Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “Spring Street bike lane”

Why I Didn’t Go To CicLAvia

I think CicLAvia is one of the best things to happen to L.A. since, well, maybe ever.  The open streets event is now completing its third year and shows that people in L.A. hunger for car-free space in which to walk, ride bikes, socialize, and play.  The good news is this popular event has plenty of political support and is destined to become a welcome fixture in L.A.’s cultural scene.  It’s wonderful to see the concept spreading to other cities across the U.S. as well (see, for example, CicloSDias in San Diego).

I’ll never forget the feeling of exhilaration I felt at the first CicLAvia (10/10/10), rolling through downtown with tens of thousands of others laughing, smiling, talking; the noise, pollution, and pervasive fear of cars having been banished for a few hours.  It was a revelation to really see the city for the first time, and to see how easy and relatively fast it was to get from East LA to West LA on a bicycle when one didn’t have to worry about cars.  Another revelation was the way people of all backgrounds and social strata came together once you got them out of their metal cocoons.  CicLAvia and other events like it are, without exaggeration, a radical re-envisioning of street space for people, not cars.

So why didn’t I go to Sunday’s event, held in picture-perfect October weather?

Well, for one thing, I was getting over a cold that had dogged me all week at work, and I was looking forward to a quiet weekend of rest.  Also, when one commutes by bike daily, as I’ve been doing, the urge to go on a 15-20 mile jaunt on the weekend is not as strong as it would otherwise be if I had been stuck in my car all week.

But another, more significant reason is that I’ve noticed quite a bit of backsliding on the part of the LA City Council and the new  mayoral administration of Eric Garcetti on the goal of making L.A. more bike-friendly.  Since the last CicLAvia, LA has buckled to pressure from a film industry lobbying group and removed the green paint and buffers from the Spring Street bike lane, undoing one of the best examples of safe space for bikes on downtown streets.  Spring Street’s green, buffered bike lane made me feel safe riding in downtown traffic, and now it’s gone, thanks to baseless complaints from Hollywood location scouts who didn’t like its aesthetics.  Another innovative project, the plan for cycle tracks on Figueroa, seems to have been sidetracked indefinitely by the unfounded complaints of a car dealership owner.  Most recently, the approved design for a new Glendale-Hyperion Bridge lacked any room for bike lanes, despite being designated for bike lanes under LA’s bike plan.  In each of these cases, there has been a lack of leadership at City Hall, and the safety of cyclists has been too easily sacrificed to special interests.  When the city is taking away bike lanes and stalling on cycle tracks, I’m in less of a mood to partake in a Sunday event that supposedly celebrates car-free LA.

In the midst of these failures to provide for the safety of all the people who actually bike for transportation the other 6 days a week, I’m tempted to tell LA not to do me any favors.   I love CicLAvia, but the minute it’s over, the streets are turned back over to cars and nothing’s changed.  If one of the main ideas of CicLAvia is not to rethink the purpose of streets and show that bikes can be a viable way to move millions of people around LA, then what is it?

Here’s another irony: CicLAvia could be a golden opportunity to stage creative protests against those LA politicians like Eric Garcetti who took cyclists’ votes and now are kicking them in the teeth.  Yet LA’s cycling advocacy community is so enamored of the symbolism of CicLAvia that it allows these pols literally a free photo op at CicLAvia.  They get to use CicLAvia to appear “bike-friendly,” on CicLAvia Sunday while they ignore cyclists’ safety and bow to any lobbyist who doesn’t like bike lanes the rest of the year.  Shouldn’t we at least call them to account at CicLAvia?  I mean, the “heart of LA” route goes right down Spring Street, for crying out loud.  Souldn’t Garcetti at least get an earful when he rides that street?  How about a creative protest, like hundreds of people in green t-shirts lying down on Spring Street in protest as Garcetti rides by?  How about something more ambitious like a DIY guerrilla bike lane installation?  Now I might attend something that made the point that safe streets are needed more than 3-4 Sundays a year.

This is not a rant against CicLAvia.  CicLAvia was an important symbolic step in LA’s still-nascent shift from a car-centered city, and I still encourage everyone I know to go to this wonderful event, but I need to feel safe riding the rest of LA’s streets the other 362 days a year.  This time, I decided to pass on the symbolism, and have decided to call on my fellow cyclists to push the political system for more tangible improvements in the city’s bike infrastructure, instead.

Profits over Safety

Bicycling for transportation certainly brings many joys and benefits, but there are times on the road when you definitely feel vulnerable.  I don’t so much fear the out-of-control driver as I do the inattentive one, because the latter are much more common.  You know the ones, trying to pretend they’re not texting, but the telltale downward glances into their lap every 5 seconds are a dead giveaway.  I can’t tell you how many times in my daily commute I see drivers talking on their cell phones or texting.  On my commute home last week, one driver almost ran a red light as I was about to cross the intersection and, yup, she was yakking away on a cell phone with both eyes technically on the road.

It’s been well-established that using a hand-held device makes driving more dangerous, but the key thing is, it’s not just because both eyes oren’t on the road, and both hands aren’t on the wheel—it’s because activities such as talking on a phone or texting require cognitive attention to those tasks, and that takes away cognitive attention from the road, reducing reaction time.

Meanwhile, car manufacturers have been loading up their new cars with lots of fancy voice-activated, “hands-free” electronic gadgets in recent years in an attempt to woo buyers.  The assumption is that “hands free” means risk free when it comes to driving, but that assumption has been dealt a serious blow by a new study commissioned by AAA (not exactly an “anti-car” group, to say the least).  The study found that hands-free, voice activated devices, when used for making phone calls or voice texting, or accessing email or social media resulted in “significant impairments to driving that stem from the diversion of attention from the task of operating a motor vehicle.”  The study concluded that the use of these devices poses an “extensive” safety risk.  This occurs because the increased mental workload and cognitive distraction caused by the use of these devices “can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”

Not surprisingly, auto manufacturers dismissed the study, claiming their devices are “safe” because they “keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.”  Only it’s not true.  This issue isn’t your hands and eyes, it’s your brain.  Radios do little to distract drivers, the study found, but active communication requires a level of cognitive attention that impairs driving.  With certain hands-free tasks, your brain isn’t on the road, even if your eyes are.

If you need to check email or take a call, pull over and park.  You’re operating a piece of heavy equipment on the public roads, and distracted driving is impaired driving, even if both hands are on the wheel.  Heavier fines for using cell phones and other voice-activated devices should be imposed.  We shouldn’t wait for the auto industry to agree.  As Ralph Nader showed America over 40 years ago, the industry will gladly put profits ahead of safety, even when the evidence is overwhelming.

That’s one reason I like things like green bike lanes, such as those on Spring Street in downtown L.A.  The green paint makes the bike lane as visible as possible to catch the attention of distracted drivers.  I’ve ridden them a number of times and they provide more safety for bicyclists because of their greater visibility.

Once again, an industry’s profits are threatening to trump public safety.  FilmL.A., the film industry’s lobby group, is on a crusade to remove the green paint from Spring Street’s bike lane.  Location managers initially claimed that it would make Spring Street an unsuitable stand-in for other cities.  Then, when it was pointed out that cities as diverse as Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia Minneapolis, Washington DC, and New York (to name a few) also have green bike lanes, the industry switched its argument and said they couldn’t remove the green paint in post-production.  When that was proven false, then they claimed it was the green reflection that they couldn’t remove.  Now they claim they can remove the green tint, but it raises the costs of production.  Ah, well money trumps safety for one of the most profitable industries on the globe, see.  I hope the LA City Council has the courage to stand up to Film L.A. and keep Spring Street green.

Safety over profits.  Sounds crazy, I know.  Maybe we should try it.

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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