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Loving LA The Low Carbon Way

LovingLA

Loving LA The Low Carbon Way: A Personal Guide to the City of Angels via Public Transportation, by Grace E. Moremen & Jacqueline Chase, (Claremont, CA: Dreamboat Press, 2015).

This delightful little guidebook will take you to some of L.A’s wonderful world class attractions as well as lesser known out-of-the-way places—all of it car-free.  For those unfamiliar with LA’s transit system, the book (and the companion website) offers a primer on LA transit, and illustrated, easy-to-follow directions.  For those familiar with LA’s transit system, the book offers a few surprises, and while I’ve done almost half of these car-free trips, I’m looking forward to trying the others.  Either way, there’s no better way to really see LA, or any city for that matter, than by taking transit, walking, and/or biking.

Loving LA begins with a basic overview of LA geography, including its freeways, the downtown area, and the immediate neighborhood of LA Union Station (which forms the hub of all of the book’s adventures).  The authors note the irony of their map of the freeways, “those very things that we are trying to avoid,” but they may help car-free travelers who are used to orienting their knowledge of LA geography around its freeway system.  Since transit systems orient themselves around “hubs” (i.e., key transit stations) and “spokes” (transit lines) the book provides an easy-to-read map of Union Station and how to find the various bus and rail lines located there.  They explain the basics of transit in LA, including how to use a TAP card, fares on different LA bus lines (LA Metro, LADOT DASH buses, and Santa Monica’s Big Blue buses).  They also have a handy website with maps and updates that allows you to find more information or access via any mobile device.  Once you’re armed with the basics, it’s time to explore any of their 24 adventures in LA car-free!

I love the book’s low carbon mission and the way it illustrates the interconnection between car-free travel and a true embrace of the city.  However, LA’s car-free culture is moving so quickly, that future editions will want to include the extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica, and the emergence of bike share programs in Santa Monica and Downtown LA (scheduled to expand to Pasadena in 2017).

Metro Bikeshare, DTLA. (Photo: StreetsblogLA).

Metro Bikeshare, DTLA. (Photo: StreetsblogLA).

Indeed, while the authors do mention the accessibility of bikes on transit, these adventures largely ignore the bicycling option, which leaves an unintentionally misleading impression that transit combined with biking isn’t an equally useful way to see the city.  They note, for example, that the Huntington Library and Gardens is “too far away” from transit (in this case, the Gold Line or the 1.4mi to Metro and Foothill Transit bus lines on Colorado Blvd.), and thus advise readers that “a car will be necessary” for that trip.  It’s a shame they don’t offer some advice on the feasibility of using a bike to solve these “first mile / last mile” gaps.  Doing so would extend the reach of their low carbon adventures.  Even if Moremen and Chase don’t themselves bike, they might consider including information on the availability of bike parking (and bike share) at their destinations for those who do.

That said, this book is a wonderful little guide to seeing the sights of LA car-free.  Moremen and Chase have written a car-free love letter to LA with the intimacy one can only have outside the confines of the private automobile and its damnable freeway/parking lot matrix.

Moremen, an LA native, writes that despite LA’s troubled history, seeing LA car-free makes her optimistic for the city.  LA’s burgeoning transit system “makes its beauty and its resources more accessible to people in various ways.”  Chase, a transplant from Greenwich Village whose car-free spirit would make Jane Jacobs proud, has come to appreciate the way public transportation could reveal “the gems of this city, many hidden in plain sight.”  Outside the confines of the automobile culture, Chase writes:

I have come to know LA on a more human scale as we have journeyed through the neighborhoods on foot and by bus, light rail, and Metrolink.  The urban myth that people in big cities are unfriendly was definitely debunked for us.  On each of our adventures we have found the people of LA to be helpful and friendly.  LA is one great city! [xviii]

I love this book because it reflects the growing car-free movement in the quintessential “Car capital of the world,” and reveals the richness of social life outside that stultifying, unsustainable mode of transportation.  One cannot help but be caught up in their enthusiasm and that sense that comes from really seeing the city for the first time, of simultaneous independence and social connectedness that comes from getting around a city car-free.

So what are you waiting for?  Get this book and a TAP card, ditch the car, and fall in love with LA!

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.

CicLAvia and Bike Lanes

Much has been happening in the bike-sphere, but I’ve been buried under a hectic schedule at my university, and it is only a brief spring break that allows me to break my silence.  We’re still fighting bad ideas like Sen. Carol Liu’s ill-considered mandatory helmet law and the multi-billion-dollar 710 freeway tunnels, but there are some hopeful signs here and there.  Here in the San Gabriel Valley, the Gold Line extension is nearing completion, and there is potential for this light rail to be a game-changer for commuters in the foothills of the SGV, especially if local cities make an effort to connect bike lanes to the stations.

One of the other bright spots is the growing willingness of cities to consider protected bike lanes (sometimes called “cycle tracks”) that have some form of physical separation, such as planters, curbs, medians, bollards, or other decorative barriers between cars and bikes.  For decades, the traffic engineering profession in the US has resisted protected bike lanes, but they have been extremely popular where they’ve been installed, and now they are starting to appear in cities all over the United States.  Long Beach was the first Southern California city to install one, and Temple City recently installed another on Rosemead Blvd.  There is a proposal by LADOT for the first one in Los Angeles, and I hope that there will be at least one in Pasadena’s pending mobility plan.  Once these protected bike lanes begin to proliferate, I believe they will significantly change perception of cycling for transportation in US cities.

Another bright spot is the growth of the “Open Streets” movement throughout Southern California and the US.  LA’s own “CicLAvia” is a prime example of an open streets concept that has spread and gained popularity wherever it has been tried.  Last weekend, CicLAvia held an open streets festival in the San Fernando Valley, and it was extremely popular (a bad cold kept me from attending).  The Valley was in many ways the epicenter of Southern California’s traditional car culture, so the success of a car-free event in the Valley is an indication of how far we’ve moved from the stereotype of American Graffiti.  The Valley’s CicLAvia also featured a “pop-up cycle track” on Chandler Ave. that gave people a taste of what it feels like to ride in a protected bike lane.  These events are important insofar as they provide people with a vision of street space radically flipped from cars to people and bikes.  The popularity of these events underscores the reality that people are hungry for public space that is safe to walk and bicycle in.  And where there is popularity, politicians will follow, perhaps even changing their own perceptions.

People who participate in these events often realize they haven’t really seen their city until they’ve seen it on a bike.  Businesses realize there is money to be made from clientele on bikes.  Open streets events also introduce people to the idea that distance is not really as much a barrier to bicycling as people assume.  When you realize that (with car free space) you can easily bike from one end of LA to the other, or one end of the Valley to the other, it erodes the automobile imperative just a little bit more.  These events bring people of different backgrounds together in an atmosphere of healthy, active, fun.  Every time CicLAvia occurs, I hear someone say I wish it was like this every day.  Gliding down the street, free from the fear of cars, free from the noise and the pollution, people begin to imagine car-free space every day.

I’m excitedly awaiting the next iteration of CicLAvia, which will come to Pasadena at the end of May.  As it becomes regularized, expected, and anticipated, I think it will continue to grow in popularity and, with it, the subversive idea that streets are not just for cars.  To paraphrase Che, we need “one, two, many CicLAvias,” to overthrow the tyranny of the automobile.

Greening Monrovia

Some time in 2015, foothill communities in the west San Gabriel Valley will get a light rail transit connection when phase 1 of the Gold Line extension opens from Pasadena to Azusa.  Stations have been designed and are being built, track is being laid, and in some cases, mixed-use condominium and apartment developments are being built nearby.  These developments, commonly referred to as “transit oriented development” (TOD), are designed to enable residents to commute by transit rather than automobile, reducing traffic, pollution, and GHG emissions.  In order for the Gold Line to effectively reduce traffic, pollution, and parking hassles, it must be designed in a way that enables people to access it by means other than the automobile.  To this end, cities along the Gold Line extension must begin to provide a network of safe pedestrian and bike access to the stations.

Chris shows me around the future Gold Line station in Monrovia where there are plans for bike lanes.

Chris shows me around the future Monrovia Gold Line station where the city could add bike lanes.

Recently I met with Chris, a local bicycle advocate from Monrovia, who took me around town to discuss the city’s bike plan and ride other streets where the city  could add bike lanes.

We rode from Colorado Blvd to Magnolia, then Magnolia south of the 210 freeway to Pomona Ave. where one of the new TODs is being built.  From there we rode to the site of the new Gold Line station, where Chris tells me there are plans for a new bike path running parallel to the Gold Line route east to the San Gabriel River bike path.  If this is true, it would provide a wonderful recreation and commuting route in this part of the San Gabriel Valley.

Monrovia Bike Plan

Monrovia’s bike plan (see map, above) shows bike lanes planned for installation on Colorado Blvd. (blue dotted line), while a class III “bike route” is planned around the Gold Line station for Mountain, Duarte, and Shamrock (solid purple line).  No bike path is shown anywhere in the plan.  As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the problem with class III bike routes is they usually do nothing to reconfigure traffic flow and provide no protected space for cyclists on the roadway.  This usually means a street gets signage indicating it is a “bike route” but little else.  On such streets, less experienced or less confident riders are unlikely to feel comfortable enough to make the switch to bike commuting.  Thus, they do little to increase bicycles as a mode share for transportation.

Chris and I next rode to Myrtle Avenue, the major north-south artery leading from the future Gold Line station to Old Town Monrovia, the city’s main shopping and entertainment district.  Chris thinks there are discussions in city hall about bike lanes on Myrtle, and, if so, this would provide the most direct route between the Gold Line and Old Town.  Chris wasn’t sure how far north the bike lanes would extend, and there are bottlenecks at several points on Myrtle, so the logistics might be tricky.  Moreover, this isn’t shown on the city’s bike plan, and it would be easy for the city to backslide and not provide bike lanes.

Even with bike lanes on Myrtle, riders would also have to negotiate the area around the on- and off-ramps to the 210 freeway and the heavy traffic around those freeway ramps.  Chris thinks a better alternative might be for the city to forego the Myrtle bike lanes, and instead reconfigure traffic on two adjacent north-south streets, turning them into one-way streets with wide bike lanes on both.  Magnolia, (just to the west of Myrtle) he argues, could be reconfigured as a southbound one-way and California (just to the east of Myrtle) a northbound one-way.  there would be enough room for buffered bike lanes on both, perhaps even double-wide bike lanes running both ways on each street.  This essentially would convert Magnolia and California into “bike boulevards” that would enable commuters to easily and safely ride their bikes to the Gold Line, reducing automobile trips and spreading the benefit of the Gold Line beyond the nearby TOD.  It would also enable residents of the TOD to bike to Old Town for entertainment, dining, and shopping.  Thus bike friendly infrastructure will also benefit Monrovia’s local businesses without adding to Old Town’s parking and traffic.

Plenty of room for bike lanes in front of Monrovia High School.

Plenty of room for bike lanes in front of Monrovia High School.

Another important link in a bike-friendly transportation network is connectivity to schools.  Currently there are no bike lanes on Colorado Blvd near the high school in Monrovia, despite the fact that there is plenty of room for them.  Narrowing traffic lanes and adding bike lanes would slow traffic speeds and increase safety in the neighborhood).  Well-marked class II bike lanes leading to Monrovia High School would encourage more young people to ride to school, and active transportation like bicycling and walking is much needed in our communities to combat the high levels of childhood obesity that is partly the result of a sedentary lifestyle.

Both of us agreed that Monrovia has great potential to be a more bike-friendly, and greener, city, but bold leadership will be needed.  Those who want safer and greener streets in Monrovia will need to organize to press the city to do the right thing.  If members of the the local community can come together and make their voices heard for bike-friendly streets, we could see some positive changes with the coming of the Gold Line to the San Gabriel Valley.  Monrovia, how much do you want safer streets?  How much do you want a greener, healthier city?

Dodgertown Bike Ride

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of participating in what I hope will be the first of many bike rides to Dodger Stadium.  The inaugural Dodgertown Bike Ride was a wonderful, easy-paced 4-1/2 mile ride from Lincoln Park in East L.A. to Dodger Stadium, where our group of about 50 bicyclists enjoyed free bike parking and (perhaps best of all for Dodger fans) watched the Dodgers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 2-1.  To get to Lincoln Park, my son and I took the Gold Line from Pasadena to the Lincoln/Cypress station and rode through the Lincoln Heights area, which gave us a nice tour of a part of the city I had not visited in many years.  There is an Old L.A. charm to the neighborhoods on the Eastside, and the bike is a wonderful way to experience it.  After the game, the group took a leisurely route back through downtown L.A., taking in the sights and sounds of the city on a pleasant summer evening.

The ride was the brainchild of Carlos Morales, president of the Eastside Bicycle Club, and an inspiring advocate for cycling as a way to improve physical fitness, especially for youth in communities of color.  Morales is himself an example of the regenerative power of bicycling to improve health and well-being, having used his bicycle riding to overcome obesity in his own life.  He and the other club members have created a wonderful community organization that encourages people to get on their bikes and have fun.  It is an inclusive, friendly group that is open to all, and makes everyone feel welcome.  I think the group has a deep pride in its community and a warmth that exemplifies the best of East L.A.  You don’t have to be a racer, don’t need the latest bike gear, or the fancy lycra outfit.  Their philosophy is to ride, have fun, get exercise, and be safe.

The Dodgertown Bike Ride is a great way to show Angelinos that they need not rely on the car to get to Dodger Stadium, and the first time in the 50-year history of the stadium that such a large group of fans has bicycled to the stadium for a game.  The Dodgers organization made everyone feel welcome and stadium staff provided us with a parking area right next to the stadium entrance.  With bicycling becoming increasingly popular as a form of transportation in L.A., I have a feeling this ride is a harbinger of more good things to come from the Eastside Bicycle Club.

Pasadena’s Bike Plan (part 2)

The area around Pasadena’s Huntington Memorial Hospital (HMH) has a great deal of potential for bike-friendly infrastructure and transit-oriented development.

In previous posts, we’ve provided an overview of Pasadena’s proposed bike plan and offered suggestions for bike lanes to the north and south of the Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station.  Today we shift to the area around the Del Mar and Fillmore Gold Line stations near HMH.  The Metro stations themselves provide ample bike parking, and there are numerous interesting destinations within a short bicycling distance from the stations, but the city must provide more bike lanes on key routes leading to the Del Mar and Fillmore stations if it is to meet its goals of increased bicycle mode share and decreased carbon emissions in this part of Pasadena.

Pasadena Avenue will eventually have a much-needed bike lane.

The good news is that Pasadena currently has bike lanes on Marengo Avenue south of Del Mar and on Glenarm east of Marengo, and plans to add a bike lane on Pasadena Avenue (above), a crucial north-south route west of the Gold Line that will provide bicyclists with safe access to HMH and the west end of Old Town.  The city is to be commended for these efforts at creating bike-friendly infrastructure on these streets, including a generous sprinkling of bike racks on sidewalks in the area, so there are plenty of places to lock up your bike when you ride these streets.

The bad news is that the city continues to rely too heavily on its “bike routes” and “enhanced bike routes” for much of its planned bike infrastructure expansion in the area.  As we’ve seen, these routes usually allow automobile parking on the road’s shoulder or curb, creating a danger zone for cyclists as they are pinched between the parked cars and moving vehicles in the traffic lanes.  Years ago I had a bad experience while riding on such a route, squeezed between a truck and a parked car, so perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this problem, but it highlights the serious safety compromise that is made when parked cars are given priority over bike lanes.  It also highlights a key problem for non-car mobility, namely, that the existing and proposed bike lanes in this part of Pasadena do not form a contiguous network and do not connect directly to and from the Metro stations.

Not much room for bikes on this “bike route” at the Del Mar Gold Line station.

Riding my bike in the area around HMH last week, despite my years of cycling experience, I had to be an aggressive urban street warrior when I was riding in the heavy weekday traffic on streets like Raymond Avenue or Del Mar (a “bike route,” above).  Forget about Fair Oaks Ave. (see picture below) or California Blvd. (another “bike route” east of Marengo), where I opted for the relative safety of the sidewalks and had to crawl at low speed around pedestrians.  These “bike routes” may be quite comfortable for cyclists on early Sunday mornings when there’s little traffic, but if people are to be expected to use them for commuting, they have got to feel safe to ride during normal weekday traffic, and, to me, they don’t.

Despite nearby parking lots, free curb parking for cars on Fair Oaks takes precedence over bicycle safety near the Fillmore station.

Because “bike routes” and “enhanced bike routes” provide signage, but not protected space for cyclists, they will do little to entice less aggressive or experienced riders.  The bottom line is, if cities don’t make riding safe and comfortable for a broad swath of people (not just experienced cyclists), and don’t make it safe, easy, and comfortable for this wider range of people to access transit stations by bicycle, they will not see significant increases in the number of people using bicycles for daily transportation in this part of the city.  This is a shame, because the medical center surrounding HMH is filled with many young health-conscious doctors, nurses, and medical employees (see picture below) who could take advantage of a network of safe bike lanes connecting their workplaces with nearby transit stops.

Huntington Memorial Hospital (HMH) provides bike lockers for its employees. This weekday, all but one were empty. Not surprising considering the dearth of bike lanes nearby.

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