On Earth Day this past Sunday, the Expo Line Phase II Bicycle Advisory Committee, of which I am a member, was given a tour of the Expo corridor and bikeway proposals with a few of the private consultants and public planners involved in the project. Looking at diagrams is never a sufficient replacement for some on the ground perspective, so I was glad we had this opportunity to scope everything out. It was also exciting to see a few testing trains in operation in preparation for tomorrow’s opening. I had not had a chance to get out and see the trains in action previously.
A small contingent of BAC members and interested parties met up a little earlier than the scheduled meeting where Phase II begins, to take a look at the tail end of the Phase I bike route and get a sense for how it will flow together. While I am incredibly excited about the opening of the Expo Line, looking at the bikeway connections in Phase I did not inspire confidence in Metro and LADOT’s ability to plan for pedestrian and bicycle facilities to connect to rail stations.
As with many grand infrastructure projects, the engineering of Phase I overlooks many of the details of both form and function that matter to people at the street level. Either they still don’t get it, or Metro and LADOT just don’t care to make more than a minimal or required effort. What ever the case, bicycling was clearly the afterthought in the Expo planning and engineering.
Even simple and inexpensive things such as wayfinding are deficient, especially where on-street facilities transition to off-street paths. The crosswalk connecting to the La Cienega station from the northeast intersection corner was less than ideal. It is broken up by a right turn pocket with a traffic island. The island had landscaping across most of it, narrowing it to a small choke point, reducing the functionality of the island for people trying to get across and limiting standing room.
Even when building trains, it still seems that it’s all about the car in L.A. Getting a new bike route is better than the former lack of one. In the case of the Phase I Bike Path, critical deficiencies at various points diminish the usefulness of this route as a feeder for the rail line or as a stand alone facility. Metro representatives often remind me that cars take priority at intersections and cannot have their green time affected. Bicycling ridership is modest, they say, never acknowledging that bicycling remains marginal because it is marginalized by design.
Take for example the absurdity of this post on bicycling safety along the Expo Line from Metro’s The Source. Riders are directed in the post to cross tracks as close as possible to 90 degree angles, but the bike lane striping pictured does not allow enough room to do so properly. Have none of the people responsible for designing streets and rail crossings ridden a bike since they were children? The depth of incompetence and lack of basic understanding of operating a bicycle within the American traffic engineering profession never ceases to amaze and dumbfound me.
But I digress, Phase I has been discussed some already here on Streetsblog, and Phase II is where we have the opportunity to make sure things get done right the first time (or mostly right, one can hope). I did not exactly have a glowing impression of how things might go as the official tour began to consider the Phase II bikeway, however there is hope this second half of the job could be done better. For one thing, the Expo BAC was not a public body that existed in time to affect planning on the Phase I route, so the first half of the project lacked oversight from people who actually know what it’s like to ride bikes for transportation. Until such time that engineers learn how to understand bicycles, this citizen oversight seems to necessary to prevent seemingly obvious blunders or missing subtle details that really matter to the experience of riding.
The Expo Line project has been divided into Phase I and Phase II as separate projects. In a way, Phase II provides a fresh start, although there are some design constraints already in place that apparently are not up for much debate. Stephen Villavaso, who led the tour of Phase II, and who is a designer on the bikeway portion of the project for the firm Skanska was responsive to feedback from members of the Expo BAC. Villavaso, who moonlights as a member of CicLAvia’s Board and their pro-bono traffic engineer, really gets bikes.
More of Phase II will be in the right of way on separate paths, than on Phase I. Once the route enters Santa Monica borders, I still have my share of concerns, but I am much more confident things will be well taken care of.
Santa Monica planners are all over the Expo Line, with bike, pedestrian, and land use planning for every station being carefully thought out. The city of Santa Monica has also shown a willingness to throw money and muscle behind station improvements where Metro budgets were lacking. City leaders expect that successful station integration will pay back in spades with new developments and increased property values at adjacent sites. Nearly everything in Santa Monica’s long term general plan for the next 20 years is anchored around its three coming rail stations.
For those interested in this Phase II bikeway becoming a viable route between Culver City and West L.A. into Santa Monica, or for connecting to the train by bike, I would say the most attention and input is needed at the critical challenges in the route on LADOT and Caltrans turf. The two greatest hurdles that threaten to significantly diminish the connectivity of the route are the Venice Blvd. and Exposition Blvd. intersection, and the Pico Blvd. and Exposition intersection. Both of these intersections are big, busy, and have complex diagonal junctures.
These two intersections are also places where the train will be elevated to avoid the mess below, but the bike path will be at ground level. In the case of the Venice crossing, Caltrans operates the intersection. That portion of Venice Boulevard is part of State Route 187. Pico & Exposition is under the purview of LADOT. Getting these two intersections to not completely suck for bike riders and pedestrians will be no easy feat, and a disruptive experience at one or both of them will significantly hinder the functionality of the bikeway.
There is a lot more to be written about what’s going on with Phase II planning, but I’ll be revisiting the subject more in the months ahead as the Expo Bicycle Advisory committee has more opportunities to dig into the project and debate proposals at contentious crossings. For more photos from touring phase two, check out my photo set on Flickr.
(Full disclosure: Damien Newton, who edited this article for Streetsblog, is also a member of the Expo BAC)