How Green Was My Bike Lane: A Model of Unintended Consequences

As a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times laments, sometimes no good deed goes unpunished.

Last November, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) painted a bike lane on several blocks of early 20th century office towers and stately bank buildings on Spring Street. LADOT repainted the lane in December and repainted it a month later, as street crews tinkered to find a formulation of paint and reflectants that would be both durable and visually impressive.

LADOT intended the first mile-and-a-half of bike lane to be a pilot project for the installation of more green lanes on other downtown streets, including Main Street from 9th Street to Venice Boulevard. Eventually, a network of green bike lanes could connect destinations in many Los Angeles neighborhoods.

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(Long Beach has gone much further, painting miles of bike paths green, creating bike lanes separated from traffic on some downtown streets, and setting up "bike corrals" for storing the bikes of commuters. Long Beach wants to make good on its boast of being the "Most Bike-Friendly City in America.")

Spring Street's six-foot-wide lane - sort-of-lime green bordered by white - is both a transportation corridor and a visual statement. It gives downtown's bike commuters their share of the highly contested roadway. And it bluntly reminds drivers that bikes have a place on the street and in the future of city's increasingly congested urban grid.

So far, so good, and so green. And the green is the problem, it seems. The federal highway manual didn't require LADOT to paint the entire bike lane. But if the lane is entirely painted, it must be painted a specific shade of green. (The Times thinks it's a "garish" color.)

By the law of unintended consequences, the new bike lane and its specific shade of green have now made Spring Street both safer for cyclists and off limits for Hollywood. According to the Times, the green lane cannot be digitally erased in post production, giving an anachronistic modernity to movie scenes in which downtown's office buildings stand in for New York in the 1920s. And in those moody, nighttime car commercials, a brightly glowing green lane is a regular sock in the eye.

If LADOT's bike lanes curtail filming downtown, city revenues will suffer and more film and video productions (and jobs) will flee to other, less green locations. On the other hand, downtown's loft dwellers would be happier with less Hollywood. The noise, sleepless nights, aggravation and lost parking that film and TV crews inflict have become legendary.

To keep Hollywood happy, the Department of Transportation has promised to make its new Main Street bike lane green-free when it's installed over the weekend. But that decision will lessen the safety cyclists get from a brightly marked bike lane and water down the city's assertion that it wants to foster cycling as a transit alternative.

Although some loft residents will not like the outcome, it would be better if federal highway bureaucrats, LADOT and Hollywood agreed on a shade of green suitable for the city and filmmakers. And left cyclists to ride in peace.

[Updated: Film L.A., which assists film productions in using city streets, sees the matter differently, according to an item on the LA Weekly website. It's not the green that's a problem but the lanes themselves. Paul Audley of Film L.A. says a bike lane limits the space on the street that a film crew and its squadron of vans and trailers can consume. It seems that competing economic, social and political interests are heating up this "battle of bikes," as the comments at the end of this LAist posting also suggest.]

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET.

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Green can't be digitally erased in post-production? Have you ever heard of a green screen? That's exactly what green is for.

[According to the Times and other news sources, the specific shade of green mandated by federal regulations cannot be "green screened" out. DJW]