My letter to Mark Lacter in response to his opinion piece on the Westwood Boulevard bike lanes:
Your most recent article has to be among the most poorly researched I’ve seen in some time. Please consider a followup:
1) “[The city is divided] this time between bikers in search of more space and motorists looking to hold onto what little space they have.”
I do hope this quote is hyperbole, as anyone with a measuring tape and calculator will soon discover that motorists are given over the majority of road space (and also public space) in Los Angeles. We have about 6,500 miles of streets, with 140 miles of bike lanes (according to LADot’s website), or about two percent of road mileage. Our traffic problem is not that motorist have too “little space.” The problem is much more complex, and its solutions involve unconventional thinking, including congestion charges, giving priority to usages (like cycling) that minimize street impact, improving public transportation, and other non-car or “less-car” ideas.
2) “Increased ridership has only made L.A. streets more dangerous.”
I’d be curious to see your data. The opposite is usually (always?) the case; that is, I’ve never seen statistics in which increased cycling led to more dangerous streets. Where there are lower speeds and fewer cars, there are fewer injuries and safer streets.
3) “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been nearly run down by a speeding biker.”
Do you have any data other than anecdote? I walk to work, too (Beverly Hills to Century City), and — anecdotally — it’s more common for me to be threatened by a “speeding driver” than a cyclist. Too, if you look at the cyclist-pedestrian injury statistics, deaths are rare, on the order of three or so per year nationwide. Driver-pedestrian and driver-cyclist injury statistics are horrible, dozens or hundreds of annual fatalities in Los Angeles alone.
4) “The city – quite rightfully – will get its ass sued.”
As it stands, the city rarely gets sued for driver-pedestrian crashes or driver-driver crashes, which are common. I’m not sure why it would be sued for injuries or death sustained in a cyclist-pedestrian crashes. Again, do you have data on this?
I’d be curious whether you’ve taken some non-trivial bike ride on L.A. streets in traffic in the last year or so. If not, you might consider enhancing your perspective. Even the “safest” bike lanes on the West side, the ride along Santa Monica Boulevard from Sepulveda to Century City, sometimes leave me shaken. It’s scary out there for cyclists, and we need to do more for them. To my knowledge, they are the only road users that decrease pollution and congestion and improve public health at one stroke.
This September has seen me cycling in France, in the Alps and Provence, climbing some of the storied Tour de France ascents. I tackled a series of passes and a couple of mountains, among others, and they’re all as hard as you might imagine, long and steep, and at racing speeds they are justifiably the makers of legends. I’m probably never going to get around to doing a proper write-up of my adventures, but I made a goofy video of me climbing the Alpe d’Huez, which you can watch here … or not.
What I found interesting, however, is how much consideration the French give to cyclists in these mountains. It’s nothing like the Netherlands, of course, where cyclists generally have separate infrastructure, but there seems to be a conscious effort at integrating cyclists onto the roads. Part of it comes from pure practicality: summer is the slow season in many of these areas, and cyclists bring money. But I also saw many signs that help drivers in their interactions with other road users. In particular, I thought these signs, which tell drivers quite clearly to pass at 1.5 meters, were helpful in a way that our banal and next-to-useless “share the road” signs are not.
So, in short, I say this: if California’s governor does, in fact, sign the three-foot passing bill into law, we should get rid of the “share the road” signs and replace them with something much more useful and instructive, something that tells drivers what to do, something like these French panneaux.
Yesterday, L.A. StreetsBlog ran a piece by Adrian Leung and Allison Mannos about the “missing story” of immigrant cycling in Los Angeles. If I understand the article accurately, it leveled three major criticisms at current cycling advocacy efforts:
► They have ignored the influence of recent “immigrants of color,” for whom riding is a “cultural norm of inexpensive transportation that provides means for survival.”
► They have discounted the “numerous lessons” found in South American and Asian regions, particularly with respect to infrastructure standards and best practices, for which they instead largely look to northern European countries.
► They have failed to focus on poor, non-white communities — who cycle in larger numbers — and instead made “misplaced” efforts to encourage “affluent” drivers “to commute by bicycle.”
Cycling among all income levels and skin colors is desirable, and input from the constituents of all cycling communities is valuable. However, it’s not clear to me that any of these criticisms make sense overall, either absolutely or as guidance to shaping future advocacy. (Actually, I couldn’t locate anything in the article that would show up a specific difference in the concerns between poor and rich cyclists. I’m hoping someone could point a few out.) As I see it now, poor and rich, immigrants and natives, and persons of all hues ride the streets arm-in-arm, and their viewpoints are all shaped by the same external factors — cars, street conditions, and laws.
For that matter, cycling has long been a great leveler. H.G. Wells said cycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” in the nineteenth century. Its relatively low entry cost also helped break down class barriers, and gave access to first rate transportation options to people who couldn’t otherwise afford a horse. Similar undercurrents continue into modern times, with the poor and rich alike participating on equal terms. I’ve ridden in many weekend outings of local bicycle clubs in which the only distinction that mattered was performance.
In particular, I would make these observations:
■ Cycling may help the poor, but consciously associating cycling with poverty is a sure means of ruining it for other income levels. This is a lesson that any marketer – or Tom Sawyer – could give you. If you want to sell something, make it look fun and inviting, and get attractive and successful people to promote it. If you want to kill cycling, promote it as an activity that the poor are stuck doing because they can’t afford a car.
■ In my experience, infrastructural best practices have no cultural boundary, as they are rooted in basic aspects of human-ness: concerns for safety, reaction times, etc. I’ve been to some four dozen countries, each of which have similar (auto) road provisions, despite the color, culture, or creed of the populace. The non-European countries with cycling infrastructure (that I’ve seen) construct facilities remarkably similar to those I’ve seen in Europe.
Too, an increasing number of planners worldwide have looked to the policies of the Netherlands and Denmark for inspiration. These countries have a proven recipe for success. Even Guangzhou, a city with historically high cycling rates, has hired a Danish consultant to work on at least one bicycle project.
■ Cycling advocacy is targeted at the “affluent” (middle class?) precisely because they don’t ride. The poor do. If we want cycling among all income levels, we need to make sure that it’s socially acceptable at every social stratum. If we focus our efforts largely on the poor, we will lose them when they become the middle class. That’s not a recipe for long-term success.
In her March 11 opinion piece for CityWatchLA (h/t BikingInLA), CSUN economics professor Shirley V. Svorny says that bicycle lane supporters (like Stephen Box) need a “reality check” because these lanes will increase road congestion. She says that “road diets” and “traffic calming” are phrases people use when they really want “fewer cars on the road,” but that such solutions increase congestion by removing traffic lanes. She argues that a carbon tax would accomplish the goal better without increasing congestion.
I’m not sure how she arrives at her conclusions. She hedges them with mother-knows-best phrases like “it is unlikely”, “that just can’t be,” and “none of this can be safe.” She quotes no sources for her observations. She makes the assumption that reducing lanes means increased congestion elsewhere, as if traffic were like water pressure, rather than having its own unpredictable and counter-intuitive patterns. (I would strongly recommend Tom Vanderbilt‘s book “Traffic” to bring her up to speed.)
Did Svorny miss a few things?
Svorny may have never heard of the Braess Paradox, from a paper written in 1968 by the mathematician Dietrich Braess. Braess showed that adding a road to a transportation system may slow down traffic overall for everyone, and that conversely, removing a road can speed up traffic. The phrase “road diet” isn’t spin used by “car haters” to get cars off the road. Road diets, instead, are real and proven ways of maximizing traffic throughput.
Svorny may have never studied traffic death statistics. One wonders whether her off-hand statment that “speed limits on roads have already been set to trade off safety and movement” could survive even a cursory inspection. When nearly 100 people daily are killed on our roads, and when cars are now the leading cause of death among our young, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve really made any kind of safety considerations at all in speed limits. (This confession of a traffic engineer is a heartbreaking look at how traffic engineers prioritize autos over humans.) The phrase “traffic calming” is not spin created by propagandists in a “war on cars”; it is, instead, a real and effective way of reducing death on our streets. Frankly, her statement that slowing traffic “is unlikely … an improvement” makes no sense at all. Speed kills. Slowing traffic is the whole point.
Svorny may never have examined how roads are paid for in this country. If she had, one would think that she’d reconsider her statement that bicycle lanes are “a huge loss of a capital investment.” That fact is that roads themselves represent a huge loss, full stop. It doesn’t matter whether we use them for cars, bicycles, or tiddlywinks, our roads are money losers. Repurposing the roads for bicycles doesn’t change that equation. What it does, instead, is open up the roads for more users, and importantly, more efficient use.
Svorny does present the rather intriguing idea of creating a carbon tax to reduce road usage. I would be for such a provision, but I’m not sure at all how the City of Los Angeles would go about creating it. From what I know, carbon taxes are usually the province of the State and Federal governments. I’ve yet to hear of any city that levied a carbon tax; I’d be interested to find out more if so. It would be especially interesting to discover what transportation mechanisms these cities put in place for those persons priced out of driving. Did they, perhaps, install bicycle lanes?
Svorny also presents the issue of very few cyclists on our streets. That is, alas, completely true. Los Angeles has a low bicycle mode share. As she says, the “reality” is that we don’t all ride bicycles. So I would issue a friendly invitation: come join us, Shirley! Come ride a bicycle on the roads with us. Give it a few weeks. Perhaps you might make it into an investigation of unnecessary bicycle lanes. Ride all the lanes you can find. At the end of your experiment, let us know your findings. If you find lanes that need to be removed, let us know which ones. If you find that we need to add more lanes, and safer lanes, we’re all ears, too.
For the past few weeks my mailbox has been packed with slickly-produced campaign flyers, nearly all of them about the issue of free parking in garages owned by the City of Beverly Hills. There are actually two proposals on the ballot. The first, Measure 2P, was put on there by a group of local landlords, and would require the city to provide two hours free to everyone in all city garages. The second, Measure 3P, was put on the ballot by the city council itself in response to “2P,” and would give three free hours to city residents only.
The details of these proposals aren’t that interesting, and I’ll be voting against both of them anyway. I rarely use city parking anymore, which makes my decision easier, but it also makes sense from other perspectives:
■ Donald Shoup would point out the “High Cost of Free Parking,” and how it encourages unnecessary driving. He might then give some statistics on how much Beverly Hills spends per space (including the latest underground project on Crescent Boulevard), money that could otherwise be spent on projects with more impact.
■ The city council would rightly point out that 2P removes ability to use resources at its disposal to balance the budget, especially in a time when it is facing shortfalls, and sets an unfortunate precedent over who gets to make the rules in this city (3P wouldn’t even be on the ballot except as a “desperation move” in response to 2P).
■ I would point out that the proposals are a reminder of how inefficient California’s proposition politics has become; we’re very good at voting in benefits, and very bad at voting in ways to pay for them.
Business promotion is the main argument offered by 2P supporters, and comes up on all the flyers I’ve received. (I’ve yet to receive anything in the mail against the proposal, but there is some opposition.) Some of the flyers mention the increasing competition from areas surrounding Beverly Hills, like the three free parking hours that Westfield Century City offers, or the cheap parking at the Beverly Center and The Grove. While these comparisons may be accurate, I don’t think they’re justified, as most of the examples offered concern private garages in shopping malls, where mall businesses subsidize spots. Beverly Hills public parking is, instead, “socialized” by the taxpayer, and paid for by every resident who also pays property taxes. Parking is expensive. People should pay for what they use.
There is some question over the legality of Measure 2P, and that challenge is still in the courts. I believe the proposal will still hit the ballot, however, despite the outcome of that case, and my guess is that it will pass, and not 3P. Whatever. Allowing public policy to come to a vote is a recipe for bad results, and makes me wonder whether Hans Voerknecht (the Dutch “bicycle activist”) has a point: “Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it’s about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions.”
Whatever the outcome at the ballot box, I think Beverly Hills and its businesses are missing out on the bigger issue. If business is suffering here versus our neighbors, it’s not because of parking, free or not. Shoppers prefer Century City or The Grove because the shopping experience is better. These other places have restored the human dimension to space: they take cars off their ersatz “streets,” and give it back to pedestrians. (Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and Universal Studio’s City Walk do the same.) Shopping in Beverly Hills isn’t interesting or fun anymore. The model has become obsolete. The magic is gone.
A few years ago, Jimmy Delshad, who subsequently became mayor, proposed the idea of pedestrianizing Rodeo Drive. I don’t know exactly what came of the proposal, but Fred Hayman, the former owner of Giorgio’s and the “Pa Kettle of Rodeo Drive,” thought it wouldn’t work: “Exotic cars are part of the attraction of California.” I respect Mr. Hayman’s business acumen, but I can say with some confidence that no matter how much you may be enthralled by the odd Lamborghini that passes by, the noise and exhaust of cars eventually are going to wear you down. Who wants to dine outside with sports cars roaring by?
I’d really like the city of Beverly Hills to pick up this idea again, at least on an experimental basis. Close Rodeo Drive or Beverly Drive to vehicular traffic one day weekly. Maybe the city could move the Farmer’s Market from behind the courthouse to Beverly Drive on that day. Make the shopping experience unique, compelling, and fun again. Do this for a few months and see what happens. Otherwise, I am going to predict that Beverly Hills will continue losing shoppers, including me, to its neighbors.
Oh, and by the way, since this is nominally a bicycle blog, I should mention how bicycles fit in. Simply put, if we can pedestrianize the city center, the human-powered ways to get there have to be next. I don’t think there’s any great city that added bicycles to its transportation network without making pedestrians fit first.
Back in the 1960s, a doctor called John Calhoun put a few rats into a cage of sorts, and let them breed as they would. The goal was simply to see what he could see. Evidently, the rats, after a few generations of rapid breeding and packed conditions, took to killing one another, even eating their young, and then, ultimately, all dying. The experiment is famous, and its conclusions have been taken by some, including Calhoun himself, as a cautionary tale for humans:
For an animal so complex as man, there is no logical reason why a comparable sequence of events should not also lead to species extinction.
I’d like to think that he’s wrong, that we humans are a better species than that, that our superior tool-making abilities would solve these kinds of issues, but every time I read about a bit of road rage — which usually has a too-crowded roadway somewhere at its heart — I despair a little. Mix these frequent reports with last week’s NPR article on “sidewalk rage” and the New Yorker‘s recent piece called “Crush Point,” about the fatal actions of crowds that want to do something (versus, say, having to deal with traffic), and I find myself wondering whether anything can help at all. Maybe we aren’t so different than the rats, after all.
I am a bicycle enthusiast, which means I usually ride for the sheer pleasure of the road, and not primarily to better my environment. When I look at bicycles from a public policy perspective, however, I have to think that among their benefits is a solution to crowded roadways. If I’m right, then our cities should promote bicycles in any way they can, including building out a decent network of separated infrastructure, as a growing consensus says is the only way towards large ridership. But from a handful of conversations I’ve had in recent months concerning Dutch-style infrastructure, I’d say that there’s a strong undercurrent of L.A. cyclists who don’t agree at all. They really don’t want more riders on the streets. The conversations generally conclude like this: “I don’t want to be stuck behind old people and children.” The opinion usually strikes me as elitist as the cartoon characters who go to theaters to hiss Roosevelt … but never mind. I’d probably dismiss it if I hadn’t heard it from influential cyclists, the very people who shape opinion in our city.
As it happens, this fear of old people and children has no basis in reality, at least not in Holland, where they do have lots of cyclists, and where we ought to look for examples of how to built our own network. Over there, you mostly can ride as fast as you want, faster than you could on streets packed with cars. The Dutch live in one of the most densely populated countries on earth (denser than even China or India), and have been working through these problems for years. (If California were as densely populated as the Netherlands, we would number somewhere near 160 million — people, that is, not rats.) Bicycles have long been part of their transportation solution, and when they speak of transportation issues, it’s common to hear them wonder how much more crowded their road space would be without bicycles. Nowadays, Dutch cycling infrastructure forms what the Dublin City Council cycling officer, Ciaran Fallon, called “a mass public transport system.” In effect, cycling is public transportation, and factored into the design of every street, everywhere.
I sometimes hear arguments that cycling is well and good for Holland precisely because the country is so dense, but cycling doesn’t work in places like California, which is only a fraction as populated. It’s a flimsy excuse, really, for density is one of those arguments that people seem to use to whatever political or personal purpose they have in mind. If you don’t want cycle track laid down on your streets, you can say either that we have too little space (every inch is taken up by cars) or too much space (people drive long distances). These both might be true statements, but they can’t both reasons to discard cycle-tracks. Bicycles are a solution to high density problems, period.
Then there’s this indisputable fact: Los Angeles County fits about half of the Netherlands’ population into one-quarter of the land area — in other words, our county is roughly twice as dense as Holland. If anything, our too-crowded roadways should make us desperate for high density solutions. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s all-but-laughable suggestion last year to make the 405 a double-decker freeway hardly counts. Even when we used to be a rich country, and maybe could have afforded such monstrosities, it wouldn’t have made sense. Nowadays, not at all.
But whatever the case, this elitist, “I-don’t-want-no-more-cyclists” attitude has got to go! If we expect someday to have any sort of political clout, if we expect to have our laws changed to make our roads safer, if we expect cycling to become a natural and normal part of everyday life, we need everyone on bicycles, the young and the old, the new and the wizened. We need to foster beginning riders and tolerate the inexperienced. We need to crowd our streets and our bike paths with riders of all shapes and sizes. We need to reach the point of saturation, where perhaps, someday, we have the problems that come from crowds, problems that would be nice to have by comparison to those we have now.
In his book, Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard E. Nisbett asked Easterners and Westerners to group the words chicken, cow, and grass. The Americans tended to put chickens and cows together, “because they are both animals; that is, they belong to the same taxonomic category.” The Asians, by contrast, “focusing on relationships, were more likely to say that cow goes with grass because a cow eats grass.”
How would you group these three words: pedestrian, bicycle, and car?
It’s not just an academic exercise, because the way we categorize these three transportation modes determines in large part how we think about their place on our roads and in our law — and by extension, how we think about safety measures. If we say that the bicycle and car go together because they are both machines, then we might tend to ask cyclists to mix it up with cars, and talk about licensing, insurance, etc., in the same way we talk about cars. If, instead, we say the bicycle and the pedestrian go together because they are both human powered, then we might tend to think very differently about how we allow them to operate, including making safer environments and writing laws that address their particular needs.
In a compelling talk at the London School of Economics last month (h/t to Amsterdamize), Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, called the bicycle an “efficient way of walking.” He seems to think bicycles are more like pedestrians. Meanwhile, in New York City, the police have cracked down on red-light running cyclists, including those who make a right turn on red, illegal in Manhattan. Sticklers for the law might protest, but it does seem somewhat stupid that NYC allows walking a bicycle around a corner on red but not pedaling it.
What do you think? Are bicycles more like cars or more like pedestrians?
U.S. PIRG‘s compelling new report on the gasoline tax and U.S. road maintenance makes some startling points:
► Our roads have received some $600 billion (2005 dollars) in subsidies since 1947.
► The gasoline tax now only pays for about fifty-percent of costs, and is likely to go lower as hybrids and electric cars take to the road in numbers.
I’ve been looking for a credible, recent source of these figures for some time. They give additional support to several points that transit advocates have argued:
► Bicyclists pay for their share of the road (and may overpay), because they pay sales and income taxes.
► Amtrak is not uniquely subsidized. Federal roads are too.
► Local transit is not uniquely subsidized. Local roads are too.
One thing I didn’t realize: California is one of the few states that imposes an excise tax and sales tax on gasoline. What’s more, the sales tax is imposed on the excise tax, meaning that drivers are taxed on a tax.
Hat tip to Transportation for America.