Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “June, 2013”

Calling for Bike Lanes in Pasadena

Westbound traffic on Del Mar and Craig.  Note room for bike lanes on the shoulder.

Westbound traffic on Del Mar and Craig. Note room for bike lanes on the shoulder.

The recent tragic death of cyclist Phillip O’Neill in Pasadena reinforced for me the idea that Pasadena needs bike lanes on more of its streets, especially on at least one of the key east-west routes near Pasadena City College and Caltech.  This area already has a significant amount of bicycle traffic due to its proximity to these colleges, but the proximity to transit, shops, and jobs in the area means that bike-friendly infrastructure is an essential part of the city’s obligation to provide safe and sustainable mobility options to all its citizens.

As I’ve mentioned before, the wonderful people at Caltech’s Bike Lab have been circulating a petition calling for Pasadena to install bike lanes on one of its east-west streets, and it is high time for the city to act on it (if you haven’t already signed it, please click on the link).  Monday, July 1, I’ll be attending a Complete Streets Forum in Pasadena where these issues will be discussed, and preparations will be made to call on Pasadena officials to commit to improving Pasadena’s bike infrastructure.

As you can see from the photo of Del Mar Blvd in Pasadena, above, taken near the intersection of Craig and Del Mar one recent morning rush hour, there is room for bike lanes on Del Mar, either by converting curbside parking lanes to bike lanes or by reducing traffic lanes from four to three (a “road diet”), or a combination of both, depending on location.

I was reminded how important bike lanes and bike-friendly facilities are to a city when I visited a friend in Claremont earlier this week.  I took the Foothill Transit 187 bus from Arcadia to Claremont and then rode my bike the rest of the way to my friend’s house, a distance of a little over a mile from the bus stop.  My friend recently moved to his new abode, so it was my first time riding this particular route, but I was pleasantly surprised to find bike lanes or sharrows along almost the entire route, and it makes a huge difference to a cyclist, especially on unfamiliar streets.  Moreover, there was no apocalyptic traffic jam caused by the bike lanes (as bike lane opponents claim), and I saw lots of people of all ages riding bikes.  Lesson to cities about bike lanes: if you build them, they will ride.

Bike lanes not only increase safety, they provide a sense of comfort for the less-confident bicycle rider, and they send a message to all that bicycles belong on our streets.  If they are well-designed and if they actually help people get from point A to point B safely, they encourage more people to ride because they increase the feeling of safety and reduce the stress of riding in automobile traffic.  Drivers of automobiles never have to think twice about this (or they haven’t at least since the early 1920s when streets were redesigned to accommodate automobiles), but an auto-centric road design says to the pedestrian and bicyclist, “you don’t matter.”  It is so refreshing when a city says to you, “you do matter.”

R.I.P. Phillip O’Neill

It happened again.  Another dead cyclist.  Please forgive the tone of today’s post, ’cause I’m pissed off and not in the mood to be charitable.

Last week, 25 year-old Phillip O’Neill and a female friend were riding on Del Mar Blvd. in Pasadena on their first date.  Phillip was struck from behind by a motorist and died at the scene.  Now, Del Mar has plenty of room on the shoulder for bike lanes, but the powers that be in Pasadena think empty cars make better use of that space, forcing bicyclists to “take the lane” in 40-plus MPH traffic.  The driver apparently struck Phillip from behind, which suggests he was riding in the lane, as he was legally entitled to do.  At this time, little additional information is available, but one thing is certain, Pasadena’s leaders bear some responsibility for this tragedy.  This isn’t the first time a cyclist has been killed on Pasadena’s dangerous streets.  Last year, two cyclists were killed in separate incidents.  It isn’t as if the city hasn’t known its streets aren’t safe.  Caltech Bike Lab has been circulating a petition to the city to address the dangerous lack of bike infrastructure on the city’s major east-west routes like Del Mar for a year.  I and others have criticized the city’s lack of bike infrastructure, and poor maintenance of what little it does have.  I complain to anyone in the city who will listen.  Nothing happens.

Oh, I take that back.  2 months ago, the city installed a bike lane on one block of Rosemead Blvd. between Sierra Madre Villa and N. Halstead.  It includes a dangerous vehicle crossover zone on the westbound side that is an accident waiting to happen (about which I’ve complained to the city’s transportation administrator … but that seems to have disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole).  Second, the bike lane on both ends of the block lead to streets where cyclists are once again forced into traffic because of, yup, you guessed it, parked cars.  There have been a couple other piecemeal efforts here and there, but the city remains a dangerous place to ride a bike.

Pasadena has been “considering” a bike plan for some time now.  I’ve had a look at it and provided my input at public forums, and online.  Now we hear the city council will “take up” the issue at its next meeting in July.  About f***ing time.

Even if it is adopted whole, the Pasadena bike plan is, sad to say, distinctly underwhelming.  It looks great on a map, with lots of lines showing new bikeways throughout much of the central city.  Here’s the problem (which I’ve articulated before): with a few notable exceptions, the city’s bike plan relies on lots of “sharrows” and class III “bike routes,” which look great on a map, but are absolutely meaningless when you actually have to ride on them.  In fact, Del Mar, where Phillip tragically lost his young life, is currently a “bike route.”  Fat lot of good it did him.  Sharrows and “bike routes” that don’t provide separated or protected road space for bicyclists do nothing to protect cyclists from automobile traffic.  Sharrows (such as those recently installed on Glenarm) merely signify what is already the law—namely, that cyclists have a right to the lane.  Pasadena’s city leaders should ask themselves whether they would feel comfortable with their children or grandchildren riding to school or the store on Pasadena’s streets with only sharrows to protect them from speeding 2,000-lb cars and distracted, impatient, hostile drivers.  If the answer is no, then, well I guess we know where their priorities are.  Sharrows do offer politicians cover, however.  I’m sure there will be a lot of back-slapping and glad-handing by Pasadena officials that they’re making the city more “bike-friendly,” by putting sharrows down, but it’ll be for show.  I repeat, sharrows don’t do sh*it.  Tiny road signs that say “bike route” do even less.

The real hard work of making a city bike-friendly comes from providing things like buffered bike lanes and intersection bike boxes. But these things may require road diets or exchanging curbside parking for bike lanes.  Those things take political courage, because there is an adjustment period when drivers are angry and complain.  But drivers eventually adapt and people’s lives are saved.

Until now, Pasadena’s leaders have preferred to sacrifice the lives of cyclists and pedestrians rather than incur the temporary wrath of motorists’ overblown sense of entitlement.  Pasadena leaders, show me where you stand.  When you have the courage to reallocate road space to cyclists, I’ll be impressed.  In the meantime, rest in peace, brother Phillip.  I will continue the fight.

Phillip O'Neill's ghost bike on Del Mar Blvd.  Photo courtesy Elizabeth Williams.

Phillip O’Neill’s ghost bike on Del Mar Blvd. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Williams.

Profits over Safety

Bicycling for transportation certainly brings many joys and benefits, but there are times on the road when you definitely feel vulnerable.  I don’t so much fear the out-of-control driver as I do the inattentive one, because the latter are much more common.  You know the ones, trying to pretend they’re not texting, but the telltale downward glances into their lap every 5 seconds are a dead giveaway.  I can’t tell you how many times in my daily commute I see drivers talking on their cell phones or texting.  On my commute home last week, one driver almost ran a red light as I was about to cross the intersection and, yup, she was yakking away on a cell phone with both eyes technically on the road.

It’s been well-established that using a hand-held device makes driving more dangerous, but the key thing is, it’s not just because both eyes oren’t on the road, and both hands aren’t on the wheel—it’s because activities such as talking on a phone or texting require cognitive attention to those tasks, and that takes away cognitive attention from the road, reducing reaction time.

Meanwhile, car manufacturers have been loading up their new cars with lots of fancy voice-activated, “hands-free” electronic gadgets in recent years in an attempt to woo buyers.  The assumption is that “hands free” means risk free when it comes to driving, but that assumption has been dealt a serious blow by a new study commissioned by AAA (not exactly an “anti-car” group, to say the least).  The study found that hands-free, voice activated devices, when used for making phone calls or voice texting, or accessing email or social media resulted in “significant impairments to driving that stem from the diversion of attention from the task of operating a motor vehicle.”  The study concluded that the use of these devices poses an “extensive” safety risk.  This occurs because the increased mental workload and cognitive distraction caused by the use of these devices “can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”

Not surprisingly, auto manufacturers dismissed the study, claiming their devices are “safe” because they “keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.”  Only it’s not true.  This issue isn’t your hands and eyes, it’s your brain.  Radios do little to distract drivers, the study found, but active communication requires a level of cognitive attention that impairs driving.  With certain hands-free tasks, your brain isn’t on the road, even if your eyes are.

If you need to check email or take a call, pull over and park.  You’re operating a piece of heavy equipment on the public roads, and distracted driving is impaired driving, even if both hands are on the wheel.  Heavier fines for using cell phones and other voice-activated devices should be imposed.  We shouldn’t wait for the auto industry to agree.  As Ralph Nader showed America over 40 years ago, the industry will gladly put profits ahead of safety, even when the evidence is overwhelming.

That’s one reason I like things like green bike lanes, such as those on Spring Street in downtown L.A.  The green paint makes the bike lane as visible as possible to catch the attention of distracted drivers.  I’ve ridden them a number of times and they provide more safety for bicyclists because of their greater visibility.

Once again, an industry’s profits are threatening to trump public safety.  FilmL.A., the film industry’s lobby group, is on a crusade to remove the green paint from Spring Street’s bike lane.  Location managers initially claimed that it would make Spring Street an unsuitable stand-in for other cities.  Then, when it was pointed out that cities as diverse as Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia Minneapolis, Washington DC, and New York (to name a few) also have green bike lanes, the industry switched its argument and said they couldn’t remove the green paint in post-production.  When that was proven false, then they claimed it was the green reflection that they couldn’t remove.  Now they claim they can remove the green tint, but it raises the costs of production.  Ah, well money trumps safety for one of the most profitable industries on the globe, see.  I hope the LA City Council has the courage to stand up to Film L.A. and keep Spring Street green.

Safety over profits.  Sounds crazy, I know.  Maybe we should try it.

New Bike Lane

baldwin bike lane

Recently, a stretch of roadway near my home was repaved, and bike lanes were installed.  As readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of bike lanes and we have so few of them in this part of the San Gabriel Valley that I couldn’t wait to try this one out.

The lanes are on North Baldwin Avenue between Orange Grove Ave. and Foothill Blvd in Arcadia.  Now, I’ve critiqued Arcadia before as one of the most bike-unfriendly cities in the region, so the addition of even a short stretch of bike lane should be most welcome.

I had the perfect opportunity to use them the other day, when I met a friend for lunch at Din Tai Fung restaurant on South Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia.  As I headed down North Baldwin on the bike lanes, I was glad to have my own space on the road, and I didn’t feel forced into the “door zone.”  So, the good news is, the bike lanes are fantastic … as far as they go.

The bad news is, the bike lanes abruptly end at the busy intersection of Baldwin and Foothill Blvd., which abuts busy on and off ramps to the westbound 210 freeway.  It’s an odd intersection, because if you head straight, you’re going to be on the 210 freeway, so if you want to continue heading South on Baldwin, you’ve got to turn left at this busy intersection (an intimidating process for less experienced cyclists), and head east on Foothill about 200 yards until you can make a right turn and continue south on Baldwin again.  Traffic on Foothill is heavy and fast (45 MPH), and there is little room and (of course) no bike lane.  Once back on southbound Baldwin, the rest of which lacks bike lanes, you have to go under the 210 freeway and contend with the eastbound 210 on- and offramp traffic.  If it sounds a little confusing and intimidating, it is.

sb baldwin av.

Once past the 210 freeway, southbound Baldwin Avenue has a wide shoulder, which is a good thing, because traffic is heavy and traveling at a good 40-45 MPH, past the L.A. County Arboretum, the Santa Anita Racetrack, and the Santa Anita Mall.  Baldwin is thus a major arterial route serving these three heavily trafficked sites.  This stretch of Baldwin has plenty of room for bike lanes on the wide shoulder, but as yet there are none.

However, just as you head south of the Arboretum, the road narrows and the shoulder is taken by parked cars, forcing cyclists to either “take the lane” in 40 MPH traffic, or ride the sidewalk.  Fortunately, midday traffic was not too heavy, though I was nearly “Jerry Browned” by a minivan that passed within inches of me so he could beat me by several seconds to a red light at Baldwin and Huntington Drive.

South of Huntington Drive, the road narrows further, and the shoulder disappears completely, and unless you’re very confident and ride in the middle of the lane, your best bet is to retreat to the sidewalk.  However, you’ll find that Arcadia is no more friendly to pedestrians than it is to bicyclists, as there are no crosswalks between Fairview Ave and Duarte Road.  And you can forget any bike racks anywhere in the vicinity.


This is a neighborhood that marginalizes anyone not wrapped in 2,000-lbs of steel.  Which is a shame, because there are lots of small businesses and residences within walking and bicycling distance of this area, and making it more bike- and pedestrian-friendly would be good for business.  The Baldwin Av./Duarte Rd. neighborhood could be much safer and much more appealing to young people who want to bike or stroll around.  The city is also part of the emerging “626” cultural scene, including hosting the “626 Night Market.”  City leaders need to understand that many of the young people who are part of this 626 scene are into bicycling, and develop a comprehensive bike plan.  The challenge is how to get the blind mice leading the city of Arcadia to see.

Bottom line: I’m thrilled that North Baldwin has its short stretch of bike lanes, and the trip was well worth it for the delicious dumplings at DinTai Fung.  But my guess is almost no one will use the new bike lanes on North Baldwin until and unless they connect with more bike and ped-friendly infrastructure that actually goes someplace.  In order to make sure that bike lanes actually form a usable network, instead of suddenly appearing for half a mile, then disappearing, you need a bike plan.  Unfortunately, Arcadia’s leaders voted against commissioning a bike plan last year, despite the fact that the city is going to get a new Gold Line station next year, and desperately needs better bike infrastructure.  Unfortunately, at the present time the city’s leaders seem stuck in the 1950s auto-only mentality.

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