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Impossible Dreams

When L.A.’s mayor Antonio Villraigosa returned from Copenhagen’s climate conference last December, it seems as if he had suddenly got bicycle fever. He began signaling his shift in mindset early on Pat Morrison’s KPCC interview while he was still at the conference. He made further hints along the way, and was suddenly seen riding bicycles, most notoriously during an episode when he broke his elbow. He held a “Bike Summit” in August to talk to cyclists about road safety, and backed the Ciclovia held on October 10. It’s all very encouraging, and I, for one, would like to see more from him.

As part of his vision, the mayor has talked about making the streets “safer” for cyclists. To be sure, any improvement would be welcome, and could have an incremental effect on cycling’s mode share. But there is a big difference between “safe streets” and fostering cycling as a viable transportation choice. Without a long-range, multi-year, comprehensive infrastructural vision, “safer streets” will likely mean, well, nothing at all. The city has most recently put money into a poster campaign, “Give Me Three,” which is supposed to educate drivers about a safe three-foot passing distance. I’m all for it, but the irony for me is that drivers often don’t even pass other drivers with a three foot distance; why would they give different consideration for cyclists?

I’ve spent the past week or so cycling from Copenhagen to Amsterdam, along Danish, German, and Dutch roads. I’m afraid I don’t even know how to relate what I’ve seen here to Villaraigosa’s “plan” for Los Angeles cycling. I might as well be on Planet X and telling you how they construct their roads. While we squabble over safe passing distances, sharrows, and small traffic calming efforts — frankly, diddly-squat — the street and road planners here have made cycling into a first-class transportation option. In these three countries, separate paths run alongside nearly every main road, and many minor ones. In the cities, bicycles have their own signals, directional signs, and road markings. I’ve seen large, multi-exit roundabouts with completely separated bicycle access. I’ve been on bike paths nearly as wide, or perhaps wider, than the streets they parallel. I’ve been on remote bicycle-only paths through national parks, alongside fields, and defense areas that take you nowhere near cars, much less three feet. I’ve seen a tree planted in the middle of the road to slow down traffic. In short, I’ve been exhilarated by the possibilities I’ve seen, but depressed by the fact that I just don’t see infrastructure of this kind and quality coming to Los Angeles in my lifetime. These countries are light-years ahead in their comprehensive planning of multi-modal road share that factors in cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, trams, and buses. And don’t even get me started on the quality of road surfaces: Los Angeles may as well be a third-world country when you compare the pavement I’ve seen here. In 600 miles of riding, some of it in the remote reaches of the countryside, I cannot recall a single pothole, and for the most part, I’ve ridden on glass-smooth pavement.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to try to relate some of what I’ve seen and experienced. I have many photos that I need to sort through, and perhaps at least find something applicable to our fair city. Perhaps applicable. I just don’t know.

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  1. October 18, 2010 at 12:52 PM

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