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Of Sidewalks, Bicycles, and Gifts

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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.

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.

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