Taking a Bike Tour of Watts, with a Team of L.A. City Planners

Javier Partida (Los Ryderz) and John Jones III (East Side Riders) talk to riders from the Department of City Planning about the need to make Graham into a bike-friendly street (photo: sahra)

The young men watched the cyclists ride their way past the Watts Towers and post up at the corner of Graham Street.

Puzzled, they pulled me aside and asked what was going on.

What was the occasion?

I had to laugh. “You want to know what all these white people are doing in your neighborhood, huh?”

Nodding sheepishly, they laughed, too.

They weren’t the first people to be curious about our presence.

Even though our group was comprised of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, it was clear that many were not from Watts, and we caused quite a spectacle as we made our way around the area.

Strange as it may sound, in 2012, in a city as diverse as ours, it is still jarring for residents to see outsiders — particularly white people — in certain parts of the city. White folk are rarely seen just hanging out around Watts outside the vicinity of the Watts Towers. When they and other outsiders do come to the area, they tend to arrive in groups and there usually is a specific reason for the visit, so residents are not shy about asking what the occasion is.

I explained to the young men that some of the group were from the Department of City Planning and that they were interested in a firsthand look at how safe the streets were for cyclists and pedestrians.

We had enlisted the help of Los Ryderz and the East Side Riders, I said, to give the planners the best tour possible. Since both groups ride in the area and most are residents of Watts, they could offer the planners important information about how the streets are used and by whom, as well as how safe the streets feel at different times of the day.

Pointing in the direction of Chris Madrigal (one of Los Ryderz), I told them that he had been knocked unconscious in a hit-and-run on Wilmington in the middle of the day a few weeks prior. Because, like many such incidents along that street, it wasn’t reported to the police, city officials don’t know it happened and don’t know there is a need to slow Wilmington down.

“They have to see streets like Wilmington in person to really understand how dangerous it can get,” I concluded.

The young men nodded.

They were pleased to see someone take an interest in the community and said they hoped it would result in some investment in the area. Especially along Wilmington, which they all agreed was pretty dangerous.

“All kinds of things happen along there,” said one. “All kinds of things.”

###

E.J. Bromell, one of the East Side Riders, had voiced concerns that many of us had — that it might be hard for the planners to pick up on regular patterns of behavior on a quiet weekend morning. The hours that kids are usually going back and forth to school present one set of challenges in school zones, for example, while nighttime activities might pose a completely different set of challenges somewhere else.

Luckily, time spent at a few key stops clearly hinted at the kinds of safety challenges a street could pose to pedestrians and/or cyclists.

Riders stop across the street from YO! Watts on 103rd to examine the need for a better-signaled crosswalk (photo: sahra)

It was clear to planners Jane Choi and Nate Baird, for example, that 103rd St. could be the perfect spot for a High-intensity Activated Crosswalk (HAWK). The inadequacy of the existing yellow-striped crosswalk had already been raised during the planners’ meeting with the South L.A. Bike Ambassadors in November. Once we were standing in front of a school and across the street from the youth center YO! Watts, it was much easier to visualize Javier Partida’s (head of Los Ryderz) complaints about how the crossing was unsafe for youth going back and forth between the center, the school, and the housing development next door.

103rd is a fairly wide street that drivers like to speed through. So much so that, instead of stopping when they see a pedestrian, drivers sometimes just swerve to move around them, Partida explained. Pedestrians often end up waiting a while to be able to cross or getting stuck out in the middle of the street, if drivers are really in a hurry. And, the problems are compounded at night when pedestrians can’t be seen and cars are going faster than they should be.

Similarly, at our stop near a crosswalk at 112th St. and Wilmington Ave., planners were able to get a taste of just how problematic Wilmington can be. Drivers moving through it are either just getting off the freeway and, as Stalin Medina (owner of the Watts Cyclery) says, “still excited from their freeway experience” or are eager to get on the freeway or move south past it to where Wilmington widens. They seem not to care that the narrow stretch between 112th and 103rd — with parked cars on each side and bikers and pedestrians darting back and forth between residences and businesses — can’t support them driving at 35 miles an hour.

On the morning of our visit, planners standing with Medina were able to observe just how long children had to wait to cross the street using the crosswalk at 112th. The long waits are especially problematic because, being that many of the pedestrians are just kids, they sometimes get impatient and venture out into traffic together, fingers crossed that someone will stop for them. Or, they just assume people will stop and end up making a mad dash when they realize drivers have no intention of doing so.

While Medina talked about the crosswalk, I spoke with some of the other planners about how much the character of the street changes at night. A motorcycle bar and tobacco shop located there both draw crowds at night, as does a food vendor, and a liquor store up the street. People are constantly crossing back and forth on foot at night while the bar crowd (or people coming off the freeway) speed up and down the street with little regard for anyone. The later it gets, the more dangerous it becomes, especially because much of the street is poorly lit. Even I was nearly run down by a drunk driver there a few months ago.

Taking note of it all, planner David Somers asked what kinds of traffic-calming measures we thought might be effective. More stop signs or lit pedestrian crossings seemed like obvious choices to us, but it was not clear that there were easy fixes. As a major through-street linked to freeway ramps, normal traffic-calming measures apparently cannot be taken. The East Side Riders even suggested the planners consider Graham — a quiet street that runs parallel to Wilmington and is already used as a cut-through by cyclists and pedestrians — as a bike-friendly street. But, that solution wouldn’t address the needs of people trying to get back and forth to businesses along Wilmington.

The participants in the riding tour of Watts preparing to leave from the WLCAC (photo: sahra)

We headed back out on the road to finish the tour, still pondering solutions for the street.

Except for Medina. Determined that the planners not leave without having the “full Wilmington experience,” he grabbed Baird and gave him his own personal tour of the areas of the street we hadn’t covered.

The rest of us headed back to the WLCAC, crossing over freight train tracks on our way back up Central.

This is the spot where the train goes back and forth, I pointed out to Choi as we crossed the tracks.

On our ride down to Watts I had told her about how the freight train that comes through the area will regularly stop, back up slowly, stop, move forward, stop, back up, and so on, backing traffic up for a good mile up Central, depending on how long that little dance goes on for. It probably isn’t something the planners can do anything about, but it is a weird quirk of the area that I figured someone should know about.

Back at the starting point, everyone seemed to feel that the event had been very productive. The riding groups had gotten some of their biggest priorities across and the planners had been able to get a firsthand taste of what the needs were and how people tended to use the streets.

As we were saying our good-byes, I overheard a planner speaking with Jones, saying she was glad she had come along and that the tour had been eye-opening. He laughed, agreeing that to understand an area you have to go there and see it for yourself.

“It’s a perspective you can’t get from Google Earth.”

No, she agreed. This was much better than Google Earth.

###

I would like to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone that got up early on a cold Saturday morning to tour the area. Thanks to the East Side Riders and Los Ryderz for putting together the route and to the planners for their commitment to getting to know the needs of the community. Special thanks goes out to the youth of Los Ryderz for taking on a leadership role and speaking up to make their community a safer place.

  • LA

    I love Streetsblog but could we get more stories with more actual info and less personal anecdotes and especially less silly racial comments like “so many white people”. Not every story is about race. BTW…Comments like “nodding sheepishly” is a little judgmental and condescending. Human focused stories are great but consider viewing things with a different lens. 

  • Anonymous

    Ha, I’ll have to disagree with commenter LA on this one… I think Sahra’s stories are the best on Streetsblog (no offense to the other writers!).

    Regarding freight switching movements… railroads get priority and there’s nothing the city can really do about it. On the plus side, freight that moves by rail is freight that doesn’t move by truck…

  • In branding LA Streetsblog to funders and readers, we’ve taken to referring to it as an “online news magazine” and not a “blog” or “news paper.” That means some stories in the first-hand. I actually found this story to be interesting on several levels and there’s plenty of news wrapped into the narrative. City Planning is working on better, more community oriented, outreach in South L.A., local groups have identified a handful of intersections and road stretches that need improvement and presented them first person, issues being raised at LACBC Bike Ambassador meetings are being filtered up through the city hierarchy.

    Look, Sahra, me, Kris and Brian all have different writing styles to say nothing of the regularly appearing pieces by Tanya and Angie. Heck, I even have different writing styles pending whether I’m writing a “news” or “opinion” piece, you can tell based on whether I’m using 1st person at all. 

    The diversity of opinions and style is part of what has fueled a really successful year in a lot of ways – more readers, more writers, more funding, more everything. Not every piece can be breaking news, not every piece can be up for a Pulitzer, but I think on any given day  we put out a pretty unique and thought provoking publication over all.

  • sahra

    I’m sorry you find those comments silly. But many of the reasons underserved communities are underserved have to do with historical issues linked to race and class, whether we like it or not. I find it striking that we still have difficulties speaking about these issues in general or that people think that race and class somehow don’t figure into things like city planning and allocation of resources. When have those issues ever *not* figured into resource allocations in any area of policy? I’ve written a few pieces about how and why, even with the best of intentions, the city has not been successful reaching out to lower-income communities of color. It isn’t always willful oversight that leaves a community out, but issues of race and class can complicate outreach efforts.

    Understanding that it isn’t comfortable for some people to talk about race/class, I try to present the observations through the eyes of the people I’m interacting with–I hope that it will make it easier for people to grasp where they are coming from and why they say or feel what they do or why some issues are so challenging to come to agreement on. People in these communities speak very frankly about these issues among
    themselves because they are very present for them. [The “sheepishness”,
    btw, came from the youth being surprised at being spoken to frankly by
    an outsider to the community. I’m ambiguous brown to most people, so
    they don’t know how open I am to talking about such issues. There is
    sometimes some embarrassment and dancing around topics before people
    feel comfortable speaking openly in front of me.]

    With regard to those youth, for example, it was clear that they (and everyone else on that street) were curious about the arrival of the group of cyclists and their intentions. I think we should all be troubled that they are not accustomed to seeing white people in the wild. For one, it means that there isn’t a lot of cross-pollination. Watts is isolated from the rest of the city and vice-versa. Which makes it harder for youth to see themselves fitting in elsewhere or having the confidence to pursue opportunities that might take them out of the neighborhood. For another, it makes it harder for us to see ourselves as a community and work together toward common goals. When a high school girl found out I had been at USC, she said with genuine wonderment, “I bet you see a lot of white people there, huh, miss?” as if white people were somehow a different species. In my series of articles about former crew-member Fidel, he explains how he sees USC students as being from what amounts to a different universe, despite the fact that he grew up blocks from the campus. Those socio-economic boundaries are as tangible as brick walls for some. Finally, it makes it harder for all of us to get along. When white people arrive in groups in poor neighborhoods, residents often fear gentrification. When people see groups of Latino or black youth in places like a college campus, they sometimes fear they are up to no good. We are very good at fearing what we are unfamiliar with and do not understand in this culture. Which also makes it harder for us to work together in making the city more livable–especially if we’re doing more to keep certain elements out rather than welcoming them in. 

    I’d prefer not to have to talk about race and class. I’d prefer that a lot of the injustices I see — the profiling and harassment of young men of color, for example — were not regular practice or were at least equal-opportunity in their discrimination. But they’re not. When people stop asking me if I’m afraid of getting shot every time I go to South LA or giving me stank-face when I mention hanging out in the area, or telling me I’m “bad-ass” for riding my bike in the area or that they are “terrified” to go there, I will feel more ready to stop talking about race and class.

  • sahra

     Thanks, much appreciated!

  • Matt

    I have to agree with the writer.  Hard to believe for many people who live in LA who live in diverse communities and are traveling to and fro within the region that some people, especially in South LA do not experience the diversity nor are able to get outside their neighborhoods much at all.  My Mom was an elementary school teacher in the Harbor Area and South LA (then referred to as South Central) and several times students came up to her and told her they had never seen a person with blue eyes before her.

  • Dennis Hindman

    It was a revelation to see LADOT traffic engineers being asked to ride bicycles around the different areas that were studied for the Thinkbike workshop. This was an approach that seemed to be suggested by the Dutch delegation.  I asked Dutch planner/engineer Hilie Talens afterwards if that was commonly done in the Netherlands: “I always require that my traffic engineers ride bicycles in the areas that they work on.”  This gives the engineer a better idea of where people go and what is needed to improve travel for the cyclist. You can’t that information from just looking at diagrams and maps.

    An interesting point at the recent Metro bicycle roundtable i attended was that cyclists that rode to Metro stations were asked whether they would use a secure indoor bike station if one was available. An assumption might be that this would be used wherever they put one. I thought that since the North Hollywood subway station had by far the most bike parking then that must mean that more people bicycle to this station than all of the others. It turns out that the Blue Line has the most bicycle users but most of them take their bikes on the train.

     Finding out whether a design would meet the needs of users is something i find lacking in the LADOT approach to installing much of their bicycle infrastructure. Just going by what is in the MUTCD is often not sufficient to solve a problem that may occur.

    An example of this is a street like Lankershim Blvd that runs diagonal to other streets. I have found that riding on a street or bike path that crosses an intersection diagonally creates some of the most hazardous and uncomfortable situations for cyclists. That can be found along the Orange Line bike path where it intersects Burbank Blvd and Fulton Ave, on Riverside Dr at Camarillo St and Tujunga Ave, on Lankershim Blvd where there is a fork in the road where it meets Cahuenga Blvd and also where Lankershim Blvd intersects Vineland Ave/Camarillo St.

  • Eric Redkin

    I defintiely agree with you. The continuous injecting of racial comments into articles seem unfortunate to me too. Yes, the area is historiclly discriminated against in this now minority majority city. FYI: You can find bad examples of planning and especially bad bike planning all over the city in all types of neighborhoods. Everything isn’t always about race for most people but some just see it that way…Sad. Thanks for your comments/discussion.    

  •  I have the same feeling as LA about the anecdotal style that Sahra writes with – it’s definitely not the style that I like to read, which is generally more terse and filled with data.  But I know that a lot of people prefer to have a more narrative form in the writing.  I would probably stop reading Streetsblog if every post were written in this sort of format, but I’m glad for the variety of styles, and I think that Sahra does a great job of bringing to light issues of race and class that are often easier and more comfortable to just ignore.

  • sahra

    That’s an interesting observation about the bike parking. I recently was at the NoHo station and was blown away by the number of bikes parked there. I wasn’t able to make the bike metro roundtable because of a prior commitment but you’ve reminded me to follow up with them about what came out of the meeting. It is true, too…the Blue Line is always packed with bicyclists. If you’re taking the Red Line into central LA, you probably can walk to wherever you need to be. The Blue Line is pretty far east in South LA, so they can’t really afford to leave their bikes behind — it is part of how they get to their destination. Thanks for the observations.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Sahra, the information i’ve received at these meeting are difficult to find on Metro’s website unless you know what to look for, so heres a link to an extensive report that Metro produced last year on bicycle counts and surveys that were conducted at rail stations:

    http://www.metro.net/projects_studies/bikeway_planning/images/Greenhouse_Gas_Bicycle-Rail_Trip_Analysis-2011-0621.pdf

    A link to Metro’s annual bicycle policies/program update made for their planning and programming committee. On page 9, you can find information that indicates a bike station is planned to be opened at the Hollywood/Vine subway station in 2013 and at the North Hollywood subway station in 2014:

    http://www.metro.net/board/Items/2012/09_September/20120919P&PItem23.pdf

  • Dennis Hindman

    Sahra, here’s another Metro report on bicycles called the Orange Line mode shift study that will enable you to compare bicycle counts at this BRT stations to the rail line stations:

    http://www.metro.net/projects_studies/sustainability/images/Sustainability_Report_MOL.pdf

  • Dennis Hindman

    Sahra,

    Here’s a link to the ridership counts for the different Metro rail lines and Orange BRT for November 2012 so that you can get an even better understanding of the amount of bicycles per passenger boardings. One comparison using this count is that to get the same amount of cyclists per boardings, the Blue Line would need over three times more people using a bike to get to the stations compared to the Orange Line:

    http://www.metro.net/news/ridership-statistics/

  • sahra

     thanks so much!

  • ONELOVE

    Sahra….Ive lived in south Central MY WHOLE LIFE…..as a RESIDENT not someone looking IN and NOT KNOWING nor Wanting to know the REAL…YOUR ARTICLE IS For REAL and INDEED ACURATE for people who are offended to KNOW THE TRUTH …they shouldn’t read the ARTICLE….Since the introduction OF SLAVERY everything has always BEEN ABOUT RACE 1st ….all it takes is to READ about the REAL HISTORY of this COUNTRY ..KEEP Writing and TELLING THE TRUTH>>>FINE JOB>>>BRAVO

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