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:
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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

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.

Categories: Policy, Travel

Beverly Hills Spins Slowly Forward … or Backward, Your Choice

August 26, 2012 3 comments

The Beverly Hills city council took up its “bike plan” twice last Thursday for the zillionth time since, oh, about 1975. If you want to listen to a dispiriting discourse on the status of current American bicycle thinking, you really should watch the study session. (Also, read Mark Elliott’s take.) I haven’t heard anyone rhyme “bi-cycle” with “pie cycle” since I talked to some old guy twenty years ago, but former mayor Barry Brucker uses it, and to this ear it makes him sound as if he were a late arrival to the invention, as if a bicycle were some new oddity threatening to invade our streets. Octa-cycle, anyone?

Of course, if it were just a matter of pronunciation, one shouldn’t be so particular, but the council session positively dripped with a great deal of caution, bordering on skepticism, towards the “introduction” of cycling into Beverly Hills. I suppose the most positive spin I could put on their attitude is that of quiet resignation. The council isn’t really interested in bicycles — do any of them actually ride? — but they sense they may be on the wrong side of history, and they want to make at least a small effort just in case.

Consider these contributions:

Alan Grushcow (Traffic & Parking): “We’re not here to talk about specific bike routes. We’re really here to have an informed discussion about how bikes fit into this community, and how we should or should not take them seriously.”

Julian Gold (council member): “Does sharing the road differently (with bicycles) raise the number of accidents [between cars]?”

Barry Brucker (council member): “I support us looking (only) at the major arteries until we can be convinced that bicyclists will actually stop [at signs on side streets], and also that they will not look at [sharrows as a] perceived no-need-to-stop opportunity.”

John Mirisch (council member): “In the [upcoming] renovation of Santa Monica Boulevard, we should do everything possible to try and fit in bike lanes there (rather than on side streets)…The schools want us to hold up, because they want to be able to develop routes that will allow the kids to bike to school.”

William Brien (council member): “I don’t think you could safely ride a bike on Santa Monica Boulevard now (because of poor road conditions).”

Jeff Kolin (City Manager): “This should be an incremental program.”

Ultimately, the council recommended provisions on just two of the five streets up for grabs, on Crescent Drive and Burton Way, and those only tentatively. From what I gather, somebody took a poll of residents and found considerable public sentiment against lanes elsewhere. (I live in Beverly Hills, too, but I never saw a poll. Who are these people voting against bicycles, anyway?!) Carmelita Avenue is probably no loss to anyone, as the street is wide, and the riders I know will continue using it, sharrows or lanes or not. But losing Charleville Boulevard is a shame, as it’s quite narrow and probably the most popular connector from Century City to parts east.

Brucker’s unwillingness to put anything on Carmelita and Charleville because cyclists run stop signs is the first time I’ve seen this sentiment lead to real consequences. It’s standard fare among Internet trolls, but I’ve never quite understood the logic. We don’t ask drivers to stop texting to repave roads, nor pedestrians to stop jay-walking in exchange for cross-walks. If anything, the attitude should be exactly the opposite; we should provide infrastructure that encourages all road users to do the right thing. Cyclists will stop running stop signs when the roads work for them, rather than against them, as they do now. If you’re reading these words, Mr. Brucker, this attitude just has to stop: please stop connecting behavior and infrastructure; infrastructure is not a reward, it’s a prerequisite.

The evening following, at the Council’s regular meeting, Wolfpack Hustle gathered together a group of riders from all over to ask the city for better safety provisions. Their call to action was the case of Paul Livingston, whose hit-and-run incident last year was so badly handled as to shiver the best of riders off the road. I appreciate WH’s efforts, and hope for continued help, but we really need many more Beverly Hills parents like Danielle Salomon, who spoke about her daily commute by bicycle to UCLA, and then had her adorable daughters say a few words about their difficulties riding, too. One council member mentioned he had seen them on the road. As the Dutch will tell you, mobilized parents are a powerful force for change.

Categories: Beverly Hills

A lane of one’s own

July 16, 2012 3 comments

When I wheeled the Bullit last Saturday into Charles Picture Framing to pick up some packages, Charles was understandably confused, and maybe a little startled. “Can I help you?” he asked. I was (admittedly) pushing the notion of “rock star parking” to the bleeding edge. You can’t get any closer than in the shop, but it sure made sense to me to get the bike as near as possible to the goods. When I told him I was picking up some frames, Charles recovered quickly, got my packages, and helped me load. He said he couldn’t remember any pick-ups by cyclists his thirty years there. I guess that wouldn’t be too far out of character for our town.

I love running errands by bicycle. It’s great to be out in the sun, hearing the wind whistling in my ears, and seeing the bustle of the city from the unique perspective available only to cyclists. I use the word “unique” advisedly: you won’t find me or any pedestrian standing squarely in the middle of the Sepulveda and Santa Monica intersection, two feet on the ground, waiting to make a left turn, with four lanes of cars whizzing by on either side — but put a bicycle between my legs, and there I am.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that I also find cycling in Los Angeles to be an act of quiet desperation, an activity almost always accompanied by low level terror? When I was headed home with all those picture frames, “driving” north on Overland Avenue and listening keenly for the sound of overtaking cars, I found myself overcome with a sudden rush of jealousy at the sight of a father on the sidewalk, out for a walk with his child, enjoying the afternoon unconcernedly, unhurriedly, with no care for traffic. The contrast made we wonder at my sanity: I must have a screw loose to “enjoy” the death riding on my left. I have a car. I can afford gasoline. Shouldn’t I be driving?

Last May, one of the more astonishing crash statistics came from the League of American Bicyclists. In a funding appeal letter, the LAB mentioned that “more than one in four of crashes we’ve documented involve cyclists getting hit from behind.” I’ve heard almost nothing about this number since, but it might be one of the more compelling data points that cycling has seen in years. If anything, this statistic should jump off the page to any vehicular cyclist who’s used to hearing that fewer than ten percent of crashes involve hits from behind. The ten percent number has been used to justify any amount of “proper” cycling behavior, from avoiding sidewalks, to taking the lane, to advocating against separate bicycle paths – because, the line goes, we’re “safer” in traffic than elsewhere. That such behavior often goes completely against common sense has never counted for much, in part because it’s hard to argue against a statistic without something comparable. But that low-level terror I feel when riding comes in large part because of the many, daily near-misses I face riding exactly where the “vehiculars” say I should be. Now, maybe, finally, we have statistics that correspond to the terror. At the very least, we have cause to reconsider a set of forty-year-old studies that may have no basis in current reality. The broader implications are tremendous: these are numbers that can change policy, that go far to show the need for separate lanes and real infrastructure.

Tom Vanderbilt — he of that famous book on traffic — tweeted this nugget the other day: “My general feeling on painted bike lanes and sharrows is: Would pedestrians feel comfortable on sidewalks that were made of icons & paint?” When I was looking over at that lucky father walking with his child on the sidewalk, I had to ask myself what the hell I was doing in the middle of Overland Avenue, creeping along at ten miles-per-hour, cars rushing and squeezing by me with inches to spare, and trying my best to keep those six picture frames from getting banged up. What the hell indeed? I was jealous because he had a lane of his own, and I did not. I was a supplicant in a land of brazen and selfish giants, the dog begging for scraps at the table; he was the master of his space. I want a lane of my own, a lane of one’s own.

Whither safety, whither progress

June 5, 2012 1 comment

My parents gave me a grocery bag full of photographic negatives last April. They had them jumbled in their closet, stored away in the odd chance that someone, someday might want to make a print. No one ever did, of course. Family photograph negatives usually are left to rot.

I’ve been scanning them. It’s a labor of love, a glimpse back at my childhood. Most of the photos I don’t remember. Many of them are surprising, and some of them reveal a time and place that no longer exists.

Here I am, around six months old, going for my first motorcycle ride. The driver is a friend of my parents. The year is about 1968. Do you think a parent would allow this today?

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Here’s my dad and me. I’m no more than three years-old. We’ve just returned from the post office, where we picked up the mail. I’m sitting on a makeshift bench/cushion, and my feet are resting on a wooden bar bolted to the bicycle’s frame. Do you think a parent would take a child for a ride like this today (even if legal)?

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Here I am about seven years old, riding one of the many banana-seat bicycles I had (some were stolen, some I ruined). What parent would allow a child to ride sans helmet today? 

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I grew up in a time when safety standards and parental concerns were rapidly evolving. The Chowchilla, California bus kidnapping happened about the time I was riding in the last photo. It freaked out the nation. My normally permissive parents started keeping us closer to home. Video games made their debut, and soon zombie-eyed kids were playing non-stop Pong at home. Helmet awareness crept into the national consciousness, and by the 1980s children under age five had to have helmets on a bicycle. Now, California’s children up to age eighteen can’t use bicycles, scooters, skateboards, or inline skates without a helmet. 

Our memories sometimes have a way of making the past seem rosier than it was. Still, I can’t help but notice that childhood cycling seems rare today. I see few kids riding to school, including Beverly Hill High School, which I pass frequently on my way to work. I see few kids in general on bicycles, with the exception of the teen-aged “hipsters,” who seem to ride in packs looking for urban infrastructure against which to try stunts.

It seems likely that the steady rise in the number of cars has crowded out child cyclists. Parents these days are probably justified in keeping their kids off the streets. Helmet laws might have helped with some injuries, but they also might have helped some parents see cycling as dangerous. Perception has much to do with it: back in the 1970s, my mother didn’t want my brother and me on skateboards because they were “too dangerous” (I think she heard someone fell and broke an arm — we skated anyway); today, she might not want us riding bicycles for similar reasons.

What do you think? Have we lost something since the 1960s? Has the rise in safety-mindedness, and the laws that accompanied it, made our children worse off than they were before? Where do we go from here?

Categories: Uncategorized
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