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Safe Bicycling Streets: What Will it Take?

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Los Angeles is a bike town in waiting. All the elements are there: year-round fair weather, relative flatness, big wide streets, insane traffic delays, the need for exercise in a city that lacks public parks and spaces.

Studies show that 50% of trips made by car are less than a very bike-able 3 miles in distance. We know that not all of those short car trips are to carry lumber and tons of groceries. They're mostly trips to the movies, to get coffee, dinner, the book store, school, concerts - how about a bike date with peanut butter n' jelly sandwiches in the park?

So what gives, L.A.? Why won't you come out and play-ay?

The reason is pretty obvious. Fear. Not many people feel safe mixing it up with the L.A. traffic. I don't blame them. Our streets seem to encourage a kind of bipolar disorder - motorists slowing and speeding only to stop at traffic jams and red lights. Hitting the gas, then hitting the brakes then hitting the gas.

From a cyclist's perspective it just seems silly. If you consider the time a driver spends getting from A to B in Los Angeles, the speed averages out to about 20 mph. If drivers were to slow down a bit and time the lights, there would be less stress and death on the streets, not to mention the savings in gas and vehicle maintenance.

So how do we make it safer to ride in L.A.? More bike lanes? Driver education? Cyclist education? The answer is all of the above, plus better care and enforcement from the police and judicial system. There is a lot of work to do and the issues are complicated.

Drivers and Cyclists both need education

Lines of paint on the streets are the most fundamental form of driver education. In L.A., since there are relatively few bike lanes and facilities, cyclists are forced to ride in a vehicular fashion - ride in the lane as a motor vehicle would. But not every driver understands that cyclists have a right to be in the roadway, let alone expects them to be in the roadway. Likewise, not every cyclist knows how to ride in the roadway either.

This week I've prepared a video that provides a bit of education for both motorists and cyclists on how to operate together using the current traffic grid. Shot from my bicycle during a quick ride for lunch from East Hollywood to Silver Lake - a distance of about 2 miles - the video shows a mix of vehicular cycling and bike lane riding, ending with a bit of an incident between myself and a motorist who creates a confusing and dangerous situation.

The video makes a strong case that the Sunset bike lanes are too narrow. In my opinion, staying in them at speeds greater than 15 mph along this fast corridor would be dangerous. Note my lane position in the video: I rarely enter the bike lane more than a foot or so. I keep close to the left line, frequently leaving the lane to avoid buses, UPS trucks, car doors and people. The faster I go the more right I have to move completely out of the bike lane and share the lanes with automobiles, and that is guaranteed by law.

I count about 7 or 8 potential situations in the video that could have gotten complicated, including an incident in which a driver unknowingly threatened me with a right hook. I pulled over to let him know why I was upset with him. It can be difficult to keep your cool when drivers put you in danger, but it's important not to let adrenalin get in the way of an opportunity to educate.

If it's not totally obvious what the driver did wrong at the 3:11 mark in this video, perhaps the charts below will explain. To make things clear, solid lines represent the present and past, and dotted lines represent the future.


In Diagram A, we see the actual path of myself and the driver. The driver speeds ahead of me and signals the intent to make a right, into either the next street or the car wash just ahead. I sense that the driver does see me, but without eye contact you can NEVER be sure. So I slow down and brace for a hard brake. This prompts the driver to become a bit impatient and begins to merge across the bike lane. Seeing this causes me to slow down even more. Finally, I go past the car and decide to talk with the driver to explain what just happened. I was going 20-25 mph just before the driver passed me and at that speed, getting squeezed is scary. I did my best to remain calm.


As shown in Diagram B, the driver should've simply slowed down and gotten into the right lane behind me (if the bike lane is clear), then turned right into his destination. It might seem nit picky, but this way I wouldn't feel threatened of the risk of a right hook.

In addition to lane position, there are five fundamental principles to riding that are exhibited in the video:

1. Cyclists need to stay out of the door zone. The door zone is 4-5 feet of distance from all parked cars. Cyclists need to avoid this even if it means leaving the bike lane completely.

2. Keep a consistent straight line even when passing large gaps between parked cars. I see cyclists weaving in and out of parked car spaces frequently, which is quite dangerous as drivers may not see you swerving out into the lane from behind a parked car. Being a consistent and therefore predictable presence in the lane is safer. Drivers may be impatient, but at least they know you are there.

3. Pass on the left. Most beginning cyclists think that their place is to always be on the right side of the road. In fact, when approaching intersections and slower vehicles, you must consider the driver's intentions. They may be slowing down to turn right into a driveway. They may not see you and you may get right hooked. In this case pass slower traffic on the left and proceed with caution.

4. Anticipate traffic. Time the lights. When I ride in traffic I always scan the road, side to side and near to far. I look ahead and gauge the light ahead. Stale green? Fresh red? Slow it down and arrive at the intersection on the green cautiously, scanning for late cross traffic and turners.

5. Act in a calm yet educational manner when confronting drivers. It took some trial and error, but eventually I got it into my thick skull that it's better to calm the fires than fan the flames. If a driver has a beef or visa versa, I really try to remain reasonable. I'm not perfect, but it seems like the best opportunity to connect with an angry motorist is to simply state your case in the most non-threatening manner possible. It's difficult when you are up against 4000 lbs of speeding steel, but it's the only way to get through to a hostile individual, by humanizing yourself.

The Sunset blvd. lanes are notorious for delivery truck issues. Note that truck and SUV doors open extra wide.
The Sunset blvd. lanes are notorious for delivery truck issues. Note that truck and SUV doors open extra wide.

While education is essential, it only goes so far. Drivers need to feel the weight of responsibility when they operate heavy machinery. I believe that special protection of vulnerable road users is needed to increase their safety. Many modern nations around the world have implemented strict liability laws to encourage careful driving and give strong protections for those who choose to use their own two feet to travel.

Ironically the law, as it's currently written in California, actually encourages callous behavior. Because the crime of drunk driving caries stiff penalties, drivers often run from the scene of a collision rather than face jail time, loss of license and expensive lawyer fees. Statistics show that nearly 33% of collisions are hit and run. Such cases rarely get prosecuted and drivers often get a slap on the wrist.

Next week I will explore a 3-part action plan that vulnerable L.A. road users are organizing to call attention to our plight. It will hopefully elevate the status of traffic crime in the eyes of enforcement and the judicial system, using laws that are in the books but often ignored in practice.

Roadblock is a native of Los Angeles, a graphic artist, musician, community activist... and a bicycle rider. He is one of the founders of Midnight Ridazz. One Ride at a Time is a column dedicated to bringing bike love to Angelenos everywhere.

Top: Photo by Flickr user ax2groin used under a Creative Commons license

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