Simple Cycling Solutions

Josh Stephens's picture
Blogger

Now that the weather in Los Angeles has gone from pleasant to perfect with the subtle advent of spring, I've been spending more time risking my life atop my bicycle as I wend my way to meetings and errands. As a faithful urbanist I have little trouble convincing myself of cycling's merits, which, as former California State Health Officer Dr. Richard Jackson likes to say, can "improve your life span, lower your blood pressure, make you better looking, improve your sex life, and save you money." Sounds good to me.

But Dr. Jackson's catalog of virtues is complicated by, among other things,Berlin Bike Lane crumpled pavement, oblivious drivers, cramped roadways, ridicule, and perspiration. In Europe, where they do things better, cycles have their own lanes on the sidewalks (not in the streets -- duh) and even their own traffic signals, thus allowing men and women, young and old to pedal to their hearts' content through the central cores of Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, and, of course, Copenhagen.

While a few Americans are having sexy time in Portland and Boulder, most American cities couldn't embrace cycling even if they wanted to. Sidewalks are not wide enough (unless we get rid of devil strips), and most traffic and parking lanes are spoken for. But inappropriate infrastructure isn't really the problem. Focusing on infrastructure in the first place is the problem. The visceral thrill that planners and captains of industry get from pouring concrete and erecting things -- no matter how ugly or useless -- has led to the assumption that all solutions must be material solutions. But, as with so many other problems that only seem to be grounded in the built environment, safer, more pleasant cycling should start with more ephemeral reforms.

I am the furthest thing from a gearhead. My regular destinations include the gym, Starbucks, the bank, and maybe the beach. But from these modest transits I have come up with a few common-sense programs and attitudinal shifts that could, every so often, get a few more intrepid souls out of their cars and on to their bikes.

The Cycle-Industrial Complex:
Not all corporations are evil. Corporations are only as evil as their products, which is why I don't like General Motors, Northrop Grumman, or Juicy Couture. But if it's Trader Joe's, Sanrio, or Schwinn, bring it on. Schwinn's parent company, Dorel Industries, posted $100 million in profits in 2007. Given that it costs only $1.3 million to buy the presidency and prompt the invasion of a nation, Doral and its competitors could make a fortune and do the world some good by paying off lobbying politicians to promote bicycle-friendly projects and policies. If it worked for the railroads in the 19th century and the auto companies in the 20th, why not the bicycle companies in the 21st?

Sartorial Infrastructure: Albert Einstein notwithstanding, one of the greatest impediments to practical cycling centers not on roads but on threads. The ride from my apartment to the bus that would take me to work is a half-mile downhill. In a business suit, it might as well be 1,000 miles of open ocean. Decorum and social convention dictate that many people cannot ride a bike to work under any circumstances, but I would hope that America's vaunted business culture will, someday, become relaxed enough to allow employees and executives alike to dress in such a way as to send a few fewer dollars to Saudi Arabia.

Temporary Urbanism:
Most cities have some kind of half-assed "bicycle boulevard" or "bike route." Inexplicably, these routes sometimes amount to no more than few signs. If we're lucky, we get bike lanes. In a perfect world, however, cities would reserve entire streets for bicycles. Cars could have major thoroughfares, and then smaller parallel streets (perhaps residential streets) could serve only bicycles (with accommodations for local access, etc.). Such a transformation would require little more than PR, signage, and paint, but it's a pipe dream because locals would invariably oppose such an outrageous deviation from the comfort of the inanity to which we are accustomed. But here's a compromise: Cities could institute bicycle streets on a temporary basis, once per week, or once per month. Whereas infrastructure is scary because it is expensive and permanent, a fiat to prohibit cars on certain streets (or even certain lanes -- one lane of parking would suffice) on certain days would be a reasonable compromise in an age when compromise is rare and a field in which permanence is next to godliness. But if it can work for farmers markets and 5K races, then it might work for commuting. Furthermore, these occaisional occurances would be events that cyclists could plan for, and it would create the sort of crtitical mass that the Critical Mass folks are trying to promote.

Partial Urbanism:
I said I wasn't going to fetishize infrastructure, but, then again, paint isn't quite in the same league as concrete and rebar. The width of one parking lane corresponds to two opposing lanes of bike traffic. Engineers seem to have a fetish for symmetry, but the elimination of a single parking lane on one side of a street can result in an entire bike lane. Depending how it was striped and signed, it could even apply only during certain hours or, as mentioned above, certain days.

Bike n' Bus: If you want people in L.A. to think you're crazy, tell them that you take the bus. And if you really want them to think you're crazy, tell them that you bike to work. Lunacy nothwithstanding, Los Angeles's one true triumph is in equipping all local buses with bike racks, which mean that as long as you're willing to take the risk, you can go pretty much anywhere in the city. Of course, this requires combating the double stigma of cycling and riding the bus -- which is a fate worse than death for your average member of the urban bourgeoisie. Yet again, though, the solutions are close at hand for anyone with even the slightest sense of adventure and social responsibility.

Bike Racks: Duh. For the cost of one parking space in every apartment building, minimall, and office building in L.A., everyone who has ever dreamed of cylcing would have a place to park. And, no, I won't hit your Mercedes.

The Cool Factor: This is one PR campaign that all the spin in the world probably couldn't win. Prisses in Bentley coupes and tough guys in raised pickup trucks will always think cyclists are hopelessly lame. But with gas topping $4 and congestion thickening, cyclists just have to keep in mind who the real douchebags rugged invididualists are.

Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report, an independent newsletter covering land use and policy.

Comments

Comments

Mike Lydon's picture
Blogger

Amen Brother

As a fellow bicyclist out there fighting another auto-dominated city, I really enjoyed this one. Thanks Josh!

Not Quite

As a planner and a cyclist I appreciate the post and agree with a number of the suggestions, but there are a few items in it that are just plain false.

First, in Western Europe they do not bike on the sidewalk. They have cycle tracks on some roads that are at a grade between that of the sidewalk and that of the roadway. Virtually any study on the matter has shown that cycling on the sidewalk is more dangerous than cycling in the roadway, despite the illusion of safety cycling on the sidewalk may provide.

Second, there is nothing "half-assed" about a bike boulevard. It is a practical solution that has worked magnificently in places like Berkeley, CA. In fact there's a fantastic video on YouTube showing how bicycle boulevards have improved cycling conditions where they've been implemented. Anyway the residential streets serving bicycles only -- save for local access -- which you suggested, are, in a nutshell, bicycle boulevards.

Completely closing streets to cars is simply not a politically feasible solution -- not even in most parts of Europe, "where they do everything better" (that is if you ignore things like homeownership and unemployment rates). More importantly, you're never going to close all the streets to cars, particularly the ones going to destinations like the bank, starbucks, or the beach. Even with a number of streets closed off, you'd still have to utilize streets with automobile traffic at some point during your trip in order to reach your destination.

The only way were going to achieve cities in which cycling is a realistic transportation choice for a large number of people is to create streets that everyone: cyclists, motorists, pedestrians, etc. can use. There are a number of ways to do this including context-sensitive design, traffic calming, better enforcement of existing traffic laws, along with many of the things you mentioned in your post such as bikes, bike n' bus and the cool factor.

Ridicule? Perspiration?

Josh, if I ridicule your unfounded fear of traffic and (oh lordy) *perspiration* (!), will that incite you to ride your bike more?

I mock because you admit that you're motivated by ridicule, but please realize that cycling in traffic is not significantly more dangerous than driving. Overstating the risk of cycling does nothing to promote cycling. You are not risking your life atop your bicycle as your bike to errands and meetings. It's perfectly acceptable to cycle while wearing a suit. even in America. Sidewalk cycling is truly dangerous, even in Europe.

Don't get so worried about being a "gear head," being cool or crazy or not fitting in -- I realize Los Angeles is big on image, but be courageous and be the agent of change. Your "Cycle-Industrial Complex" already exists in Bikes Belong, the cycling industry trade group that lobbies on behalf of the cycling industry.

Josh Stephens's picture
Blogger

Ridicule, Traffic

Cycleicious,

Thanks for your comments. A few responses (whether it's good netiqutte to respond, I'm not sure, but I like a good dialog!):

If cycling is empirically not dangerous, then I stand corrected. But I think most people would agree that it _feels_ dangerous when you're amid middle of TEN lanes of traffic on Wilshire Bl. en route to Westwood. Obviously driving is dangerous too, but the immediate threat to life and limb on a bike is pretty palpable (whether rational or not). Moreover, I think it's hard to argue that bike lanes and bike-only streets would be MORE safe and would attract MORE riders.

Perspiration: Yes, it DOES complicate matters! I would be drenched if I rode to work in a suit. Period.

I AM trying to be an agent of change -- by proposing policies that, I hope, cities will implement one day so that people even more timid than I am might someday feel more comfortable with cycling. I'm happy to be on the bold vanguard, but I think that average people still need more incentives.

In sum, _I_ am not the issue here. Like it or not, many people share my concerns and share them far more intensely than I do. I already think cycling is cool, but many other people do not. I'm hoping that we can both change their minds and create a safer, more inclusive environment for them.

I'm not familiar with Bikes Belong. I wish them luck and a higher profile!

Sartorial Infrastructure

"Sartorial Infrastructure" - great phrase! It's been 1.5 years since this article was written, and it seems there is movement towards fashionable cycling.
Los Angeles Tweed Ride photos:
http://www.flickr.com/groups/latweed/

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