Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

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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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