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What L.A.'s New Bike Plan Means For Cyclists—and the City

Today, Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa signs a comprehensive new bike plan for the city. We asked local experts what it means for cyclists.

Despite Los Angeles' near-perfect weather, mostly-flat terrain, and an enthusiastic biking community, cyclists in L.A. still remain second-class citizens behind those piloting automobiles through the city. After yesterday's City Council ruling, that all could change. The 2010 Bike Plan, to be signed this morning, is perhaps the most ambitious pro-cyclist action in L.A. history, designating a 1,680-mile bikeway system and sweeping new bike-friendly policies.

The plan promises several changes for L.A. bikers: the Citywide Bikeway System [PDF] will introduce three new interconnected bike path networks—Backbone (long crosstown routes on busy streets), Neighborhood (short connectors through small streets) and Green (along recreation areas)—throughout the city, a new pledge for Bicycle Friendly Streets will make streets more pleasant for riders and walkers, and a series of education programs and safety policies will help cars and cyclists co-exist (you can download the entire plan here). Of course, this is just a plan, and one that's long overdue—for more on that, read last week's cover story in the LA Weekly. The real challenges may prove to be finding the proper funding to drive the plan towards implementation. That will take some massive commitment on behalf of the city.

But what will these changes really mean for the average L.A. biker? And how does this help Los Angeles move towards a culture that truly values those on two-wheels? I asked several bike experts who have been working closely with the plan to help explain what a plan can do for biking in L.A.

What is a bike plan, and what does it mean for biking in L.A.?

"It's a planning document, a guideline for what new things the Department of Transportation will do to accommodate cyclists over the next decade," says Jennifer Klausner, executive director, Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. "But it also heralds the beginning of the cultural shift we have been looking for, because the process of getting the document to this point (greatly improved) has been more collaborative that any bike plan that preceded it, and it has real political support, as evidenced by its unanimous approval."

Painting sharrows on L.A. streets as part of a pilot program. Photo by LACBC

What's the single most important issue the plan addresses?

"By recognizing that bicyclists have different needs, and by addressing them, the plan is something that should improve conditions for everyone who rides a bike to get from point A to point B," says Damien Newton, the editor of LA Streetsblog. "If you need to get across town, the inclusion of the Backbone Bikeway Network ought to help. If you just want to ride locally to the grocery store or to pick the kids up at school, a series of local networks are in place in the plan."

What physical changes will riders start to see?

"Right away, there are going to be some awesome bike lanes (white stripes on arterial streets)," says Josef Bray-Ali, co-owner of the bike shop Flying Pigeon. "Developers will hopefully get a nice bike parking-for-car parking swap towards the end of March (great way to cut down on construction budgets!). Further on, we'll have some big projects that remove car lanes to install protected bike lanes, a ton of smaller neighborhood bike networks that make shopping and getting to work easier." The DOT has already highlighted ten corridors where they will improve the streetscape to make it more friendly for bikers, notes Newton. One of which is along Figueroa in downtown, a project we covered here before.

How will the bike plan make biking safer on L.A. streets?

"The key, and this is the real key, is that bike lanes offer the city an opportunity to reduce the dominion of cars in the city by removing car lanes, slowing cars down in residential and commercial districts, and by focusing bike planning efforts on the city's most dangerous intersections," says Bray-Ali. "By slowing and reducing car volumes on our streets, we'll make the street safer for all user groups and make walking, using the bus or train, and bicycling much more appealing to people—and not on some recreational trail in a riverbed, but right outside their doors, on the way to school or work."

A new bike corral installed in Highland Park is a first for the city. Photo by LACBC

What about mountain bikes? Are they included in the plan?

"I wish it would have included increased off-road trail access for mountain bikers," says Klausner. "It does not, and in fact, takes away potential future trail access that was included in the previous (1996) plan. This plan does not change the fact that mountain bikes are illegal on trails in all L.A. City Parks, and that is really a shame, and a missed opportunity for the City's Parks Department, in my opinion."

What did the bike plan not do that you wish it would have?

"There's a great part of the plan that lists some progressive transportation options (for example, separated bike lanes) but didn't say when or where they're going to put them in," says Newton. "I would love for every Council Member to embrace a different one for their district." He points to the city's first bike corral in Highland Park which opened last week, and transformed a street car parking space with 10-12 bike parking spaces.

"It's too bad that the Cyclists' Bill of Rights [a document authored by the Bike Riders Collective] wasn't included," says Alex Thompson of Bikeside LA. "We expect it will be the next time around but it really should have made it in this time. The Cyclists' Bill of Rights simply collects together cyclists rights that are already in the law, so there's really no reason why they shouldn't be in there."

The plan could create "bike boulevards" like this one proposed for 4th Street

Say I'm not a cyclist. What's in this plan for me?

"Many of the bike lane facilities will be 'road diets' so they're safer for drivers, passengers, cyclists, pedestrians," says Linton, who points out that federal studies show that these lane removals reduce overall collisions on roadways. "The same is true for the bike-friendly streets— they're safer for everyone. Car collision fatalities and injuries are a huge, huge epidemic, much greater than crime or terrorism." He also points to the other health perks: cleaner air, cleaner water, less noise pollution, reduced oil consumption, increased public health (especially reduced obesity), increased foot-traffic for local businesses, cheaper mobility, and a more egalitarian and vibrant public sphere.

Do you think this is the right plan for the city?

"I support it... but it's been exhausting," says Linton of the almost decade-long journey. "The city hired a consultant which did a good-not-great plan then the city threw it out and fucked around for another year and a half. I think that the plan is good but leaves some hard decisions for implementation. It's not visionary. We got the worst poison pills out of the really awful versions... then we said finally, 'Let's just approve this.'"

"This plan is a 70-30 mix of great new stuff blended with the wishy washy language of bike plans gone by (the 1996-2002 plan specifically)," says Bray-Ali. "There is still way too much 'Staff shall encourage' and 'Staff shall communicate' that leaves you wondering what the hell that exactly means." But he does point to some solid details provided in the plan so advocates can be more informed, like the pledge to build 40 miles of bike lanes per year, an annual bike count, an annual crash data release, bike parking reform, and a guaranteed $10 million per year from Measure R, a major transportation-funding measure passed last year.

Detail of the Citywide Bikeway System Map, which you can download here.

Where does the bike plan rank in comparison to other cities like Portland or San Francisco or even Long Beach? Is our master plan as progressive?

"L.A. is decades behind—those cities are committed to implementation on the ground," says Linton. "Our master plan is just a plan—it will take a fight with the LADOT to get one-tenth of the kind of innovation we're seeing in New York City, Long Beach, or San Francisco (or a change in leadership at the LADOT). We're already hearing that the city doesn't have the staff to implement the bike plan on the schedule that was approved."

Thompson was more optimistic. "Portland and San Francisco have more mature movements but this is L.A.," he says. "We're movie stars and we've got great biking weather all year round and we're going to give them, and Long Beach, a run for their money."

How would you describe L.A.'s bike culture?

"L.A. is already the most effervescent city to go on a group bike ride," says Bray-Ali. "I think we kick other city's butts with how many bike collectives we have. How many life-altering or downright fun, free, open-to-all-classes-and-genders rides we have every day of the week. Once you couple the people of L.A. with a city government-sponsored bike network, things are going to explode. Everyone will be on bikes, it will be the stupidest, most fun fad to slam the entire city in quite some time—think of the 1984 Olympics or the L.A. riots, or maybe both, in the way this plan will change the way business and governance is done in L.A."

"Give Me 3"posters designed by Geoff McFetridge went up around the city last year. Photo by LACBC

What will help increase the number of bikers in L.A.?

People need to feel safe on the streets before they'll embrace bicycling in traffic, says Newton. "Look at CicLAvia [a 2010 event that closed 7.5 miles of streets to cars]. Heck, look at Critical Mass [a regularly-scheduled public ride] since the LAPD began escorting the ride. When people know it's a safe option, they embrace bicycling." Also likely to be passed soon is an anti-harassment ordinance that will protect bikers from violence against them, like a road rage episode in 2008 that put two cyclists in the hospital.

Klausner says that physical changes to the city can be encouraging to potential bikers. "Infrastructure solutions serve as tangible invitations for people to come out and ride," she says. "But more people are riding bikes here and in cities everywhere these days, and even more so when gas prices increase, so we hope the question will ultimately become 'can this bike plan keep up with the expectations of an ever-expanding bike community?'" Thompson agrees that the growth will be more organic. "Each generation of cyclists is a little bigger and helps pave the way for the next—I expect to double the number of people riding in two or three years," he says. "What we really should be concerned about isn't growing cycling, which is happening, but protecting cyclists' safety as it grows."

How do people get involved with the bike movement?

"We're always looking for new volunteers who will help us out at Bikeside LA," says Thompson. "We created the original Backbone Bikeway Network proposal, and we were basically told it would never happen. Now it's in the bike plan—so we're good at what we do and we love to do cutting edge work."

Bikes parked outside City Hall during yesterday's vote. Photo by Josef Bray-Ali

In addition, the other groups mentioned here, including the LACBC are always looking for volunteers as well. You can also attend the DOT's Bike Plan Implementation Meetings. Regularly-scheduled rides like Critical Mass are open to the public, and of course there's also CicLAvia, which will open L.A. streets to biking and walking on three dates this year.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention GOOD LA's fundraiser for CicLAvia, happening this Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Atwater Crossing. There's also a public bike ride being led by Flying Pigeon from the Brewery to the CicLAvia fundraiser. With many of these advocates in attendance, it will be a good time and place to learn more about the bike plan and celebrate a new age of cycling for the city.

Top photo, of the first CicLAvia event, by waltarrrrr

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