Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “LACBC”

Being an Advocate

A friend recently asked me how I got into bike advocacy.  Well, actually, she asked me how I got into “advocacy,” and I assume she meant bike advocacy, though I think I’ve been an advocate for social justice most of my life.  It’s just part of who I am, I guess.  I see something that needs changing and I research the issue and often join with others who are working on that issue.  We call such people “advocates” or “activists” or sometimes “troublemakers,” but, really, when you get right down to it, isn’t that just citizenship?  We’ve created these labels for active citizenship in part because we live in an era when our role as citizens is supposed to be passively consumed on TV or social media, not in real life.   Those who get out and organize for change are thus labeled as an aberration—a “special interest”—when in fact that’s what every citizen should probably be doing.

Back to the main question.  I got into bike advocacy because the moment I started riding my bike for transportation I started to realize most of our streets had been misdesigned.  It was only as I studied the issue further that I realized how badly misdesigned they were and how it was connected to other misuses of social space and resources.  About the time I began substituting my bike for some of my short car trips (around 2008 or so) a colleague at work showed me an article on bicycle infrastructure in Europe—focused on either Copenhagen or Amsterdam, I can’t recall which—and it fired my imagination for what could be, what might be, and what is possible.  Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the history of how our society constructed a car-based infrastructure that limits how we live, interact with each other, and get from place to place.  It has underscored the importance of radically changing our infrastructure to adapt to more socially and environmentally sustainable transportation modes.

Shortly thereafter I started finding and joining bicycle advocacy (there’s that word again) organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) and CICLE that connected me with others who had a similar vision.  I went on the LA River Ride sponsored by LACBC and several other group rides sponsored by CICLE.  Around 2010, I went on a CICLE-sponsored “tweed ride” in downtown LA.  In many ways I really saw LA for the first time.  Oh, I’d driven through LA many times, usually on my way to someplace, but being on my bike revealed the rich texture of the city for the first time.  It was a revelation that you could feel safe riding city streets if there were enough other people riding too.  I also met Joe Linton on this ride, and he inspired me to continue my effort to be the change I wished to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi would say.  I wanted to write about my experiences, share them with others to show that another world is possible, but I was reluctant.  Joe provided the encouraging words that helped me to start this blog, too.  I think that the experience of CicLAvia really reinforced how different—how much better—our human interactions could be in car-free spaces.  CicLAvia sort of turned me into an evangelist for creating car-free space in our communities and giving people realistic alternatives to the car.

This hasn’t been easy.  Recognizing how badly we’ve gone wrong when others don’t even recognize the problem exists can be a lonely and frustrating experience.  Reading writers like Jane Jacobs, Jane Holtz Kay, Jeff Mapes, Charles Montgomery, Jeff Speck, Peter Norton, Christopher Wells, and others, made me realize I wasn’t alone and helped me deepen my sense that these changes were not only possible but highly desirable.  Reading deeply about the existential crisis of climate change has reinforced that the status quo is unsustainable and that radical change is essential.

Change is never easy, but without a movement of organized people pushing for change it will not happen by itself.  When I see the need for safer streets for myself, I know that they’ll benefit others, too.  I also know that it won’t happen if we don’t shake people out of their complacency.  No individual can do it alone—it takes a group of people to get anything accomplished and the bigger and more diverse the group, the stronger it is.  It’s only working in concert with others that my choices make a larger difference.  And really, we build on the work of those who came before and we’re dependent on others joining the struggle after us, too.

My experience as an historian leads me to understand that going against the automobile-fossil fuel-industrial complex and changing people’s living habits will not be easy, but neither was the abolition of slavery, the struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, or civil rights.  Indeed, as Naomi Klein has suggested in her latest book This Changes Everything, these movements for human rights must be seen as part of the larger struggle for peace, civil rights, economic justice, a livable planet, and livable social space.   Making our streets and communities safer and more convenient for alternative modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and transit) doesn’t solve all of these issues, but, properly understood, it is part of the solution that addresses each of them in part.

Change is happening, a movement is emerging.  Why am I an advocate?  I want to be a part of it—even if only a small part.  I don’t know exactly where the movement will lead, but that is what makes it exciting.

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Bearing Witness

Yesterday, Father’s Day, was a day for looking back and looking forward.  I began the day attending commencement at Cal Poly for my students who were graduating.  It is always so uplifting to watch my students achieve a goal they’ve worked so hard to attain, for many, the first in their families to obtain a 4-year college degree.  They’re just starting out, young lives full of promise and hope.  Last evening was also the memorial walk/ride for Phillip O’Neill, a 25-year-old young man whose life was also full of promise and hope, killed by a careless driver one year ago in Pasadena.  I was bearing witness in both cases.  The first fills me with joy, and affirms my hopes as an educator.  The second fills me with deep anger and a fervent desire to change our roads and our laws.

Ready to Roll

Last night’s walk/ride brought together many bicycling advocates from the area, as well as those who just wanted to ride with us in solidarity.  Chris Cunningham of the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition led the ride, and there were attendees from as far as South LA’s East Side Riders Bike Club.  We rode from Pasadena’s City Hall, where we must press our case for safer streets, to the ghost bike placed on Del Mar Blvd. where Phillip was killed.  We stopped and had a moment of silence for Phillip, and people placed flowers and candles on the ghost bike.  I contemplated both the fragility of human life and the nearby roadway that has been designed primarily for the convenience of cars.  It’s wide enough for bike lanes, but such redesign might make drivers slow down.  As I so often do, I wondered why we let such things happen.  Why do we design our streets for machines of death that kill an average of 35,000 and maim nearly a quarter of a million Americans every year?  Why aren’t more people standing here with us?  Why aren’t more people outraged?

PhillipGhostBike

From there the group then rode or walked to Grant Park, where there was a small ceremony.  Katie, who was riding with Phillip when he was killed, described their beautiful first date that day, and noted that both of them were riding legally in the right lane because of the lack of a bike lane on Del Mar.  Among the other speakers was Phillip’s mother, who spoke about her son’s work as an environmental scientist and his desire to make the world a better place.  As a parent, I deeply felt her unending grief and anguish at the loss of a child.  Worse yet, she noted that her son’s killer has yet to accept responsibility for his actions that day, that he was driving too fast and was illegally passing on the right when he struck Phillip.  I’m saddened and angered by this lack of responsibility, but I’m not surprised by it.  Our car-centric culture has a tendency to absolve drivers of responsibility and blame the victims of car violence.  If you doubt me on this, next time you see an article describing the death of a bicyclist, read the online comments.  The callous victim-blaming will sicken you.

I was heartened to see Terry Tornek, a Pasadena city council member, attend the event and speak on behalf of making the streets of Pasadena safer for all people, not just motorists.  I’m also heartened by the people from the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, formed in response to Phillip’s death last year, who organized this event.  PasCSC continues to grow and is now lobbying for an ambitious new mobility plan for the city of Pasadena.  Indeed, many members of the coalition (as well as the LACBC, CICLE, BikeSGV, Walk/Bike Glendale) were there last night.  I’m also heartened that members of this small but growing advocacy community have neither forgotten Phillip nor lost hope that things can change—must change.  In this way, bearing witness and looking forward go hand-in-hand.

As Danny Gamboa said last night, we must never forget those killed or maimed by cars and we must work for the day when we no longer need ghost bikes because our streets will be safe for people on bikes.  I made a solemn pledge to Phillip’s mother that this is what I would do.

Flowers for Phillip

Traffic Safety 101

LCI Dorothy Wong prepares class for obstacle course.

LCI Dorothy Wong prepares class for obstacle course.

Last weekend I attended an 8-hour bike safety class in Pasadena sponsored by the LA County Bicycle Coalition (funded by a grant from Metro).   The safety class, taught by three LCIs, provided an overview of the basics of proper bike fit, maintenance, and especially how to ride safely on the road.

The course leans heavily on the vehicular cycling philosophy that:

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a certain amount of ambivalence toward the VC philosophy.  The VC creed assumes people on bikes “fare best” as vehicles in the absence of separated bike infrastructure.  I would argue that people on bikes fare best when they ride predictably according to the rules of the road, but only up to a point.  On the one hand, bicycles are not cars and never will be.  When automobile traffic reaches a certain level of speed, I think cyclists fare best when they are provided with separated bike infrastructure.  Riding a bicycle in automobile traffic scares most normal people, and limits the number of people willing to ride bikes for transportation.  The low mode share of bikes in our transportation system will not change appreciably until we build a network of good, separated bike infrastructure on busier streets (also connected to a transit network).  One can argue about the form the infrastructure should take (bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, physically separated cycle tracks or bike paths), but the reallocation of street space away from cars is one of the big challenges of our time, in my opinion, and a philosophy that relies solely on education of bicyclists (however necessary that may be) remains only part of the larger task of redesigning our transportation system.

That said, I do appreciate the principles of vehicular cycling for streets on which there is no bike infrastructure (and that is the current state of most of our streets in the US, unfortunately), and the skills taught in this course could benefit anyone who wants to ride a bike on any street, from residential street to multi-lane road.  It not only taught me new skills, it reinforced those things I’ve already been doing right.   It was also great to meet other cyclists who commute by bike, some of whom go totally car-free.  Such interactions with fellow bike commuters remind me that I’m not as alone as I sometimes feel on my nightly commute in a sea of steel boxes.

The classroom portion of our course emphasized the safest and legal positioning of bicyclists on the road when there are no bike lanes (ride as far to the right as practicable but take the lane if it is too narrow for a car to pass you safely), the proper way to change lanes, make left turns, and signal your intentions to drivers.     Instructors drilled into our heads the importance of obeying all applicable traffic laws for our own safety.

The second half of the course was devoted to an obstacle course practice in road hazard avoidance (i.e., how to brake suddenly or dodge a hazard immediately in front of you) and culminated in a ride in traffic on the streets of Pasadena.  It was this last portion that was the most useful, enabling us to put the principles of vehicular cycling into practice.

For me, the hardest part of cycling is the sometimes nerve-wracking process of riding in a busy traffic lane when there’s no bike lane for protection.  I’m not a particularly fast rider (and never will be one, due to my old knees), and I don’t like the feeling of cars creeping up behind me or zooming past me too close for comfort.  I shared this with the instructors, all experienced riders, and they sympathized, but said that I should remember that I have a legal right to ride on the road in the lane, and that drivers would respect my assertiveness.  Moreover, I’d be safer if I held the lane in situations where it would be dangerous for cars to pass me and I shouldn’t compromise my safety for a drivers’ convenience (or my own, for that matter).  The key was to use hand signals and eye contact to communicate my intentions with drivers (and to read their intentions), and to confidently assert my right to position myself in the lane when necessary to prevent unsafe passing.

After the ride I felt a sense of accomplishment in taking a step toward being a bit more assertive on the road.  Since taking the class, I have noticed that I feel a little more confident on the road.  I know that I can assert my right to the lane when my safety requires it.

Everyone can derive benefit from these classes, and I’m sure that I’m a better, safer cyclist because of it.  I hope LACBC and other organizations continue to offer these classes, for the skills learned in these classes will make you a better rider, even if you only ride on bike lanes.  So, the bottom line is, these vehicular cycling skills work in situations where you must ride in the vehicle lane, and they are essential for everyone to learn.  But I still think we need better and more bike infrastructure and I still feel safer when there are bike lanes on the street–especially busy streets.  The thing is, as valuable as these skills are, you shouldn’t have to go into full road warrior mode to ride your bike in America.

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.”

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.

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