Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Anti-Bike Bias

Bike-haters.  I can spot them a mile away.  The first dead givaway is their use of the term “bikers” to describe cyclists (usually said with a Dick Cheney-like snarl of the upper lip).  In their minds, “bikers” aren’t simply people trying to get from place to place on nonpolluting 2-wheelers, but annoying obstacles in the way of their benign automobiles, which is why God made roads in the first place, you know.  In their fevered minds, traffic congestion is caused by bicyclists, not cars.  The addition of a few miles of bike lanes among the thousands of miles of roadway in Southern California evidence that the dreaded “bikers” are advancing in some imaginary “war” on innocent motorists.  Armed with the sense of entitlement that comes with 60-odd years of transportation policy that has privileged the automobile over all other modes of transportation, they prepare to do battle with these nefarious terrorists of the pavement.

The latest example of this retrograde mentality is a recent anti-bike screed by Mark Lacter in a recent edition of LA Biz Observed.  What set Lacter off, apparently, was a community meeting held to discuss the possibility of some new bike lanes in Santa Monica and Westwood, an area of the city literally choking with cars.  The city, he claimed “is being divided again” between “bikers in search of more space” and “motorists looking to hold on to what little space they have.”  Right.  With more than 64 square miles of surface street space and untold acres of parking space, a few more bike lanes are barely a drop in the sea of acreage given over to the automobile (Shoup, p. 657).  The fact that every inch of street space we build eventually becomes choked with cars is not the fault of too many people riding bicycles.

Lacter claims bike lanes are all part of some “grandiose transportation scheme,” concocted by city bureaucrats at the beck and call of a cabal of “biking supporters.”  Hmmm, no wonder the oil and automobile industry quake when they are confronted by the all-powerful bike lobbying juggernaut.  Yeah, if only.  Actually, this is another trope of the bike haters: cynically deploy the idea that there is some divisive “bikes vs. cars” war going on, when in fact all that’s happening is cities confronting the reality that they’re going to need multiple forms of transportation in the future if they are to continue to grow and not be continually gridlocked (not to mention reducing carbon emissions).  Redesigning streets to accommodate more bikes and transit is a big part of that solution.

Another part of the bike hater’s argument is the specious claim that, as Lacter puts it, “bike lanes are frequently empty,” without considering whether the lack of a safe, practical network of bike lanes might be a reason for fewer people choosing to commute by bike.  As a previous post of mine discussed at length, studies show that when there is a safe network of protected space for bikes on the roadways, ridership goes up—often way up.  Also, just because a bike lane might appear empty at a particular moment, does not mean no one uses it.  Moreover, we mandate parking lots for cars, even though they’re not always in use and we have sidewalks for pedestrians even though they’re not always full.  Why should bike lanes be treated differently?  Here’s where Lacter gets confused.  No sooner does he claim that the bike lanes are empty, he then says “increased [bike] ridership has only made L.A. streets more dangerous” and complains about all the bicyclists he sees on the sidewalks.  Well, which is it, Mr. Lacter?  You can’t have it both ways.

The bike hater never claims to be anti-bike, mind you, it’s just that, he doesn’t want bikes on the sidewalks, doesn’t want them mixing with automobile traffic, and doesn’t want bike lanes.  Ah, there’s the rub.  He doesn’t think people should ride bikes, period.  Maybe these “bikers” should all just drive cars, adding to the already gridlocked traffic, slurping up more oil, and spewing more carbon into the atmosphere.  And what should we do to accommodate all those extra cars?  Billions for freeway widening?  Jackhammer sidewalks to add lanes to our roadways?  Bulldoze neighborhoods for more parking garages?

Anything but those pesky bike lanes.

Bike Lanes at Cal Poly

Kellogg Dr

Commuting on a bicycle changes your perspective.  Everywhere you go, you recognize the lack of safe road space on which to ride and you constantly wonder, “why hasn’t anyone thought about putting a bike lane here?”  Case in point:  the campus where I teach, Cal Poly Pomona, has a number of access roads to the main campus, including Campus Dr., University Dr., and Kellogg Dr. (shown above).  None of the three roads have bike lanes, though there is space for them on all three.  These roads also provide the main access between the main campus and dormitories and bus stops on Temple Ave.  Providing safe bike lanes on these access roads would benefit those using bikes and public transportation—two modes of travel the University should encourage in order to reduce its carbon footprint.  As gas prices rise, students particularly feel the economic pinch.  Shouldn’t we do simple things like install bike lanes to make sure they have an alternative to the automobile?

In addition to bike lanes, other traffic calming strategies should be employed, insofar as many drivers reach speeds upwards of 45 mph on these roads (the posted speed limits are lower, but there is little traffic speed enforcement on these roads, and the wide lanes and lack of stop signs implicitly encourage speeding).  Near collisions are a regular occurrence, as I witnessed one recent weekday when a car traveling an estimated 40-plus mph nearly missed another car making a left turn in its path (see photo below).  The high speeds understandably deter people from bicycling on these roads, despite the fact that they are the most convenient routes to the main campus.

left turn Kellogg

Road diets and stop signs could go a long way toward making these roads safer by slowing automobile traffic.  The extra 60-or so seconds of commute time would not unduly inconvenience commuters, and the road diet would provide plenty of space for bike lanes on these access roads.  It would also demonstrate a tangible effort to reduce the number one cause of the campus’s carbon emissions: automobile traffic to and from the campus.

Cal Poly has made an admirable effort the past few years to reduce its carbon footprint through energy efficiency in its buildings and operations.  Cal Poly Pomona is home to the renowned Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies, and its College of Environmental Design is filled with faculty doing cutting edge work on sustainability.  Cal Poly President J. Michael Ortiz has spearheaded an innovative campus climate commitment program.  Environmental awareness and a sense of environmental responsibility are high among the student body.  But the elephant in the room is the campus’s continued prioritization of automobile travel through expensive, multi-story automobile parking facilities and high-speed roads that provide no safe space for alternative modes of travel.  In order to begin to reduce this elephant’s carbon footprint, we need traffic calming and bike lanes.

Caltech Bike Lab


I finally got the chance to visit the Caltech Bike Lab last Saturday when I attended their free bike repair workshop.  The Bike Lab is a small bike workspace tucked away on the Caltech campus, run mostly by students, and membership is open to anyone affiliated with Cal Tech or JPL.  I’ve been aware of the Bike Lab for about a year, since I saw them sponsor an online petition in 2012 urging the City of Pasadena to make the streets around Caltech more bike friendly.  Hey, anybody who’s pushing cities to make their streets more bike-friendly gets an “A+” in my book.  When I recently saw they were hosting a free bike repair workshop open to the public, I jumped at the chance learn a little more about bike repair and meet this great group of people.

When I arrived on campus, I had a little trouble finding the lab.  It’s not on any campus map, and several students were not aware of it, but I finally found a student who directed me to it.  (Note to Caltech administrators: the Bike Lab is a great resource, and bikes are a “green” technology that can combat climate change and a whole host of other problems.  Put the Bike Lab on your campus map—literally.)  The Lab itself is located in a modest utility room, but the members (who help fund the shop’s operation with their dues) have access to an array of tools, bike stands, and space to work on their bikes.  Students or faculty who pay the small membership dues can come in and use the shop at any time.  Non-members may work on their bikes at the shop during certain hours when the shop is staffed by a volunteer (hours are listed on the Lab’s web page), but during such hours, understandably, priority is given to Caltech students and faculty.


At the workshop, I was among the seven or so “students” who got some hands-on experience working on their bikes.  Three friendly Bike Lab members (Davin, Jeff, and John) led the workshop, which consisted of lessons on fixing flats, adjusting brakes, replacing brake cables, and chain maintenance.  Workshop leaders patiently answered questions, and there was a feeling of collaboration that made it comfortable to ask questions.  It made me feel like I was wrenching with friends in a welcoming atmosphere where no one judged you if your bike knowledge was rudimentary (or non-existent).  While I have plenty of experience changing flats, as a result of the workshop, I now have more confidence to try adjusting my own brakes and derailleurs in the future.  It also whetted my appetite to try bigger wrenching projects on my bikes.

Later that afternoon, the Lab hosted a more advanced workshop on wheel hubs, and I think I have enough knowledge to try an advanced workshop in the future.  I hope the Lab will host more such public workshops in the future that focus on specific repair jobs.  As important, perhaps, I had fun learning about bike repair and I’ve been introduced to this bike space with its vibrant group of students.

While the Bike Lab is a great place for the campus community to work on their bikes, it’s membership is understandably limited to members of the Caltech/JPL community.  I must admit, I was a bit disappointed to learn that I could not join the Bike Lab.  There are similar bike clubs and groups on other college campuses, such as CSUN’s Bike Collective or Cal Poly Pomona’s “Bike Shop,” but insofar as campus-based co-ops and clubs are primarily run for their respective institutions, the access to such venues is somewhat limited.  I’d love to have a place close by where I could work on my bikes, hang out, and meet other bike-minded people.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that there really is a need for a community bike co-op in the San Gabriel Valley in general, and the Pasadena area in particular.  There are two excellent community bike co-ops I’m aware of in Los Angeles (Bicycle Kitchen and Bike Oven), and others in the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach, but there are none that I am aware of in the Pasadena/west San Gabriel Valley area.

Community bike co-ops are usually located in a small commercial space, run primarily by volunteers, and are open to the public.  They usually charge a small fee to use the space to work on one’s own bike under the supervision of the volunteer mechanics.  These spaces become a resource for bicyclists and bicycle activists and often do outreach to underserved members of the local bicycling community.  By teaching people to fix their own bikes and providing a safe space to do so, bike co-ops of all kinds enhance bicycling as an economical, self-sufficient mode of transportation.  Equally as important, by creating a space for advocacy and activism, they help expand the movement for bicycle transportation.

The Caltech Bike Lab does a wonderful job of serving the Caltech/JPL community and I look forward to watching it grow and attending more of their workshops, but we need a thousand more flowers to bloom.  More bike co-ops anyone?

City Cycling

City Cycling

City Cycling (MIT Press, 2012), edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, is a new collection of essays by a variety of transportation and urban planning experts that promotes cycling  as a sustainable means of getting to work, school, and shopping.  The central thrust of these authors is that cycling can be a viable transportation alternative if we pursue public policies that provide safe space for people of all ages and abilities to get around on bicycles.

The book is divided into 15 chapters that cover issues ranging from statistical analyses of urban cycling, documented health benefits of cycling, the role of bicycling infrastructure, integration of bicycling and public transportation, bikesharing programs, and so on.  There are several general ideas that stand out from the wealth of empirical data provided.  First, study after study confirms that the aversion to cycling in automobile traffic is one of the major factors preventing more widespread use of bicycles for sustainable transportation, especially by more “traffic averse” groups in society (a large proportion of which are women, children, and older adults).

Second, better cycling infrastructure, especially protected bike lanes and cycle tracks, as well as laws designed to protect vulnerable road users (i.e., cyclists and pedestrians) have resulted in the growth of bicycling as a mode share of transportation (especially among risk-averse groups) and, at the same time, lower injury and fatality rates.  The idea that protected space for bicyclists results in more people using bikes for transportation may not seem controversial, and in most countries with large bicycling populations (the Netherlands or Denmark, for example), it is not.

Particularly interesting, in my view, is Peter Furth’s chapter comparing the effectiveness of bicycle infrastructure in Europe and North America in encouraging mass cycling.  Furth, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University, demonstrates how European and American policies providing bicycle-friendly infrastructure and laws “strongly diverged” after the 1970s, and how these divergent approaches have affected the level of transportational bicycling.  Simply put, European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden instituted “traffic calming” measures and recognized cyclists’ need for separation from heavy traffic as a fundamental principle of road safety.  The result is a the provision of “a vast network of ‘cycle tracks,'” essentially separated bike paths along roadways, that keep bicyclists safe and encourage “traffic averse” segments of the population to use bicycles for transportation.  Furth documents the much higher percentage of trips taken by bicycle in Europe versus the United States, as well as the much lower bicycling fatality rates.

In the early 1970s, the United States missed an opportunity to follow the European example.  Furth shows how the US DOT was preparing to accept a guideline (designed by UCLA transportation planners) for separated bikeways in 1972 that would have moved the US toward the European model of bike facilities on roadways, “recommending sidewalk-level bikeways, separated bike lanes, and regular bike lanes.” (116)  That effort was significantly sidetracked by the ideology of “Vehicular Cycling” (VC), promoted primarily by John Forester, a cyclist who saw the establishment of separated cycle space as a threat to the principle that bicycles were vehicles that had a right to share road space with automobiles.

In response to the efforts to build European-style bicycling infrastructure, Forester played a major role in developing the VC philosophy that encouraged cyclists to use the roadways like any other vehicle.  “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as vehicles,” is the central tenet of the VC philosophy, and the greatest danger to bicyclists is said to be the “lack of skill” of the cyclist (for a fuller discussion of Vehicular Cycling, see Forester’s own website).  Forester and other VC-only adherents have long argued that bike lanes and bike paths are actually more dangerous to cyclists than riding as a vehicle in the middle of traffic, and have accused bike lane advocates of being “anti-cycling.”  In his role as president of the League of American Wheelmen (now League of American Bicyclists), Forester and other VC-only advocates steered US policy away from separated bike facilities on American roadways.  It is worth noting that, for his part, Forester belittles those who see the bicycle as a viable form of urban transportation and part of a comprehensive alternative to the auto-centric transportation system we now have.  As a result of the work of the VC-only lobby, the US now finds itself 40 years behind the curve on bike infrastructure design, with lower rates of bicycle usage for transportation and higher fatality rates than European countries with excellent networks of bike-specific infrastructure.

I do not see bike paths, cycle-tracks, bike lanes, and VC as mutually exclusive.  I strongly support bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other bike-specific infrastructure, but I recognize that there currently exists no adequate network of transportational infrastructure for bicycling in the United States, and agree with some key elements of the VC philosophy, namely that bicycles have a right to the roadways and that a knowledge of how to ride safely in traffic is an essential skill bicyclists should learn.  There will always be roads that don’t have bikeways on them, and for those roads, VC is the appropriate and safe approach to cycling (if not the most stress-free).  But emphasizing only VC and opposing bike-specific infrastructure improvements, as Forester and some VC-oriented organizations have done in the past, has resulted in very low rates of cycling for transportation among all but the most fearless, assertive, and experienced cyclists.

It is especially frustrating to think that we could have been building cycle-tracks and bike-specific infrastructure for the last 40 years, could have provided people with an alternative to the automobile, could have made cycling safer for the average, traffic-averse bicyclist, and could have improved the health of millions of sedentary Americans.  Instead, as Furth writes, “the antiseparation vehicular cycling ideology has stymied America’s development of bicycling infrastructure,” and made us more dependent on the automobile. (135)

Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning.  As the studies in this book show, American cities like Portland, Minneapolis, New York, and many others have seen the proportion of people cycling for transportation boom as they’ve built separated bicycle space on their roadways, and the studies in this book prove empirically that bikeways do not in themselves make cycling more dangerous, as some VC proponents claim.

My take on bike lanes and cycle tracks fundamentally stems from my personal experience as well as my desire to see public policy for cycling to be made safe for everyone—mothers, schoolchildren, shoppers, older Americans, and working people of all ages and economic strata—who wants to get from point A to point B on a bicycle.  If you want to limit the appeal of cycling to those who are physically fit and, most importantly, not averse to riding in automobile traffic, a primary emphasis on VC is the way to go.  If you want to broaden the appeal of cycling for transportation to everyone—young, old, rich, poor, male, female, and all levels of fitness—you need to build buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other bike-specific infrastructure.  Of course, bicyclists and motorists must be educated to share the road properly, especially in those instances where the two modes must share road space, so elements of the VC philosophy will always be useful, but it just shouldn’t be the primary or sole basis for bicycle transportation planning.  It is not unreasonable for people to feel uncomfortable riding a bicycle in fast-moving traffic, with 2,000-lb cars whizzing by, and simply exhorting people to assert their rights and “take the lane” will not get more Americans out of their cars.

This welcome volume should be read by bicyclists, alternative transportation advocates, and officials at all levels of government related to transportation planning.  The empirical data reinforce Peter Furth’s conclusion about the need for cycling-specific infrastructure in American cities.

For bicycling to contribute meaningfully to societal goals in the areas of public health, livability, traffic congestion, and energy use, it has to appeal to the mainstream, traffic-intolerant population.  Bicycling infrastructure in many parts of Europe has been successful in achieving mass cycling because it respects the fundamental human need to be separated from traffic stress. (135)

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