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I pass cyclists at three feet

September 16, 2012 3 comments

This September has seen me cycling in France, in the Alps and Provence, climbing some of the storied Tour de France ascents. I tackled a series of passes and a couple of mountains, among others, and they’re all as hard as you might imagine, long and steep, and at racing speeds they are justifiably the makers of legends. I’m probably never going to get around to doing a proper write-up of my adventures, but I made a goofy video of me climbing the Alpe d’Huez, which you can watch here … or not.

What I found interesting, however, is how much consideration the French give to cyclists in these mountains. It’s nothing like the Netherlands, of course, where cyclists generally have separate infrastructure, but there seems to be a conscious effort at integrating cyclists onto the roads. Part of it comes from pure practicality: summer is the slow season in many of these areas, and cyclists bring money. But I also saw many signs that help drivers in their interactions with other road users. In particular, I thought these signs, which tell drivers quite clearly to pass at 1.5 meters, were helpful in a way that our banal and next-to-useless “share the road” signs are not.



So, in short, I say this: if California’s governor does, in fact, sign the three-foot passing bill into law, we should get rid of the “share the road” signs and replace them with something much more useful and instructive, something that tells drivers what to do, something like these French panneaux.

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Categories: Policy, Travel

Parisian Interlude

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

It has been the sort of trip that my European friends mock me for, a quick dash across the Atlantic for a day or two, and a quick dash back. Still, when the wedding invitation arrived in my inbox just three short weeks ago, I knew I had to make it work. It’s not every day that someone in one’s French “family” gets married, and certainly not everyday they do so in one of the most beautiful spots in Paris. And so I scrambled, got a plane ticket and hotel reservation, and voilà, j’y suis!

Of course, the wedding was beautiful, the bride radiant and the groom beaming, and I’ve not seen more big hats on women since I don’t know when. Some five hundred guests crowded into the nineteenth century chapel, in the shadow of the Tour Eiffel, more guests than seats. The groom warned me to arrive early or risk not getting one. I took his advice.

I found it rather odd to take the subway to a wedding — that was a first — but I gather that it’s more normal here. I mentioned this tidbit to another American guest; she told me she and her French husband took the bus. Why bother with difficult traffic and difficult parking when it’s just as easy to use public transport? Yes, they have taxis, but the subway is always cheaper, and often faster. A couple of guests were carrying motorcycle helmets; they had ridden scooters.

And where were the bicycles? Alas, I don’t know that that anyone in the wedding retinue came au vélo, but I must report my utter surprise at the cycling transformation this city has otherwise undergone since my last visit in 2007. There are bicycles everywhere now, with the young and old alike taking to them, in every part of the city. They are mostly and obviously transportation cyclists, dressed for a destination other than exercise, with a shopping bag or two thrown in a front basket. Almost none of them wears a helmet.

The biggest change, though, has not been the numbers of cyclists. It has been, instead, the marked and visible increase in bicycle lanes, cycle tracks, “sharrow” markings, shared cycle and pedestrian streets, shared bus-bicycle lanes, etc. in just the past four years. Where does it all come from? My (non-wedding) friend E. told me at brunch today, with a little irony, that the “gay, socialist mayor of Paris” wants everyone on bicycles.

If you’ve kept up with the city at all, you’re sure to have heard about Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s Vélib system, that bike rental service pioneered in La Rochelle in the 1970s, perfected in Lyon, and installed with great success in Paris in 2007. Vélib gets a lot of press, and the model has been copied with various results in other places. However, the all-important increase in infrastructure has so far been excluded in most discussions of Paris that I’ve seen. If Delanoë is behind it, I would say it’ll be his most important and lasting legacy.

Paris is a city from which Los Angeles could take some lessons. It’s closer in size, density, and car-centric attitude than many other bicycle-friendly capital cities. (E. drove me a few miles today along the “Périphérique,” right into an L.A.-style traffic jam, complete with stand-still traffic. Somehow I felt right at home.) Cycling on Paris’ streets probably feels as dangerous as cycling in Los Angeles. They are often narrower and covered in cobblestones. The northern European weather works against riders. What’s more, its conversion to a more bicycle friendly place has come relatively recently. Studying how that happened — and especially the politics (does it take a socialist mayor?) — could be instructive. The quick transformation here is startling and inspiring.

Categories: Travel

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

Trip planning

October 17, 2010 2 comments

The blue line on the map here shows, more or less, the route I rode from Copenhagen to Amsterdam. It also describes, more or less, the total amount of route planning I put into this ride.

The knowledge that you can ride safely wherever you want, without having to do careful planning, is one of the luxuries of cycling in countries with extensive bicycle infrastructure. This realization didn’t really occur to me until I was about halfway through this tour, when I found myself finally relaxing about the road and concentrating more on the scenery. Imagine planning a ride from, say, Los Angeles to San Francisco: you’ll spend a good percentage of your time selecting bicycle-friendly roads, talking with others who have done the route, and worrying about whether you’ll have fewer big-rigs on this route versus another. And then, even after all your efforts, you’ll always have to think about traffic. It just wasn’t the case on my ride: I hardly thought about cars and trucks at all. To be sure, there were a few times when I found myself on “off-off” roads, where there were no separate facilities, and I did have to interact with other traffic, but I estimate that these instances formed only about ten-percent of my total riding.

Here are a couple of typical paths in Germany:

 

These paths are not located on special roads designed for bicycle traffic. They run alongside normal roads, like the vast majority of the roads I saw, and were almost everywhere, even out in the middle of the countryside, like these lanes. They seemed to be just part of the infrastructure mindset; in other words, if you build a road, you automatically make provisions for pedestrians and cyclists, even if that road happens to be so far away from anything that it will likely see few of either.

I don’t know how to relate this sort of infrastructure to California. The sort of thinking that goes into creating separated paths of this quality requires a sea change in politics, road building codes, and public acceptance. One might argue that in big cities there’s no room for such paths, but even in the California countryside, where I grew up, I don’t recall any instances of infrastructure like this (and I did a lot of cycling in my teens). Of course, cities have different requirements for paths, and I’ll be getting to examples of those later. In the meantime, it’s still a wonder to me how simple it was to plan a bicycle trip through northern Europe — just pick a route, any route, and go.

Categories: Planning, Travel

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.

LAX -> CPH

October 3, 2010 2 comments

My Century City office window has an oblique view of Santa Monica Boulevard and the bike lanes that run alongside it. I don’t often find a moment to take in the view — and it’s a rather nice one — but when I do, I’ll sometimes count the cyclists riding by. Actually, “count” is the wrong word: it’s more a vain hope of seeing a single cyclist trundle by. It’s rather like trying to spot an elusive snow-leopard in the mountains of Mongolia: a dispiriting exercise, but hope springs eternal.

Where are the cyclists? Over the years I’ve asked people, informally, why they don’t ride in Los Angeles. The answers (excuses?) are usually what you’d expect — safety, distance, weather — and usually in that order. I discount distance and weather as sniveling, but consider safety a genuine concern. The simple fact is that cycling mode share may largely be the visible artifact of safe cycling infrastructure. Without infrastructure, one can hardly expect to see large numbers of cyclists on our streets.

I left Los Angeles Friday to visit Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and I’m in the northernmost capital now. It was expected, but still engaging, to exchange traffic scenarios:

 

(In the right-hand photo, I’m only a bit sorry that I didn’t capture a cyclist in the lane; that’s a fault of your humble photographer and not of the many cyclists whizzing by.)

What did Copenhagen do right by its people? Perhaps a fair bit of the credit goes to Jan Gehl, who has been working on this city’s traffic infrastructure for forty years or more. You can find many more observations on the city here, and I should let this city’s residents do most of the talking. But one thing I can say for certain from my single day on Copenhagen’s many charming streets: I had no problem counting cyclists. They are all over the place, on every street, alley, with their evidence parked in front of every shop, and stacked like cord wood at the train station. It’s an impressive sight.

I’ve planned a nine-day bicycle ride between the capitals, and leave on Tuesday for the journey southwest. The trip will mean visits to many towns and cities in Denmark, Germany, and The Netherlands. I’m hoping to bring you along as I ride — if you care to join me — and perhaps make some useful observations for Los Angeles along the way.

Categories: Travel