Of Sidewalks, Bicycles, and Gifts

On The Straight and Narrow

The city council, with good intentions, is looking at the conflict between bikes and pedestrians on sidewalks. State law allows bicyclists to use sidewalks, provided riders mindfully share the limited space with walkers. But cities are given a "local option" under state law - they can restrict bikes on sidewalks to certain locations or ban them from sidewalks outright.

For riders, walkers, and traffic officers, the permutations of access, restriction, and "looking the other way" are confusing. And as the number of bike riders increases - particularly among under-employed youth and the working poor - confusion has left everyone frustrated.

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The problem is compounded by the city's fragmentary bike lane system, which puts bike commuters at risk from motorists unless riders seek the relative security of the sidewalk.

(Many bike activists are skeptical of bike lanes that are shared with drivers and parked cars. They want Los Angeles to set up separated bike paths like those in Long Beach, where riding on the sidewalk in business districts is illegal.)

To let riders and walkers use sidewalks safely (as Eric Richardson reported recently at the website blogdowntown), the city council is considering a three-miles-an-hour speed limit for bikes on sidewalks in the presence of walkers, as well as designating some sidewalks downtown as "no bike" zones. Other options have been proposed (as noted by Damien Newton at the Streetsblog site): requiring bike riders to sound a bell or call out a warning when overtaking a pedestrian from behind and slowing to a walk at intersections and through driveway aprons.

Bike riders (with an attitude) bristle at these proposals, which would sour the outlaw aspects of urban bike commuting into the bourgeois rectitude of a Copenhagen or Amsterdam. Pedestrians - of which I am obliged to be one - just wish bike riders didn't regard us as impediments to their speed.

Unexamined in these discussions about what should and shouldn't go on sidewalks, is the conviction among those who go about on wheels - either two or four - that wheels themselves have a natural privilege over those who are wheel-less, and that those who ride (bike, car, skateboard) are the betters of those who walk.

I believe (somewhat foolishly, in these coarsening times) in public places and their civilizing power. I walk to the right of the four-foot-wide sidewalks of my commute. I listen for the almost-silent bike closing from behind at 15 miles an hour. I pay attention (even as I know drivers and bike riders seem not to). I say to myself, "This is the gift I give them."

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's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is by flickr user Danielle Scott. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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The "bourgeois rectitude" of a Dutch cyclist is probably less about laws and more about the effects of infrastructure, which allow anyone, of any ability and age, to take to the street. Angelenos don't have the same luxury, and those few who choose to commute by bicycle probably are self-selected for higher risk tolerance, and (by extension) greater risk taking.

I've cycled in the Netherlands and Denmark, and last year spent eight days riding between their capital cities. The cycling infrastructure there (actually, the Dutch are far more advanced than the Danish) remove conflict by separation, by giving cyclists a lane of their own. If we had the political will here, we could do the same.

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On the surface it would seem I might be one of those "bike riders (with an attitude)," but the attitude I bring is is a positive, cooperative one. I ride the sidewalks minimally -- literally only when there is nowhere safer at that moment -- and when I do so it is with the utmost caution and consideration towards pedestrians. That is the gift I give them.

We're neither all outlaws nor bourgies, Waldie.

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I believe that most bike advocates/activists like me agree that sidewalk riding is not prudent. It increases conflict opportunities with both pedestrians and motorists, with the latter more likely to strike the cyclist at an alley, driveway, or corner. As you point out, the dearth of facilities prompts some to ride anyway, lawful or not.
I also agree that most of us believe the 3 mph limit unreasonable, and a bell requirement a distraction from real concerns. Consider my perspective when on defacto motorist turf: they routinely pass me at 35 mph *faster* than I'm traveling, and all of them have horns. A state effort to mandate a 3-ft buffer or limit speed discrepancy fell to Jerry Brown's veto. Why the exclusive focus on the cyclist from policymakers who have abdicated responsibility for my safe travel on roadways which I am entitled to ride?
As if to prove that last point, ask a policymaker about bike lanes and sharrows and they'll likely respond with prohibitions and regulations: Let's license cyclists. Let's mandate helmets. Let's ban sidewalk riding.
While we're talking about sidewalks, let's look at how we all suffer impediments to travel. In my town, a wheelchair can hardly pass between lampposts and restaurant's outdoor seating areas. Then there's the motorist-serving unsightly obstructions like meter poles and valet signs and key cabinets.
We may not all be cyclists, but surely we're all pedestrians, and the cyclists I respect treat pedestrians with respect. When I (too often) see sidewalk cyclists, 9/10 cycle at a respectable pace. Skateboards are as much a problem.
We can manage travel modes with planning & engineering, but creating a society of prudent riders, safe drivers, and non-jaywalking pedestrians will take a culture change. The challenge for policymakers is to extend mobility education to everyone, at a younger age. Until they rise to it, let's stop making cyclists the problem. We're the solution.