In the first post of this two part series, I laid out some of where we are in Santa Monica with regards to bicycling, and my belief that we are a regional leader even if Long Beach has silver and we remain ranked bronze. However a lot remains to be done if we are to make bicycling truly accessible in Santa Monica, and as promised, in this second part I’ll outline some specific strategies and milestones that may be useful in guiding the next few years.
First, we need more coalition building and broad inclusion in our framing. Staunch critics of bicycling including columnist Bill Bauer at the Santa Monica Daily Press always frame bicycling in terms of those who are already riding. He and other critics like him, characterize bike advocates as in it for themselves and their small circle of friends. Their language is explicitly structured to make riding a bike an “Other”. Not an activity accessible or desirable to anyone, but a niche “club” undeserving of any more than its presently marginalized status, or worse.
We must utterly reject this framing of connecting bike facilities to only our present limited ridership. Our limited existing data emphasizes work trips, when people do many other errands by bike, and hardly captures the many more potential riders.
An enlightening metaphor is that we don’t decide where to put doors in a building by counting how many people try to walk through a wall. Understanding existing ridership patterns is important, but highly influenced by the imbalances of the existing conditions and may not reflect latent demand. Baseline ridership is far from the only criteria that matters.
I see two primary ways to counter the Othering of riding bikes for transportation. The first is forming closer partnerships with other formal and informal advocates in the city of common interest in improving the quality of city life, and broader environmental goals. The second is placing stronger emphasis on the category of people bicycle researcher Jennifer Dill has studied in Portland, known as “interested but concerned”, who would ride bikes for many trips if conditions improved.
For those of us advocating for bikes, I think most of us are thinking of those that would be riding in a safer world. If we are already riding, we don’t really need more facilities to be confident enough to do so, but I think we should emphasize these potential riders on the fence more strongly. It’s not just about “us”, it’s about making it accessible to anyone. We have a tremendous baked-in opportunity to quickly build popular political consensus with more outreach to those occasional but concerned riders. In a city like Santa Monica, with a strong recreational beach bicycling culture we have more than 60% of households that own a bike, or multiple bikes (source: from citywide survey referenced in the Bike Action Plan p. 42 “The Bicycle Is Perfect For Santa Monica” [129mb pdf]), and most who use them at least occasionally. This is a great demographic base to start from.
Due to the fact that many of our existing facilities fall short of reaching the comfort level for many potential riders, a critical milestone should be completion of a facility that reaches the highest degree of accessibility and comfort level to establish a precedent for what is possible. During the public process for the Bike Action Plan, when residents were asked which type of cycling facility they wanted to ride, a fully protected cycle track by far had the most stickers. We need a demonstration of a quality facility, something in the city grid that feels as natural and casual to the everyday person as a ride on the beach path. Something that will give peace of mind to the parents supporting our growing Bike It! Walk It! Day events.
While the concerns to bicycling are unique in the range of transportation modes, and warrant their own focus, we should be careful to emphasize bicycling as one component of extending transportation choices. It’s not just about the bike, walkability ultimately at the root of sustainability for cities, and bicycling can function as a last mile solution for transit service. When critics try to frame bicycling advocacy as just trying to get everyone on bikes, again we must utterly reject this, and emphasize better bicycling facilities as facility expanded choices. As Americans, we love our cereal aisle with every combination of textures and flavors under the sun, yet we put up with a transportation system dominated by just one choice. If we step back and examine this, I think we will find most people are behind the idea of expanding viable choices.
Broadening the discussion around bicycling is also a perfect opportunity to discuss the benefits of bicycling for anyone, including those who never bike. There are a range of such effects, but perhaps the most dramatic and impactful is in safety. We should take a page from NYCDOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s playbook and wield safety data like a hammer. The best thing to happen to pedestrian safety on many NYC streets in years has been the addition of bike lanes. When Ocean Park Blvd in Santa Monica had it’s “road diet”, which fit in bike lanes, Lucy Dyke has said this cut all types of collisions in half across the board. This kind of information is powerful, and we should use it heavily.
Those less persuaded by health, safety and the environment, often can be persuaded by the economics. We have a lot of cultural mythologies around driving that are based more in faith than reality. Many businesses are utterly convinced nearly everyone drives to their business, and are often surprised how many people walk, bike or take transit, if you actually survey customers. Bekka Wright, the creator of the bicycle web comic Bikeyface, recently did a wonderful set of drawings illustrating this very concept and is worth checking out and sharing broadly.
The Santa Monica Bike Action Plan gives a lot of direction, but also deliberately loose in the final details of implementation. How people respond to specific proposals that require more public input such as Neighborhood Greenways or cycle tracks, that go beyond than low hanging fruit projects. Using the corridors in the bike plan as a guide, advocates could develop a ground game of outreach to neighborhoods we know are slated for projects leading up to or well before the city’s own public process. Such an effort would be taxing on the handful of consistently active volunteer advocates for bicycling in Santa Monica, mostly encompassed by Spoke, but could be accomplished by starting with smaller and more focused outreach on recruiting new folks to get involved.
One final milestone I’d like to see, and which Portland Oregon has really hit it’s stride on when I last visited, is the appearance of cargo bike culture, both for carrying your typical stuff to shuttle around, and kids. There is the occasional sighting in Santa Monica, but is far more the exception than the norm at this point.
One big piece of the puzzle that I think is missing for this take off is a bike shop that truly caters to the everyday utilitarian cycling vision. We have many local bike shops, and I appreciate them all, but nearly all of them are extremely sport centric, and if there are cargo bikes, they are in the back somewhere and clearly not the target market for the shop. Over at Flying Pigeon Bicycle Shop in Northeast Los Angeles, Josef Bray-Ali has slowly introduced bakfiets to the Southern California region, but to serve those trying to make the carfree or car lite lifestyle work on the Westside, I think a local bike shop with a similar vision would do wonders. At various points I’ve almost considered quitting everything and investing in opening such a shop myself, but my wife has nudged against it, at least for now.
If we can emphasize these points, and achieve these milestones, some of which are more easily said than done but certainly doable, I believe we’ll be set to take bicycling in Santa Monica to silver and hopefully shoot beyond. I’m sure I’ve missed a few things, so feel free to share other ideas in the comments. It is my hope that a concerted push in Santa Monica will have positive reverberations for the region due to Santa Monica’s visibility and prominence as a destination, and we are at a solid position to take things to the next level.