Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “sharrows”

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.

R.I.P. Phillip O’Neill

It happened again.  Another dead cyclist.  Please forgive the tone of today’s post, ’cause I’m pissed off and not in the mood to be charitable.

Last week, 25 year-old Phillip O’Neill and a female friend were riding on Del Mar Blvd. in Pasadena on their first date.  Phillip was struck from behind by a motorist and died at the scene.  Now, Del Mar has plenty of room on the shoulder for bike lanes, but the powers that be in Pasadena think empty cars make better use of that space, forcing bicyclists to “take the lane” in 40-plus MPH traffic.  The driver apparently struck Phillip from behind, which suggests he was riding in the lane, as he was legally entitled to do.  At this time, little additional information is available, but one thing is certain, Pasadena’s leaders bear some responsibility for this tragedy.  This isn’t the first time a cyclist has been killed on Pasadena’s dangerous streets.  Last year, two cyclists were killed in separate incidents.  It isn’t as if the city hasn’t known its streets aren’t safe.  Caltech Bike Lab has been circulating a petition to the city to address the dangerous lack of bike infrastructure on the city’s major east-west routes like Del Mar for a year.  I and others have criticized the city’s lack of bike infrastructure, and poor maintenance of what little it does have.  I complain to anyone in the city who will listen.  Nothing happens.

Oh, I take that back.  2 months ago, the city installed a bike lane on one block of Rosemead Blvd. between Sierra Madre Villa and N. Halstead.  It includes a dangerous vehicle crossover zone on the westbound side that is an accident waiting to happen (about which I’ve complained to the city’s transportation administrator … but that seems to have disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole).  Second, the bike lane on both ends of the block lead to streets where cyclists are once again forced into traffic because of, yup, you guessed it, parked cars.  There have been a couple other piecemeal efforts here and there, but the city remains a dangerous place to ride a bike.

Pasadena has been “considering” a bike plan for some time now.  I’ve had a look at it and provided my input at public forums, and online.  Now we hear the city council will “take up” the issue at its next meeting in July.  About f***ing time.

Even if it is adopted whole, the Pasadena bike plan is, sad to say, distinctly underwhelming.  It looks great on a map, with lots of lines showing new bikeways throughout much of the central city.  Here’s the problem (which I’ve articulated before): with a few notable exceptions, the city’s bike plan relies on lots of “sharrows” and class III “bike routes,” which look great on a map, but are absolutely meaningless when you actually have to ride on them.  In fact, Del Mar, where Phillip tragically lost his young life, is currently a “bike route.”  Fat lot of good it did him.  Sharrows and “bike routes” that don’t provide separated or protected road space for bicyclists do nothing to protect cyclists from automobile traffic.  Sharrows (such as those recently installed on Glenarm) merely signify what is already the law—namely, that cyclists have a right to the lane.  Pasadena’s city leaders should ask themselves whether they would feel comfortable with their children or grandchildren riding to school or the store on Pasadena’s streets with only sharrows to protect them from speeding 2,000-lb cars and distracted, impatient, hostile drivers.  If the answer is no, then, well I guess we know where their priorities are.  Sharrows do offer politicians cover, however.  I’m sure there will be a lot of back-slapping and glad-handing by Pasadena officials that they’re making the city more “bike-friendly,” by putting sharrows down, but it’ll be for show.  I repeat, sharrows don’t do sh*it.  Tiny road signs that say “bike route” do even less.

The real hard work of making a city bike-friendly comes from providing things like buffered bike lanes and intersection bike boxes. But these things may require road diets or exchanging curbside parking for bike lanes.  Those things take political courage, because there is an adjustment period when drivers are angry and complain.  But drivers eventually adapt and people’s lives are saved.

Until now, Pasadena’s leaders have preferred to sacrifice the lives of cyclists and pedestrians rather than incur the temporary wrath of motorists’ overblown sense of entitlement.  Pasadena leaders, show me where you stand.  When you have the courage to reallocate road space to cyclists, I’ll be impressed.  In the meantime, rest in peace, brother Phillip.  I will continue the fight.

Phillip O'Neill's ghost bike on Del Mar Blvd.  Photo courtesy Elizabeth Williams.

Phillip O’Neill’s ghost bike on Del Mar Blvd. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Williams.

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.

Pasadena Bike Plan

Pasadena city officials explain the new general plan.

Last week I attended one of the public meetings on Pasadena’s new general plan that includes new transit-oriented and bike-friendly developments. The meeting offered the public a glimpse of an exciting new vision for Pasadena that will allow people to get around the city more easily without a car by encouraging the development of more compact, multi-use “villages” that city leaders hope will allow for economic growth without sacrificing environmental sustainability.

For its land use guidelines, the city hopes to develop what it calls “neighborhood villages” and “transit villages.”  The neighborhood villages will be developed around key intersections (for example, Hill and Colorado, near PCC) and the “transit villages” around the city’s six Gold Line stations.  All of these villages will be bikeabile and walkable, with mixed-use development and will allow people to live, work, and shop without having to drive.  The city wants to maintain the historic feel and orient buildings toward sidewalks rather than parking lots.  Such development will allow Pasadena to continue to grow, according to city staff, without increasing automobile traffic, greenhouse gasses, energy consumption or water consumption.   I am delighted to see the City of Pasadena planning department incorporating some of the cutting edge urban planning concepts in their general plan.

The Mobility Plan

After an overview of the general plan, participants broke into small groups to examine detailed maps of various portions of the city plan, including a separate group devoted to the city’s mobility plan, centered on the concept of “complete streets.”   City officials are very keen on bringing some of the latest in “complete streets” design to Pasadena, including bike lanes, sharrows, and even, in some cases, separated bikeways called “cycle tracks” seen in many bike-friendly cities such as Long Beach.  In fact, city officials admit they are emulating Long Beach, whose bike-friendly streets earned it a prestigious award from the League of American Bicyclists in 2011 for being one of the top 20 bike-friendly cities in the U.S.

The mobility plan, if it is implemented as envisioned, will be a major improvement in the city’s streetscape.  The new map of proposed bikeways (shown below) appears to roughly double the mileage of streets that are slated for some kind of bike-friendly treatment throughout the city.  In my view, the bike plan is most welcome and has the potential to put Pasadena “on the map” of bike-friendly cities in Southern California, but there are some aspects of the plan that could be strengthened.

Pasadena’s proposed bike plan.

First, where new bike infrastructure is planned, I’m afraid city officials rely a bit too much on sharrows, (shown in dotted yellow lines on the map, above) “bike routes,” and “enhanced bike routes,” (shown in light and dark green dotted lines on the map) instead of the more politically challenging alternative of bike lanes (dotted blue lines).  Sharrows, bike routes and enhanced bike routes don’t require any reconfiguration of street space or restriction of curbside parking, and this is what makes these alternatives less safe.

Sharrows are markers on the street showing that bicycles may share the lane with cars.  As Joe Linton has pointed out, however, while sharrows look good on paper, and appear to accommodate bicyclists (who already have a right to the road without sharrows) while doing very little to actually make the roads safer for them.  In fact, recently I noticed a few faded sharrows on South Lake Ave. between Colorado Bl. and Del Mar.  They’ve not been maintained, and I wonder if anyone even knows these faded markers still exist.  As a result, bicycling in the right lane down South Lake would be inadvisable for any but the most experienced and steely-nerved cyclist, and my recommendation for any cyclist going to South Lake would be to take one of the lesser-traveled side streets instead.  In short, if the city really expects its mobility plan to achieve its goal of increased bicycle travel, it’s going to have to do more than paint sharrows.  Bike lanes or cycle-tracks would be far more effective in enticing more people to use their bikes for transportation.

Similarly, the city’s proposed bike plan also relies too heavily on “bike routes” and “enhanced bike routes.”  Bike routes are streets that have been designated as a route appropriate for bikes with signs indicating such.  Aside from the signs, there are no other enhancements, and these offer no insulation from automobile traffic.  Where traffic is light, this is not a problem, but on some designated bike routes, such as California Blvd. west of Lake, there is no protection from a high volume of fast-moving traffic, and parked cars often force cyclists into the flow of traffic or on to the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, “enhanced bike routes” are designated with a 4-inch white edge line and “share the road” signage.  In an earlier post I noted that these enhanced bike routes often force bicyclists into the traffic lane to avoid the dangerous “door zone” of parked cars on the shoulder of the road.  Other enhanced bike routes, such as Washington Blvd. between Allen and Los Robles, need more than signage to make them safe for all but the most experienced bicyclists, and seem to force bikes onto the sidewalk for refuge from traffic.  In the case of sharrows, bike routes, and enhanced bike routes, share-the-road road signage is a low-cost substitute for carving out bike lanes.  The absence of bike lanes on some of the busier roads will make it difficult to encourage all but the most committed cyclists to take to these routes.

My final point is that there will need to be a commitment to follow through from Pasadena’s political leaders.  Do the City Council and the Mayor have the political will to put the resources behind the complete streets plan or will it wind up little more than an attractive map on a city website?  Will these complete streets initiatives be undertaken in a timely manner, or allowed to languish for years?  The question of political will is, I believe, the most crucial one.  This will be especially crucial when it comes time to make the hard political decisions to reallocate a relatively small amount of street space to bikes and pedestrians.  In order to give people real alternatives to automobile travel, it will be imperative for city leaders to make those tough decisions and devote sufficient resources to create a bike- and pedestrian-friendly streetscape.

In crafting a mobility plan that focuses on people, not just cars, Pasadena is taking an important and necessary step and the city’s vision of walkable and bikeable neighborhoods is welcome news.  Taken as a whole, the bike plan is a positive step, but looking at the relatively small number of new bike lanes in the plan, the city still has work to do to achieve its goal of complete streets.  My suggestion would be for the city to immediately implement its proposed bike lanes, and then, over the next 10 years, upgrade at least half of the bike routes and enhanced bike routes to bike lanes.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: