Updating the Bike Plan: Well, How Did I Get Here?

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The city of Los Angeles is updating its Bicycle Plan. The city staff report (p.20) states that this plan will “springboard the city of Los Angeles into the forefront of bicycle planning and establish the steps needed to ensure that Los Angeles become a world-class city for bicycling.” That’s an actual quote. Really. Perhaps it’s some sort of cut and paste error.  The same staff report also touts “Cicolvias.” [sic]

An internet search didn’t find any other accounts of the proposed bike plan update turning Los Angeles into a world-class bike city. Critiques of the plan have been considerably less effusive than the staff report, calling it “an entertaining and inspiring experience that bears no connection to reality” (Bikeside) and “a bunch of phoney bloney jargon to hide the fact that there are no real plans [for bike lanes on major streets]” (Brayj Against the Machine.) Even supportive articles include qualifications “… a step in the right direction … we are requesting that Planning and DOT … show further commitment” (LACBC) and “I like a lot of what I see in the draft plan, though.” (Biking in LA)

This article takes a look at the trajectory of the plan – how it got to where it is and where it might go from here.
The city bike plan covers many aspects of how the city does or doesn’t interact with bicycling: bike parking, bike maps, Bike to Work Week, technical standards, etc.

Though the bike plan generally guides the city’s bike programs, many city bike programs are not in the plan. When the mayor’s collision instilled in him a support for bicycle helmet use, he didn’t turn to the Planning Department and say “we need to update the bike plan to support helmet use.” No, he merely advocated for policies, programs and legislation outside the plan. Similar recent out-of-plan policies and programs have included city support of CicLAvia, LAPD escorting of Critical Mass, and “Give Me 3″ awareness campaigns. Those are all ongoing city bike programs. None of them are in the current city bike plan approved in 1996.

Hence, while it’s good to have good policies in the plan, those policies tend to be limited more by political will than they are by the bike plan.

Other items in the plan are limited by funding. The plan may call for ambitious education programs and lengthy bike paths, but the implementation of those programs/facilities tend to not be limited by the plan specifics, but instead are limited by the city’s success in obtaining outside grant funding. Whether the plan contains 500 or 5000 miles of new bike path (the new draft has about 100 miles), generally the city can only implement 5-10 miles per year due to limited bike path funds available, mainly from the Metro Call for Projects.

Hence, while it’s good to have good paths and programs in the plan, those tend to be limited more by funding than they are by the bike plan.

On-street facilities are limited by the bike plan. (They’re what this author focuses inordinately on, too.)  Generally those on-street facilities are bike lanes. Bike lanes are very cheap; the extent to which bike lanes are implemented depends heavily on what streets are designated for bike lanes in the bike plan.

Here’s a quick score sheet on how the city’s commitment to bike lanes has waxed and waned through recent plan processes. (Follow the links for more details.)

The city has an existing bike plan: the 1996 Bicycle Master Plan. It’s currently in effect. The ’96 plan designated ~227 miles of new bike lane. Of those, the city implemented about 37 miles of planned bike lanes (and about 30 miles of unplanned bike lanes.) None of these planned or unplanned facilities necessitated any documented environmental review. Future approved bike lanes miles remaining in the 1996 plan: 190 miles.

About 5 years ago, the city decided to update the bike plan. In deciding what sort of bike plan was needed, the city formulated a bike plan scope designed to more-or-less dismantle the remaining approved but-as-yet-unbuilt bike lanes and to approve other bike facilities on quieter out-of-the-way streets.

The city hired bike plan consultants Alta Planning and Design, who have a reputation as one of the best bike planning firms in the nation. In late 2008, Alta turns in a draft plan – never made public, despite FOIA requests, but its outline is clear from the remnants of its dismantlingFuture approved bike lane miles in the 2008 Alta draft plan: 125 miles.

In 2009, the city spends about half a year dismantling their consultants’ recommendations, and then publishes their initial bike plan draft to near-universal dismay. The plan introduces a new category of “speculative” bike lanes (about 400 miles) - initially labelled “infeasible” later called “potential” later called ”further study.” Future approved bike lane miles in the 2009 city draft bike plan: 28 miles.

In 2010, the city, having exhausted its consultant budget, decides to retool the draft plan in-house. The “speculative” bike lane category balloons to 500+miles. Future approved bike lane miles in the 2010 city draft bike plan: ~60 miles.

There’s a lot more to the 400+ pages in the current draft plan… some of it worthwhile, some of it questionable, some of it despicable… but a commitment to safe streets remains elusive. Many provisions in the draft plan make it more difficult for the city to implement bike lanes.

For the new bike plan to take effect, it must first be approved by the City Planning Commission. If they approve, it then goes before the City Council’s Planning and Transportation Committees, then to the full City Council, then to the Mayor. It’s scheduled to be heard at the City Planning Commission meeting tomorrow - Thursday November 4th 2010 at 8:30am in City Council Chambers – on the 3rd floor of City Hall, at 200 North Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles 90012. Public entrance and bike parking is on Main Street; easy transit access via numerous buses and the Metro Red Line Civic Center station.

Bicycle advocacy groups are encouraging folks to attend tomorrow’s meeting, and to testify - whether in favor of or against the plan. Once approved by the Planning Commission, the plan becomes more difficult to modify as it moves through approval processes, so tomorrow’s meeting is expected to be critical for pushing for possible improvements to the plan.