What Is the Backbone Bikeway Network and Why Is It So Important?

2_8_10_backbone.jpgOriginally posted on 2/1 at Westside Bikeside

2_9_10_sfv.jpgOriginally posted on 2/3 at JeremyGrant.com

2_9_10_harbor.jpgOriginally posted on 2/8 at Soap Box LA

Last week, the LA Bike Working Group began to release parts of "L.A.'s Best Bike Plan" in the form of the Backbone Bikeway Network maps and started a new conversation about the state of bike planning in Los Angeles.  The maps, first published on three members of the steering committee's blogs, moved to LAist and then on to the mainstream media.

It's nearly impossible not to compare the maps of the Backbone Bikeway Network (Backbone) to those of the Draft Bike Plan offered by various city departments and put together by Alta Planning.  It's also impossible not to notice a key difference in philosophy.  While the Draft Bike Plan is all about providing safe alternatives to biking on main thoroughfares, the Backbone is all about making it safer for cyclists to ride on these same major thoroughfares that LADOT is trying to take cyclists off of.

In the post announcing the Backbone at Westside Bikeside, Dr. Alex Thompson explains:

The Backbone Bikeway Network will get you from Downtown to West LA, Crenshaw to Valley Village, and LAX to Hollywood.  The Backbone doesn’t have neighborhood level detail, because that’s not what a citywide system is for – this system gets you 5 and 10 and 20 miles across town.  It goes on major streets – arterials – unlike the proposed Bike Plan, and it gets you within striking distance of major destinations like Dodger Stadium and City Hall.

There's a lot to discuss about the Backbone: what is it, the philosophy behind it, the process that created it, and where we go from here.  We'll discuss all of that after the jump.

What is the Bikeways Backbone Network:

Simply put, the Backbone is just a statement that these are the major routes cyclists can take to efficiently get from one place to another.  If the city recognized this Network as the glue that holds all of the local improvements together, and made certain to treat this network as the most important part of its bikeways system; then everything else would fall into place.  Does the Backbone require that all of these routes get bike lanes, Sharrows, separated bike paths, or other bicycle improvements?  No.  It's simply a statement that this is where cyclists belong, and the city should prioritize their street cleaning, road maintenance, enforcement and planning efforts to make these roads safer for everyone.

Enci Box explains:

We're claiming our right and freedom to be free and safe on our roads...When your ride off the Backbone or on bike trails, you're segregated.  There's nowhere you can be both safe and visible.  If you're a woman, you can be attacked by a single person, but even if you're a man you can be attacked by a group of people.  And nobody sees you.  If you're on the Backbone, you can be visible.  And, you become part of the community as you pass through.

Not everyone needs to feel that they have to ride these streets, but they should feel that they can.

Enci makes an excellent point.  Too many people don't bike in Los Angeles, or other places, because they are intimidated by the amount of cars on the roads near their houses and the large streets that get from one place to another.  In other words, the little streets don't connect anywhere and the big streets are scary.  We saw yesterday that this can have a dangerous effect for our children.  I can personally testify to this, as the first trip I took on a bike in this city, from Hel-Mel to the Fairfax District had me biking on a road with no shoulder at places, broken lights, and terrible road conditions.  I can't imagine anyone biking for the first time repeating the adventure if their first trip involved any part of Beverly Boulevard.  Yet, both Oakwood to the north and 1st Street to the south cut off at various places forcing cyclists on to the horribly maintained Beverly Boulevard.

Talking with Jeremy Grant, he explained how one of the reasons he became involved with advocacy was because he thought it ridiculous that he could drive from his home to his office in fourteen miles, but it would take eighteen miles to do it by bike.  In short, a lot of us see the same problems with the way the city treats its main thoroughfares, the same ones that Metro runs it express service on, that make them unbikeable for many.

But there's also been a lot of discussion about what the Backbone is that misses the point.  Last Monday, Alex Thompson explained how the Backbone is not about limiting planning options, but expanding what communities will be able to do while providing the overall vision of connectivity between the cities.

We left out the neighborhood network because we wanted a clear, communicable vision of what city connectivity could be, and should be.  However, we’ve got a secret tool box of innovative approaches we hope to deploy in neighborhoods.  I’ll give you some clues – they involve neighborhood level democracy, cut through traffic, and mini-humans.

The Backbone doesn’t lack vision, but it demands political will.

The Philosophy:

Listening to the members of the Bike Working Group Steering Committee, there are two major points to their philosophy as it relates to the Backbone.  The first is that bikes belong on streets as much and are just like the other user groups.  The second is that their plan, entirely based of community input and shared with politicians, the LAPD and the Bureau of Street Services, is a much more inclusive plan than that offered by the Draft Bike Plan.  As Peteu explains,

We have a backbone.  We're not afraid to ask for the sky and aren't afraid of the car lobby.

A couple of weeks back, Council Transportation Committee Chair thundered at City Hall that "The Culture of the Car is going to end now!" However, this plan is more about equality of users than a car-culture war.  If bikes are as important as every other user group, than the Backbone Network has to make sense for every user group.  Stephen Box explains:

The Backbone offers a solution to our transportation crisis that is good for everybody.  It's not just about cyclists.  If you clean the major streets, repair the potholes on major streets, and focus your enforcement on these major streets, the system will be more efficient.  Everybody wins.

Of course a large part of the philospohy is also that the LADOT has failed, and is failing, to make the streets efficient and safe.  Jeremy Grant compares the Backbone to the first part of a triage plan that is the feasibility of cycling in the city.  Enci Box states:

Everything they're doing gets you almost "there" or close to "there."  This is a plan that gets you there.

To a person, they all noted that the Draft Bike Plan doesn't connect places, instead it comes close to connecting places; while the Backbone can take cyclists from one end of the city to another.  While that vision works for the cityas a whole, it would then be up to empowered communities to create the ability to move about safely within that community.  By contrast, the Draft Bike plan, with it's hundreds of miles of colored lines, is telling people where they can and cannot do bike planning.

The Process:

To a person, all five members of the steering committee to which I spoke brought up that this plan was created based on the input from over a half dozen meeting and hundreds of cyclists.  The routes that were selected for the Backbone were suggested by people at last fall's meetings sponsored by the Bike Working Group and voted on by the people at the meeting.  The steering group may have selected the meeting locations and agendas, but the content of the Backbone was created by the people that attended.

Peteu excitedly describes the effort:

This is a grassroots effort, and it shows what people are capable of doing on our own.

Stephen Box argues that the Draft Bike Plan can never be as complete as the Backbone because the work of the volunteers and meeting attendees has actually branched out to more places than the city's Bikeways Department at DOT and Planning Department did for the Bike Plan.  Box points to meetings with the Bureau of Street Services, various high level members of the LAPD, including Commander David Doan and Deputy Commissioner Earl Paysinger.  The group has also met with some of the surrounding cities, and has pledged to continue to do so, so that everyone can get on board with the premise that bikes belong on these major streets.

Where do We Go, From Here:

The hope is that the city will embrace the Backbone as the key to best moving people from place to place; cyclists, transit users and drivers.  The process wouldn't need involved the City Council, or any major political lifting; just a memorandum to city departments and the LAPD to prioritize the streets on the Backbone for cleaning, maintenance, improvements and enforcement.  Stephen Box points out that major streets in the city aren't cleaned, and don't seem to be receiving their share of funds for repaving.  This seems backwards to how funds should be spent if the goal is to move people as efficiently as possible on the major streets.

In a more literal sense, the Bike Working Group will next be meeting on Saturday, March 6th.  The final location hasn't been set yet, but we'll announce it here once it's finalized.