Why the Beverly Hills Parking Propositions Miss the Real Issue

February 27, 2011 3 comments

For the past few weeks my mailbox has been packed with slickly-produced campaign flyers, nearly all of them about the issue of free parking in garages owned by the City of Beverly Hills. There are actually two proposals on the ballot. The first, Measure 2P, was put on there by a group of local landlords, and would require the city to provide two hours free to everyone in all city garages. The second, Measure 3P, was put on the ballot by the city council itself in response to “2P,” and would give three free hours to city residents only.

The details of these proposals aren’t that interesting, and I’ll be voting against both of them anyway. I rarely use city parking anymore, which makes my decision easier, but it also makes sense from other perspectives:

Donald Shoup would point out the “High Cost of Free Parking,” and how it encourages unnecessary driving. He might then give some statistics on how much Beverly Hills spends per space (including the latest underground project on Crescent Boulevard), money that could otherwise be spent on projects with more impact.

■ The city council would rightly point out that 2P removes ability to use resources at its disposal to balance the budget, especially in a time when it is facing shortfalls, and sets an unfortunate precedent over who gets to make the rules in this city (3P wouldn’t even be on the ballot except as a “desperation move” in response to 2P).

■ I would point out that the proposals are a reminder of how inefficient California’s proposition politics has become; we’re very good at voting in benefits, and very bad at voting in ways to pay for them.

Business promotion is the main argument offered by 2P supporters, and comes up on all the flyers I’ve received. (I’ve yet to receive anything in the mail against the proposal, but there is some opposition.) Some of the flyers mention the increasing competition from areas surrounding Beverly Hills, like the three free parking hours that Westfield Century City offers, or the cheap parking at the Beverly Center and The Grove. While these comparisons may be accurate, I don’t think they’re justified, as most of the examples offered concern private garages in shopping malls, where mall businesses subsidize spots. Beverly Hills public parking is, instead, “socialized” by the taxpayer, and paid for by every resident who also pays property taxes. Parking is expensive. People should pay for what they use.

There is some question over the legality of Measure 2P, and that challenge is still in the courts. I believe the proposal will still hit the ballot, however, despite the outcome of that case, and my guess is that it will pass, and not 3P. Whatever. Allowing public policy to come to a vote is a recipe for bad results, and makes me wonder whether Hans Voerknecht (the Dutch “bicycle activist”) has a point: “Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it’s about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions.”

Whatever the outcome at the ballot box, I think Beverly Hills and its businesses are missing out on the bigger issue. If business is suffering here versus our neighbors, it’s not because of parking, free or not. Shoppers prefer Century City or The Grove because the shopping experience is better. These other places have restored the human dimension to space: they take cars off their ersatz “streets,” and give it back to pedestrians. (Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and Universal Studio’s City Walk do the same.) Shopping in Beverly Hills isn’t interesting or fun anymore. The model has become obsolete. The magic is gone.

A few years ago, Jimmy Delshad, who subsequently became mayor, proposed the idea of pedestrianizing Rodeo Drive. I don’t know exactly what came of the proposal, but Fred Hayman, the former owner of Giorgio’s and the “Pa Kettle of Rodeo Drive,” thought it wouldn’t work: “Exotic cars are part of the attraction of California.” I respect Mr. Hayman’s business acumen, but I can say with some confidence that no matter how much you may be enthralled by the odd Lamborghini that passes by, the noise and exhaust of cars eventually are going to wear you down. Who wants to dine outside with sports cars roaring by?

I’d really like the city of Beverly Hills to pick up this idea again, at least on an experimental basis. Close Rodeo Drive or Beverly Drive to vehicular traffic one day weekly. Maybe the city could move the Farmer’s Market from behind the courthouse to Beverly Drive on that day. Make the shopping experience unique, compelling, and fun again. Do this for a few months and see what happens. Otherwise, I am going to predict that Beverly Hills will continue losing shoppers, including me, to its neighbors.

Oh, and by the way, since this is nominally a bicycle blog, I should mention how bicycles fit in. Simply put, if we can pedestrianize the city center, the human-powered ways to get there have to be next. I don’t think there’s any great city that added bicycles to its transportation network without making pedestrians fit first.

Categories: Beverly Hills, Parking, Policy


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.

One of These Things is Not Like The Other

February 3, 2011 11 comments

In his book, Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard E. Nisbett asked Easterners and Westerners to group the words chicken, cow, and grass. The Americans tended to put chickens and cows together, “because they are both animals; that is, they belong to the same taxonomic category.” The Asians, by contrast, “focusing on relationships, were more likely to say that cow goes with grass because a cow eats grass.”

How would you group these three words: pedestrian, bicycle, and car?

It’s not just an academic exercise, because the way we categorize these three transportation modes determines in large part how we think about their place on our roads and in our law — and by extension, how we think about safety measures. If we say that the bicycle and car go together because they are both machines, then we might tend to ask cyclists to mix it up with cars, and talk about licensing, insurance, etc., in the same way we talk about cars. If, instead, we say the bicycle and the pedestrian go together because they are both human powered, then we might tend to think very differently about how we allow them to operate, including making safer environments and writing laws that address their particular needs.

In a compelling talk at the London School of Economics last month (h/t to Amsterdamize), Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, called the bicycle an “efficient way of walking.” He seems to think bicycles are more like pedestrians. Meanwhile, in New York City, the police have cracked down on red-light running cyclists, including those who make a right turn on red, illegal in Manhattan. Sticklers for the law might protest, but it does seem somewhat stupid that NYC allows walking a bicycle around a corner on red but not pedaling it.

What do you think? Are bicycles more like cars or more like pedestrians?

Categories: Law, Policy

Beverly Hills Bicycle Licensing

January 18, 2011 2 comments

Santa Monica’s repeal of its bicycle licensing ordinance last night prompted me to look at the rules for Beverly Hills, where I live. As it turns out — and much to my surprise — we still have a licensing provision on the books from 1962, under Title 5, Chapter 5: BICYCLES:

It shall be unlawful for any person to operate or use a bicycle, as defined in section 39000 of the Vehicle Code of the state, upon any street, public path or way, or other public property in the city unless such bicycle is licensed in accordance with the provisions of this chapter. (1962 Code § 3-1.01 et seq.)

I called City Hall in hopes of finding out how I would go about getting a license. The City Clerk’s office forwarded me to the Police Department’s Watch Commander … who forwarded me to the Traffic department … who put me on hold to call the Finance department … who told Traffic to tell me that Beverly Hills no longer issues bicycle licenses. Whew.

Then I called the (only?) local bike shop, Beverly Hills Bike Shop, to see whether they knew anything about the ordinance. They should know about it, because it also requires them to “file a report with the director of finance administration of all new or used bicycles purchased or sold with the identification of the purchaser or seller within ten (10) days of such transaction.” The guy who answered the phone said the licensing law wasn’t enforced, although it used to be.

The ordinance also has a rather substantial rewording of the California Motor Vehicle Code Section 21202(a). The Beverly Hills Municipal Code states:

The operator of a bicycle shall operate such bicycle as near the curb as possible on any public street or highway.

By contrast, California code states:

Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway …

The difference between “as close as practicable” and “as near as possible” has spawned much discussion on the interwebs. The State statute is usually taken to mean that riders can “take the lane” and ride well out into the street, when circumstances dictate. The other formulation doesn’t have the same flexibility at all. I would argue, however, that the State statute overrides Beverly Hills’ ordinance, and renders the city ordinance a rather useless bit of law.

Of course, the city ought to remove these laws from its books, as they provide too much opportunity for a “rogue” officer to enforce them selectively. Contact the city council!

Categories: Beverly Hills, Law

You Pay Road Tax Too

January 4, 2011 1 comment

U.S. PIRG‘s compelling new report on the gasoline tax and U.S. road maintenance makes some startling points:

► Our roads have received some $600 billion (2005 dollars) in subsidies since 1947.

► The gasoline tax now only pays for about fifty-percent of costs, and is likely to go lower as hybrids and electric cars take to the road in numbers.

I’ve been looking for a credible, recent source of these figures for some time. They give additional support to several points that transit advocates have argued:

► Bicyclists pay for their share of the road (and may overpay), because they pay sales and income taxes.

► Amtrak is not uniquely subsidized. Federal roads are too.

► Local transit is not uniquely subsidized. Local roads are too.

One thing I didn’t realize: California is one of the few states that imposes an excise tax and sales tax on gasoline. What’s more, the sales tax is imposed on the excise tax, meaning that drivers are taxed on a tax.

Hat tip to Transportation for America.

Categories: Policy

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

The Social Cost

December 27, 2010 5 comments

In my memory, he was a reed-thin, almost delicate man, with curly hair and a slightly exasperated demeanor. He was obviously intelligent, and his lectures in my philosophy of law class were always rich in detail and balance. He tackled the big subjects — the death penalty, for instance — with the same even-handedness as others, always probing, always neutral. I was a little surprised when he revealed his love for motorcycle riding, and even more surprised when he expressed such disdain for California’s mandatory motorcycle helmet legislation, which was then on the books but not yet in effect. His opinion still sticks with me today: “I would rather not ride,” he said, “than ride with a helmet.” I’m a little sorry that I didn’t keep up with him after I left school; I don’t know whether he quit riding the following year or two when motorcycle helmets became obligatory for everyone. What I do still find interesting, though, is that the same arguments we tackled then in class over motorcycle helmets are now, nearly twenty years later, being broached yet again, this time in a huge war of words over bicycle helmets.

Elly Blue’s recent Grist article on bicycle helmets sets out the major combatants, with some particular focus on Copenhagenize.com‘s Mikael Colville-Andersen, calling him “the face of the anti-helmet movement.” I’m not sure that this designation is entirely accurate, for it ignores his many antecedents and philosophical compatriots. It also puts him in the uncomfortable position of being an “expert” on bicycle helmets, a moniker that he probably doesn’t want or deserve. Imagine the decision matrix of alien, asked to make a choice about helmet wearing, with the only inputs being these two TEDx videos about helmets, posted only a few days apart:

If I were that alien, presumably a bit risk averse and self-preservationist, I’d probably err on the side of caution, and go with Dr. Gergens’ advice to wear a helmet, even if she seems a bit smarmy and overbearing. She’s an expert on the brain; he’s a photographer who takes many photos of well-dressed women riding bicycles. Her qualifications go far beyond Colville-Andersen’s I-read-a-few-papers “research” résumé.

Any discussion over helmets really comes down to two questions, both related but with different arguments underpinning them:

► Should I, as an individual, wear a helmet?

► Should we, as a public policy matter, make helmet wearing mandatory?

These are yes-no questions, and their possible answers are straightforward:

Personal Choice Public Policy
I wear a helmet I want mandatory legislation
I don’t wear a helmet I don’t want mandatory legislation

The American cyclists I’ve met and read tend to have the ideological viewpoint represented in red: they (mostly) wear helmets while riding but think mandatory legislation isn’t necessary. I share the same viewpoint. I wear a helmet because I feel safer. This is my choice. But the broader issue of whether we ought to require everyone to wear them requires a far different calculus. Public policy is not about personal decisions writ large, but about the (too often negative) impact of collective decisions writ small.

Part of the problem may be that it’s difficult to tease apart motorcycle helmet arguments from bicycle helmet arguments. It’s tempting, of course, to equate the two, given that they both involve two-wheeled machines and both involve helmets, but there are real and substantial differences in their application. For those who haven’t seen them, the best anti-and-pro mandatory motorcycle helmet arguments can perhaps be summarized in two lines:

► Anti: The state has no compelling interest in making helmets mandatory because the decision to wear them or not affects no one else.


► Pro: The state has a compelling interest in mandating helmets because the “collective social costs” (direct medical, reduced productivity, emotional distress) to the society are higher when unhelmeted motorcyclists get into crashes.

Given the U.S. Constitutional principle of substantive due process of law, which requires (among other goals) that legislation be “narrowly targeted” at a “compelling” state interest, the cost argument has done all or most of the work of finding a state interest. Without that, it becomes more difficult to show why the state has any interest in interfering in the private choices of individuals (the anti argument), even if you happen to think helmet-wearing is generally a good idea. It’s probably a good idea to wear shoes while walking on concrete, too, but passing a law to mandate shoe-wearing probably doesn’t make sense.

Whatever its shortcomings, the cost argument probably applies to the bicycle helmet debate exactly opposite to the way it is generally applied to motorcycle helmets; that is, requiring bicycle helmets has a higher social cost than not requiring them. If we accept that there are large societal benefits to cycling — which seems to be universally acknowledged even by people temperamentally skeptical of cycling — this conclusion depends almost entirely on the large question of whether mandatory helmet legislation tends to reduce ridership. The studies on this point are inconclusive, but generally tilt towards answering yes.

Studies aside, helmets must have a negative impact on cycling for the simple reason that they complicate the decision to ride. Helmets have to be purchased, carried, and worn. They are non-integral to the act of cycling, unlike, say, the way an arrow is integral to the act of archery. If they’re lost, they have to be replaced. I could go on…

In the motorcycle domain, there was a collective shrug over the (possible) departure of helmet-hating riders. The government didn’t really care whether we had fewer motorcycles on the road. The public good wasn’t enhanced or diminished by their absence. Motorcycles may reduce congestion, but by some metrics, they can increase (!) pollution, and they do nothing for public health. By contrast, the benefits of cycling mean that reduced ridership would have a negative cost.

Fortunately, at the moment I don’t know of any serious proposals to make helmets mandatory, at least not in California. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa found himself booed when he mentioned such a proposal earlier this year. Maybe that reaction, and more like it, will keep it off the agenda for now … and for good.

Categories: Helmets, Law Tags:

Burden of Proof

December 10, 2010 3 comments

In translation, Article 185 of the Dutch Road Traffic Act seems to hold drivers “strictly liable” in crashes with vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. Hans Voerknecht’s layperson description of its relatively heavy consequences to drivers has created small tremors in the American bicycle-and-pedestrian blogosphere. With so many traffic incidents resulting from careless drivers, one might wonder whether strict liability might not incentivize better driving behavior, especially behavior directed towards vulnerable road users.

Article 185 does seem to come very close to the American concept of “liability without fault,” which may be the simplest definition of strict liability. While I don’t speak Dutch, what little I’ve been able to gather about the law corresponds well to Voerknecht’s basic outlines: drivers of motor vehicles on the road are strictly liable to vulnerable users outside their car (but not passengers). If drivers can show contributory negligence, their liability may be mitigated, although they will always be at least fifty percent liable, and in cases involving children under fourteen, they are always one-hundred percent liable. Drivers can escape liability only by showing force majeure; for instance, someone else was driving the car, or the injured person was trying to commit suicide. In one case I found, a moped rider escaped liability for killing a drunken man who had fallen asleep on an unlit road, at night, and could not be seen under the circumstances. By contrast, a Dutch friend of mine found himself having to pay for damages to a young cyclist even though every witness he had agreed that the crash was the boy’s fault.

I think it’s difficult to understand the role of Article 185 without at least a nod to Netherland’s tort law, its social welfare system, and its auto insurance requirements. This backdrop may create a more favorable environment for legislators to place a higher degree of responsibility on drivers, especially by comparison to our own, sometimes skewed system. For example, recoveries for injuries seem to be downright modest by comparison to some awards in the U.S. According to one paper I located, the “loss of one leg, below knee” will usually mean an award of 15,000 to 20,000 euros, far less than, say, the Los Angeles attorney who successfully sued for $4.5 million for “a switchman who lost his leg below the knee.” Similarly, Holland’s mandatory and highly regulated medical insurance coverage means that injury costs may often be covered by health insurance, with no further look towards negligent drivers. Too, my Dutch friends tell me that auto insurance in Holland is issued for cars and goes on the registration record of the car. As such, I would expect that car insurance compliance is higher than in the States, where insurance is for drivers (not cars), and only checked after a crash or in the rare instances that police pull over drivers. Each of these elements allows legislators to tilt the playing field towards vulnerable users without creating a political maelstrom.

In American jurisprudence, liability without fault has long held an uncomfortable position. Our laws and court opinions rarely extend strict liability in a civil context, and the few instances we have are riddled with seeming inconsistencies. California statute will hold you strictly liable if your dog bites the neighbors, but not when your cat rips their couch to shreds. Our courts have developed strict liability theories for product manufacturers and “abnormally dangerous activities,” but have carved out many exceptions. You may find it ironic that driving is not considered an abnormally dangerous activity, given the widespread carnage autos wreak on our roads, but it falls under a “common usage” exception. Activities aren’t abnormally dangerous if everyone is doing them.

(I think it’s not too hard to imagine a different opinion about the car’s danger if it were introduced today.)

I have few hopes of California legislators suddenly passing a Dutch-style strict liability law. While you can make a very good argument that drivers should have high levels of responsibility for their conduct, and owe a substantial duty of care towards vulnerable road users, you’d have to make those arguments in context of our broader legal, health care, and road system. Vulnerable road users often suffer more than the drivers who injure them, but our legal system generally puts liability in some relation to fault, and not merely to the gravity of injury. It’s a morally questionable position to hold people completely liable for a crash no fault of their own, especially when the financial and familial consequences can be catastrophic.

But still.

Cyclists have named whole categories of driver excuses based on their commonality: the SMIDSY (“sorry, mate, I didn’t see you”) and the SWiSS (“single witness suicide serve”) are two I know; there may be others. The near-insouciant means with which these excuses are employed sometimes stagger my faith in the basic goodness of humanity. They are the punch lines to the old joke that driving is the easiest way to get away with murder. They also point up a basic problem of determining fault in collisions with cyclists and pedestrians: vulnerable users are often rendered incapable of being effective witnesses, and the tell-tale signs that wrecked cars leave (skid marks, crash damage location) are sometimes confusing or absent altogether.

Our traffic systems, our infrastructure, our laws, and our law enforcement are all set up for cars. I don’t think any of these systems is necessarily “against” cyclists and pedestrians, but their implementation has the side-effect of disadvantaging them. When it comes to fault determination, they put vulnerable users in the extraordinary position of having to do more to show fault than drivers do. Short of a Dutch-style strict liability law, what we need is some mechanism to level that field, to shift the difficulty of showing fault away from the cyclist or pedestrian.

Here’s a simple proposal: in any crash involving a driver and vulnerable road user, the burden of proof of innocence or fault is placed on the driver; that is, drivers are presumed to be at fault unless they can show otherwise. In the SWiSS cases, for instance, drivers would have to do more than allege the cyclist darted in front of them, they’d have to prove it. The SMIDSY cases would require the same.

A “rebuttable presumption of fault” wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a start. And maybe that’s all I can ask … for now.

Categories: Dutch cycling, Law

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.

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