Helmets Ready! Mayor Hosts First Bike Summit

Screen_shot_2010_08_17_at_5.07.38_AM.pngFormer Mayor Richard Riordan presents training wheels to the wounded Mayor. For more pics from the conference, visist Gary Rides Bikes' Flickr Page
Despite the Monday 9am hour and the picture perfect weather, a standing-room only crowd assembled in the Metro Board Room for city of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's first Bike Summit.  Alongside Mayor Villaraigosa were Department of Transportation (LADOT) General Manager Rita Robinson, Metro CEO Art Leahy, Department of City Planning (DCP) General Manager Michael LoGrande, and  Police Department Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese sitting in for Chief Charlie Beck.

Kicking off the summit was a visit from former Mayor and recreational cyclist Richard Riordan and longtime former Bicycle Advisory Committee chair Alex Baum, presenting the current mayor with a set of training wheels as a gift from Lance Armstrong.

After brief remarks from the mayor, the meeting format quickly boiled down to about a hundred cyclists speaking for one minute each. This format is familiar to seasoned bicycle activists, but was unclear to a few cyclist speakers who expressed that it was indeed their first public hearing.

Attendees included a veritable who's who of Los Angeles' bicycling community. Included were representatives from the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC), BikeSide, Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC), International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), Bicycle Kitchen, CicLAvia, Concerned Off Road Bicyclists Association (CORBA), and many many others. Putting in an impassioned appearance was Los Angeles City Council Member Bill Rosendahl - chair of the Council's Transportation Committee.

Overall the mood was very upbeat, with cyclists expressing a great deal of gratitude to the Mayor for convening the summit and addressing bicyclists' concerns. Public comment topics ranged from cyclocross to potholes to obesity to resurfacing to the cruelty of biking with restrained pets. This article doesn't attempt to catalog all the concerns raised by cyclists, but focuses primarily on the Mayor's reactions and stated commitments.

Mayor Villaraigosa initially expressed his past support for Los Angeles cyclists based on his leadership in setting aside 10% of the city's Measure R transportation sales tax "local return" funding. This funding is expected to total $19M over the next five years, and will go to both bicycle and pedestrian projects. The mayor pledged to use this money as leverage in seeking additional Metro bicycle project funding. He also committed to improve cyclist access to Metro rail and to complete bikeways in conjunction with Metro's future Expo Line and Orange Line extension.

The strongest recurring theme in the mayor's remarks was support for bike helmets. Villaraigosa frequently recounted details of his recent car-bike incident. Avoiding colliding with the taxi, he fell from his bike, initially hitting the ground with his helmet-protected head. His elbow struck next and was "shattered in so many places" that it "swelled to the size of a grapefruit." His physicians stated that its severity more resembled a motorcycle injury, then a bicycling one. The mayor spoke with deep conviction that his helmet had likely saved his life. Initially he pledged to appear in a public service announcement to encourage riders to always wear a helmet.

As the meeting proceeded, Villaraigosa's helmet support grew stronger. To the audible dismay of many cyclists present, he further ardently pledged to push for a statewide mandatory bicycle helmet law - a controversial subject. (Helmets are not required for driving or walking - both activities arguably with similar or greater injury risk than that of bicycling. Bicycle helmet requirements also tend to result in less bicycling, hence inadvertently result in less "safety in numbers" and overall decreased physical activity and public health.)  The mayor's helmet mandate support was most articulately criticized in the comments of cyclist Road Block, who pointed out that nobody wears helmet in European cycling capitals including Copenhagen, and that a better focus would be to create safer streets.

Though strong, clear and steadfast on helmet issues, the mayor was more hesitant with other pledges. At times, Villaraigosa paused indecisively over his words, apparently not accustomed to speaking about bicycle issues. Similarly, LADOT GM Rita Robinson, who often speaks persuasively on budgetary issues,  faltered in trying to describe what bike projects her department was implementing. (The mayor subsequently pledged to make a bike project listing with scheduled dates available online.) While these officials appear genuine in their support for stepping up the city's commitment to bikes, they just don't quite sound well-versed in the issues that bicyclists face... yet.

Robinson did commit to staffing levels necessary for implementing the city's pending Bike Plan, which DCP GM LoGrande pledged to fully release soon. The mayor stated that his first response the city's pending new Bike Plan was "30 years?" - expressing disbelief that it would take the city so long to become truly safe for cycling.

The mayor expressed "frustration" over the "bureaucracy" in the city's plan to hosting CicLAvia - a car-free event modeled after similar events the mayor enjoyed in Guadalajara, Mexico. Councilmember Rosendahl went one further in expressing that he was "embarrassed" when he compares Los Angeles' progress to that made by other cities, including Long Beach.

Cyclists wished the mayor a speedy recovery, hoping that he will be back up on his bike long before he convenes his future bike summits on "at least a yearly basis."