The Case Against Bike Paths

(Anyone who was at last December's Bike Meeting in City Hall witnessed a mini-shouting match between Enci Box and Councilman Tom LaBonge over whether or not there are "bike facilities" in LaBonge's district.  Enci contends that a bike path is not a real facility, and she elaborates and explains that point here.  - DN)

Cyclists who get into a discussion of safe and effective cycling on the streets of Los Angeles often encounter the wistful suggestion that "we need Bike Paths!" and then the conversation is taken over by the world travelers in the group who tell tales of Bike Paths from around the globe.

As someone who was born in Hungary, grew up in Germany, and has traveled extensively in Europe, Australia and North America, I'm familiar with the many variations of "Bike Paths" that can be found around the world and it's from this point of view that I find myself taking the lonely position that "Here in Los Angeles, Bike Paths are not a 'safe and effective cycling' solution and in many cases, they are a problem."

A Bike Path is a paved and separate right-of-way path (also referred to as a Class I Bikeways facility in California) and is, for the most part, intended as a shared-use path for non-motorized traffic, in spite of the "Bike Path" name. In other words, Bike Paths are typically open to pedestrians, joggers, baby strollers, roller-bladers, dog-walkers and other non-motorized users unless there is a separate path for their use. (such as the Santa Monica Bike Path). The key element of a Bike Path is that it is "separated" from street traffic by open space or in most cases a barrier.

My objections to Bike Paths are based on my desire to ride safely, to get where I need to go, and to ride on the streets in a city that incorporates cycling as a transportation solution. I feel that the Bike Paths designed and built in Los Angeles are unsafe, secluded, isolated, disconnected from meaningful destinations, and show a municipal desire to remove cyclists from the traffic mix. To top it off, they squander the money set aside for Bikeways improvements with little if any transportation mode-share benefit. If that isn't enough, cyclists who ride on Bike Paths ride at their own risk while cyclists on the street enjoy the protection available to all Californians who are hurt on a public road, sidewalk or bike lane due to the negligence of a municipality.

But my real objections against Bike Paths are based on what I experience when I ride on the LA River Path, the Orange Line Bike Path, the Chandler Bike Path, the Ballona Creek Bike Path and the Bike Paths at the beach.

Here are the reasons for my Objection:

Safety:  In LA, the Bike Paths are often segregated from the community with walls, fences and shrubbery that create a closed off, hostile environment. The sound wall on the Orange Line protects the neighbors from the sound of the Metro buses but it also means that a cyclist who needs help can't be heard by the community. The seclusion is so effective that the Orange Line turned into a homeless encampment. It was then that the community discovered that both the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department both thought the other agency was in charge of law enforcement for the Orange Line Bike Path.

  • When one falls, gets injured, or has a medical emergency they aren’t able to call for help because the walls and fences shield their cry for help. 
  • When people are attacked on a Bike Path, there aren’t any witnesses and again, their cries for help aren’t heard. Rape, gang attack, punching, mugging, assault and murder are just a few of the incidents that happen on Bike Paths, and these incidents happen at any time of the day. Bike Paths that have chain link fencing, sound walls and landscaping that offers hiding places are not safe. Adding to the risk is the fact that if something happens and a cyclist uses a cell phone to call for help, what's the address? Metro tunnels have markers, hiking trails have markers, why not the Bike Paths in LA?
    • Tom Ward, policy director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, was sent to the hospital when a youth threw a bike in Ward's path, sending him flying and breaking his hip. As Ward sprawled on the ground, his hip broken, the assailant hit him with a pole and threatened to kill him. The police responded by advising cyclists not to ride alone.
    • David Santor, a Ballona Creek regular, was "ambushed" as he rode the Bike Path in the late afternoon by four young men who threw him over the rail and stole his bike, leaving David battered and bruised and with broken bones. 
    • Another cyclist on Ballona Creek was riding at 1pm when he was attacked by two men who threw a bike at him and knocked him down, dosed him with pepper spray and then stole his back pack. When the cyclist went to the local police department, the officer taking the report kept asking "but what street were you on?" 
    • The incidents on the Ballona Creek Bike Path prompted the City Council's Transportation Committee to get involved and it was there that I argued "Closing off access hardly makes it safer and would result in less traffic which will contribute to an even more unsafe environment." Councilman Bill Rosendahl and the LAPD chose to close the gates and to further isolate the cyclists. Closing off access hardly makes it safer and would result in less traffic which will contribute to an even more unsafe environment. Grrr!
  • If one feels threatened by a group of people, they don’t have enough room to turn around quickly or find a nearby exit to escape the route, which then can lead to any of the above mentioned incidents.
  • If the path is closed down, people have to figure out how to get to their destination on streets that they’re not familiar with.
Liability: In a clear demonstration of the City of LA's commitment to safe and effective cycling, the City of Los Angeles fought all the way to the California State Appellate Court to have Bike Paths declared "trails" and arguing that cyclists who ride on Bike Paths "ride at their own risk" just as in other recreational pursuits. The case involved a cyclist who was riding the Los Angeles Rive Path and was injured by what he claims was a poorly designed gate. The City avoided debating the design and maintenance of the Bike Path and instead simply argued the "ride at your own risk" defense. Sadly, the City prevailed. This means that the city is not liable for any injuries that occur on Bike Paths. Maintaining the Bike Path, the lights, the landscaping, the fences, the walls all become low-priority. (see Caution for the Arroyo Bike Path) Bike paths are considered recreational paths, not transportation paths. (Now this explains why they lead to nowhere.) California Government Code Section 831.4.

Maintenance:  Bike paths need special funding to be maintained. Maintenance on Bike Paths includes illumination, removal of debris (tree branches, trash, broken glass, etc.), fixing of fallen, bent or cut fencing that stick out, repaving of broken pavement, removing of obstruction, like shopping carts, dumped items or car parts that have been left there (insert photo of LA River when car drove into path), tree and bush trimmings, etc. If there is no funding, you are left literally in the dark. Of course, since the funding for Bike Path maintenance is in short supply, it makes sense why the LADOT doesn't want to be liable to maintain it. I'm starting to make a connection here.

Destination: In LA, the Bike Paths are usually built where there is right-of-way, not where they belong. This means that cyclists won't find Bike Paths that take them to employment centers, schools, entertainment opportunities, museums, shopping centers, city centers, or any of the other places that people in cars, on buses, on trains and on foot go to on a daily basis. Don't cyclists have places to go to? If so, why don't Bike Paths go there?

Design: In LA the Bike Paths are not "integrated" with traffic, meaning that there are no triggers for traffic lights. One must become a pedestrian to push the crossing button. Oftentimes, one has to dismount when leaving the path to become a pedestrian to then mount the bike again to get back into regular vehicular traffic. (What would drivers say if they would have to get out of their cars when exiting the freeway, push the car all the way to the end of the off ramp only to then get back into the car, start it up and slowly turn into the urban traffic flow.)

  • The curb cuts are diagonal at intersections, so that when one rolls off the path into the crossing, the front tire is actually facing into right turning traffic and of course pedestrians, people pushing strollers, and wheelchair users are competing for the same space in both direction, creating a jam at the small curb cut right at the corner of the sidewalk where most accidents happen with motor vehicle drivers.
  • Bike Paths such as the Chandler Bike Path sit in the middle of vast open space with no restrictions but the problem is that they squeeze traffic moving in both directions into a small area, often with tragic results. Two League of American Bicyclist (LAB) cycling instructors were riding on the Chandler Bike Path, only to encounter a roller blader coming the other direction. The collision left both cyclists with broken arms.
  • The Chandler Bike Path, even though it's open to the environment, is still segregated from the neighborhood by landscaping and gates to the south side development. One can't enter the path from the neighborhood without having to carry their bike over the high curb and landscaping unless they live at the major intersections.
  • Bike Paths, by design, are popular with families who are encouraging small children to ride. This creates a dangerous environment where the youngest and most vulnerable are at odds with cyclists who are riding fast to get to a destination. In other words, the separated benefits are also the liabilities. Of course, the faster cyclists could slow down but now it simply makes sense for them to ride on the street. Which is my point. Cyclists who want to get somewhere are better off riding in the street.

Closures: Secluded Bike Paths are often closed, usually for reasons that are related to being...secluded. The Arroyo Seco Bike Path is in the river channel, it gets closed when it rains. The Ballona Creek Bike Path gets closed because of the crime. The Sepulveda Bike Path is built in a flood zone. Bike Paths will never be transportation solutions if they are closed without warning and without options for those who use them.   Again, Los Angeles builds Bike Paths where they fit, not where they are needed.

Cost: The 1.8-mile stretch of the San Fernando Road Bike Path, from Roxford to Hubbard streets cost $4.2 million compared to bike lanes that cost approximately $5,000 to $50,000 per mile (depending on the condition of the pavement, the need to remove and repaint the lane lines, the need to adjust signalization, and other factors). This means that $4.2 million could cover between 84 to 840 miles of bike lanes in Los Angeles. The City of LA's current Draft Bike Plan proposes Bike Lanes costing $4,202,687 and Bike Paths costing $152,303,135! Every dollar spent on a Bike Path is a dollar that the city of Los Angeles does not have to spend on a Bike Boulevard or a Bike Lane. Every dollar spent on a Bike Path is a dollar not spent on encouragement and education and enforcement.

Studies prove my point: Many studies have been done in Holland, Germany, Denmark and even in the US, that suggest that segregating cyclists actually increases accident rates.

A 1990 research found that "crash risk" for crossing the intersection on a set-back path are up to 11.9 times higher than when biking in a bike lane.

Here is an excerpt from Wiki about Bike Paths and accidents:

In Helsinki, research has shown that cyclists are safer cycling on roads with traffic than when using the city's 800 kilometres (500 mi) of cycle paths. The Berlin police and Senate conducted studies which led to a similar conclusion in the 1980s. In Berlin 10% of the roads have cycle paths, but these produce 75% of fatalities and serious injuries among cyclists. In the English town of Milton Keynes it has been shown that cyclists using the off-road Milton Keynes redway system have on a per-journey basis a significantly higher rate of fatal car-bicycle collisions (significantly higher rate of fatal car-bicycle collisions) than cyclists on ordinary roads. Cycle lanes and bike lanes are less dangerous than cycle paths in urban situations but even well-implemented examples have been associated with 10% increases in casualty rates.

When I hear some of our leadership talk of Berlin and how great the European bike facilities work, it makes me angry because our leadership should do some research before they make any blind statements. Just because they went on a bike ride during their vacation, it doesn't mean they don't have to do the research before they spend millions of our dollars on facilities that are unsafe, segregated, lead to nowhere and end up being closed down. It is easy to do some research online, in any language, to find out what works and what doesn't.

I don't expect the average commuter to do this research but I want them to know what they are lobbying for and what their risks are. We need to be able to differentiate between actual and perceived safety. A recent Copenhagen study found that their newly built bike paths and bike lanes had negative effects on road safety.

Segregation has never worked! Not in countries (I come from a communist country, so I know that segregation doesn't work), not in people (women, people of color, sex and religion stood up and are still standing up against being segregated and being treated differently not equally) and not in our freedom to move about.

Before it engages in developing recreational pursuits, the City of Los Angeles needs to commit to supporting all cyclists on the Streets of LA!