Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Media (Mis)representation

Parklet on Polk Street, San Francisco, that the L.A. Times sees as a "freeway for bikes" that will "jeopardize" the street.  SF Streetsblog photo.

Parklet on Polk Street, San Francisco, that the L.A. Times sees as a “freeway for bikes” that will “jeopardize” the street. SF Streetsblog photo.

A recent story in the L.A. Times about San Francisco’s efforts to make Polk Street more bike-friendly illustrates how many in the media just don’t get it when it comes to modern urban street design and transportation.

Ostensibly, the article reported on a neighborhood meeting to discuss replacing of an estimated 170 on-street parking spaces on Polk with bike lanes and parklets (pictured above) that has some business owners and local motorists fearing the end of the world.  The meeting was apparently dominated by opponents of the plan, and some of those in attendance who support the plan said they felt too intimidated to speak.  The article noted that supporters who spoke were often booed or “met with disdain.”  The reporter, Maria LaGanga, appears to have sought the views of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition director Leah Shahum, which were included in her story.  But there was much else in the story that reflects a subtle and pervasive anti-bike bias in the reporting.

First, LaGanga went out of her way to mention the killing of a pedestrian by a reckless bicyclist in San Francisco last year (the cyclist was recently charged with felony vehicular manslaughter), while mentioning only in passing, and much later in the story, that a pedestrian or cyclist is struck by a car an average of once a month on Polk Street.  In so doing she virtually ignores the regular carnage caused by cars, and plays up an isolated incident involving a bicyclist a year earlier.  She also buried the fact that the plan would leave untouched 2,100 on-street parking spots within a block of Polk, a fact which would have put the near-hysterical opposition of motorists in a very different light had it been mentioned at the beginning of the story.  As readers of this blog may remember, it’s not the first time this Times reporter has done a hit piece on San Francisco’s emerging bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

Drivers of 2,000-lb vehicles with hundreds of horsepower are portrayed as the weaker, aggrieved party that is “under attack,” while bicyclists who want safe space over a small portion of the roadway are portrayed as the aggressors.  She describes the plan as literally “jeopardizing the vital north-south corridor” between the city’s Civic Center and the bay.  Who knew that bike lanes could “jeopardize” and entire street?  While LaGanga amplifies the fears of some local businesses that the plan is a “commerce killer,” she makes no effort to inform readers that complete streets makeovers such as the one contemplated for Polk have revitalized struggling business districts in numerous places where they’ve been tried.

The online version is even worse for playing up a phony “bikes vs. cars” trope and the online headline actually repeats the idiotic idea that this will make Polk some sort of “freeway for bikes,” in the words of one opponent.  The plan would actually reduce traffic speeds, provide safe road space for pedestrians and bikes, while the parklets would provide more space for people to hang out, shop, and socialize.  Precisely the atmosphere that would attract more commercial activity.  Hardly a “freeway for bikes” or a “commerce killer.”  Yet these irrational fears get played as headlines in the Times.

The problem of media bias is largely a reflection of a deeply-ingrained car culture that is so ubiquitous that it is rarely questioned.  Mobility, in this context, means getting behind the wheel of a car.  Exchanging curbside car parking (on one street) for parklets and bike lanes that enable people to enjoy the neighborhood at a slower pace thus gets transmogrified into an imaginary “war on cars.”  Moreover, as with most complete streets plans, this one leaves a significant portion of lateral roadway space for cars, bike lanes notwithstanding.

LaGanga might have used the meeting to probe the assumptions behind conflicts over road space such as that on Polk.  She might have explored the evolving idea that streets are for pedestrians, transit, and bikes (as well as cars), rather than adopting the assumption that motorists have a right to monopolize all road space.  The fact that none of the opponents offer any alternative ideas for how cities might improve road safety, reduce automobile congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the continued degradation of public space for more automobile parking, also deserves consideration in any reporting of the story.

Since the LA Times has assigned Maria LaGanga to its transportation beat in San Francisco, perhaps it’s time for her to commute by bike and/or public transportation once a week in the interest of fair reporting.  I’m not saying she’s got to give up her car, but it’s clear that she’s got little or no knowledge about issues facing urban cyclists or modern transportation policy beyond the automobile.

C’mon Ms. LaGanga, rent a bike, strap on a helmet, and take a ride on Polk Street without a bike lane at rush hour.  You’ll get a whole different perspective on the whole “bikes vs. cars” thing.

Making Bike-Friendly Places

LACBC meeting

Last night, I attended a panel discussion hosted by the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) on the topic of “how bike-friendly places are made.”  To be perfectly honest, I almost didn’t go (I’ll explain why in a moment), but, boy, am I glad I did.

It has been a frustrating and dispiriting couple of weeks, with the death of bicyclist Ivan Aguilar at Cal Poly Pomona, and the resulting realization of how difficult it is going to be to enact change (i.e., road diets, traffic calming, and bike lanes) on campus roads.  In light of these frustrations, making “bike-friendly places” seemed more remote than ever.

It didn’t help that work and the normal pressures of the world have kept me particularly busy, and I felt physically and mentally exhausted.  I needed a boost.

Fortunately, LACBC’s meeting, featuring bike planners Matt Benjamin, Brett Hondorp, and Ryan Snyder, was a shot in the arm for me.  It wasn’t just the panel, but the whole experience, from the commute to the meeting, to the energy in the room, to the optimistic message about all the great bike infrastructure that is being installed by cities all over Southern California, that picked me up.

I took the Metro Gold Line to downtown, and got off at the Little Tokyo station.  My plan was to take First Street to Spring and the LACBC headquarters where the meeting was held.  I prepared to go into full “road warrior” mode to ride in heavy downtown traffic, or be forced onto the sidewalk at some point.

To my surprise, LADOT has installed sharrows on First Street from the Gold Line Station to Los Angeles Street, where it then turns into a bike lane.  What a pleasant surprise!  I was able to ride safely and with very low stress all the way to Spring Street.  Once I got onto Spring Street, traffic was a bit heavier, but I was able to enjoy riding in the new buffered bike lane, painted green for added visibility.  This was the first time I’d ridden in traffic on Spring Street’s green, buffered bike lane (CicLAvia doesn’t count), and I was impressed by the how much easier it makes riding on that heavily-traveled street.

LACBC photo of Spring Street Green Lane

LACBC photo of Spring Street Green Lane

Not only are these bike lanes an example of the huge difference that relatively small infrastructure changes can make (safe space for bikes on the roads, secure bike parking), I was reminded that such changes had to be fought for, they wouldn’t happen by themselves.  Too many of our fellow citizens still see the world from the perspective of the driver’s seat of a car.  But once you experience these changes, your eyes are opened, and you can’t go back to the dinosaur mentality of cars uber alles.

All three experts talked about the innovative ideas for bike infrastructure and “complete streets” being implemented in cities all over Southern California.  You know you’re in a room full of bike nerds when slides of buffered bike lanes and cycle tracks bring “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience.  All speakers stressed how the idea of complete streets encompasses making streets better accommodate multiple modes of travel, including transit, walking, and, of course, bicycling.  It was also interesting to note how the innovations in bike lanes and cycle tracks are being slowly incorporated into the official design manuals used by traffic engineers (though, in my view, these changes are happening much too slowly).  The other thing that was striking was how often it is the activists who have to lead the way on street design.  The engineers and the political leaders in cities often lack the will to challenge the primacy of the automobile on our streets without being pushed.

Those who attended were an ethnically diverse group, from different parts of Southern California and a wide range of ages, and evenly split between men and women.  After the presentation, the activists milled around, talking and comparing notes on their latest efforts to make streets and cities more bike-friendly.   There was lots of energy in the room, and I felt the fog lifting from my spirits as if blown away by a warm Santa Ana wind.

After the meeting, I rode buffered bike lanes on Main Street and Los Angeles Street back to Union Station, where I took the Metro back to Pasadena.  I reflected on how profoundly transit and bicycle-friendly infrastructure can transform the way we get around.  I also reflected on the work that remains to be done.  But thanks to the community of activists around LACBC, I no longer felt like it was beyond reach, and I was reminded that I am part of a movement.

Like any movement that seeks to transform deeply entrenched norms, whether it be the struggle for the 8-hour day for workers or the long struggle for civil rights, we must be ready to be in it for the long haul.

The Bike Lane Brush-Off

Less than two weeks after the tragic death of Cal Poly Pomona student Ivan Aguilar on Kellogg Drive, the administration at Cal Poly has revealed its opposition to any suggestion that bike lanes be installed on the road where Ivan was killed.  In a recent article in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, a campus administrator essentially dismissed calls for bike lanes on Kellogg Drive.

“Kellogg Drive, to handle the volume of traffic that’s on it, needs to remain a four-lane road, two on each side. Right now, there’s no room for additional bike lanes.”

Never mind that there isn’t currently a single bike lane anywhere on campus (a fact which led blogger CLR Effect to write last week that he was “shocked” at the virtual absence of any bike infrastructure on campus), so one wonders what “additional” bike lanes the university is talking about.  It makes it sound as though greedy cyclists already have plenty of bike lanes on campus, but want more.  The University also implicitly dismissed calls for measures that would appreciably reduce traffic speeds to make the roadway safer.

“We set the speed [on Kellogg Drive] based on the recommendations based on the traffic that needs to travel on that road. The 45 mile per hour limit was put in on that road based on that recommendation.”

Both statements indicate that Cal Poly administrators’ primary criteria for their roadways is to maintain the volume and speed of automobile traffic on campus arterials (and perhaps to shield the university from lawsuits).  The safety and accessibility of campus for bicyclists barely registers in their minds.  Regardless of administrators’ comments, which are revealing enough, the design of the campus’s roadways speaks volumes.  When roadways are engineered exclusively, or even primarily to maximize  the volume of high speed automobile traffic, that is precisely the way they work.  To use that as an excuse not to change when it is proven to be dangerous, however, is unconscionable.

According to the article, the campus might consider widening Kellogg Drive to accommodate bike lanes at some point in the future, but the likelihood of that happening any time soon, given the perennial budget crunch in the CSU, is virtually nonexistent.  Moreover, simply painting a bike lane along a 45-mph four-lane arterial would still be unsafe, unless traffic speeds were slowed and/or a physically separated bikeway were constructed.

The university’s message is clear:  bicyclists will be tolerated as long as they do not take an inch of roadway space from cars—and so long as they do not require any motorist to lift his right foot ever so slightly from the gas pedal on the way to the campus’s multimillion-dollar parking garage.  While I am not surprised that bicyclists’ safety got the brush off, I am somewhat surprised at the bluntness of the brush off.  The university’s statements in the press reveal its mindset about campus transportation.  Bikes are for Euro-wimps, eco-freaks, fools, and poor people.  “Real Americans” drive cars to school, and drive them fast.

What is perhaps most distressing about this 1950s transportation mentality is that it comes from an institution of higher learning that looks to the future in so many other ways.   Today, in cities and at universities all over the country, mobility is being re-thought outside the auto-centric perspective of the post-WWII era.  A growing number of transportation planners and city planners are realizing that we cannot continue to design our roads as if cars were the only legitimate mode of transportation.  All over the U.S., “complete streets” are being redesigned to accommodate multimodal transportation alternatives.

After the death of Ivan Aguilar, I assumed the wisdom of transportation redesign would be apparent to the well-educated people who make decisions at my university.  I should know better than to assume.

Ivan’s Tribute


Yesterday, Thursday March 7, was Ivan Aguilar’s memorial bike ride at Cal Poly Pomona.  As my readers know, Ivan was riding his bike on Kellogg Drive when he was struck and killed by a car on February 28.

I’m going to keep this post short, share some of my images from the event, and let you contemplate the human cost of unsafe streets.

The memorial began at around noon with tributes from students and classmates.  A procession of over 300 students, friends, family, faculty, and staff then slowly made their way to the spot where Ivan was struck down.  There, his hermanos shared memories of him as a friend.  All those who knew him talked about his cheerful personality and how he always made those around him feel happy.  A ghost bike was then placed near the spot where he was struck and will remain as a reminder to all those who pass that spot.  At that point, Campus police blocked traffic on Kellogg, and approximately 100 bicyclists took part in a memorial ride on the route he rode every day to school.


The ride itself was a fitting tribute.  The road, usually noisy with traffic, was silent and peaceful with nothing but the wind in the sycamore trees and the soft whir of bicycles.  I will never forget the sense of peace that came over me at that moment.  I hope Ivan’s soul has found that peace, and that his family might also.


Finally, the ride returned to the ghost bike, where Ivan’s family shared their feelings and expressed their gratitude for the outpouring of support from all who attended.  The entire event was very moving, and I managed to keep my composure until the very end, when Ivan’s sister spoke.  Then I lost it and the tears flowed.


We will not forget you, Ivan.  We will work as long as it takes to make the streets safer for bicyclists.

If you wish to donate to Ivan’s family to help them defray the cost of his burial, you can make a donation here.

R.I.P. Ivan Aguilar

Last Thursday, a beautiful young life was taken on the college campus where I teach.  A 21-year-old Cal Poly student, Ivan Aguilar, was struck and killed by a car while riding his bike on a campus roadway that has fast-moving traffic and lacks bike lanes.  I did not know Ivan personally, but his death hit me hard.  I keenly felt the loss as a parent who worries about his own children, as a bicyclist who knows that a careless driver can change or end my life forever, and as an educator who finds joy helping young people reach for their dreams.  I cannot help thinking about his family and my heart goes out to them.  I cannot begin to fathom their grief.  The 21-year-old should have been stressing about finals, looking forward to spring break, and dreaming about life after graduation.  Not dead.  Damn it, not dead.

A little over a week prior, I blogged about this very same stretch of roadway, and called upon Cal Poly Pomona officials to make it safer for bicyclists by installing bike lanes and traffic calming measures.  Last summer, another dangerous stretch of roadway on campus—Campus Drive—was repaved and it would have been the perfect time to give that street a “road diet” and bike lanes.  But that might have required removing an automobile lane and, in the land where cars are more important than people, this is still seen as a radical idea.  That street, a major connector between student housing, the campus’s main transit stops, and the main campus, remains as dangerous to bicyclists as ever.  We have apparently failed to grasp the urgent need to transition from the energy- and resource-intensive automobile culture to different modes of transportation.  Meanwhile, the climate is changing and people like Ivan are dying.  The status quo is unacceptable.

No one can say for sure that bike lanes and slower traffic speed on Kellogg Drive would have saved Ivan’s life.  But I do know that we have a responsibility to make sure the roads on campus are safer for all road users, and we haven’t done that.  I know that stretch of roadway could be made safer and greener by significantly slowing traffic speeds and making more space for bikes and pedestrians.  I know that the lack of safe road design discourages people who might otherwise bike or walk to school.  I know that we can change, that we must change.  The real question is whether we have the will to do so.

So far, more than 500 people in the Cal Poly community have responded to a call for a memorial ride on campus to put up a ghost bike in Ivan’s memory on the spot where the car took his life.  I hope each and every one of the 500 shows up Thursday, March 7.  And that each brings a friend.  Maybe something good can come from this terrible tragedy if people in power are willing to listen.

Last Thursday, another life was added to the 35,000 to 40,000 Americans who are killed by automobiles every year in this country.  Yet our culture continues to worship at the altar of the automobile, even though it destroys our environment, our climate, and even, as in this case, our children.  It seems a sort of madness to me.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  We need to redesign our roads so that alternative modes of transportation are made safe and convenient.  People are doing this in other cities, other universities, and it works.  Those sleepwalking through this environmental and existential crisis—and unfortunately they are legion, even at places of higher learning—need to wake up and realize that cars are part of the problem, not the solution.  We need bike lanes.  We need traffic calming.  Now.

I’m going to keep saying it to anyone who will listen.  For Ivan’s sake.  And for our own.

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