Heading into the Pro Walk/Pro Bike Conference this week, I thought now would be a good time to address the tension and opportunities that exists between bicycling and walking in the city of Santa Monica. For locals, occasional but regular conflicts between walkers and bike riders is hard to miss. Rarely does a week goes by that there isn’t a letter to editor in one of the local papers from a pedestrian on foot irate about someone rushing past them on a bike, or a bike rider furious after falling or nearly doing so from avoiding someone walking into their path at the beach with little chance to respond.
While my experience is primarily based in Santa Monica, I get the impression these issues are a little more sensitive here than in some places. We have a large demographic of retirees who view more bike riders on often narrow Santa Monica sidewalks as moving too fast and threateningly encroaching on a space that should feel safe. Bike riding is illegal on sidewalks by law within Santa Monica borders, but it is not in the surrounding city of Los Angeles. There is very little education, and non-existent signage alerting this difference, which introduces a lot of confusion.
We also have certain destinations on hostile boulevards that are cumbersome to reach via comfortable bike route designated side streets because of long block lengths or poor connections. For people trying to get to certain destinations especially along Lincoln Blvd. or Olympic Blvd. on a bike, I can’t blame them for wanting to ride on the sidewalk for at least some stretches. It may be a legal right to ride in the street, but that doesn’t stop harassment and intimidating threats against one’s life.
There are enough ruthless and aggressive drivers out on the roadways, it is no mystery at all why many people who take to bicycling retreat to the sidewalks. Even with every bit of defensive knowledge available, “League of American Cyclists Certified” instruction principles memorized by heart, and the hardening of prior experience, it gets rough out there.
I can’t blame folks for getting upset at bicyclists on sidewalks as well, and as a frequent walker in Santa Monica, I get my fair share of brush byes from people on bikes without warning. Which includes an experience of nearly being knocked over as I stepped out of a bar just as a SMPD bike patrol officer cruising Pico Boulevard on the narrow sidewalk passed by (there is an exemption to the local ordinance that allows officers to ride bikes on the sidewalk).
Santa Monica also features popular coastal areas that attract different kinds of users to paths some bike riders feel as “theirs”, but which in some stretches are technically defined as “multi-use”. Even in the sections which have cleared defined bike paths separate from adjacent pedestrian paths, people walking across the bike path without looking or walking along it remains common. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez got in touch with me a couple of years ago for my thoughts on this subject for his widely discussed piece titled “On Santa Monica’s beachfront bike path, an uneasy mix”. My quotes didn’t make it into the final column.
While some of these conflicts are very real, and have the potential to become quite hazardous, getting too caught up in these conflicts and the frequently associated back and forth name calling, can distract from root causes and the need to work together for improving the quality of urban life and public safety.
We have to step back and recognize that the source of much of the conflict between walkers and bicyclists (who are eventually pedestrians) is those who pilot automobiles in a fashion to threaten people on bikes. Not to mention that cars by far represent the greater threat to pedestrians. Which is clearly evident by the regular churning of injuries and fatalities for those on foot at the hands of those with steering wheels in Santa Monica.
Bike advocates need to be sensitive to the perception of risk and threats, which can vary quite dramatically from what is borne out in reality. I urge bike advocates to exercise caution and patience when wading into conversations or debates online or in the paper about matters of contention with pedestrians upset with bicyclists.
Not everyone is reading traffic safety reports, pouring through statistics and as well versed in the reality our streets as people passionate about bikes often come to be. We need to walk people through these issues, and recognize and respect that there are legitimate problems of bike riders who fail to yield to pedestrians, or ride far too fast on sidewalks to be safe or prudent (not to mention it is presently against the law to ride on sidewalks at all on any street in Santa Monica).
The built environment is a critical root source of our problems. We have conflict by design, and until that is sufficiently tackled, I don’t think any amount of education, enforcement, or promoting good etiquette will be sufficient on its own, no matter how thorough or well intentioned. We’ve over invested in the motoring realm and under invested in everything else. We don’t flinch at spending more than a billions dollars to widen 10 miles of an already colossal freeway, but making an investment 1000 times less to widen the narrowest stretches of highly populated beach path, is completely off the table.
Like most transportation issues, the complexity of variables involved defies easy answers or silver bullet solutions. However the challenges we face in fostering a city comfortable, safe and even pleasurable to walk and bike are more psychological, social, and political, than they are technical or budget driven. If there is the will, there is a way, particularly when what it would take to improve conditions for bicycling and walking require far less energy, resources and money than accommodating automobile growth.
We have to influence hearts and minds, and build the political clout it takes to get things done. On the bike front, Santa Monica has tackled an impressive amount of low hanging fruit projects in the first year of it’s new bike plan, but tackling the big projects, the ones that go beyond paint, or may involve diversion of car traffic on residential streets, the kinds of things that will take us into the next tier of quality bicycling facilities, are unlikely come as easily or without push back at first. We’ll need all the help we can get in selling these ideas as broadly benefiting everyone.
Pedestrian interests and those of bicyclists should be naturally aligned. Jane Jacobs herself perhaps put it best in her address titled Pedaling Together, presented to the 1988 Spokespeople Conference in Toronto. Like most things Jacobs said or wrote, her words are just as relevant today as they were then, a sign of both her forward thinking and our slow progress toward democratic transportation in North America. (The full text is not online but can be found in Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs on page 121.)
At present cyclists don’t have much clout in pushing for the facilities and city qualities they need and want. I think they would have more clout if they pedaled along with their many, many potential allies, getting aid from those allies in support of cyclists’ needs, and in return helping their natural allies in their battles for better quality of city life; working in mutual support with people who care about bullfrogs, or about traffic lights where the school children cross, or about threats of expropriation to their working places or their homes; understanding that the specific needs and desires of city cyclists can be furthered only within a broader context of the city as a decent human place for people to live and get around in.
For attendees of the Pro Walk/Pro Bike 2012 Pro Place conference, if you are interested, I will be speaking on a panel on Thursday during the 10:15 am break out session titled Communicating Value on the Cheap: Using Digital Tools to Grow Bike Ped & Placemaking Advocacy, along with Brendan Crain the communications manager for Project for Public Spaces, Jonathan Nettler, managing editor at Planetizen and Alissa Walker (aka Gelatobaby). I’ll be kicking off my discussion on the experience of helping organize #FlightVsBike at last year’s “Carmageddon”.