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The Great Bike Lane Disaster and Other Infrastructure Myths

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Bike lanes are contentious, and they're making people angry, fearful, and frustrated. While robust redesign is taking place in some parts of the city, some communities are being left in the past. An especially dramatic contrast exists on Figueroa Street, between plans for the MyFig developments, which will include the installation of cycle tracks on South Figueroa between downtown and USC, and the northern segment of Figueroa that runs through the communities of Cypress Park and Highland Park.

Key parts of the backbone network outlined in the city's Bike Plan, which includes the North Figueroa corridor, are some of L.A.'s most congested streets. The ongoing battle to redesign North Figueroa to better accommodate cyclists has now been met with an official deferment from Council Member Gil Cedillo, who touts his commitment to safety as the reason why.

His rationale leaves infrastructure junkies and safe streets advocates scratching their heads, with stymied bike lane efforts on some of L.A.'s most traveled streets -- Lankershim Boulevard in the Valley, Westwood Boulevard in West L.A., and North Figueroa. The same infrastructure that is being implemented in urban areas across the country as a standard measure of progress is one of the most heated political issues among Angelenos.

Local area activists who have banded together to form Fig4All are seeking ways to help the facts sink in, with organized rides, demonstrations, and canvassing efforts to educate people in the community on how bike infrastructure can bring about a safer environment for all road users.

"If we've altered Figueroa to suit our needs as a people, that would mean that we can do it again," said Fig4All organizer Josef Bray-Ali. Bray-Ali, who owns the Flying Pigeon bike shop on Figueroa in Cypress Park, has been working to see this portion of the backbone network brought to life since it was laid out in the Bike Plan.

At the latest meeting to address public concerns about the North Figueroa corridor, where the LADOT presented three possible street configurations to accommodate bicycles on the street, fear of the Great Bike Lane Disaster -- the idea that bike lanes will create more traffic and congestion, making the roads impassable -- was made apparent by some attendees.

But the Great Bike Lane Disaster is more of a myth than anything else, as policies like the Mobility Plan of 2035 and the Complete Streets Act seek a more holistic approach to transportation and planning to better meet the needs of all road users.

"Figueroa is a primary concern as it addresses closing the network gap in Northeast Los Angeles," said LADOT assistant bicycle coordinator Elizabeth Gallardo. "All major arterials in the area have bike lanes, except for North Figueroa."

Congestion on N. Figueroa in front of Luther Burbank Middle School Photo: Krista Carlson
Congestion on N. Figueroa in front of Luther Burbank Middle School Photo: Krista Carlson  

These are some of the most common concerns about adding bike infrastructure to streets, many of which were expressed during the Figueroa Corridor meeting's Q & A portion:

Why Figueroa, being such a major thoroughfare with heavy traffic to and from the 110?

In other words, this is a busy road with fast-moving traffic, and it doesn't seem like bicycles belong there.

"Figueroa has a lot of attractors and destinations, and in the future it will probably be more vibrant," said LADOT engineer Tim Frémaux. "Bicycle lanes on Figueroa itself would provide that direct connection to those destinations."

Monte Vista, Griffin, and the Arroyo Seco bike path are preferred routes through the area for many cyclists, but many of the places I go day to day actually are on Figueroa, like Antigua Bread, Birdman Pet Shop, the farmer's market, La Estrella and Smart & Final -- and they're all within a mile or two. Why would I waste money and gas to drive somewhere I could walk or ride? For most, the answer tends to be "Because it's not safe," which has also been a deterrent for me, to either stay home, or get in the car -- because some days I just don't have the energy to fight for space on the road.

While access by bike may seem like a luxury for all the carefree cyclists pedaling around with their head in the clouds, bicycles are actually essential to the mobility, empowerment, and economic livability of a wide swath of the community, from students of Nightingale Middle School, for the men who show up to the Cypress Park Community Job Center in hopes of a day's work, and for everyone else as well.

Highland Park and Cypress Park are among the highest density neighborhoods in L.A. county. More than half are renters, and more than half are foreign born. In addition to a higher than average number of single-parent families, these two neighborhoods also have higher than average proportions of youth under 18 and of seniors and veterans. As dense as the area already is, NELA is seeing rapid growth. One of the big reasons for this is because of the way Figueroa already serves as a main street and a connector through the area.

"We recognize that this is an access point to the 110," said Michelle Mowery, Senior Bicycle Coordinator for LADOT. "We're trying to address that through signal timing. We also hope to reduce some of the traffic congestion that leaves the freeway to travel through [the] neighborhood and keep them on the freeway as they travel towards downtown."

In the five miles between San Fernando Road and Colorado Boulevard, there are nine schools located on or immediately adjacent to North Figueroa, and just as many churches and religious institutions, five parks, an assisted living home, senior center, and public library, along with all the banks, groceries, restaurants, and other resources vital to members of the community.

Schools in Northeast L.A. | L.A. Times, Mapping L.A.
Schools in Northeast L.A. | L.A. Times, Mapping L.A.

How can we avoid gridlock?

"I don't want to feel like I'm on the San Diego freeway," wrote one commentor at the Figueroa corridor meeting.

The gridlock may not be as awful as the 405, but unfortunately it's already there. What's more, the maximum delay for the entire corridor is 41 seconds, during peak morning hours, at the busiest intersection, at York Boulevard.

"The disadvantage is pretty well-known; it's a potential increase in congestion during certain periods of the day," said Frémaux. "During the off-peak hours we don't anticipate any congestion at all."

Making the decision to drive to Long Beach rather than take the Gold and Blue lines, with my bike to bridge the gaps, gave me a firsthand lesson in just how bad the congestion can get. I've hopscotched between the 110 and Figueroa during peak hours, and there's nothing fun about it. The log jam made me pine for the comfort and convenience of the Metro car, where I could calmly ride the rails, read the news, and save the bundle of cash (at least $200 a month) I was spending on gas for the commute.

I would imagine that many bikers feel they are helping the environment. How do they address the fact that reducing two lanes to one will congest traffic and actually cause more pollution from idling cars?

Prior to a change in state law last year that exempts bike lanes from requiring an environmental impact report, one was done for the North Figueroa project (as it has been on the table since the Bike Plan was approved in 2011).

"Pollution from idling cars has largely subsided over the years mainly due to vehicle technology," said L.A. city planner Dave Somers. "What we're really seeing through modeling is that the bicycle lanes and the expansion of the bicycle network would likely result in some attraction into bicycling that would be coming from vehicle riding, so that the air quality issue by and large is kind of a wash, but it's mostly a benefit."

Changes in behavior, including alternate driving routes and increased rates of cycling, are expected to offset the potential for greater congestion. "It's more just a matter of providing sustainable transportation options that people feel comfortable in using; then you start to see that shift into other modes of transportation," Somers said.

Has lowering the speed limit been thought of as an option for Figueroa?

Speed law falls under state jurisdiction. The only thing a city government may do is adjust the speed limit to match the speed of traffic. The rule is, the speed limit must match the speed of 85 percent of traffic.

"The city is required to set the speed limit at that speed in order to be able to do enforcement," said Mowery, "so we have limited control due to state law on setting speed limits. We can't just ratchet the speed down."

This 85th percentile standard tends to encourage car-centric roadways, as drivers move faster to keep pace with others on the road. Otherwise, the configuration of the street must be changed in order to affect how people use the street.

Car accident on Avenue 54 off of N. Figueroa | Photo: Josef Bray-Ali
Car accident on Avenue 54 off of N. Figueroa | Photo: Josef Bray-Ali.   

How about a timed lane -- sharrows with bikes only on Saturday morning sunrise to noon?

One common misconception is that cycling is purely recreational, but the reality is that most of us are not weekend warriors. We ride our bikes to work, to school, to the grocery store, the post office, to wherever we need to go.

"We're looking to increase safety for bikes, pedestrians and motor vehicles," said Mowery. "Just doing a part-time bike lane would not achieve those goals."

How do the proposed alternatives address the current safety issues on North Figueroa? How do they reduce the number of traffic collisions and deaths?

Over the past ten years, within the five miles of North Figueroa from San Fernando to Colorado, there have been 109 car collisions, 14 involving bicycles and 57 involving pedestrians. North Figueroa, like Westwood and Lankershim, is one of the "strategic gap closures" targeted as priority projects within Year One segment of the Bike Plan. When the LADOT staff described three different configurations that could accommodate cyclists to varying degrees, one thing was clear: Option One, with two bike lanes and one less normal travel lane, could accomplish the most in terms of making North Figueroa safer.

For the 22 off-peak hours of the day, car speed is not constrained by traffic congestion across the 72-foot roadway. The other options presented provided for no lane removal, either with sharrows in both directions, or a combination of sharrows southbound and a bike lane northbound to accommodate uphill bicycle traffic. According to LADOT studies, neither of these secondary options would calm traffic speeds or provide much potential for a reduction of collisions.

"Typically what we see is when there's a single lane of traffic versus two lanes of traffic in any given direction, there is a reduction in collisions," said Frémaux. "A lot of the type of collisions that you see -- with side-swipes, and also pedestrian crossings where they're crossing multiple lanes versus a single lane -- a single lane will typically reduce collisions in that particular direction."

Studies comparing collision data demonstrate that cities with high bicycling rates trend toward lower crash rates for all road users. In fact, the fatal crash rate of bike-friendly cities like Portland and Davis are comparable to those of countries with the lowest reported crash rates in the world, such as the Netherlands.

"There's a more serious picture of our safety issue when we have six fatal collisions and seven serious injuries," said Gallardo, noting that York Boulevard and Avenues 60, 54, and 52 as among the most deadly. "This is especially important to note due to the close proximity to the schools in the area."

Everyone on both sides of the issue agrees that the streets should be safer, but opponents to the bike lanes keep looking for a different solution. Unfortunately, the reality about the Great Bike Lane Disaster is that without the lanes, Figueroa fails to be the great street it could be.

Listen to the full Q & A from the Figueroa Corridor meeting here.

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