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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

A certain specious folly

July 17, 2013 1 comment

I’m not exactly sure where we are on the “Ghandi-meter” of change, but Syd Mead’s column on the “specious folly” of bicycle-as-transportation seems to be somewhere between the time when “they laugh at you” and when “they fight you.” The direct comments on the piece address most or all of the practical points he missed, which might be more simply stated that we cyclists have already solved his concerns. Can’t carry a watermelon? Done that. Can’t travel ten miles? Do that all the time. Bike lanes create traffic congestion? Traffic was congested before and getting worse. And so on.

It almost seems too convenient to point out that Mead, a so-called futurist, can’t conceive of a practical future for bicycles in an urban environment. This is even a little ironic. If one looks at the drawings he did in 1988 of Los Angeles in 2013, it’s pretty clear that his idea of the future was a bit different than what we’ve got. His streetscapes include “Metro Rail tubes,” but few sidewalks; futuristic cars, but hardly any traffic; hundreds of buildings, but not a single person in sight. One wonders whether somehow his future is so bleak that people don’t exist anymore, or don’t want to be outside anymore, or won’t enjoy the pleasure of a bike ride.

The column’s biggest flaw? Mead doesn’t provide alternatives. Bicycles go far towards a real solution to at least three problems we face in urban environments: traffic, pollution, and public health. It’s one thing to point out that most people won’t travel twenty miles on a bicycle, it’s another to propose an actual solution to congestion. If he hasn’t noticed, car trips on L.A.’s surface streets now travel at a bicycle pace, rarely exceeding an average of twenty miles-per-hour during business hours. Cars are polluting our environment, and it seems doubtful that his 1970s-era monster “land yacht” would help much. Americans are as fat as they’ve ever been, but somehow it doesn’t seem that anyone would lose weight riding around in one of his “Tron” Light cycles. It’s one thing to snipe at bicycles and their alleged limitations, it’s another to find better ways to replace them.

Maybe he should consider a vacation in the Netherlands. I hear they’re doing some amazing things with bicycles. Stuff that we might be trying to implement here.

Categories: Los Angeles, Planning

Ships in the night

I don’t venture out much at night on my bicycle, not when I can help it. It just seems too dangerous to mix it up with tired or chemically impaired drivers. They have enough problems seeing me in the daytime when they’re alert and sober. At night it seems they’re doubly blind.

But twice this week (so far) I’ve found myself mounting lamps and blinkies on the bike and braving the night. Monday’s adventure was a rather mundane grocery run, and hardly merits mention. Last night’s ride, by contrast, was a revelation, a vision of what Los Angeles could be in the light of what the beach bike paths are now.

As it happened, my uncle invited me to dinner in Hermosa Beach. It’s about a nineteen-mile drive from my apartment to the restaurant. Weeknight traffic makes that drive a bit more than an hour. But this time it occurred to me that I could do a multi-modal trip instead, driving to the beginning of the Marvin Braude bike path in Culver City — thus avoiding riding on the roads at night — and then cycling on the beach bike path to Hermosa.

So, last night, I did. The driving portion took 25 minutes, the cycling about 50 minutes, so overall only about ten minutes longer than driving. That much I expected. What I didn’t expect was how the path was being used. If your general experience (like mine) comes from weekend exercise outings, you’ll likely have missed the many weekday commuters who use it regularly. On the way towards the restaurant, I came across any number of people carrying stuff on their bicycles, obviously not solely engaged in cycling for the exercise (although plenty of others were, too). These were people headed somewhere for utility purposes, on all sorts of bicycles.

After dinner, the ride back brought even more surprises. I left Hermosa Beach around 8:30 PM, when the sun had long passed over the horizon, gone towards Hawaii and parts west. The night was misty, with the remnants of an afternoon breeze flowing off the ocean. The path is not lit overhead, and I had thought I would share it only with a few people out to enjoy the night air or walk their dogs. I did not expect the numbers of cyclists, their presence announced by blinking LED beacons, ships passing in the night, each headed to its own destination. Naturally, the beach cities had more traffic. The path beyond Marina del Rey was lightly trod, but even there a few cyclists took advantage of the thoroughfare. Ultimately, I was struck by the simple fact that the path was used well after dark, a purpose for which it has clearly not been intended, for all sorts of cycling purposes.

It’s useful to keep in mind that the beach paths are out of the way for most people. They only serve the beach cities and Culver City directly, and even so aren’t often the most direct connection between points. But they are still used by Angelenos. We are famous worldwide for loving our cars, but the few bike paths we have are used regularly and usefully. This is way it could be everywhere if we had real paths that went real places.

Categories: Culture, Los Angeles

CicLAvia Traffic Jams

April 22, 2013 1 comment

Celebrated by an estimated 150,000 participants (or maybe 500,000?), yesterday’s CicLAvia featured a new route, from Union Station to Venice Beach, mostly along Venice Boulevard. While these rides have always been popular, this one brought L.A. freeway-sized rush-hour issues, with backups at cross-traffic stoplights being blocks long. There was much Twittering to-and-fro about problems, but these are delicious problems to have, and Clifford Johnson at Asymptotia gave a delicate analysis. Like Johnson, I found myself unable to complete a full out-and-back in the time allotted, and had to cut off the ride at Centinela after a quick but late lunch. Like Johnson, I agree that the solutions won’t be easy to find, and I was overall delighted with the ride. Most of the problems can be laid to the simple issue that the event was too popular. Popularity is a fickle friend. Small changes (weather, competing events, etc.) could have kept many people home, leaving event organizers in a very different situation.

A few more observations:

1) Westbound traffic was consistently heavier than eastbound, with volumes at points in large multiples. While crossing a downtown intersection around 10:30 AM, I was one of a handful of riders headed towards Union Station, with those going the opposite direction forming a massive and barely penetrable phalanx across the entire road. The unequal traffic volume was unique to this CicLAvia. I don’t know what to lay it to, other than the idea that people like going to the beach.

Your chariot awaits

2) It was refreshing to see Union Station as a major feeder point to the ride. For the few minutes I spent there while waiting for my passenger, people with bicycles poured out of the station to the exasperated and ineffective “keep moving” pleas of a security officer.

3) Cargo bikes were a bigger presence than I’ve seen before. I ran into two other Bullitt riders, one Workcycles Bakfiets, and a couple of Niholas. My “chariot” carried a passenger unsure about riding in crowded conditions, while others were transporting children, dogs, and the like.

4) Where separated by a concrete and raised median strip, event organizers used the westbound lanes of Venice Boulevard as the CicLAvia route, while allowing cars on the eastbound lanes. The capacity difference of the boulevard between cars and bicycles couldn’t have been starker. For any given block, the cars numbered in the tens, while bicycles numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the boulevard carried more people on bikes during CicLAvia’s few hours than it carries on jammed days.

5) That event organizers saw fit to separate bicycles from cars using a concrete median strip should be a reminder that people and their children are happy to ride in close proximity to cars when it feels safe. There were lots of cars just a few feet away, but they were kept away from cyclists by more than paint.

CicLAvia’s website has a countdown clock to the next one, called “Iconic Wilshire Boulevard,” just sixty-one days from now. It’s hard to imagine a more important street to Los Angeles than Wilshire, which connects downtown with Santa Monica and many prominent landmarks between. My personal definition of cycling success in this city is a separated path running the length of the Boulevard. It’s really great to see that we’ll have a taste of that soon.

Letter to Mark Lacter

February 19, 2013 2 comments

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.

Categories: Los Angeles, Policy

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

Cycling is for everyone, but are we really that different?

June 2, 2011 6 comments

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.


Seoul Bicycle Lane

Taipei Bicycle Path
 

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.

Categories: Culture, Los Angeles, Policy