Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Bike Safe

LACBC panel2

Last week I attended a bike safety workshop at the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) headquarters downtown.  I like attending these meetings because they’re always informative and I enjoy the fellowship of other bicyclists from different parts of the city.  I also enjoy taking my bike on the Metro Gold Line and riding the buffered bike lanes downtown, especially the brightly painted green bike lane on Spring Street, which makes me feel super safe riding on a busy street.  The transit and bike-friendly amenities remind me that it is possible to shift from a car-centered transportation system, even in the land of the automobile. Growing up in Southern California, if you wanted to go from Pasadena to Downtown L.A., you had to drive.  Now you don’t.  That’s a huge step forward.

This month’s LACBC workshop coincided with the unveiling of the organization’s “Bike Safe: California Rules of the Road” pocket guide, also available online.  It was also a chance to ask questions about bike safety from a panel of five distinguished bike safety experts, including Sgt. Jon Aufdenberg, the LAPD’s bike liaison; Lt. Marjorie Jacobs of the LASD; Attorney James Pocrass; Ted Rogers, LACBC board member and author of the blog “BikinginLA;” and Cynthia Rose, co-founder of Santa Monica Spoke, and director of Santa Monica’s “safe routes to school” program.  The panel was moderated by LACBC’s Colin Bogart.

One of the important issues raised during the panel discussion was that we should use the word “collision” to describe what we have hitherto called “accidents.”  As Ted Rogers put it, “accident” implies that the incident could not have been prevented because no one was at fault.  In the vast majority of cases, however, someone wasn’t following the rules of the road, causing the “collision” to occur.  Understood this way, we all have within us the power, as motorists, bicyclists, and/or pedestrians, to follow the rules of the road and drastically cut down on collisions.  Rogers also noted that following the guidelines on the LACBC “Bike Safe” list reduces your chance of being involved in a collision by 50 percent.

The pocket guide to bike safety is a handy reference that includes common sense suggestions such as wearing a helmet and riding a bike with brakes, as well as the legal rights and responsibilities of cyclists on the road. Each rule is written in easy to understand language and includes reference to the relevant section(s) of the California Vehicle Code.  There are 20 rules included in the guide, and I won’t go through them all (you can do that yourself by downloading the reference here), but I wanted to highlight a few.  For example, basics such as your legal right to ride on the street:

Ride on the Street You have the right to ride on the street.  You are NOT required to ride on the sidewalk. CVC 21200  Exception: Freeways and some bridges may have signs posted forbidding bicyclists.

Or where to ride on the street when there’s no bike lane:

Ride to the Right, But Within Limits  When riding slower than the normal speed of traffic, you are required to ride as far right as “practicable” (meaning safe).  You are not required to ride as far right as possible, which may not be safe.  You are allowed, but not required, to ride on the shoulder.  CVC 21202, CVC 21650, CVC 21650.1

Or where to ride if there’s no room on the right side of the road (i.e., if the lane’s too narrow to share side-by-side with a car):

Take the Lane  If a travel lane is to narrow to safely share side by side with a motor vehicle, you can prevent unsafe passing by riding near the center of the lane.  On two lane roads where it’s illegal or unsafe to pass, you must turn off the roadway at a designated or safe location to allow a line of 5 or more vehicles behind you to pass.  CVC 21202(a)(3), CVC 21656

The advice to “take the lane” is legal and safe (when motorists are driving safely), and most useful in this safe cycling guide.  Where I live and ride, parked cars on some narrower streets are the main reason I am sometimes forced to take the lane.  While it is statistically the safest thing to do, I will admit it can be stressful to have annoyed motorists backed up behind you.

If even I feel uncomfortable “taking the lane,” despite my years of experience, how are we to expect less aggressive riders to feel?  What about children?  Even I feel uneasy telling my children to get in the lane and pretend you’re a car.  Mind you, I’m not criticizing the safety guidelines, but I feel compelled to point out what I see as a major limitation of the vehicular cycling philosophy.  Rule of thumb:  if an experienced cyclist like myself feels uncomfortable telling my teenage kids to do this on the way to school or the park, it’s probably not a sufficient strategy for getting the average American to use their bikes instead of their cars.  While these rules make it safer to ride a bike, it’s important to remember that they won’t increase bicycle mode share.

One related area of discussion that the audience members asked the panelists about was riding on the sidewalk.  As someone who has sometimes felt forced to retreat to the sidewalk on some streets, because of heavy traffic and a lack of safe space to ride, I am aware that there may be times when riding on the sidewalk is necessary.  The LACBC pocket guide says of sidewalk riding:

Avoid Riding on the Sidewalks  Each city in California has its own rules about riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.  Some cities allow sidewalk riding, some don’t.  Check with your city’s municipal code. CVC 21206

The LACBC’s Rogers noted that riding on the sidewalk can actually be more dangerous than riding in the street, since you are often placed in a potential danger zone with cars at driveways and intersections.  Bicyclists going too fast on sidewalks can be a hazard to pedestrians, too.  Sgt. Aufdenberg of the LAPD agreed that it was not safe, but added that sidewalk riding is presently legal in the city of LA, as long as the bicyclist exercises “due regard” for the safety of other sidewalk users.  As with the rest of the guide, the LACBC’s advice on this issue is sound.

Regardless of how problematic sidewalk riding is, there is a larger issue that I want to address.  While I understand that sidewalk riding irks many people, it reflects the fact that we currently have too little safe bicycling infrastructure on our roadways.  Sidewalk riding is essentially the bicyclist’s vote of no confidence in the safety of the roadway.  During the discussion, one audience member expressed vehement dislike for bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk, going so far as to say he wanted extra copies of the guide to “fling” at sidewalk-riding bicyclists.  I bit my tongue at the time, not wanting to get into an argument about something not central to the presentation, but I feel compelled to respond here.  We need to install more miles of protected, or buffered bike lanes on our roads where automobile speeds exceed 35 mph, like those painted on Spring Street in L.A. that make it safer for people to ride in the street.  Until we do so, I would urge less finger-wagging by experienced cyclists at sidewalk riders (as long as it’s not harming anyone), and more attention to building the kind of bike infrastructure that will make sidewalk riding unnecessary.  Let’s be more understanding, use common sense persuasion and not “fling” the guidelines at anybody, shall we?

In my view a larger problem is NIMBY opposition when cities try to reallocate road space to provide bike lanes.  I believe bike lanes (especially those that are protected or buffered) are a vital precondition for a shift to sustainable multimodal transportation, and we are seeing more of them installed in cities across the country.  We are in a transition period, and there’s going to be opposition from people who only understand the world from a perspective behind the windshield.  Nevertheless, opposition from motorists must not deter us from pushing ahead with improvements in bike infrastructure.  In the meantime, we’ve got to keep riding and the LACBC’s Rules of the Road guide is an indispensable resource for building confidence in one’s rights and responsibilities on the road.

The LACBC deserves a big pat on the back for putting together the panel discussion and pocket guide.  Every cyclist (and motorist) should follow these rules, and by making them available in an easily digestible form, the LACBC has provided an important public service.  Read them and “bike safe.”

Bike to Work Day 5.16.13


Today was “bike to work day” in L.A. and, while I’ve been biking to work all year this year, I have been working in the Pasadena area this month, which allowed me to pay a visit to the Bike to Work Day “Pit Stop” at Pasadena City Hall this morning.  It was a great opportunity to meet other bike commuters, talk to some city staff about making the city more bike-friendly, and have some muffins and coffee before getting on your way.

As a veteran bike commuter, I don’t need the prod of a “Bike to Work Day” to get me on my bicycle, but still I think events like Bike to Work Day are a wonderful way to get people to try it and realize they can get to work without a car.  This morning, for example, I was talking to two women who were riding to work for the first time.  One hadn’t been on her bike since, “like forever,” as she told me, but it was great to see their sense of accomplishment at having done it successfully.  The first step away from total auto-dependency has to begin somewhere, so the more events like this, the better.

I also think such events are a wonderful way to nurture a sense of camaraderie among bike commuters, since we’re still in the very low single digits in terms of percentage of transportation mode share in Southern California.  In other words, it reminds us that we’re not alone and we’re part of something that seeks to make our cities and our streets healthier, safer, and more livable for everyone.  Best of all, unlike many organized bike rides, Bike to Work Day consciously gets people to substitute their bike for their car, if even for a day.  It gets at the heart of what a transformative potential the bicycle has as a legitimate mode of transportation.

This week is also “Bike Week Pasadena,” an annual event organized by a local bicycle transportation advocacy group, as part of the local Bike Month festivities.  This is a great group of grassroots volunteers who host family-friendly fun rides and what they call “urban expeditions,” which are casually-paced rides that explore parts of the city by bike.  Sometimes the rides have fun themes, but the idea is to get people of all levels of fitness out on bikes and experience the city in a more fun, healthy, and open way than can be done in a car.  When I’ve attended these rides, it not only gave me a wonderful new perspective on my city, it gave me a sense of belonging within the bicycle advocacy community.  This year’s events included a  food-themed ride, a ladies’ night ride, and a kids’ costume ride.  The LA County Bicycle Coalition and Metro also play a major role promoting these bike week events.

Sure, Bike Week Pasadena and Bike to Work Day might be seen by cynics as a bit gimmicky, but these events are excellent ways for the”bike curious” to experience bicycling in a safe, fun environment and a welcome reminder for the more experienced that we’re part of a growing movement.

Bike to School

Bike2School2Today, May 8, was the second annual national Bike to School day.  This year, I helped organize a bike to school event for my local middle school, and the experience was both rewarding and exhausting.  The day dawned cloudy with just a hint of morning drizzle, which I think may have kept some families from participating, but we ultimately had about 12 kids and 4 parents participate in our group ride to school.

I was initially prompted to organize this event last fall after a student was struck by a car while bicycling to the local middle school.  Fortunately, the girl was not seriously injured, but I’ll never forget the sight of the girl’s bicycle wedged under that car’s front bumper, and I resolved to do something about it.

A little bit of research showed how much walking and bicycling to school have declined in the last few decades.  According to US DOT statistics, in 1969 almost 50 percent of American schoolkids walked or biked to school.  Today that number has declined to just over 10 percent.  I remember walking a little over a mile to the local elementary school when I was growing up, but in recent years, my wife and I almost always drove our kids to school, and statistically we’re pretty common.  Here’s the really sad part:  when my son was attending the local elementary campus, less than a quarter of a mile from our house, we drove him.  Every day.  Granted, there are no sidewalks on our street, and he’d have to cross the street where there’s no crosswalk at the corner where the bicyclist was struck, but that’s no excuse.  We could have walked with him.  Truth be told, my wife or I often walked to the school to pick him up at the end of the day, but on busy mornings, we got in the car.

There are many reasons for this, and parents I’ve talked to often cite safety as the number one reason they chauffeur their kids to and from school in cars.  Ironically, the mini-traffic jams our cars cause around schools twice a day are one of the main reasons the streets are less safe than they were 30 or 40 years ago.  The pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from literally millions of cars idling in front of schools across America is not inconsequential, either.  Moreover, we’re implicitly teaching our kids to depend on cars for every little trip, and the lack of exercise among young people is part of what has led to an obesity epidemic among American youngsters.

There is also a fear of predators expressed by parents.  While statistically, the chance of a predator attacking a child on the way to school is much smaller than a child getting killed in a car accident, the fear is nonetheless real.  This is why organized bike and walk to school events are so important.  They offer parents an opportunity to supervise a wholesome and environmentally friendly way to travel to school by organizing “bike trains” and “walking school buses.”  Young people get healthy exercise, develop knowledge of the rules of the road, and connect with their communities in a group setting.

These bike to school days don’t have to be every day, but can be once a week or once a month.  In the past year, my daughter and I have been bicycling to her school once a week (save a couple of days when it was raining pretty hard).  In addition to being great exercise for both of us, she’s learning to be more confident on the road, and it provides wonderful father-daughter time.

I’ve been feeling a little discouraged lately about the slow pace of change in this car-obsessed culture, and the magnitude of the environmental crisis that our addiction to fossil fuels exacerbates.  But there was real enthusiasm from the parents and kids on the ride.  The local PD offered a bicycle escort, and even stopped traffic at the two major intersections we rode through on the way to school, making the event stress-free for the kids.  The parents who participated are already talking about putting together more events of this sort to help kids learn to ride safely, and the local principal has been super supportive.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll break our dependency on cars.  One small step at a time.

Bike Month Woes

May is “Bike Month,” according to the League of American Bicyclists (not to mention the one year anniversary of this blog).  I expected I’d be posting a lot more.

Yet, I’ve been away from the blog for longer than I’d intended, partly because I’ve been busy with another writing project and partly because I’ve been in something of a funk about the glacial pace of change in our deeply-rooted car culture (come to think of it, in light of the rapidity with which glaciers are melting due to climate change, we humans seem to be moving slower than glaciers).

Speaking of climate change, the signs are ominous, to say the least.  Last week, scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory measured atmospheric CO2 at 400 parts per million (ppm), the highest level recorded in, like, literally a million years.  The level of atmospheric CO2 was about 280 ppm at the beginning of the industrial revolution in the middle of the 19th century, and had not exceeded 300 ppm for the previous 800,000 years.  In 1958, when modern measurement began, the level was 316 ppm.  The scientists didn’t mince words about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity (like, um, driving our millions of cars everywhere like there’s no tomorrow).  As one of the scientists told the Los Angeles Times:

“The 400-ppm threshold is a sobering milestone, and should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to support clean-energy technology and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, before it’s too late for our children and grandchildren.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s evidence of a backlash against bike lanes in L.A., even though we need more of them (as well as a substantial expansion of public transit) so people have realistic alternatives to the car.  First, the Eagle Rock Chamber of Commerce has been orchestrating a campaign to stop the installation of bike lanes on Colorado Blvd. in Eagle Rock, painting pictures of apocalyptic traffic jams and blaming bike lanes instead of cars.  Next, the L.A. Times editorialized against the green bike lanes on Spring Street downtown, repeating the discredited argument of location managers for film production companies that green bike lanes “ruin” L.A. as a film location.  I’ve used those green bike lanes and they provide a safe space for bicycles on that busy downtown street.

As if that weren’t enough, I’ve had a series of extremely frustrating arguments with some of my friends and members of my family about the need to break out of the automobile-centered culture.  They agree in principle but they refuse to act on this principle.

All of which reinforces for me the seriousness of the death grip that the automobile has on this culture … indeed, on this planet and its future.  It also makes it harder to stay optimistic, which I try to do in this space.  Hence, my absence.

Time for a bike ride.  It always makes me feel better.

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