advocate

A friend recently asked me how I got into bike advocacy.  Well, actually, she asked me how I got into “advocacy,” and I assume she meant bike advocacy, though I think I’ve been an advocate for social justice most of my life.  It’s just part of who I am, I guess.  I see something that needs changing and I research the issue and often join with others who are working on that issue.  We call such people “advocates” or “activists” or sometimes “troublemakers,” but, really, when you get right down to it, isn’t that just citizenship?  We’ve created these labels for active citizenship in part because we live in an era when our role as citizens is supposed to be passively consumed on TV or social media, not in real life.   Those who get out and organize for change are thus labeled as an aberration—a “special interest”—when in fact that’s what every citizen should probably be doing.

Back to the main question.  I got into bike advocacy because the moment I started riding my bike for transportation I started to realize most of our streets had been misdesigned.  It was only as I studied the issue further that I realized how badly misdesigned they were and how it was connected to other misuses of social space and resources.  About the time I began substituting my bike for some of my short car trips (around 2008 or so) a colleague at work showed me an article on bicycle infrastructure in Europe—focused on either Copenhagen or Amsterdam, I can’t recall which—and it fired my imagination for what could be, what might be, and what is possible.  Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the history of how our society constructed a car-based infrastructure that limits how we live, interact with each other, and get from place to place.  It has underscored the importance of radically changing our infrastructure to adapt to more socially and environmentally sustainable transportation modes.

Shortly thereafter I started finding and joining bicycle advocacy (there’s that word again) organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) and CICLE that connected me with others who had a similar vision.  I went on the LA River Ride sponsored by LACBC and several other group rides sponsored by CICLE.  Around 2010, I went on a CICLE-sponsored “tweed ride” in downtown LA.  In many ways I really saw LA for the first time.  Oh, I’d driven through LA many times, usually on my way to someplace, but being on my bike revealed the rich texture of the city for the first time.  It was a revelation that you could feel safe riding city streets if there were enough other people riding too.  I also met Joe Linton on this ride, and he inspired me to continue my effort to be the change I wished to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi would say.  I wanted to write about my experiences, share them with others to show that another world is possible, but I was reluctant.  Joe provided the encouraging words that helped me to start this blog, too.  I think that the experience of CicLAvia really reinforced how different—how much better—our human interactions could be in car-free spaces.  CicLAvia sort of turned me into an evangelist for creating car-free space in our communities and giving people realistic alternatives to the car.

This hasn’t been easy.  Recognizing how badly we’ve gone wrong when others don’t even recognize the problem exists can be a lonely and frustrating experience.  Reading writers like Jane Jacobs, Jane Holtz Kay, Jeff Mapes, Charles Montgomery, Jeff Speck, Peter Norton, Christopher Wells, and others, made me realize I wasn’t alone and helped me deepen my sense that these changes were not only possible but highly desirable.  Reading deeply about the existential crisis of climate change has reinforced that the status quo is unsustainable and that radical change is essential.

Change is never easy, but without a movement of organized people pushing for change it will not happen by itself.  When I see the need for safer streets for myself, I know that they’ll benefit others, too.  I also know that it won’t happen if we don’t shake people out of their complacency.  No individual can do it alone—it takes a group of people to get anything accomplished and the bigger and more diverse the group, the stronger it is.  It’s only working in concert with others that my choices make a larger difference.  And really, we build on the work of those who came before and we’re dependent on others joining the struggle after us, too.

My experience as an historian leads me to understand that going against the automobile-fossil fuel-industrial complex and changing people’s living habits will not be easy, but neither was the abolition of slavery, the struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, or civil rights.  Indeed, as Naomi Klein has suggested in her latest book This Changes Everything, these movements for human rights must be seen as part of the larger struggle for peace, civil rights, economic justice, a livable planet, and livable social space.   Making our streets and communities safer and more convenient for alternative modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and transit) doesn’t solve all of these issues, but, properly understood, it is part of the solution that addresses each of them in part.

Change is happening, a movement is emerging.  Why am I an advocate?  I want to be a part of it—even if only a small part.  I don’t know exactly where the movement will lead, but that is what makes it exciting.

New Headquarters for BikeSGV

BikeSGV director Javier Hernandez reports on the need for a regional bike plan at BikeSGV's new headquarters in El Monte.

Javier Hernandez reports on the regional bike plan at BikeSGV’s new headquarters in El Monte.

Friday evening, BikeSGV, the local bike advocacy organization in the San Gabriel Valley, celebrated the grand opening of its new headquarters in El Monte and gave an update on the area’s regional bike master plan.  About 60 people attended the event despite Friday’s heavy rain.  The event offered an opportunity to celebrate progress on the SGV’s regional bike master plan and provide the community with an opportunity to hear about the ambitious plans for the new headquarters.

BikeSGV members bid on silent auction items.

BikeSGV members bid on silent auction items.

The open house included food, music, and a silent auction to raise money for the new headquarters.  BikeSGV director Javier Hernandez touted plans for the new headquarters, housed at the former site of Mulhall elementary in El Monte, for bike safety classes, bike maintenance workshops, a new bike co-op at Fletcher Park, as well as the continuation of BikeSGV’s regular Bike Train community rides and its Women on Wheels (WoW) group rides.   The superintendent of the El Monte school district was on hand, as well as staff representatives from the office of County Supervisor Hilda Solis.  The new headquarters, located less than a block from the Rio Hondo Bikeway, has the potential to be a center of bike culture in the region.

Phase 1 of SGV regional bike master plan.

Phase 1 of SGV regional bike master plan.

Hernandez also reported on the progress of the regional bike master plan for the San Gabriel Valley.  The bike master plan is absolutely crucial to the efforts to build safer streets in the region and make bicycle transportation a more realistic possibility for more people.  Central to this effort has been a push by BikeSGV to get city governments to support the first phase of this plan.  I attended the Baldwin Park city council meeting where the bike plan was approved last month and I was impressed with BikeSGV’s ability to bring people from the community—especially youth—to attend the meeting and speak on behalf of the plan.  Four of the five cities involved in phase 1 of the plan have officially signed on (Baldwin Park, Monterey Park, San Gabriel, and El Monte), and the remaining city (South El Monte) will vote on whether to support the plan in early 2015.  I hope they do.

Daniella Alcedo (L) of the Pomona Valley Bicycle Coalition, and Cuong Phu Trinh look over BikeSGV's plans at the open house.

Daniella Alcedo (L) of the Pomona Valley Bicycle Coalition, and Cuong Phu Trinh look over BikeSGV’s plans at the open house.

There are also plans for a “Phase 2″ of the regional bike plan that includes five cities along the corridor of the Gold Line extension from Pasadena to Azusa.  In addition, BikeSGV is working with Metro to schedule two CicLAvia-style open streets events for 2015 and 2016 in the San Gabriel Valley.

Let’s face it, the San Gabriel Valley has been a backwater when it comes to bike-friendly infrastructure.  As someone who lives and bikes in this mostly bike-unfriendly zone, I look with envy on what other SoCal communities are doing.  Despite opposition from anti-bike troglodytes like LA council member Gil Cedillo, LA is making strides toward multimodal transportation, Santa Monica has seen its bike mode share grow by leaps and bounds, and Long Beach aspires to be America’s most bike-friendly city with its impressive network of bike lanes.  By comparison, it has been frustrating to see the San Gabriel Valley, with a few small exceptions, lag behind these other areas of the Southland in making the streets safer for people on bikes.  But Friday’s event is an indication that things may be changing.

I’ll admit I’m impatient for change.  We need more bike infrastructure, better bike infrastructure, and we needed it yesterday.  But it’s gratifying to see that after so many years of inaction, the San Gabriel Valley may finally become more accommodating for people on bikes.  Getting the various cities to sign on to a regional bike plan has been no small feat, and BikeSGV activists are to be congratulated for their hard work.  I’m hopeful that this new headquarters will enable the group to build on this foundation and grow the bike culture of the region.  Is it too much to hold out hope that we may be on the cusp of real infrastructure changes in the San Gabriel Valley?  As far as I’m concerned, these positive steps BikeSGV is taking to make the region a better, safer place to ride are very good news, indeed.

An End to LOS in Pasadena

Members of Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition pose for a celebratory picture after the City Council voted unanimously to end the city's old car-centric LOS transportation metric. (Photo courtesy PasCSC)

Members of Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition pose for a celebratory picture after the City Council voted unanimously to end the city’s old car-centric LOS transportation metric. (Photo courtesy PasCSC)

On November 3, Pasadena’s City Council voted unanimously to ditch the car-centric measure of mobility called “level of service,” or LOS.  The policy change was developed and proposed by the staff at Pasadena DOT and is a critical element of Pasadena’s efforts to become a more environmentally-friendly city by encouraging multi-modal transportation, and denser, mixed-use development downtown.  Pasadena’s local complete streets advocacy group, Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition (PasCSC), lobbied for this change as a necessary step in making the city’s streets safer and more user-friendly for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.  The state of California is currently reassessing LOS and working on its own statewide multimodal metric, but to my knowledge Pasadena is the first city in Southern California (though certainly not the last) to break from the old LOS standard.

For the policy wonks, LOS was developed by traffic engineers decades ago as a means of measuring the increased automobile traffic that often comes with the growth of cities.  It made sense in an era when cities were being redesigned around the automobile and it was assumed that everyone would—and should—drive.  It makes far less sense when cities are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, automobile pollution, and encourage alternative modes of personal mobility.  Providing for the convenience of automobile mobility as the only measure of transportation quality had the unintended consequence of creating what is known as “induced demand” as wider roads encouraged more driving, more driving begat more auto-centric development, which, under LOS, mandated wider roads, ad infinitum.

One of the downsides of LOS has been that it measured the transportation impact of property development and road use solely by its impact on automobile wait times at intersections.  Put another way, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users didn’t count, so their needs usually went unmet under the LOS rubric.  A short wait time for cars at an intersection would, for example, receive an ‘A’ grade, while a longer wait time for cars would receive lower grades.  Pedestrians who had a long wait at a traffic light and then a dash across the street to beat the short crossing signal were not counted under LOS.  A bus with 25 passengers counts as much as a single occupancy automobile under LOS.  A bike lane that might slightly reduce road capacity for automobiles would be D.O.A. under LOS, on the assumption that it might make drivers wait a few seconds longer at a stoplight, triggering a failing LOS grade.  Never mind that more people would be willing to leave their cars at home if they had safe, convenient alternatives, LOS meant drivers, and only drivers, counted.  Moreover, the widening of roads to achieve a good LOS score often resulted in unused road capacity during off-peak hours and has also been shown to induce higher automobile speeds and deadlier collisions.  The ‘S’ in LOS thus stood for service to motorists only, and reflected the domination of streets by cars in the late 20th century.  The new standard reflects the idea that cities should measure the movement of people, not just cars, when judging the impact of development.

The new standard uses a mix of Vehicle Trips (VT) generated, Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per capita, access to alternative modes (walking, biking, transit) of transportation, as well as LOS.  The new measure also provides that mitigation of the traffic impact of development can include funding for alternative modes of transportation, whereas previously a developer would be required to provide more parking or road-widening.  Pasadena DOT staff believe that the new measure provides a fuller picture of the multimodal reality of modern city mobility and give the city the flexibility to encourage multi modality, safety, and sustainability.

Pasadena still has a long way to go to achieve its complete streets vision, but it is gratifying to see the city take one more step toward that vision.

The Close Pass

California’s new “3 Feet for Safety” Act, which requires motorists to give bicyclists 3 feet when passing, went into effect last month.  While most motorists seem to be abiding by the new law, I’ve had a couple of close calls the last few weeks that suggest motorists could use a bit more education on how to safely pass cyclists.  The fact that both incidents occurred on the same stretch of roadway in Pasadena also seems to strongly suggest that this road needs additional infrastructure treatment (i.e., a “road diet” that narrows the traffic lanes and buffered or protected bike lanes) to slow the speed of traffic and provide safe space for bicyclists.

Drivers encroach on the bike lane on Rosemead Blvd at 40 mph. At least half of the cars in the right lane crossed into the bike lane on the morning I took this picture. A buffer and green paint in the lane would increase safety, as would a reduction in the 40 mph posted speed limit.

Drivers encroach on the bike lane on Rosemead Blvd at 40 mph. At least half of the cars in the right lane crossed into the bike lane on the morning I took this picture. A buffer and green paint in the lane would increase safety, as would a reduction in the 40 mph posted speed limit.

The first close call came a couple of weeks ago when I was traveling south on Rosemead Blvd in the bike lane between Sierra Madre Villa and Halstead.  The road curves to the right and as I rounded the curve, a driver in a Honda Civic passed me so close I could feel the wind from her passenger-side mirror brush my left arm, which startled the hell out of me.  Her right tires were actually on the bike lane line.  She was probably doing about 40 mph, and as she passed I involuntarily yelled out of fear.  I tried to catch her, but she was going too fast and I got stopped at the red light on Rosemead and Halstead.  As she sped away, she seemed to slowly drift in her lane from left to right and back.  Was she drunk (this was a Monday morning about 10:00 am)? On meds? Texting?

The second incident occurred last Friday afternoon about 1:30 pm, traveling southbound on Rosemead again, this time between Halstead and Hastings Ranch Road.  On this stretch of Rosemead there’s no bike lane, as it ends at Halstead.  There is a shopping center with a new L.A. Fitness center that opened recently, and now that it is open, there are many more cars parked on the street here.  This forced me to ride in the traffic lane, as the curbside shoulder is now occupied by the cars of people working out at the fitness center.  How ironic that people park their cars on the street here, despite the fact that there is plenty of parking in a lot behind the fitness center, but drivers would have to walk maybe 100 feet farther to the entrance to the gym if they parked in the lot (better to save your walking for the treadmill you’ve paid for inside the gym, huh?).  Meanwhile, the presence of their empty cars in the street creates a hazard for those using alternate modes of transportation.  There would be plenty of room for bike lanes here if Pasadena DOT prohibited on-street parking here, but clearly the safety of cyclists is not a priority.

 

Parked cars (mostly for the fitness center on the right) force bicycles into the fast-moving traffic lane. Pasadena DOT could make this a no parking zone and have plenty of room for buffered or protected bike lanes here.

Parked cars (mostly for the fitness center on the right) force bicycles into the fast-moving traffic lane. Pasadena DOT could make this a no parking zone and have plenty of room for buffered or protected bike lanes here.

As I rode in the right-hand traffic lane and tried to avoid the “door zone” (about three feet away from the parked cars), a driver in a compact sedan sped by me at high speed and far too close for comfort.  This time, I caught up to the driver as she sat at the next red light.  Her passenger side window was closed, but I leaned over and said loudly (my adrenaline was up from the close call), “you need to give cyclists three feet when you pass.”  She rolled down her window and apologized (which surprised me). She explained that another car had been passing her in the lane on her left when she passed me, so she couldn’t move farther to the left as she passed.  I thanked her for her honesty, she apologized again, then the light turned green and she took off.

At least the exchange was cordial, but as I rode on, I thought to myself, “if it wasn’t safe for her to move to the left to give me space, shouldn’t she have just slowed down for (at most) a few seconds until it was safe to pass?”  The answer is obvious, of course she should have.  This is an aspect of driving that most motorists don’t think about when passing a person on a bike.  People are often in a hurry, so they figure they’ll just squeeze by.  Squeezing by another motorist when you’re both wrapped in 2,000-lbs of steel is not perceived as a problem.  Worst that might happen is scratched paint.  Squeezing by a bicyclist is a life-threatening move for the bicyclist.

According to the California Vehicle Code, bicyclists are allowed to “take the lane” if it is not safe for a bike and a car to pass side-by-side, and I probably should have been smack dab in the center of the travel lane rather than riding on the right half of the lane.  It would have forced motorists in my lane to slow down behind me.  Yet, few things irritate drivers more than cyclists “hogging” the lane.  Hey, it’s not a picnic for me.  I don’t like to slow others down and I don’t like the feeling of a car running up behind me, either.  A recent study by the League of American Bicyclists found that the largest portion of car-on-bike fatalities were cars hitting bikes from behind.  Nor do I relish being honked at or yelled at by impatient motorists who don’t give a shit about my right to the lane.  But, it’s probably safer than having a driver try to pass me too close when there isn’t enough room.

This raises a larger point I made earlier about the lack of bike lanes (including protective buffers between cars and bikes) on high-speed arterials like Rosemead Blvd.  There’s plenty of space.  For one thing, there’s no need for on-street parking when the adjacent shopping center has an ample off-street parking lot.  Buffered bike lanes or cycle tracks (bike lanes with physical separation from automobile traffic) could be installed on the shoulder of the road where empty cars now sit and it would not impact traffic flow.  Further south on Rosemead, the city of Temple City has already installed cycle tracks.  It’s time for Pasadena to do likewise.  At the very least, the Pasadena DOT should ban on-street parking on that stretch of Rosemead so bicyclists can safely use the shoulder out of the way of speeding cars.  The fact that I’ve had two close calls on the same stretch of roadway indicates the street is not safe.  There’s too little space for bikes and cars are driving too fast.

I’m glad the 3-foot passing law is now in effect in California, but we still need better education on how to pass a bicyclist safely and, most importantly, protected bike lanes on more of our streets.  What do you say, Pasadena?

The Wisdom of Jane Jacobs

When a person walks, uses a bike, or public transit for transportation, he/she very quickly realizes most of our street designs give very little thought to the needs of these other modes.  That goes for the layout of most of our cities, as well as much of our car-centered architecture.  Most people assume this is the natural order of things and must have always been this way, but as an historian I know that our built environment has a history and the more I studied the writings of those who think about such things, the more I encountered the name of Jane Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs near her home in New York City. Photo: http://bikenyc.org/blog/bike-hero-pantheon-jane-jacobs

Jane Jacobs near her home in New York City. Photo: http://bikenyc.org/blog/bike-hero-pantheon-jane-jacobs

Who was Jane Jacobs?  Her talents were so wide-ranging, it’s hard to pin down a description, really.  She was a mother and a housewife, a self-taught architectural analyst and critic, a journalist, what we would call today a “community organizer,” a social critic and a crusader for the survival of human-centered city life.  She attended classes at Columbia University and even authored a history of the Constitutional Convention called Constitutional Chaff, which examined the rejected suggestions of the framers.   She was the author of numerous other books and articles, but she is best remembered today for her classic 1961 critique of mid-20th century urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  She is a prime example of a socially engaged public intellectual.  What enduring wisdom does Jane Jacobs offer a half century after her most important work was published?

I became especially intrigued with Jacobs after reading Anthony Flint’s excellent Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, which tells the story of her epic battle against Robert Moses and his plans to use “urban renewal” and expressways to remake Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s.  The efforts of Jacobs and her neighbors to stop a number of ill-conceived car-first projects almost certainly saved her Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park neighborhood from destruction by highways.  She was a pioneer in the fight to reclaim cities (and social life) from automobile domination.  Such efforts become even more urgent as we wrestle to tame the outsized carbon footprint of the automobile-based civilization we created in the 20th century.  As David Owen and others have argued, cities with good transit and people-friendly (not car-friendly) design have the potential to light the way to a much more sustainable future for a large proportion of the world’s population.

In Death and Life, Jacobs offered a critique of the dominant post-WWII schools of urban planning, with their focus on decentralization, grandiosity, and bland uniformity.  She provided a detailed discussion of elements that make neighborhoods and streets attractive, livable, and safe, using her own Greenwich Village neighborhood as an example.  She coined terms such as “eyes on the street,” to describe how neighbors in dense neighborhoods watch out for each other, and the “intricate sidewalk ballet,” to describe the relative safety and rhythm of busy city streets.  She celebrated short blocks with wide, tree-lined sidewalks that were pedestrian and child-friendly, and appreciated the diversity of people, uses, and buildings in urban neighborhoods.  Finally, she zeroed in on the ways cities could be saved from destruction, including a particularly fascinating chapter on the inherent conflict between living cities and automobility.

Jacobs argued that the social life of the city was incompatible with a large volume of automobiles.  She claimed not to be anti-car, saying the problem was not cars themselves, but “vehicular dominance,” resulting “mainly from overwhelming numbers of vehicles to which all but the most minimum pedestrian needs are gradually and steadily sacrificed.” [346]  The virtue of walkable streets was not the complete absence of cars, she noted, but the absence of automobile domination.  This meant that cities must “reduce the domination by cars” in order to create walkable, bikeable, and livable streets.

Too much dependence on private automobiles and city concentration of use are incompatible.  One or the other has to give.  In real life, this is what happens.  Depending on which pressure wins most of the victories, one of two processes occurs: erosion of cities by automobiles, or attrition of automobiles by cities. [349]

She detailed how city street space was eroded by the widening of streets, the marginalization of pedestrians, highways and, especially, parking lots.  These efforts to accommodate the insatiable space requirements of cars elbow aside all other uses and create dull streets and “border vacuums” that effectively become anti-social space destructive of the multitude of uses a healthy city street possesses.  She also detailed the symbiotic relationship between the automobile and sprawl, leading to more automobile dependence, in turn leading to more space given to cars, ad infinitum.

Typical border vacuum, Pasadena, CA. Car-dependent shopping center on left, freeway on right create unsafe space devoid of all social life, except, perhaps crime.

Typical border vacuum, Pasadena, CA. Car-dependent shopping center on left, freeway on right create bland, noisy, and unsafe space devoid of all social life, except perhaps, crime.

Her observations help us to see that the erosion of city livability stems from the prioritization of the private automobile, and also that its use is further encouraged by these measures, what urban planners now refer to as “induced demand.”  In what might be seen as the precursor to today’s idea of “road diets” bike lanes and pedestrianized streets, Jacobs advocated “giv[ing] room to other necessary and desired city uses that happen to be in competition with automobile traffic needs.” [363]  She made the radical argument that if we don’t give in to the demand for greater automobile convenience by, say, widening roads or providing additional parking garages, and if we provide alternatives, such as transit, enough people will avoid driving, and thereby reduce the absolute number of vehicles on the road and improve the quality of life for all.

While there are additional examples of this today, in 1961 one of the few example of this phenomenon (what urban planner Jeff Speck calls reduced demand) was Jacobs’s own experience blocking a planned highway through Washington Square Park.  Traffic engineers predicted gridlock if the highway was not built, but the predicted cars never materialized.  “Where have the traffic commissioner’s annual millions of cars gone instead?” she asked.  She came up with the radical idea that there is no absolute number of drivers any more than there is an absolute number of transit users or bicyclists.  The numbers of each, she pointed out, “vary in response to current differentials in speed and convenience among ways of getting around.”  [363]  In other words, when the design of our roads and cities makes driving the fastest and most convenient way of getting around, that is what people will choose to do.  When we make other modes of transit more convenient and faster, the numbers will shift.

Attrition of automobiles operates by making conditions less convenient for cars. Attrition as a steady, gradual process . . . would steadily decrease the numbers of persons using private automobiles in a city.  If properly carried out . . . attrition would decrease the need for cars simultaneously with decreasing convenience for cars, much as, in reverse, erosion [of other modes] increases need for cars simultaneously with increasing convenience for cars. [emphasis added, 363]

Her argument about induced demand was almost unheard of in 1961, and still escapes the grasp of many traffic engineers and politicians who think the answer to the problem of too much automobile traffic congestion is to make room for (and create further demand for) even more cars by widening roads and freeways, building more parking garages, supporting sprawl development, and so on.  Here in Southern California I see it in the reluctance of some politicians to embrace road diets on the one hand and the misguided use of public transportation money to widen freeways and extend others (i.e., the multi-billion-dollar 710 extension that won’t die).  Until and unless we decrease the convenience afforded automobile travel by, for example, making it more expensive through congestion pricing, higher parking costs, and so forth; and increase the convenience of other modes, such as bicycling and public transit, we won’t be able to “solve” the problems that ultimately stem from too many cars.

In real life, which is quite different from the life of dream cities, attrition of automobiles by cities is probably the only means by which absolute numbers of vehicles can be cut down.  It is probably the only realistic means by which better public transportation can be stimulated, and greater intensity and vitality of city use be simultaneously fostered and accommodated. [363]

Herein lies a hard truth for those who advocate hybrids or EVs or self-driving Google cars as the solution to our environmental and transit woes.  The problem with cars is only partially an issue of what comes out of the tailpipe.  After all, Jacobs notes, at the turn of the 20th century cars were seen as a sanitary improvement over the heaps of horse excrement left by the previous dominant mode of transportation.  Jacobs gets us to see that the problem is primarily one of numbers and scale, and that the number of cars is directly influenced by the design of space, and that use and convenience follow.  The more space provided for cars, the less can be provided for people (unless you sprawl ever outward, which creates even more car dependent spaces).  That is why she thought our key choice was the erosion of cities or the attrition of automobiles.

Creating streets that appeal to people and that are safe and convenient for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit requires mustering the political will to inconvenience drivers.  It means shifting funding priorities to redesign of streets around transit, bikes and pedestrians.  To paraphrase Bogota’s Gil Penalosa, we can have cities for people or cities for cars.  We can’t have both.  Mrs. Jacobs knew it.  Will we learn it?

Attrition of automobiles: Pioneer square, Portland, OR. people-friendly space created from what was once a municipal parking lot.

Attrition of automobiles: Pioneer square, Portland, OR. people-friendly space created from what was once a municipal parking lot.

Portlandia

Cyclists on Portland's waterfront parkway, until the 1970s, this space was occupied by a highway.

Cyclists on Portland’s waterfront parkway. Until the 1970s, this space was occupied by a highway.

Last week a professional conference brought me to Portland, OR.  It had been about five years since I’d been there, and I fondly remembered its great bike infrastructure and transit.  I wasn’t blogging back then, so this trip offered a belated opportunity to explore a little more of downtown Portland by bike and to document my thoughts about its bike and alternative transportation infrastructure.

What’s offered here is neither a comprehensive nor a systematic review.  I admit that my 3-day sojourn does not offer the same perspective as that of a day-to-day commuter.  Instead I approached it from the perspective of how Portland compares to Southern California in terms of getting around car-free.  I know that some in Portland’s bike advocacy community are frustrated with what they see as the lack of progress on new bike infrastructure, but Portland still ranks as one of the best bicycling cities in North America, though it is starting to get some competition.  And, compared to SoCal, well, let’s just say we have a long way to go to catch up.  Despite the recent slowdown in Portland’s bike improvements, the city’s most recent plan calls for a majority of Portlanders to get around by means other than the private automobile by 2030.

Portland's newest bridge bans cars, prioritizing transit, bicycling and walking.

Portland’s newest bridge, Tilikum Crossing, bans cars, prioritizing transit, bicycling and walking.

One example of Portland’s commitment to car-free living is its soon-to-be-opened “bridge of the people,” Tilikum Crossing.  This new bridge across the Willamette River, connecting SE and SW Portland, is designed for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit (streetcar and bus) traffic only.  No cars.  By contrast here in LA, bike advocates have been forced to fight tooth-and-nail for the simple addition of bike lanes on the new Hyperion Bridge.  In LA, it always feels like we’re stuck with an ideology of automobile prioritization in which bicyclists might be thrown a scrap of “leftover” roadway space if it can be shown not to inconvenience a single Prius driver.

 

Light rail and bike integration at PDX airport.

Light rail and bike integration at PDX airport.

From the moment I stepped off the airplane, I noticed bikes and transit are integrated.  There is a covered bike area right next to the Airport’s MAX light rail line.  All MAX trains have space for bikes, and all Tri-Met buses have bike racks (though the bus bike racks are limited to a capacity of 2 bikes–as in LA, an insufficient number).  It was an easy MAX or bus ride to Portland State University, where I rented a bike from PSU’s awesome Bike Hub, run by students.  I was able to reserve a Linus 3-Speed city bike online and I used it to get around town all 3 days I was there.  My rental bike came with fenders, rack, lights, lock, and helmet, all for a very reasonable price of $45 for the weekend.  Most hotels have bike racks where guests can lock up their bikes overnight, but I was able to keep mine in my hotel room which saved me the hassle of having to lock it up overnight.  My first-floor room location also allowed me to come and go with the bike as I pleased without having to go up or down crowded elevators with a bike.

Portland has added green paint to improve the visibility of bike routes on several of its streets.  Green bike boxes are also common at major intersections.

Portland has added green paint to improve the visibility of bike routes on several of its streets. Green bike boxes are also common at major intersections.

Here’s the big thing about Portland: the comfort and convenience of riding downtown is far superior to anywhere in Southern California, except maybe certain sections of Long Beach.  Southern California has made some limited progress toward wresting street space away from the ubiquitous death boxes that dominate its roads, but it has been timid, exceedingly slow, and sporadic.  Portland, by contrast, has designed its downtown streets as if it expects people to walk, bike, or use transit.  It’s seen as the norm.  As a result, everywhere I went I saw other people bicycling.  Most riders were wearing regular clothes and rode practical bikes with fenders, lights and racks for carrying things.  In short, bicycling has been normalized as a form of practical transportation because the street design encourages it.

Portlanders who bike will tell you there is still much to be done, and I hope they continue to make improvements, but from where I sat, it was like living in a different world. For one thing, there is a network of bike lanes, and just about everywhere you’ll find convenient places to lock up your bike.  I’m talking good bike racks, not signposts, railings, or crappy wheel-bender racks that you have to make do with, like I see so much of down here.  It may not seem like a big deal, but knowing you’ll be able to lock your frame to a good rack just about anywhere in town is a huge thing to encourage people to ride.  These bike racks are not only placed at regular intervals along sidewalks and in front of businesses, but there are numerous bike corrals around town.  The only time I had to lock my bike to a railing due to a lack of good bike racks was in the parking garage of the Downtown Hilton (I mean, really Hilton?).  Everywhere else, bike racks were plentiful.

Bike corrals and bike lanes are commonplace on Portland streets.

Bike corrals and bike lanes are commonplace on Portland streets.

The bike infrastructure downtown gives bicyclists in Portland a tolerable level of comfort, which induces more people to bike for transportation.  It also increases safety.  Last year, Portland recorded zero fatalities among bicyclists.  Zero, despite a roughly 6% mode share citywide.  Some of the bike routes are painted green, increasing visibility (In LA, the Spring Street green lane paint was removed by LADOT after complaints by Hollywood location scouts) and there are plans to extend the city’s Cycletrack on Broadway.  Meanwhile, here in LA, Councilmember Gil Cedillo recently vetoed bike lanes on North Figueroa based on the utterly spurious claim that they would make the road less safe.

Broadway's cycletrack uses parked cars as a physical barrier between bicyclists and traffic. The city has plans to extend it in 2015.

Broadway Ave. cycletrack uses parked cars as a physical barrier between bicyclists and traffic. The city plans to extend it in 2015.

The beautiful part of visiting a real bike-friendly city like Portland is the realization that American cities can be made much more livable, sustainable, healthy and safe with a good integrated transit and bicycle system and by de-emphasizing the car.  It felt easier to get around the city by bike and transit than by car.  That’s not a personal preference, that is the residue of design.  The hard part of my visit was coming back to the reality that my own city is still struggling to emerge from the dark ages.

LA, I can dream, can't I?

LA, I can dream, can’t I?

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