Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “bike-friendly infrastructure”

Dangerous Drivers, Dangerous Roads

Approximate spot where driver cut me off

Approximate spot where driver cut me off

This morning I was on my way back from my ride to my daughter’s school, about to stop off at the local Trader Joe’s to pick up some groceries.  I was on a four-lane stretch of road that is clearly marked as a “Bike Route” (see photo).  I took control of the right-hand lane as state law allows, because the shoulder was intermittently occupied by parked cars and trash bins and the lane was not wide enough for a car to safely pass (In compliance with CVC 21202, sec a3-4).  It was daylight on a sunny day and I had my rear flasher on for safety.  Visibility was not a problem.
As I approached the intersection, I could see a white mini-van gaining on me in my rear view mirror. At the last minute he passed dangerously close to me and then swerved back into my lane, cutting me off with about a foot to spare (violating CVC 21760).  It was a straight intimidation move, designed to send a message that I don’t belong on his roads.  His life-threatening driving got him to a red light at the intersection literally 2-3 seconds earlier than he otherwise would have.  He was a white male about 65-70 years of age with his wife in the passenger seat next to him.  When I got to the intersection, I pulled up to the passenger side of his car and matter-of-factly said that he needed to give me three feet (I may have been talking loudly, because his window was initially closed, but I was not being hostile, despite the fact that he had nearly killed me and my adrenaline–not to mention my anger–were running high). As I explained the law, he rolled down the window and told me that I was “in the middle of the street,” and that I have to “get over to the side of the road.”  I tried to explain that there were parked cars and trash cans that prevented me from doing so, and he growled “fuck you, asshole” and then immediately sped off when the light turned green.  His intimidation tactic won’t keep me off my bike, but drivers like him are an effective deterrent to many more people riding their bikes for everyday transportation.  Until we protect bicyclists from motorists like him, we won’t see significant changes in mode share.
It’s sobering to think there are motorists, licensed to drive by the state, who don’t know the law and would kill you to save themselves the trouble of easing their foot off the gas for a few seconds.  When I got to Trader Joe’s, my legs were wobbly from the realization of how close I had come to serious injury or death because of someone’s reckless, ignorant, entitled operation of a motor vehicle—a potentially deadly weapon.  Moreover, I’ve had another close call in the bike lane less than half a block from that spot.  The streets in that part of Pasadena are dangerous for cyclists because of high traffic speeds and a lack of good bike infrastructure.  The City of Pasadena needs to make it safer for bikes, but I’m sure DOT staff get tired of hearing me complain.
Will they wait until I, or someone else, get killed before acting?

2016 Highlights

As 2016 comes to a close, it’s time for taking stock of the year’s developments in car-free transportation in the San Gabriel Valley.

Arcadia Gold Line station.

Arcadia Gold Line station.

At the top of my list is the opening of the Gold Line extension from Pasadena to Azusa.  This brought the Gold Line closer to my house, and allows me to take the train for part of my commute to work at Cal Poly Pomona.  The rest of the trip is on Foothill Transit‘s extensive bus service in the east San Gabriel Valley.  The Foothill Transit 280 and 486 buses run every 15 minutes during peak times, and their new buses are quite comfortable.  The new commute cuts about 15 minutes off my old route through El Monte Bus Station and allows me to bypass the infrequent service of the Metro 487 bus line.  The bike portion of my new commute is also shorter, which makes it more manageable on a regular basis. The easy bike ride to/from the Gold Line now allows me to get around car-free much more easily.  I’ve been heartened by the ridership I’ve seen–including many more people doing multimodal bike-transit commuting east of Pasadena.

Cal Poly bus stop before and after.

Cal Poly bus stop before (top) and after (bottom).

busstop2

New bus shelters at Cal Poly Pomona.  For too long, Cal Poly’s bus stops on Temple Ave. provided no shelter and little more than a splintered old bench for bus riders (see pictures).  As a result of student activism and new campus leadership, there are two new bus shelters at the main campus bus stops on Temple Ave.  This is certainly a step in the right direction and I’m modestly hopeful for additional progress on transit and bike access to campus.

Thanks to the work of many local advocates, progress toward new bike plans have been made in Pasadena, Monrovia, and La Verne.  With better infrastructure, I’m confident we’ll see an uptick in bike ridership, which in turn should lead to even more bike infrastructure in the future.  Despite these small victories, the pace of change in the SGV is so slow and incremental that it barely registers today. Too many streets are unsafe for cycling and too many destinations are hard to get to by bike and when you arrive, they often lack basic bike amenities like bike racks.  It’s easy to feel angry about the lack of good bike infrastructure that places people at risk and deters others from riding in the SGV, but there are good people working to change this, and they must be given due credit.  The advocates at BikeSGV, for example, have done some wonderful work organizing community rides, setting up the Bike Education Center in El Monte, advocating for complete streets, and bringing a multi-city open streets event to the SGV.  They honored me this past year with an award for my bike advocacy, an award for which I was hardly worthy, but profoundly honored, nonetheless.  I draw hope and inspiration from these fellow advocates.

More protected bike lanes, like this one in Santa Monica, are needed in the SGV.

More protected bike lanes, like this one in Santa Monica, are needed in the SGV.

Education and outreach.  In 2016 I was involved in an alternative transportation project at my daughter’s high school and an alternative transportation conference at Cal Poly Pomona. I also was privileged to speak on “cycling and social justice” to a group of inmates in a Prison Education Project at the invitation of one of my fantastic colleagues at Cal Poly, political science professor Dr. Renford Reese.  In general, I found many of the people I spoke to open to the message of bicycling, walking, and transit for healthier communities. Spreading the message of the many benefits of car-free alternatives was deeply gratifying.

Scott Schultz of BUSted Los Angeles speaks to students at Cal Poly's alternative transportation conference in November.

Scott Schultz of BUSted Los Angeles speaks to students at Cal Poly’s alternative transportation conference in November.

Measure M.  The half-cent sales tax for transportation passed in Los Angeles by a healthy margin (approx. 70 percent voted yes).  This will mean expansion of Metro rail, local bus service, and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.  Measure A, a countywide tax for parks, also passed, which means LA County will have funds for turning many of its now-barren flood control channels into “linear parks” with multi-use paths. Such victories give me hope.

Notable Books and Films of 2016:

  • Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment by Winona Hauter. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of oil and natural gas is neither safe nor a “bridge fuel” to sustainable energy.
  • Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America by Christopher F. Jones.  Technically, came out last year, but it was new to me this year, so I’m including it here.  Jones, an historian at Arizona State University, weaves a fascinating story of how the infrastructure of fossil fuel was created in the United States, and offers a deeper understanding of how energy transitions take place–essential knowledge as we transition away from a carbon economy. His research also underscores the central importance of pipelines for the delivery of fossil fuel and the expansion of the carbon economy, and thus the importance of blocking the construction of new pipelines in the fight for a livable climate and clean water.
  • Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan.  The lively story of how Sadik-Khan, former transportation commissioner for NYC, overcame opposition and redesigned many of New York’s streets to be more bike and pedestrian friendly.  Essential reading for any alternative transportation advocate.
  • Before the Flood (documentary film) directed by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Surprisingly good climate change documentary that doesn’t let Westerners’ high-consumption lifestyle off the hook.
  • Bikes vs. Cars (documentary film) directed by Fredrik Gertten.  Technically released Dec. 2015, but wasn’t available until this year.  If you want a good primer on why bikes are and must be a key component of sustainable urban transportation as told through the eyes of several bike advocates in cities around the world, this film is for you.

Thought for 2017: Every bike used for transportation is an instrument of peaceful revolution, every car-free trip a step towards a more equitable, sustainable future.

Remembering a Tree

ralphs_parking

This week I rode down to my local grocery store and noticed the little island where an oak tree once stood had been paved over.  No more oak tree. Asphalt for more cars. It seemed like a metaphor to me.

A tree is a little thing, really.  Seems silly to mourn its loss when its destruction frees up more space for parked cars.  Is this what they mean by “creative destruction”? Besides, as one of my suburban neighbors once told me, “you can’t go to the grocery store on a bicycle.”  The store seems to agree, since they don’t provide a decent bike rack if you brave the streets lacking bike lanes and ride your bike to the store.  Hardly anybody I know rides their bike to the store (even though some of them think climate change is real). Too hard, I guess.

Nevertheless I used to lock my bike to a signpost in the shade under that tree.  It was nice.

But the oak tree wasn’t making the grocery company any money.  It just sat there, doing what trees do.  This way, a few more people will be able to park their cars close to the store. I’m sure they’ll think it was worth it. Maybe some of them drive Priuses.  That will make it alright, won’t it?

But I’ll remember that tree.

Monrovia’s Bike Plan

Monrovia Bike Plan

Monrovia Bike Plan

Tuesday night, toward the end of a loooooong Monrovia City Council meeting, agenda item AR-4: “Monrovia Bicycle Master Plan” finally came before the Council.  After a brief summary of the proposed bike master plan by the city’s public works manager, Sean Sullivan, the floor was opened for comments.  I had hoped there wouldn’t be too much NIMBY opposition to the plan’s proposed bike lanes and in fact all the public comments were positive.  A number of members of “Move Monrovia,” the local bike advocacy group, attended and spoke in support of the plan.  Monrovia cyclist Robert Lewis, for example, eloquently discussed the need for better bike infrastructure in town.  “The fact is, people like me will ride regardless,” he told the Mayor and Councilmembers.  “What we need to do is lower the barriers for the rest of the community to ride to the grocery store once a week or to leave their car at home and ride with their children to Monroe Elementary once a week.”  After several other speakers praised the plan, the council members voted unanimously to adopt the new bike plan.  After such a long struggle to get this plan going, there is a tremendous sense of achievement.

The new plan, drafted by Alta Planning, is a huge step for this community.  It addresses a number of critical transportation issues in Monrovia.  It extends Class II bike lanes to Monrovia High School and along Chestnut in the western half of the city, as well as Central Ave between Mayflower and Myrtle and Duarte Ave between Montain and California.  Existing bike lanes on Olive Ave. by Monroe Elementary will be upgraded to buffered bike lanes, offering added protection for students and their families.  The plan also proposes more bike racks and end of trip facilities (such as repair and hydration stations) and promotes bike safety education programs and community rides as a way of encouraging a shift away from the automobile monoculture.  In all, there is much to like about this plan.

I do have some concerns, however.  First, the plan relies heavily on Class III “bicycle routes” which may or may not mean anything more than sharrows and increased signage.  This is especially the case on the area around the new Gold Line station on Mayflower, California, and Pomona streets.  If the city makes these “bike routes” real neighborhood greenways, with infrastructure designed to lower speeds and divert cars to other streets, then it will be an major improvement and encourage the “interested but concerned” majority to venture out on their bikes.  Otherwise, the improvement will be negligible.

On a number of important streets the plan recommends only “study” of either Class II bike lanes or Class IV separated bike lanes, but no timetable for study, let alone implementation.  On a number of these streets, the only way to fit bike lanes would be to remove on-street parking or a “road diet.”  Indeed, a number of city officials have remarked about the city’s “narrow” streets being a barrier to bike infrastructure.  I fear that, instead of seeing the streets of this old streetcar suburb as perfect for a rethinking of the primacy of the automobile, the needs of people on foot and on bikes will be sacrificed to the continued domination of the most inefficient transportation mode–cars.  In other words, the plan puts off the hard choices for a later date (which may be why there was no opposition at the Council meeting).  As we learned in Temple City recently, once you start asking motorists to park a little further away, or take 30 seconds longer to get through town, they will scream bloody murder.  Inconvenience them just a little, call into question their God-given right to drive everywhere and park wherever they want and they’re ready to string up those awful bikers.

In sum, Monrovia has taken an important step toward the creation of a city grid that works for all road users.  The task of organizing and lobbying remains, however, and the hard work of growing and mobilizing a constituency for more ambitious transformation must also commence in earnest.  Fortunately, the advocates are in place, and have a victory under their belt.

Street Fights

Visionary transportation planner Janette Sadik-Khan was the special guest of L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne at the Hammer Museum in Westwood last evening.  I was looking forward to a smart conversation about street space as public space and I wasn’t disappointed.  Sadik-Khan, the inspiring NYC transportation commissioner under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, was instrumental in remaking New York’s streets to be more people-friendly and safer, adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes (many of them protected bike lanes) and creating pedestrian plazas that have become destinations for New Yorkers and tourists alike.  Her new book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution (Viking, 2016), tells the story of how she did it.  Hawthorne is one of our most perceptive observers of LA’s public spaces who has a keen eye for the way designing the built environment around the automobile has impoverished our architecture and our civic life alike.  His eloquence and architectural vision have made him one of my favorite contemporary writers about LA.  Together their writings make a powerful case for the need to transform our city streets, and in so doing transform the way people experience city life.

In the old days when I used to drive everywhere, I would not have attended the lecture, since getting to Westwood from my home in the San Gabriel Valley would entail a teeth-gnashing drive through rush-hour (i.e., any time after 3:00pm) LA traffic and a hefty parking charge in Westwood.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Recent progress in LA Metro’s transit system, however, made it possible for me to take transit to the Westside.  I rode my bike from home to the new Arcadia Gold Line station and locked up my bike on one of the conveniently located bike racks there.  I then rode the Gold Line to Union Station, transferred to the Purple Line to Wilshire/Western, then took the Metro 720 Rapid bus down Wilshire to Westwood.  Total cost: $1.75 each way.  The total trip time door-to-door was about 2 hours, but unlike being stuck in the car, I could read, catch up on email, check social media, etc.  And it was much more relaxing than driving.

(Side note: the only downside to an otherwise pleasant round trip was a homeless guy who got on the Gold Line near Downtown on my late night return trip.  The poor guy smelled.  Really bad.  Here’s the thing: this is not Metro’s fault, and simply kicking homeless people off public transportation is neither humane, nor is it the answer.  Shutting yourself off from homelessness by driving your private metal box may spare you the smell, but it won’t solve the problem–in fact, it enables people to ignore it, to pretend it’s not their problem.  Reviving public transportation doesn’t allow us to turn our backs on social problems like private automobility does.  We as a society must find a way to provide basic housing, medical, and social services for all.  Other countries do it.  We can too.)

Back at the lecture, Sadik-Khan offered an inspiring, optimistic message about the transformative possibilities of remaking our street space, offering examples from her book, like the creation of the Pearl Street plaza, the pedestrianization of Times Square, and the installation of parking protected bike lanes on numerous streets.  She discussed the ways cities can and should shift from seeing streets merely as corridors for the movement of cars and more as places for the movement and social interaction of people.  She made a point of highlighting how unsafe our current car-centric design is, causing an average of 34,ooo deaths in the US per year.  We should no longer tolerate such an appalling human cost, and remake our streets accordingly.

For anyone paying attention in LA, the problem here is not vision.  LA has a good bike plan, and its updated Mobility 2035 plan is even better.  Our problem is implementation and lack of political will.  When asked how she overcame political and community intransigence, she said the keys were to (a) have a plan; (b) rapidly implement temporary, or pilot projects to show people how they work, and (c) have data to show safety and economic improvements that result.  Here in LA, long, drawn-out processes and political short-sightedness have stalled several important street improvement projects, including North Figueroa and Westwood Bl.  Her underlying argument, however, is that change is coming and it is good.  Car-centric planning and design is a relic of the past, safety, revived public space, and mobility choices are the future.  “Inaction is inexcusable,” she writes in her book.  To my fellow advocates, that means we must not give up.

One final point worth mention, is the subject of self-driving cars.  This topic makes some of my fellow bike advocates slobber all over themselves with techno-utopian glee.  Sure, they have the potential to make streets safer and possibly result in more efficient use of urban space if–and this is key–only if they are not used in such a way to allow automobiles to “re-invade” city space that we’re working so hard to make car free.  As both Hawthorne and Sadik-Khan pointed out, they also have the potential to increase sprawl and traffic.  Self-driving cars may address the safety issue, but not necessarily any of the other issues related to public space and people-centered design.  The point is to de-center the private automobile from our design priorities, whether it’s self-driving or not.

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.

Talmud

Turn the Page

The new year provides an opportunity to look back on 2015 and ahead to 2016.  As always, it’s a blend of  disappointment that much-needed changes have been so slow in coming, gratification for the accomplishments, and hope for a continued shift in our transportation priorities in the future.  What is offered here is a highly personal, mostly local, list of the best of 2015 and some of my aspirations for bikes and alternative transportation in 2016.

The best of 2015:

  1. A shift in the conversation about climate change.  2015 may well be seen as the year the global community got serious about recognizing the necessity of radical action on climate change.  The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, “Laudato Si,” provided a powerful moral argument for reducing carbon emissions while addressing the combined social and environmental injustices of the current economic model.  Then, in December, leaders of over 190 nation-states met at the Paris Climate Summit and agreed to commit their nations to voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Pressure from citizen activists from around the world and from vulnerable nations elicited an “aspirational” goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial averages.  While the agreement lacks any binding enforcement mechanism, it is an important starting point from which continued climate justice activism can and must proceed.  In order for these goals to have any chance of success, transportation sustainability (and equity) are going to play a role.  That means transit and bikes.
  2. Construction of Phase 1 Extension of the Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa was completed.  The extension opens up possibilities for more transit choices in the San Gabriel Valley, and eliminates one more excuse for people who live nearby to go car free or car light.

    Bike parking at Arcadia station.

    Bike parking at Arcadia station.

  3. CicLAvia came to Pasadena!  The fun of cruising down a car-free Colorado Blvd. with thousands of other people still brings a smile to my face and reminds us why we must continue to push for more car-free space (temporarily or permanently) in our cities.  The car-free movement continued to spread in 2015, as iconic Paris opened its streets to people for a day in September. CicLAviaPas3
  4. New Bike Co-Op opened in El Monte.  BikeSGV’s new bike co-op, the Bike Education Center, provides a space for people from the local community to build or fix their own bikes.
  5. Metro’s Bike Hub at El Monte Bus Station. An important amenity for transit users who want a secure storage space for their bikes and a place for quick bike repairs right on the premises of the transit station.
  6. Pro-Bike Mayor elected in Pasadena.  The election of Terry Tornek as Mayor of Pasadena means that City Hall will continue to provide strong leadership for transit, walking, and bicycling in the city.
  7. Mobility 2035.  LA City Council passed an ambitious mobility plan that, if implemented, will provide more sustainable mobility choices for people in LA.
  8. Local bike infrastructure.  This is the weakest of 2015’s accomplishments.  But it is important to applaud any improvement.  For me, the bike lanes on First St. in Arcadia, near the new Gold Line station, even though they only stretch for about half a mile, are a sign that the city is trying to accommodate bicycle commuters.  Here’s hoping they are extended in 2016.

What I’m anticipating/hoping/wishing/working for in 2016:

  1. Gold Line extension opening, March 5, 2016.  This is a red-letter day for sure.  Looking forward to that first ride out to Azusa.
  2. Monrovia’s new bike plan.  Monrovia, at the behest of it’s local active transportation advocacy group Move Monrovia, has contracted with Alta Planning to produce a bike plan for the city.  I’m anxious to see the new plan and work with local advocates to make sure it gets approved and funded.
  3. Golden Streets 626: The San Gabriel Valley’s big open streets event, June 26, 2016 (i.e., 6.26)
  4. More bike lanes … everywhere.  Bike lanes are good.  Buffered bike lanes are better, and protected bike lanes (a.k.a. “Cycle Tracks”) are best.  I’m especially hoping to see some progress in Pasadena, Temple City, Arcadia, Monrovia. Et tu, El Monte?

    First Av. bike lane to Gold Line in Arcadia.

    First Av. bike lane to Gold Line in Arcadia.

  5. More bike racks (not the crappy, wheel-bender kind) … everywhere.
  6. Commitment from university administrators for a transit center on Cal Poly Pomona’s campus.  Cal Poly Pomona, where I teach, currently has no transit stop on campus.  Bus riders are forced to walk a long distance to sit on a splintered bench on Temple Ave.  Yet the University is building a multimillion-dollar parking garage and raising student parking fees.  Time for this otherwise “green” campus to make its transportation system green, too.

    What passes for a "transit center" at Cal Poly Pomona.

    What passes for a “transit center” at Cal Poly Pomona.

  7. Buffered bike lanes on Sierra Madre Blvd.  This has long been on my wish list.  There’s no reason it can’t be done.  The street is wide enough, the traffic speeds warrant it.  Hasn’t happened yet.  Still, I’ll keep asking ….

Happy car-light 2016 to all, and remember, there’s no such thing as a “green” car.  Whenever possible, leave your tin polluter box at home.  Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  Walk, bike, take the bus or train.  It makes a difference!

Vehicular Violence and Victim Blaming

Riding a bike for transportation isn’t easy.  Well, let me rephrase that.  It is easy, but our society makes it harder than it should be.  Among the problems cyclists face are 80 years of mis-designed roads that are dangerous for people who walk or ride bikes, a legal system that too often enables drivers to get away with mayhem or murder of vulnerable road users with the tired excuse “I didn’t see him/her,” and lack of basic amenities such as secure bike parking, even in areas that are supposedly “bike-friendly.”  Finally, there is the pervasive tendency of the driving public to reflexively, unselfconsciously, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) blame cyclists for the danger caused by cars.

Our car culture has become very good at shifting the blame away from cars and drivers’ behavior.  Bicyclists getting struck and killed by motorists?  Make them wear helmets, hi-viz, spray their bikes with reflective paint.  They still might get killed by a distracted driver, but ultimately anyone who rides a bike on the streets is asking for it, right?  Whether motorists realize it or not (and for the most part, they don’t) this is the most infuriating kind of victim-blaming.  It would be as if we sought “solutions” to gun violence by marketing bulletproof vests and kevlar helmets to everyone.  “She got shot and killed?  Doesn’t she know the streets are dangerous?  Too bad she wasn’t wearing her bulletproof vest and kevlar helmet!

Let me repeat.  The overwhelming danger on our roads is not bicycles.  The real danger is cars, or more specifically impatient, reckless, selfish, distracted, impaired, and/or careless drivers.  After 70 years of designing roads primarily to maximize the speed and volume of automobiles on public roadways, we need to re-engineer our roads for multimodal commuting, safety, and environmental sustainability.  Some people get this, and things are changing.  People in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen ride bikes everywhere.  Hardly anyone wears a helmet and no one sprays themselves with paint.  You know why?  They’ve designed their streets for the safety of all road users.

In addition to redesigning our roads, to prioritize transit, bicycling, and walking instead of the private automobile, we need tougher laws for drivers who crash into, injure, or kill vulnerable road users.  Those are slowly being implemented, too.  Finally, we need a comprehensive education campaign on road safety, focused primarily on those operating dangerous heavy machinery in public spaces—cars and trucks.

Frankly, what we don’t need (or what is so far down the list as to be irrelevant) is bullshit products like “Volvo Life Paint,” the car company-sponsored reflective paint marketed for bicyclists.  Listen, I think bicyclists need to take reasonable measures to be seen, including reflectors and front and rear lights.  What we don’t need are motorists who see products like helmets and sparkly paint and think that absolves them of the need to change their behavior and support the re-engineering and re-prioritizing of our road spaces.

Instead of telling cyclists what to do, here’s a hint: slow down and pay attention while you’re driving.  Drive as if you’re at the controls of a potentially deadly projectile.

I commute home by bike nearly every evening, in all conditions.  I am a trained cycling safety instructor and have years of experience riding the streets.  I also have a drivers’ license and a good driving record for over 30 years.  I’ve thought a good deal about the risks and extensively studied the scholarly and popular literature on issues facing cyclists and the need to improve safety conditions.  When I ride at night I wear reflective accents on my clothing and have two sets of lights (two in front and two in rear) on my bike and another set on my helmet.  Despite this, I frequently encounter drivers who drive carelessly or dangerously around me.  You’d be surprised at how my vantage point on the bike allows me to see drivers talking—and texting—on their phones while driving.  If I am struck by a motorist (heaven forbid), it’s not going to be because I didn’t have Volvo’s effing sparkly paint on my bike.

We certainly can do more to educate cyclists and provide lights for night riding (as advocacy groups are doing all over the country), but that’s not the main problem.

The main problem, let me say once again, is cars.  It’s a lack of safe infrastructure.  It’s unsafe driving.  It’s a car culture that sells cars on TV by overt appeals to fantasies of speed and danger.  These are systemic problems that need to be confronted and changed sooner rather than later.  A bullshit product like Volvo Life Paint takes our eye off the ball.  It allows motorists to persist in the comforting (for them) fiction that the only thing that needs to change is cyclists’ behavior or appearance.  It allows a company that manufactures machines of death and environmental destruction to market itself as the savior of cyclists.  Car companies know that their business model is destructive of the environment and human life, they know that millennials are driving at lower rates than previous generations, that young people want to live in walkable, bikeable communities with access to transit.  They’re desperate to appear “cool.”

Volvo Life Paint is not going to solve a road violence problem that is ultimately caused by cars and car-centric infrastructure.  Just as VW’s “Clean Diesel” cars weren’t going to reduce air pollution.

Time to tell the car companies to take cynical marketing gimmicks like “Volvo Life Paint” and shove it where the sun don’t shine.  Meanwhile, some of us are going to continue working for real change in our transportation system.

Grading Pasadena’s Transit Stations

Researchers at UC Berkeley have released a study of rail transit stations in California’s metropolitan areas and the results, while unsurprising, are nonetheless revealing.  Researchers graded transit stations based on criteria such as the walkability of the surrounding area and the percentage of people who live or work nearby who use transit.  Additional criteria such as the density of jobs and housing nearby, the land use policies in the surrounding area, and public safety were also included.  The study highlights the importance of encouraging more mixed use development close to transit (called transit-oriented development, or TOD), as well as prioritizing safe pedestrian and bike access to stations in order to encourage transit use and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Stations were given a numeric score and then assigned a letter grade based on the score and its comparison to similar stations (that is, residential-area stations were compared with other residential-area stations, and so on).  I looked up the scores of Pasadena-area Gold Line stations (6 stations in Pasadena and 1 in South Pasadena).  I’ve written extensively on previous posts about the relative lack of good bike access to the Gold Line stations in Pasadena in general and in East Pasadena in particular.  The study gave me a chance to compare my own perceptions with the study’s more comprehensive approach.

The new Gold Line stations on the extension are not included in the study, insofar as they are not yet in operation.  The highest ranking station in the LA Metro area is the Westlake/MacArthur Park Red Line station, with a raw score of 88.20 and a letter grade of ‘A.’  The worst score was the Wardlow Blue Line Station in Long Beach, with a raw score of 31.63 and a grade of F.  I’ll list the Pasadena-area stations and their grades below, from highest to lowest, then offer some thoughts on the grades.

  1. Fillmore                         B-    (56.83)
  2. Lake                              B-    (56.03) 
  3. Memorial Park             C     (54.13) 
  4. Del Mar                         C      (50.53) 
  5. Mission (S. Pas)           C-    (51.30) 
  6. Sierra Madre Villa        C-    (45.73) 
  7. Allen                              D     (41.73)  
Not much room for bikes on this "bike route" at the Del Mar Gold Line station.

Not much of a “bike route” at Del Mar Gold Line station.

My initial reaction was one of slight surprise that Fillmore and Lake scored higher than Del Mar and Memorial Park stations.  I would need to look more closely at the scoring criteria and the individual data, but I can only assume Fillmore and Lake scored higher because of their proximity to large employers, whereas Memorial Park, Del Mar, and Mission are closer to small businesses and residences.  The study notes that the grades are curved, which is probably why Mission scored higher than Del Mar but has a lower grade, though I don’t fully understand the study’s curving criteria.  Another factor may be that Pasadena is likely to encourage more TOD near Del Mar station, whereas South Pas is unlikely to encourage newer development in Mission’s charming historic district.  Despite this, in my opinion, Mission has far superior pedestrian and especially bike access from surrounding streets than Del Mar.

Looking north on Sierra Madre Villa at entrance to Pasadena Gold Line station.

Sierra Madre Villa entrance to Pasadena Gold Line station.

I’m in complete agreement with the ranking of Sierra Madre Villa (SMV) and Allen stations at the bottom of the pack.  Pedestrians and bicyclists from the surrounding community may be forced to cross busy freeway on/off ramps to access either of these stations and, as I’ve complained about before, there are no bike lanes on any of the approaching streets to SMV, and virtually none at Allen (near Allen station there are two completely unprotected gutter bike lanes on noisy, busy, high-speed, stressful access roads that run along the 210 freeway—not bike-friendly).  For that matter, the same is true of Lake.  Like much of Pasadena’s existing bike infrastructure, it looks passable on paper, until you actually try to ride it in weekday rush-hour traffic.  Some of this should be improved as Pasadena’s new bike plan gets implemented, but that may take years and will not do much to help the intolerable bike situation in East Pasadena, the forgotten stepchild of Pasadena’s bike plan.

The report recommends that local governments encourage TOD and mixed-use development and remove “excessive parking requirements” in areas adjacent to rail stations.  Pointedly, the report also calls on local governments to “improve walkability and bicycle access in rail station areas by shortening blocks and building safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.”  Hear, hear!

To be fair, Pasadena is in the process of developing a new plan for more TOD near the Allen and SMV stations, which is most welcome.  Unfortunately the city has met fierce resistance from a small number of car-dependent suburban residents of Hastings Ranch’s cul-de-sac neighborhoods who can’t imagine that anyone would occasionally walk, take transit, or bike, and who can’t be bothered to take their foot off the gas long enough to avoid hitting a pedestrian or cyclist on their way to the freeway.  They see nothing wrong with driving everywhere all the time and think it’s their god-given right to do so.  And they want plenty of “free” parking when they get there.  They’re convinced the only solution to too many cars is wider roads and more parking lots ad infinitum.

The recommendations of the Berkeley report should be heeded by cities and provide yet another piece in a growing body of literature that documents the essential need to shift our transportation and development strategies from the sprawling car-centric model of the past to a healthier transit-oriented model of the future.  Let us hope city officials have the courage to stand up to narrow-minded NIMBYs who can’t see past the end of their steering wheels.

Same Old, Same Old

Resurfaced Sierra Madre Villa, looking south.

Resurfaced Sierra Madre Villa, looking south.

When I see a street resurfaced, especially a street that desperately needs a bike lane, a glimmer of hope stirs within me that maybe, just maybe, the street will be restriped to accommodate bikes.  This foolish glimmer of hope is usually dashed, as the local DOT simply returns the street to the same old, unsafe car-centric design it had before.

Silly me.

Case in point: the recent resurfacing of Sierra Madre Villa Blvd in East Pasadena between Rosemead Blvd and Sierra Madre Blvd.

"Share the Road"

“Share the Road”

The street is marked as a “bike route” with a couple of “share the road” signs, but hardly anybody rides it because automobile speeds average about 40 mph, and it’s designed for automobile speed, not bike or pedestrian safety.  The street would require some minor re-design to accommodate bike lanes, as I’ll demonstrate below, but there is room for them and the street is a good candidate for bike lanes because it would close a gap between nearby streets that have bike lanes and it is the main route connecting the the neighborhood to the nearby Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line transit station.

This station is the major bus and light rail hub in the area, and is slated to be a bike share station when Metro eventually expands its bike share program to Pasadena.  You would think Pasadena DOT would use the resurfacing as an ideal opportunity to redesign the street for multimodal commuting and safety at minimal cost.  But you would be wrong.

On-street parking forces cyclists to "take the lane" in 40mph traffic.

On-street parking forces cyclists to “take the lane” in 40mph traffic.

Sierra Madre Villa Blvd is a north-south arterial that heads up the hill from the Gold Line station to New York Drive in Altadena (which has buffered bike lanes).  As it heads north, it intersects with N. Rosemead Blvd (which has bike lanes) and Sierra Madre Blvd. (which also has bike lanes). Currently, the street has 2 travel lanes in each direction (one 10-foot and 1 12-foot), a 10-foot center turn lane, and 2 10-foot parking lanes on each side.  The southbound side is residential with a library at Rosemead Bl.  The northbound side has an LDS church and an apartment complex, both of which have ample off-street parking.  The northbound side is the most critical for some kind of bike lane, because of the large speed differential between 40mph cars and bicycles heading up the hill.

Below I lay out the current configuration, then offer two alternatives: one that removes on-street parking from the northbound side and provides buffered bike lanes in both directions (option 1), and another that keeps on-street parking but narrows the parking lane and one of the 12-foot travel lanes to provide sharrows on the downhill side and a bike lane on the northbound side (option 2).  Neither one of these options would have been cost prohibitive.

SMV Current

SMV option1

SMV option 2

Why didn’t DOT consider more bike friendly alternatives for Sierra Madre Villa, especially considering their stated desire for Pasadena to rival Long Beach for bike friendliness?  I have several theories, but one is that DOT staff tends to pay more attention to bike infrastructure in the gentrifying downtown area than in East Pasadena, a less glamorous part of town.

It’s a shame, because this was a real missed opportunity.  DOT needs to know that people on bikes in East Pasadena deserve safer streets, too.

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