Councilman Tom LaBonge Talks Bikes and His Recent Trip to Europe

(Last Friday before the City Council Meeting, City Councilman Tom LaBonge sat down with Streetsblog to discuss some of the things he noticed on a recent trip to Europe and what Los Angeles can do to make the city a better place for cyclists.  You can leave feedback here, or join LaBonge and myself tomorrow night on the "Positively 4th Street" bike ride beginning at 3255 West 4th Street at 6 P.M.)

Streetsblog: So you were just in Europe.  Were you on vacation or there for city business?

LaBonge: It was a combination there of.  My wife Bridget and I were there for our 20th Wedding Anniversary and I was there on a program of the State Department in Bordeaux, France and went to Berlin on the invitation of the ambassador for the opening of the new embassy.  We’re Sister Cities with both cities.

Streetsblog: Last week at the Transportation Committee hearing, you talked about some of the things you experienced while in Europe.  You spent a lot of time on a bike...

LaBonge: Right.  Of the six days in Berlin, four of them...Fat Tire Bike Rentals in Alexanderplatz is the place to go.  It was a wonderful experience.  The people of Berlin, I don’t know the exact numbers, but a high percentage of them commute by bicycle. 

There’s a unique layout of the city.  It’s one-third developed, one-third green space, and one-third water.  After the horrors of the last century destroyed the city, there was a lot of thought and process has been made to make it a better city.  They built cycling into the regular flow of traffic

Streetsblog: What were some of the things that were different there?

LaBonge: One thing I liked.  They had signalized intersections with the tri-lights for vehicles and at eye level for bicyclists there were signals at eye level right on the post.  They also had clearly marked lines for bike lanes on many roads.  They also brought the bikes off the street between the sidewalk and the curb with their very own bike path, if you will.

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But the most important thing, and this could take awhile for the people of Los Angeles to change, the motorists had great respect for people on bikes.  I never felt anyone on my tail.  If we were going straight and they were turning right, they waited for me to get through the intersection.  Nobody cut me off .  It was amazing.  You immediately felt that there was some respect for the bicycle.

Streetsblog: What’s the reason for that?  Is it because there are more bikes on the road, or because it’s been a part of their culture for longer?

LaBonge: Well the bike is part of a larger transportation system.  They have a heavy subway system and inter-urban U-Bahn, and the S-Bahn and they ride their bikes to the station.  Parking is not like we have here in Los Angeles.  While we have a lot of parking, they have very little parking and a great density.  People live without cars there.

Streetsblog: At the meeting, you also talked about how the train stations are different.

LaBonge: Well, there stops are a welcoming situation.  It’s not just bike racks, there were bike shops at the station.  We were riding next to the river right after the World Cup when Italy lost to Spain.  Someone was having a few too many spirits, because some broken glass cut into my tire.  I was close to a train station, and there was a bike shop where I got my bike fixed.

This led me to an idea that we have to push...push...push to the MTA that we need to look at our stops in a rapid fashion to set up some bike stops out there.  We could set up something for one-year with the understanding that we’re going to go out to bid in a year, but we should have a bike stand there so people know there’s someone to help them, guide them, maybe even in some places rent them as the case may be.

Streetsblog: I know they’re looking at bike sharing in other cities.

LaBonge: I don’t know about that.  The density isn’t there in Los Angeles.  Maybe you can do it in a smaller place, such as Santa Monica, which is as big as a thumbnail compared to the hand of Los Angeles.  I like Santa Monica.  I like all 88 cities in the county, but I like Los Angeles best.  Anyway, I think it could be difficult to do that way.  I wouldn’t want to see energy spent on a large bike rental program when there’s a lot of other things we need to do.

What we need to do first is get more people out of their cars and onto a bike.  They need to feel confident that they are safe.

Prior to going to Europe, I was concerned about the people biking on the sidewalks of Los Angeles.  We should try to identify streets where we could get those bikes off the street in an organized fashion.  I don’t want to bring them off unless the street is safe, but in areas where there are lots of pedestrians we should work with the neighborhoods and the Neighborhood Councils to make this happen.

The first street I’m looking at it is Los Feliz Boulevard from Riverside Drive to Western Avenue.


Streetsblog: A lot of more experienced cyclists argue that you shouldn’t be on the sidewalk anyway...

(Editor’s note: at this point the Councilman answered a phone call concerning something on the agenda at the full council meeting later in the morning.  If the next segment seems like a bit of a non-sequitor it’s because a couple of minutes passed between my last sentence and LaBonge’s thoughts.)

LaBonge: One thing we got to understand.  Experienced cyclists and novice cyclists are different.  When it comes to trying to make this all work, everyone has to check their ego at the door.  There are better cyclists who can ride faster and all that and there are those that aren’t.  We need to encourage people and make it safe for all skill levels.  Then, it will naturally blossom.

Some people are offended, but I think if you violate the law.  If you run a red light, or a stop sign, you have to get a ticket.  Bicycles are vehicles, many cyclists say they want to be treated as vehicles, and so they need to behave like vehicles.

In Europe, all the bike riders had red lights on the back of their bikes, lights on the front and were careful about pedestrians and their own safety.

I still see guys going the wrong way down the street.  Just today I saw someone biking like that and if I were going right at the next street and the car in front of me obstructed my view the guy could have been right there.

Regardless, right now there’s an opportunity here.  People shouldn’t be concerned about who’s a better bicyclist.

But the city needs to do more too.  I’m going to look at better ways to capture data on all things bicycle. 

Streetsblog: Anything you want to add?

LaBonge: The next five Wednesdays we’re doing bike rides.  Next week’s is Positively 4th Street, but we’ll also be going around Silver Lake, Griffith Park, the Downtown.  Rides start at 6:00 P.M. but we’ll wait a little bit for everyone and we’ll get back before daylight.

And before we’re done, on sidewalks.  As long as people aren’t speeding down sidewalks it’s ok.

Some cyclists ride on sidewalks because they’re worried about riding too close to parked cars because of car doors and we don’t have any statistical information for that.  If we could track the problem areas we might know where we need to widen the road to make a lane for cyclists or even remove a vehicle lane.

I’m looking at Virgil Avenue from Los Feliz down to Wilshire and then over to Hoover down to USC to say, “Other than the mouths of major intersections where you might want all lanes, other than that you’d have a center lane for turns, a lane in each direction and a curbed lane for bicycles.  We could make it a bicycle boulevard, and we need more bicycle boulevards in Los Angeles.

Once we have them, we have to use them.  I know there’s discussion of Vermont next to Wilshire is the busiest bus street in the world and I’d rather separate them from the bus.

(Phone rings, conversation ensues, and we return to the conversation.)

LaBonge: Summing up, we need to focus on certain areas first because if we try to equalize every dime city wide, this isn’t going to happen.  But if we say that transit dependent, high population corridors, such as the Hollywood-Wilshire area then we can see the change first and go from there.

All Photos Provided by The Office of Councilman Tom LaBonge