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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.

Forty Years Later

October 26, 2010 12 comments

John Forester, the father of vehicular cycling, may well be equal parts saint and villain in the annals of American cycling. Over the past forty years, he has defended “the rights of cyclists to the public roads” while also fighting “bike lanes, European-style cycletracks, and just about any form of traffic calming.” Forester’s initial entry into bicycle politics was limited to Palo Alto, California, where he successfully scuttled Dutch-style bicycle paths in the early 1970s. His influence later extended statewide, and then nationally. He “talked his way onto a California committee studying bikeway standards” and “particularly attacked protected bikeways running next to roads.” (AASHTO guidelines “still recommend against these types of facilities.”) In 1980, he was elected to the presidency of the League of American Bicyclists, where he stayed for three years, until he was “ousted … in a power struggle over the organization’s direction.”

Jeff Mapes, in his book, Pedaling Revolution (the source of all these quotes), takes a diplomatic tack in his overall description of Forester’s efforts for cycling, but he also portrays a man who despised most other cyclists: “[Forester] savaged the bike industry for supporting bikeway proponents and what [he] saw as misguided safety regulators. The industry … wanted to encourage more people to become cyclists. Forester wanted to see only properly trained riders on the streets.”

I find it cruelly indicative and galling to read Mapes’ small footnote about Forester in a chapter otherwise describing bicycling in Amsterdam:

Forester … said that, besides a childhood train journey through Holland before World War II, he has never been in the country. “However,” he told me in an e-mail, “I have several cycling associates who have cycled there, and they inform me that they didn’t like cycling there for reasons which I see as eminently reasonable and conforming to my feelings about the few imitations implemented here.”

In other words, Forester argued vociferously against infrastructure that he had never seen, that he had never ridden on, that he hadn’t experienced. It’s a crushing spirit that denies the visions and dreams of others without having experienced them firsthand. If you haven’t been to the Netherlands, you simply cannot understand cycling as a way of life — the immersive, encompassing, and encouraging way of it, and not the peripheral, excluding, and callous version we have in much of the U.S., and certainly in Los Angeles.

Forester’s advocacy for vehicular cycling, and in particular his rejection of separated infrastructure, may well represent the biggest squandered opportunity for inclusive cycling in the last forty years. His view of strong, confident, fearless, and fast cyclists navigating traffic like drivers has at least partially — and perhaps substantially — contributed to the very few cyclists we see today on the streets of Los Angeles. One need not make too many imaginative leaps to see a vastly different Los Angeles if Jan Gehl had begun his forty years of infrastructure build-out here rather than in Copenhagen. Two men, two divergent visions, and two vastly different outcomes:

Cycle-specific infrastructure 2010-07-11Walk-029

So, there.

We have to start somewhere, I suppose, despite the wasted time. And we have much work to do if we really want to remake our cities into places where human power has equal status on the roads. In previous posts, I have promised photos of urban infrastructure I had the privilege to see while overseas earlier this month. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve found it rather hard to relate to Los Angeles, because the buildout over there is so far advanced. However, I do have a few items of note.

Let’s take these photos of some typical German urban bike paths. These happen to be in Bunde, a village on the western edge of the country. Villages and Los Angeles share in common relatively empty sidewalks, so perhaps these paths might be instructive:

Shared sidewalk Shared sidewalk

In essence, these two photos illustrate a shared-use facility, a sidewalk and bicycle path on the same level, built out side-by-side. Cyclists are guided on their portion through positioning, coloring, and surface variances, and pedestrians through the same mechanisms. They represent a rather simple, elegant, and cheap way to make a bike path, because they require giving up no road space and still give cyclists a place.

I realize that readers might point out that the bike path is actually on the sidewalk, and then perhaps alert me to the dangers of sidewalk riding. I am going to discount those studies in one stroke. They have nothing to do with sidewalk riding, and everything to do with conflicts at intersections. It’s not sidewalk riding that’s dangerous, it’s intersections, and we need to do a better job at making intersections safer.

No, I think the bigger challenge for L.A. would come from rethinking our cluttered sidewalks:

2010-07-11Walk-077  2010-07-04FourthOfJuly-003

Where the Germans have nearly obstruction-free sidewalks, we have burdened them with signs, parking meters, power line poles, newspaper boxes, trees, etc. Walking in a straight line has become difficult in some parts of our city, much less riding a bike. However, it may be easier to remove parking meters — they are disappearing anyway — and rethink our sidewalks, than to remove traffic lanes and rethink our roads.

And then, maybe, someday, we’ll find a way towards something more advanced, like a real Dutch-style bike path, where the path is as big as a traffic lane, and where blocking it just isn’t done (well, barely done):

First real Dutch bike path Blocking the bike path

Paths like these, I think, are well outside the reach of Los Angeles for now. But one can dream.

Impossible Dreams

October 14, 2010 1 comment

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.