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.
David Arditti of Vole O’Speed writes about 1934, the year “it all went wrong for cycling in the U.K.,” quoting Chris Peck of the Cyclists’ Touring Club: “‘We were still very much of the mind that we should try and recapture the roads from the motorists, so the construction of cycle tracks was seen as defeat.'” Perhaps if they had looked a bit west, across the pond, they might have seen the automobile experience in the U.S., where “[b]y 1930 most street users agreed that most streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares” (Fighting Traffic, Kindle loc 93 of 4958). In an ironic twist, the English viewpoint came full turn to a sleepy 1970s Palo Alto, where U.K.-born John Forrester successfully scuttled the city’s proposed separated bikeways as “at least 1,000 times” riskier than the streets, citing the CTC’s experiences. Perhaps if the city council had looked a bit east, across the pond, it might have seen that the British example didn’t work, and that by 1970 cycling usage had declined to about three percent from double-digit post-War highs.
If you’re of a mind to want bicycle paths and cycle tracks, you’ll likely lay much blame for their non-existence at the feet of these cycling pioneers. Their voices, the most powerful of their times, carried the day. It’s also a sobering thought to realize that they were our own, advocates for cycling, who believed the best path forward lay in achieving parity with other road users. They were fighting marginalization and segregation, terms that in most other contexts everyone fights, and they did too. Perhaps they saw the future all too clearly, the increasing and triumphal advance of “progress,” the historically inexorable march towards motorization, and the inevitable domination of the automobile. In this context, it was a positive result that cyclists still had access to the roads. The alternative might have been outright banning.
Last December, Milt Olin was killed by a sheriff driving his patrol car distractedly. Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles District Attorney released a detailed analysis of the incident and declined to press charges. Outraged, Los Angeles cyclists have asked the DA to reconsider by organizing a ride in Olin’s honor and holding a candlelight vigil. [The story continues to develop.] All of these actions are well-intentioned. But I wonder whether we are asking for the right stuff. Is a call for “justice” for the harm and injury that drivers inflict on us really going to make our streets safer? By calling for enforcement of laws, rather than installation of infrastructure, are we asking for the same meager and awful road access our forebears misguidedly demanded? Are we still begging for scraps at the table of motordom?
I think we should really focus whatever political capital we have in the direction that it will do the most good. We can argue the viability of the Olin case to no end. The DA reached one conclusion, you may reach another. It’s a judgment call. Meanwhile, the Olin family will have its day in civil court, perhaps winning millions from a defendant with deep pockets and accountability. That is justice too, and it’s more justice than most injured cyclists and pedestrians are ever able to achieve, in this day of rampant hit-and-run crashes and uninsured motorists.
Unfortunately, the Olin case is not unique. All road users are fallibly human, and this predictable, tragic story will be told again someday with a new cast of characters. We need to ask for stuff that “stops the murder,” to paraphrase the 1970s Dutch protests. Instead of justice, a form of which Olin’s family may get anyway in civil court, why can’t we instead ask for infrastructure? A long stretch of K-rail installed alongside the Mulholland Highway bicycle lane will do a better job of protecting future Milt Olins than all the “justice” we can get. Why not ask for cycle tracks? Why not ask for a meal instead of scraps?
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.
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-transporation 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.