The 4SBB, Homeowner’s Groups and How to Avoid a Bikelash

Councilman Tom LaBonge directs traffic at the 2008 Tour LaBonge "Positively 4th Street" Ride. Photo:##http://www.flickr.com/photos/ingridpeterson/sets/72157600477704135/with/2698939391/##Ingrid Peterson/Flickr##

(The LACBC’s 4th Street Campaign has an open meeting tonight at the Halal Indian restaurant at 4th and Highland at 7:00 P.M. Just got word that the location has moved to Larchmont Bungalow, 107 Larchmont Blvd. Sorry for the last minute change.)

As a city that has for so long embraced car culture in its personality and planning, a change to pushing for bicycle and pedestrian projects is bound to create confusion and anger in some quarters and provoke a backlash from communities. After the battle on Wilbur Avenue in the Valley, where angry car drivers lobbied their City Councilman to remove a chunk of a road diet that proved popular with cyclists and the residents who lived on Wilbur itself.

LADOT expected to be on friendlier ground when pushing its concept for a Bicycle Friendly Street on 4th Street. Not only has the concept of a 4th Street Bike Boulevard has been a sort of holy grail for many cyclists, there are many more bike commuters on and near 4th Street than there are on or near Wilbur Avenue. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition has a campaign centered around making 4th Street safe haven for cyclists and Neighborhood Councils along the route have backed the concept of a bike friendly 4th Street.

A safe and attractive route off major streets connecting Downtown to the Park La Brea development in Fairfax would be a game changer for thousands of cyclists who would use part of the route or would use it to connect to other locales north or south of the route.  4th Street has even been home to one of Councilman Tom LaBonge’s annual summer rides named “Positively 4th Street.”

But the movement to create a Bike Boulevard on 4th Street, or Bicycle Friendly Street as LADOT prefers to call them, hit a major snag last month. An organized homeowner’s group in well-to-do Hancock Park put together a survey with some pretty slanted misinformation and followed up with a petition that attracted over 200 signatures in an effort to beat off bicycle and pedestrian signal lights at two dangerous intersections, 4th and Highland and 4th and Rossmore. Their combined effort spooked Councilman LaBonge’s office who pulled their support for the proposed signal changes and LADOT has dropped the proposal.

The difficulty in explaining new infrastructure is perhaps best exemplified by an article on the controversy between LADOT and the homeowners in the Larchmont Chronicle.  Everything from the title to the text creates more confusion about what LADOT is proposing.  Crossing signals for bicyclists and pedestrians are not traffic lights and they’re certainly not stop signs.

Some proponents of the concept of a completed Bicycle Friendly Street claim the Hancock Park Homeowner’s Association is against the project because of some sort of Not-In-My-Back-Yard syndrome. Others have speculated that the group was spooked that LADOT had only one plan, instead of a variety of options, for the signals and that the residents were reacting to a “design and defend” approach to transportation planning. The Homeowners Association didn’t respond to requests to comment for this story so all we have is speculation.

But the real question is where does the campaign for a safe 4th Street go from here? Some are trying to revive the campaign for the signals at Rossmore and Highland, but the LACBC is hoping to move the campaign farther east to support the LADOT’s proposal for traffic circles in other parts of 4th Street before coming back west to complete the Boulevard on Hancock Park.

The LADOT is licking its wounds but promises to press forward in other areas of 4th Street and other projects. Traffic circles remain on the to-do list as does placing way finding signage along the route.

The Homeowner’s Association remains riled up. A contingent of Hancock Park home owners appeared at last night’s meeting of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee angered that an LADOT road crew installed Sharrows on Arden Boulevard in Hancock Park.

At the same meeting of the Mid-Wilshire Neighborhood Council where LaBonge revoked his support for the two traffic signales, he aproposed a road diet on 6th Street to the confusion of many as 6th Street and 4th Street are very different streets. Advocates have speculated that LaBonge is referring to a proposal to put 6th Street on a road diet and add bike lanes that was proposed by planner Ryan Snyder that would travel west from the end of the 4th Street Bike Friendly Street to Fairfax Boulevard. The Councilman’s Office declined to comment or clarify for this story.

But is there a larger lesson here? The lesson from Wilbur Avenue seemed to be that LADOT shouldn’t implement bike projects without informing the community. In this case, LADOT and its allies did go to the local Neighborhood Councils, but word didn’t filter down to the Homeowner’s Association until the project was farther along.  In areas where LADOT is proposing ideas that are new for Los Angeles, greater outreach is probably necessary than the LADOT Bike Blog and a handful of community meetings.

  • Quick correction: the new sharrows are on Arden Blvd., not Ardmore.

    I remember doing door-to-door flyering for LACBC last year when the pilot sharrows were laid down and feeling slightly ridiculous about doing outreach on what seemed like such a minor, basic, minimal intervention. But after hearing about this 4th Street controversy, I’m starting to think that no amount of outreach will ever be enough when it comes to selling the benefits of new and unfamiliar (at least as far as LA is concerned) bike infrastructure to the communities where it’s implemented. Especially highly engaged, organized and politically well-connected communities like Hancock Park.
    This is complicated by the fact that LADOT Bikeways is either lazy/unwilling to do outreach beyond a few token community meetings or overwhelmed with other work (probably a combination of both). Clearly, the benefits of bike boulevards were never effectively communicated to Hancock Park residents, as demonstrated by the predictions of speeding cut-through traffic that appeared in the Larchmont Chronicle and elsewhere — in total contradiction of the ideal of what a bike-friendly street should be: a calm, quiet street with minimal car traffic moving at safe, slow speeds. Though to be fair to LADOT, they may it also seems like there’s a bit of anti-bike hysteria in the neighborhood, as shown by the objections to sharrows on Arden (come on — it’s already a signed bike route!) and one Greater Wilshire NC member’s obnoxious complaints about stop sign-running at last month’s meeting.It will be up to the bike community to get ahead of LADOT on such projects, as was done with the 7th Street/Main Street road diets. The 4th Street bike signal proposal, in contrast, pretty much flew under the radar, and no big LACBC/BAC presentation or door-to-door push ever happened, apparently. Hopefully whatever comes out of tonight’s meeting will be a step in the right direction and the beginning of a turnaround on 4SBB implementation.

  • Mark Elliot

    This community’s motorists have the run of Beverly, 3rd, and 6th – and these corridors are potential deathtraps given the prevailing speed and pavement quality. The latter issue is particularly egregious. Some stretches have no street lighting.

    Maybe a bike parade is in order here, organized to coincide with a homeowners’ association meeting, to which we might be able to wrangle an invite.

  • Flip-flopping Tom LaBonge will always be a talk-the-talk friend to bicyclists, but he’ll always be our enemy because he’ll also always be a walk-the-walk friend to his well-heeled constituents. He can’t help it really, it’s part of the Politician’s Hippocritic Oath: First Do No Harm To The People With The Deepest Pockets.

  • Alex Vickers

    Great article Damien! Good to hear someone giving an unbiased view of the 4th Street debate. What’s really needed is an effort by the local bike community to show that 1) biking in LA is possible 2) that biking can benefit the average bear. The DOT, as Nial said, has an entire city on its plate and doesn’t have the resources to go door to door in a community and with all the animosity against the DOT that effort probably wouldn’t even work. Apparently Arden residents were yelling at engineers while they put in Sharrow markings this Saturday, exclaiming “I thought the HPHOA put the kibosh on you guys!” The NIMBY attitudes are due to these homeowners self-interest, they don’t bike, don’t see the value in biking, and don’t want to be inconvenienced in anyway by bikers. They are also primarily baby-boomers, the children of the automobile age, it’s going to take a huge amount of effort to convince them of the utility of bikes. 
    I have an anecdote which maybe a cause for hope. My mother (a member of the HPHOA) and I were arguing so much about this issue that it got to the point where we weren’t speaking to one another. To make an extremely long story short, after an argument we agreed to go down to Vista Street in Long Beach to make amends, and to my surprise she was convinced! The real problem is a combination of misinformation and unfamiliarity, if my mother is an indication of the rest of Hancock Park its no wonder why everyone was opposed. She was told that the DOT planned on removing stop signs w/o replacing them with roundabouts, stop signs which took the HPHOA ten years to get put in place. The HPHOA President painted a picture of a cut-through traffic nightmare, where cars would use the signals and would speed through the neighborhood unencumbered by stop signs. My mother also thought the project was going to cost twice as much, and had no idea that only bikes would trigger the signal. She also scoffed at the idea that roundabouts work better than stop signs, she was so riled up about it she wouldn’t even take my word for it. We had to go to Long Beach for her to see it herself. The moral of this story: it’s not impossible to change perceptions in Hancock Park, just extremely difficult. My own mother wouldn’t take my word for it when she helped pay for me to go to college and spend 4 years learning about all these issues (and a trip abroad to Copenhagen!). If a mother wouldn’t believe her own son, why would a homeowner with a similar mindset believe a member of the DOT or LACBC. It’s going to require a huge concerted effort to get this in place, even the roundabouts past Wilton will be extremely contentious I’m predicting. We need to work together! 

  • Eric B

    From the linked Larchmont Chronicle article:

    “We are trying to work with the City to ensure that whatever traffic-calming measures go in on 4th Street will benefit both the bikeway and the residents. The proposed plan shows overhead signals, additional curbing, re-striping, restricted turns and signage. We would like to see what alternatives are available and have more data on impacts,” said Cindy Chvatal, HPHOA president.

    If that’s not someone begging for information and options from LADOT, I don’t know what is.  BFS = traffic calming.  The message really is that simple.

    LaBonge should show some leadership and host a design charrette with representatives from the NC, HOA, and bike community.  Once they are in a room together, I’d be shocked if consensus didn’t rapidly emerge.

  • Alex Vickers

    As someone who lives in the community and knows a bit about the project, let me correct your misconception. The HPHOA’s function in the community is to say no to things, and while on the surface she claims she “would like to see what other alternatives are available” she worked to have the project killed a month before those alternatives could be explored. Tom wasn’t even supposed to make his decision until October 12th, but prematurely made his choice after a concerted effort from homeowners. Cindy Chvatal went door to door telling residents that the DOT planned on taking out stop-signs and didn’t mention the DOT planned on installing roundabouts in their stead. The survey she sent out was, as Damien mentioned, extremely slanted and didn’t have an option for “I’m in favor of these signals.” She also said that cars would be able to trigger the signal, which they wouldn’t, and that the project was going to cost twice as much. Cindy actively worked to make sure this project didn’t happen, even sending the Councilman flowers after he killed it. She wasn’t “begging for options,” believe me. 

  • Eric B
  • Alex Vickers

    Thanks for the information! I wasn’t saying it’s impossible, read my post below for another positive anecdote.

  • I don’t know why LADOT’s Alex Vickers is so demeaning to baby-boomers.

  • Alex Vickers

    Joe, how is “They are also primarily baby-boomers, the children of the automobile age, it’s going to take a huge amount of effort to convince them of the utility of bikes” demeaning in anyway? What’s the point in making a backhanded comment like that Joe, would you like it if I said “I don’t know why Joe Linton is so demeaning to the LADOT?”

    Also how does me working at the LADOT change anything, I’ve grown up in Hancock Park my entire life does 3 months at the DOT mean more to you than 22 years?

  • I have a temp job in the Miracle Mile area and ride 4th Street 3 days a week as a bike commuter. I ride it from Oxford to Cochran and I can count on one hand all the cars that pass me on 4th. I’m aware that a lot of enhancements are envisioned for 4th but for me, all it really needs is a re-paving (the bumps and cracks on that road are awful) and an efficient way to cross the Rossmore and Highland intersections. 

  • Steve Herbert

    There are two factors at work in the entire region which make even minimal change extremely difficult.   

    1) Being a car centric place where nearly everyone works a fair distance from where they live, & neighborhoods pushing back drivers from cutting through their streets due to main arterial routes running over capacity, its perceived that ANYTHING done to benefit cyclists is taking away from drivers of cars, upsetting an already untenable situation.  

    2) People are afraid of change.   KFI commentators John & Ken (among others) routinely paint the notion that cycling as a reasonable transportation mode is nuts.  They stoke the fires that adding cycling infrastructure is taking away from cars, both traffic lanes and budgetary & that those of us on two wheels are simply tree hugging, non-tax paying nuts. It’s narrow minded thinking that LA = using a car to do anything, but prevalent.  It’s also a more basic principle that perception IS reality, and their perception is correct.   It’s difficult to get people to change their perceptions unless it can be shown that these changes benefit their reality.   Somehow they miss the notion that making it attractive to get people to use their bikes benefits drivers by lessening congestion & parking, as well as saving gas and oil.   That installing bike parking is cheaper than car parking & defining where cyclists are to ride via lanes, cycle tracks and even sharrows reduces the number of cyclists cutting out in front of them. We need to identify their hot buttons and craft the message to address and under cut these perceptions.

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