CicLAvia Highlights Need for Better Bike Infrastructure for Cycling to Grow as a Transportation Option

Rides at CicLAvia along Wilshire Blvd. (from last year. I took zero pictures this year). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Riders at CicLAvia (2013) along Wilshire Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“Stay to the right!” rang out over the megaphone from a passing police car. “That means you, young lady!”

As CicLAvia came to a close and streets were being re-opened to cars, well-meaning police officers did their best to warn folks on bikes that their two-wheeled utopia was subsisting on borrowed time.

And, while I was flattered that they thought I was young, I was rather flummoxed at the notion that they would have directed me to move from an empty eastbound lane of Wilshire to the right side of the dozen or so cars queuing up to turn right onto Hoover.

Who told them it was a good idea to run cyclists in front of cars turning right? I wondered.

This moment — the instant that the streets re-open to motorized traffic — is both the most informative part of CicLAvia and the most depressing.

It’s informative in that you immediately get a sense of how well-equipped your average person is to navigate traffic on a bike and your average police officer to help them do so. And, it’s depressing because the answer to both of those questions is “not very.”

At Hoover, the officers’ admonitions directing bikes heading east along Wilshire to stay to the far right were entirely counterproductive (and dangerous). Those that took those directions as gospel headed straight for the gutter, hugging the curb as closely as possible. But, because there was no room to ride in the car-occupied lane, many soon moved up onto the narrow sidewalk, where they had to walk their bikes.

All those now-pedestrians crossed through the intersection on foot, creating a tremendous bottleneck along Wilshire. Meanwhile, police continued to direct people to ride to the right of the growing line of cars waiting to turn right, despite the fact that the eastbound lanes remained almost entirely car-free.

Along other sections of Wilshire that had been re-opened to cars, some people chose to ride on the sidewalks, wanting no part of car traffic. Others continued to brave it out in the gutters, slowly battling and weaving their way up hills, sometimes completely oblivious to — or utterly panicked by — the line of cars forming behind them. Still others, apparently lost in the bike-fest bubble, merrily blew through red lights with their children in tow.

This is madness, I thought.

Not necessarily because all these inexperienced people were out on the streets — although that can be problematic, too — but because they were there and they were not protected by better infrastructure.

Earlier in the day, I had been talking with cycling advocate friends about the next steps forward from CicLAvia.

I loved seeing so many people out on their bikes, I had said, but what I really cared about was seeing cycling transition from a special-occasion or recreational activity to a more normalized one. As much as CicLAvia celebrates open and livable streets, it does so in a very protected and happy environment where police officers, traffic officers, and other volunteers are all on board to help ensure that everybody can move about freely and safely.

Within minutes of the event coming to a close, however, everything goes back to “normal” — that reality in which streets are not particularly welcoming to novices on two wheels. Beyond the bus-only/bikes “OK” lanes, there is no real bike infrastructure or signage along Wilshire to direct them (despite police officers repeatedly announcing, “Stay in the bike lane! It will keep you safe!”), and the multiple (well-intended) admonishments by police via megaphone only served to make the act of riding on the street sound somewhat criminal.

Were I new to the area, an inexperienced rider, or riding with children, I might have thought my best option was to get the hell out of the road and put my bike away until the next CicLAvia.

The stark contrast between the happy and safe environment created by separating bikes and cars and the you-will-probably-die-if-you-don’t-stay-right environment that re-emerged as the barriers to intersections were removed are the reasons that current efforts to stripe more lanes are both so important and not nearly enough.

It seems like every time I ride through the city’s first and only protected lane in the 2nd St. tunnel, I see one or two pylons from the protected bike lane that have been knocked down in some car crash. It’s a rather shocking thing to observe, especially when you realize that the cars in the tunnel have one job and one job only — to go forward. They can’t turn and they can’t switch lanes. If drivers are crashing, it’s because they’re distracted, drunk, impatient, and/or utterly incompetent.

If it’s that bad where it should be the simplest to drive in a straight line, the multiple distractions and obstacles presented by a regular, open street mean that those on two wheels are even more vulnerable. And, yet, as noted here, the draft Mobility Element (currently open for public comment) has scaled back the miles of bike lanes that will be striped over the next several years.

Meanwhile, cycling advocates have had to spend an inordinate number of hours making a case for the MyFig! project before neighborhood councils to counter the doubts (and, in some cases, outright opposition) expressed by major stakeholders like USC, the California Science Center, the film industry, and auto dealerships about the value of a protected bike lane along Figueroa between downtown and Exposition Park.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

If we want people to take cycling seriously as a transportation option — one of the core goals of CicLAvia — then cyclists need to have options that indicate the city takes their safety seriously. Without them, it isn’t clear novices will feel comfortable taking to the streets on two wheels. And those that do, including those that are more accustomed to riding recreationally, can be quickly turned off after a bad experience.

It was a broken mayoral elbow that helped make the first CicLAvia possible. I would hate to think that injured mayors (or regular people, for that matter) are the only things that can push us to the next level with regard to facilitating active transportation. We’re already losing far too many people to hit-and-runs.

If you’d like to voice your opinion on the Mobility Element and the need for bike infrastructure, please check their website here. If you’d like to learn more about bike lanes slated for implementation, please register for the April 17th webinar (7 – 8 p.m.) here or visit thelabikeplan.org. If you have other thoughts about what might help bridge the gap between the numbers of cyclists at CicLAvia and those that are willing to use bikes for transportation (i.e. better training of police officers, more education for cyclists, or more programs like Bike Trains) please post them below.