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Lanes for Children

A few years ago, at great expense, the local authorities of Los Angeles rebuilt a two-mile section of Santa Monica Boulevard from Century City to the 405 Freeway. They included bike lanes in the project, lanes that in my view are the best of L.A.’s Westside, and perhaps the best bike lanes in the city. If you’ve ridden them, you may know why they get my nod: with no cars parked alongside, cyclists can’t be doored, and with their new pavement, they are relatively smooth. But giving them kudos isn’t saying much, really. They still suffer from the usual problems of much of this city’s bicycle infrastructure: in a word, that problem is the lanes are not suitable for children. They are unforgiving, separated by mere paint from high-speed traffic traveling down a six-lane highway, and often positioned in the middle of merging zones. To ride them safely, you have to be a driver of cars. You have to have a driver’s viewpoint. You have to be an adult, a vehicular cyclist.

When we design bikes lanes for adults, we necessarily limit their usage. Only the confident will take to them, those riders who are dedicated to cycling despite the risks, or riders who like risk, full stop. But look who we exclude: the timid, the casual, the young, the old, the safety-conscious, in short, the vast majority of the possible cycling public. Would any parent allow even their young teen to ride to school on the Santa Monica lanes, much less a ten year-old making a milk run? One parent told me she thought it would be child abuse.

There’s hardly a discussion of cycling in the news that doesn’t eventually mention something about “scofflaws,” usually cyclists running red lights and stop-signs. This subject is complex, but I find at least one cause for the behavior in our infrastructure. When we build our lanes to accommodate only those who are comfortable with risk, we’ll see risk-taking behavior. The same cyclists who roll through stop signs might also be drivers who roll through stop signs. In a sense, I’m sometimes rather amazed at the number of law-abiding cyclists, not at their red-light running compatriots.

This is a simple proposal: let’s start building our bicycle lanes for children, perhaps aged ten and up. If our ten year-old children can ride on them, anyone can ride on them, and we will change the face of urban cycling in Los Angeles. We will put the timid back on their bicycles, we will create the “Safe Routes to School” that we so desperately need, and we will make a better city.

One little coda: I find great irony in the contrast to automobile parking just a few feet from the Santa Monica lanes. The parking is protected from the speeding traffic on the boulevard proper, separated by a planted median, the very place the bicycle lanes should have been. We know how to protect things from automobile traffic, it’s just odd that we decided to protect parked cars rather than our cyclists.

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