Cyclists and Candidates Gear Up to #BiketheVote

Bicyclists gather at Sunset Triangle Plaza before they ride together to the CD4 forum | Photo: Wolfpack Hustle Twitter

With the city election just around the corner on March 3, bicycle issues are coming into play more than ever before. One of the big reasons for this is an increasing focus on mobility and urban density, and a reversal of the principles of suburban sprawl that dominated Los Angeles politics for so many decades. As the city's leadership continues to re-evaluate housing, traffic, and transportation under new standards, bicycle infrastructure is gaining more prominence as a viable solution to the complex challenges city council is tasked with resolving.

In previous races for city council seats, bicycle infrastructure was a hot topic. In 2013, while Paul Koretz in council district (CD) 5 was proclaiming himself an advocate of bike paths who would make bicycle safety a high priority, Gil Cedillo in CD 1 declared his support of a bike lane on North Figueroa through Highland Park. Since taking office, both men have demonstrated contrary sentiments, stalling both a lane down Westwood Boulevard in Koretz's district, and the Figueroa project in Cedillo's district. This year, seats in all even numbered districts are up for election.

In CD 4, which encompasses a core segment of Los Angeles, including Miracle Mile, Los Feliz, parts of Hollywood, including Cahuenga, into Sherman Oaks, bicycle infrastructure is particularly vital to improving connectivity. With the exception of Sherman Oaks, the communities in CD4 have some of the highest rates of vehicle to bike collisions, and more zero-vehicle households in one area than anywhere else in L.A., according the city's Health Atlas, drafted in 2013. With 14 candidates running to replace Tom LaBonge as councilmember, voters want to know how his potential replacements will enhance existing connections, like the L.A. River path and the Glendale Hyperion Bridge, and they will work to establish more livable streets.

While LaBonge has hosted bike tours through his district and vocalized support for bicycling, his support for actual bike infrastructure has veered from popular opinion among bicycle advocates. One of LaBonge's shortfalls, which should be looked out for in those vying to replace him, is that his vision of cycling seems to be confined to recreation; he has been reluctant to support projects that would infringe upon automobile dominance along vital commuting routes, such as the Glendale Hyperion Bridge and Lankershim Boulevard.

Eight of the candidates running for the CD4 seat were in attendance last week at the Livable Streets Forum, hosted by Streetsblog, L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, and LAWalks. They were joined by an audience of nearly 200, who came to hear for themselves how each of the potential councilmembers might change Los Angeles streets for the better. The candidates who turned out to engage in this important conversation included Sheila Irani, Rostom "Ross" Sarkissian, Carolyn Ramsay, Tomas O' Grady, Tara Bannister, Steve Veres, Fred Mariscal, and Mike Schaefer.

Six different bike projects were presented in a "yes" or "no" lightning round, including new bike lanes on stretches of Hollywood Boulevard, Lankershim, Cahuenga, San Vicente, Hillhurst and 6th Street. Only the Lankershim project received unanimous support. Responses revealed the challenges of reconciling congestion with new infrastructure and, for some candidates, a limited understanding of how bicycle infrastructure can potentially alleviate congestion. Hollywood Boulevard, for example, was considered too congested to accommodate a bike lane by both Carolyn Ramsay and Steve Veres.

There were several instances of candidates singing the same old song that has kept bikes out of the street before: "That street is not a safe place to ride." Even Ramsay, a former LaBonge staffer who seemed to be the most well-versed with the city's Bike Master Plan, offered up alternative routes to the ones laid out in the plan. Instead of Hollywood, she prefers Sunset Boulevard.

"I've ridden both and Sunset is better," she pronounced in defense of her opposition to the Hollywood lane laid out in the Bike Plan. "This should be a biking city," she stated in her closing remarks; however her definition of what that means might not quite measure up to L.A.'s true potential.

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Even among candidates who had made the greatest effort to develop affinity with the bicycling voting block, by professing their love of riding in Los Angeles for example, were those who leaned towards these types of alternative routes. The problem with alternative routes is that they cut off cyclists from all of the destinations that make a street busy, which in the case of Hollywood Boulevard includes dozens of businesses as well as three subway stations. Whether or not the street sees any changes, cyclists will still be on that street, at the very least to access these stations to go their jobs, shop, eat, and seek entertainment.

Asking cyclists to go out of their way doesn't ensure their safety, especially not while adding extra distance to their commutes and cutting them off from the places they want to go. Studies exploring how to increase ridership and usage of existing paths, along with studies asking why women don't ride bikes at the same rate as men, all end up at the same conclusion -- the infrastructure that exists isn't going where the people need to, and the streets they need to travel on aren't designed for cycling.

All of the candidates in attendance expressed support for the most bike and pedestrian-friendly proposal for the Glendale Hyperion Bridge -- "option 3", the contentious design that provides bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the bridge by removing a single vehicle lane.

The level of familiarity with the project varied widely among them, however. Without a doubt, O'Grady, who participated in the design of option 3, may have a leg up on the competition in terms of familiarity with the project. He demonstrated not only inherent knowledge of the project, but also a firm grasp of how much the final decision will impact the community for decades to come, and the potential of the bridge to play a vital role in transportation as well an environmentally, economically, and culturally.

'Option 3' for the Glendale Hyperion Bridge

Veres, who was the only candidate among the group who could say he had ridden a bicycle in the past week, acknowledged the big hangup that many have expressed with the option most preferred by bike and pedestrian activists -- a 40-second delay -- by saying that the slight increase in commute times is more than worth it to make this route safer.

Veres also said "no" to most bike lane projects presented that night. Veres presented himself as a dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist with very real concerns about changing the configurations of San Vicente and Hollywood Boulevards, due to their current congestion levels and frequent closures. But he also said his lack of support was not necessarily a permanent "no," but the position he has until he is can develop confidence in the viability of bikes and cars sharing these streets.

The trouble is, we can't simply wait for congestion to wane. The street isn't going to get any wider, and the city's population isn't going to diminish. If this sounds like the chicken and egg riddle, it's really not that puzzling. The only thing that could have any impact on traffic congestion is the transition to transportation alternatives outside of single-passenger vehicles. And to make that possible the infrastructure needs to change. Simply put, designs need to be more friendly to bicycle and mass transit usage.

While Fred Mariscal demonstrated the least familiarity with the logistics of implementing new bicycle infrastructure, he did so with a refreshing level of honesty, admitting that he does not own a bicycle -- which he attributed to his love of walking with his golden retriever -- and responded to many of the questions with a desire to consult biking experts to reach his decisions on issues affecting bicycle mobility. In a room that was at least half-full of cyclists, it wasn't too hard to figure out what people wanted to hear -- yet Mariscal didn't pretend to know all the answers. He did however acknowledge with blunt clarity that the status quo is outdated.

"We have to realize that drivers don't own the streets," he said. Mariscal is among the six
CD4 candidates and two of the three running to replace Jose Huizar in CD14 who have answered LACBC's Candidate questionnaire.

The Livable Streets forum was an important step for laying out specific issues that will face incoming council members, and finding out what principles will guide their decision making. As cyclists rally to "bike the vote," it's evident that those who are running will have to offer more than just sweet talk as bicyclists in Los Angeles become a more substantial voting block.

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