Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Fixing A Broken System

It’s not news to say our transportation system in Southern California is reliant on cars.  Such a system is incomplete, unsafe, and incredibly unhealthy for our communities and for the planet.  What is difficult is getting people to realize this transportation system is broken and convincing them they need to change it.  Sometimes I feel hopeful about our prospects, other times, not so much.  The victories seem small, and so few and far between.  The setbacks are not permanent, but with so far to go these delays prolong the time it takes to fix our broken system.

Nope, no room for bike lanes here.

Nope, no room for bike lanes here.

Last week, the City Council of Temple City voted not to adopt a “complete street” redesign of Las Tunas, a commercial street in the heart of that city.  The redesign proposal included bike lanes and would have made the street safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and bicyclists.  The redesigned street would have made downtown Temple City a destination, not just a thoroughfare.

I thought the signs looked good, but I was wrong.  A couple of months ago I attended a community meeting on the Las Tunas redesign and, though there was some opposition from local NIMBYs (one old codger at the meeting said bike lanes were a “sign of mental illness”), the city council voted unanimously to move forward and place it on the agenda for the next meeting.  At last week’s city council meeting (which I could not attend because of work commitments), opponents were apparently out in force, and the “streets-are-for-cars” crowd won the day.  The opposition—mostly older residents—pressured the city council to abandon even a modest proposal for bike lanes.

It was a setback for the region, and leaves Las Tunas a dangerous commuter arterial instead of a vibrant center for local people and businesses.  I have no doubt that the people of Temple City will eventually see the light, but in the meantime the design of Las Tunas remains stuck in the past, serving only a part of the community’s needs, forcing everyone else into a steel box.

Another example of the broken system is that there is still no real usable network of bike lanes that would allow people to get around without a car.  Who would want to do such a thing?  Consider a family friend of ours, a student at Whittier College.  Like many college students, she doesn’t have a lot of money or a car, and she recently got a part-time job down the road from her college.  She wants to ride her bike to work, but she’s not particularly experienced, and the route includes some busy arterials  like Lambert Rd., where automobile speeds can reach 40mph.  There are a few streets with bike lanes (shown in solid green lines on the Google map, below), but there are large gaps including a long stretch of Lambert that would leave her stranded halfway to work on a busy street with no bike lane.

Whittier, CA: some bike lanes, but mostly incomplete streets.

Whittier, CA: some bike lanes, but mostly incomplete streets.

Bike lanes—let alone protected bike lanes—are still a rarity in this part of the San Gabriel Valley.  As with many suburban areas, there are few transit options, either.  Her parents face the choice of allowing her to ride her bike on incomplete car-streets or shelling out thousands of dollars for a car (adding another car to already-congested roads, adding more pollution and GHGs to our air, depriving a young person of healthy exercise, etc).  Here is a person who wants to ride to work, yet our transportation system makes this choice so daunting that one feels almost forced to choose a car.  This is the opposite of freedom, the opposite of a complete transportation system.

When we create a transportation system that only works for cars, we create a partial system that excludes and marginalizes people who can’t afford cars, don’t want a car, or who are unable to drive.  We essentially force all but the most experienced and confident (or desperate) to buy into the car system.  Once people buy into that system they expect cities to design infrastructure for their convenience, which further reinforces the incompleteness of this unsafe, inequitable, unsustainable, people-unfriendly system.

We must create a transportation system that works for everyone and prioritizes more sustainable, healthy, and socially-equitable modes of transportation.  We must have the courage to change a car monoculture that impoverishes our public spaces, marginalizes those who can’t afford a car, contributes to our climate crisis, and kills tens of thousands (and injures or maims hundreds of thousands) of Americans every year.  We owe it to our children to create a better system.  At times the enormity of the task seems overwhelming.

But the work continues and I am not free to abandon it.


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8 thoughts on “Fixing A Broken System

  1. Excellent essay, as usual. But I had to LOL when I read “… Lambert Rd., where automobile speeds can reach 40mph.” Here in northeast L.A. we aspire to hold auto speeds DOWN to 40mph. 60mph is more like the auto speeds on such narrow streets as Griffin Ave. Figueroa? 50 to 60 during the day and up to 80 at night.

    • Haha! Yes, I was going with the “legal” limit (because we know all motorists obey all traffic laws, unlike those scofflaw cyclists, right?). Still, 40mph traffic is too fast for riding without a bike lane. In the Netherlands by contrast, on streets where auto traffic exceeds 30mph protected bike lanes MUST be built. Oh, how nice it would be to live in a civilized society.

      • Not to detract from the point, but the Dutch reference isn’t very accurate. Though it’s true that there are few painted bike lanes on Dutch streets with 40 MPH traffic, it’s because most of those streets are generally not in urban areas and thus are often closed to bikes altogether. By law, streets inside urban areas cannot have a speed limit higher than 30 MPH except for the case of special exemptions. However, in non-urban areas, the default speed limit is frequently 35 MPH and they usually include bike lanes.There are even a few roads signed for 50 MPH that also have painted bike lanes. The big difference is that there generally is an alternative route and many of the streets also use many different techniques to keep through traffic down.

      • Thanks for the clarification.

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  3. I love the sarcasm “Nope, no room for bike lanes here.”

    The street is so wide they could put a trolly down the middle, buffered/protected bike lanes, room for cars, and perhaps a runway for airplanes. Okay, that last one may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

    • Jim’s comment about “put a trolly down the middle” reminds us of “ancient history”: From 1925 to 1941, there was a trolley line down the middle of Las Tunas. The terminal station was about where the library and the firehouse are now. Pacific Electric converted the line to bus service just a few months before World War II would have made such an abandonment much less likely. The probable reasons for going to buses: The Alhambra-San Gabriel-Temple City line was slow street running, there was little potential for freight traffic, and PE was under pressure from the Public Utilities Commission to get rid of their wooden interurban cars, which were the typical rolling stock for this line.

  4. Pingback: Morning Links: Rosemead shoots down safe streets on Las Tunas; ridiculous and sublime new bike offerings |

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