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Now that we’ve the three-foot law, what’s next?

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

After years of contention and a rocky path towards passage, California’s three-foot rule finally takes effect today.The law requires drivers to pass cyclists by three feet or more, and penalizes them with a small fine if they fail to comply.

How far is three feet? This will be among the many difficulties of enforcing the new law, and will likely limit its impact. Obviously, if a cyclist actually gets hit, that qualifies as a violation (but then the law won’t have made that cyclist safer); otherwise, it’s a judgment call that any good attorney will turn against the state in court.

How far is three feet? If this new law is to have any teeth, we need to define exactly where the boundary lies. While I’m not a big fan of painted infrastructure, one way to show what three feet means is through “bicycle-priority lanes.” Unlike existing bicycle lanes, which exclude motorized vehicles, bicycle-priority lanes would give first precedence to cyclists and second precedence to all other motorized users. As Peter Furth points out in his paper on the subject, the “magic of lines” comes from the “objective boundary of the bicycle zone” they provide. Drivers would know exactly how far they need to go around cyclists, and cyclists would have a defined place on the road.

Priority lanes are stepping stones towards proper separated bicycle lanes. They may help solve that perpetual chicken-and-egg problem of infrastructure, perhaps inducing a few more cyclists onto the streets, and giving us a few more voices for better facilities.

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Categories: Lanes, Los Angeles

Stuff happens

July 24, 2013 1 comment

A banal right hook, barely avoided, haunts me today, the scenario running through my head, questions of what happened and what lessons I can take from it. In less time than it’ll take you to read this paragraph, the incident came and went. The driver of the gray Prius, headed west on Santa Monica in West Hollywood, decided to make a right turn across my path in the bike lane and into a driveway. I didn’t see a blinker, or I might have been able to brake earlier. As it was, I don’t think I had more than a car’s length of space to react. Somehow, nearly a miracle, I maneuvered right, the driver came to a stop, and only my left shoe kissed the front bumper of the car. Crash avoided, but only just.

As I shook off the willies and continued on towards home, I wondered what the driver of that gray Prius was thinking. Given all the anti-cycling rants I’ve heard and read, there’s as much reason to believe that the driver blamed me for being in the bicycle lane, for “appearing out of nowhere,” as there is to think that he or she realized that his or her careless right turn nearly caused an accident. Was he or she shaken by the incident as I was? Did he or she reassess the actions that lead to it? Or is he or she going to tell his or her friends today about the “idiot cyclist” who nearly hit the car?

I am the lucky one here. It irks me to write those words. If there had been a crash, I would have been the one hurt, sprawled across the hood of a Prius, perhaps just road rash but possibly worse, the victim of just another unfortunate driver decision. We cyclists always lose, fault or not.

Of course, nothing will come of today’s event. I have no video, no witnesses, no tell-tale marks, no road rash, nothing — just a memory of a bad moment that somehow turned out OK. The driver and I each will be back on the road soon, anonymous users of the streets, fighting and clawing for space. Perhaps there is no lesson here. Perhaps there is nothing to say but that stuff happens. May such stuff never happen again.

Absurdist Shrubbery

May 15, 2012 3 comments

From what I can see, the engineers and planners at LADOT’s Bicycle Program are hard at work installing bicycle-specific infrastructure around the city. Sharrows keep popping up on the routes I ride, and I read about lanes being striped here and there. It’s great to know the city is thinking about us.

But permit me a moment to grouse. Almost all of the recent build-out has been “paint job infrastructure.” If you’ve ever ridden down one of those numerous sharrow-marked streets — say, Fountain Avenue — you know that there’s really no difference in “feel” between the road with or without them. Sharrows, of course, are supposed to make streets safer by indicating the proper riding position to cyclists and drivers alike. They change nothing else about the street. That leaves cyclists still mixing it up with traffic. I figure that sharrows are going to do as much to encourage cyclists to ride as the “Bike Route” signs the city did in the 1970s. Eventually the paint will wear away, and no one will notice. That was a bicycle route?

Still, I sort of get the problem that LADOT faces, especially on a street like Fountain. There’s not much room, and we the populace don’t want to remove parking (that is, stop subsidizing it), so the quickest, cheapest, politically easiest nod to cyclists is painting some chevrons. Great. Whatever. Maybe someday sharrows will help some poor cyclist resolve an injury lawsuit in his or her favor. But as my dad used to tell me when teaching me how to cross the street: you may dead right, but you’re both dead and right.

So, sharrows, schmarrows. What really gets my goat is the half-attention paid to cyclists even when the space is available for great infrastructure. At the risk of opening old wounds, consider the Santa Monica Boulevard bike lanes, between Century City and the 405 Freeway. They’re some of the nicest on the Westside, with no parked cars to door riders, and smooth pavement. But they’re still just paint. Meanwhile, take a look at what lies just beyond them for much of the boulevard: a beautifully manicured median strip, with lovely drought-resistant plants, and a tranquil business parking zone. I am grateful for the lanes, but every time I use them I feel as if the city is more concerned about road beautification and parked cars than the safety of cyclists.

But, again, I might give the LADOT the benefit of the doubt. The Santa Monica lanes were striped back in the lean times (for cyclists) of the early 2000s, before the explosion of interest in Dutch cycling, separated paths, and back when gas prices were still pretty low. In our “modern times” we’re supposed to know that you can’t keep a lot of cyclists on the streets unless you make them feel safe. Which makes me wonder what to make of the new, the brand new, Expo Line bike infrastructure. Sunday past, I took a spin over to the La Cienega stop, riding from the beach up the Ballona Creek bike path, to the connector path. I was terribly excited by the initial bit, a beautiful (if bumpy) stretch of Class I pavement leading up to the stop. I was also tickled to see the extra pedestrian signal call switches installed on posts for cyclists (although they don’t seem to work now). But after a hundred yards or so, I found myself riding down Jefferson Boulevard on yet another bike lane, with yet another line of beautifully manicured shrubbery to my right. Shrubbery! Exactly where the Class I path should be! It’s an absurdity right out of a Monty Python sketch.

Categories: Lanes, Los Angeles, Parking

Bicycle lane “reality check”

March 12, 2011 6 comments

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.

Categories: Lanes, Los Angeles, Policy

Crowded

February 24, 2011 4 comments

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.

Bloomberg Snowberg

December 30, 2010 1 comment

So, I’m out of town for a few days, in New York, “enjoying” the aftermath of maybe the year’s biggest snowstorm, the blizzard of ‘010. My New Yorker friends kvetch about the bike lanes and call them overdone, and say they’ll never work. You know what, I may have to agree with them. I realize the city maintenance crews have been under huge pressures the past few days, but here’s the care and attention they’ve given the fledgling bike lanes on the Upper West Side. Would you ride on these?

NYC Bike Lane 1 NYC Bike Lane 2

Categories: Lanes, Travel

Beverly Hills: Grade-separated bike lanes for Santa Monica Blvd?

September 27, 2010 12 comments

What is a bike lane supposed to look like?

Los Angeles mostly seems to think they should be to the left of parked cars and to the right of moving cars, with nothing but a bit of paint to separate them. This paradigm hardly makes riders feel safe, and really limits the kinds of cyclists who take to the streets. Other cities, many of them overseas, but more recently in Portland, New York, and a few others, have taken a different tack. They’ve separated cycling lanes from travel lanes. Sometimes they use a curb or sidewalk, sometimes they use parked cars, and sometimes they build a different path altogether. Here in L.A., though, we just haven’t done that, aside from the few “Class I” paths you’ll find scattered at the beach and rivers.

As it happens, Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills is up for a twelve-million dollar makeover. The city has expressed some interest in adding bicycle lanes on at least one side of the boulevard, probably the south side, with “all options open” for a second lane on the north side, or Carmelita Avenue, the next street up. Given the examples of the many non-grade-separated protected bike lanes in this city, it was with some surprise that I heard this bit from Beverly Hills council member Nancy Krasne at a study session last week (around 33:30):

If you really, really want a bike lane on Santa Monica Boulevard, I suggest where the bike lane is, that we find a way to either raise it up at a higher level than the road, so that the bike lane is higher than the street — and it’s marked “Bike Lane” — and that somebody that starts to drift into it is going to be touching something … and the bikes are a little safer.

I was so delighted to hear this idea of a grade-separated protected bike lane that I fired off a letter to Krasne today. Who knew that Beverly Hills, the “black hole” of bicycle infrastructure in our city, might have a real advocate for first-class lanes?!

Categories: Beverly Hills, Lanes