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Bike Summit Keynotes: Change Can Only Come with Inspired Leaders

3_9_09_Barando.jpgBernardo Baranda Sepulveda addresses over 300 Los Angeles bike advocates.

Four very different speakers, with different backgrounds and from three different cities, traveled to Los Angeles to inspire local cyclists to bring change to our streets.  While each of these leaders told different stories and had different experiences, each had a common theme: to see the change we want, we need an educated and inspired city leadership.

Lest this sound as though they just came to town to rail against our local politicians, the speakers, Portand's Elly Blue, New York's Noah Budnick and Mexico City's Bernardo Baranda Sepulveda and Dhyana Quintanar Solares, all encourage the cycling community to reach out to our elected officials and think outside the box on how to get across our point that we need and deserve a safe and comfortable environment to ride in city limits.

In other words, just because Mayor Villaraigosa, who so far hasn't shown much innovation or support when it comes to cyclists, got re-elected doesn't mean we have to put our hopes and dreams on hold for four years.

The first speaker was Noah Budnick from New York's Transportation Alternatives.  Budnick spoke of how the city government was seemingly transformed overnight from one who catered to car traffic to one that wants to create a true bicycle network and reclaim streets for pedestrians and people that just want to spend time outside.

However, while the government may have done an about-face on policy, it only came after decades of activism from Transportation Alternatives and its partner organizations though out the city.  Budnick pointed to community activism from 2005, when a series of crashes left cyclists killed throughout the city.  T.A. and community groups worked together to create an uproar over the unsafe nature of New York's streets gaining the attention of the media and the Mayor's office.

Highlighting crashes is a grim and gruesome, but proven effective way of bringing about political change.  But Budnick's main point was that we need to think outside the box to move politicians to see things our way.  He finished his comments with this thought about what constrains city planners, "It’s the politics
that impose the limits, not the curb lines."

Follwing Budnick was Elly Blue, from the mega-blog Bike Portland.  Blue said that there are four signs that a city is a world-class bike city.  A city should be fun, safe, attractive and should make the connection between bikes and the community.  Blue noted that Los Angeles certainly has the first part down, we know how to have fun on our bikes; and I would argue that events such as Art Cycle, Tour De Ballona and Ride Arc show that the cyclists and communities are already starting to work together.

Blue also commented on the challenges that Portland bike-activists now face, one that I think Angelenos would love to have but is a real one nonetheless.  What will is next for Portland now that all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked.  By low-hanging fruit, she means the thousands of gallons of paint used to create colored bike lanes, bike boxes and the traffic calming that has created miles of what we would consider bike boulevards.

Blue also hammered home the idea that until Los Angeles is a world-class bike city.  Despite all of the good things going on in Portland and its "Platinum" ranking form the League of American Cyclists, Blue was not satisfied with the city's progress.  Even as the crowd "ooh'd" and "ahh'd" over the slides showing a network of bike lanes and bike routes; Blue pointed out that as great as Portland is it can't be considered a world-class bike city.

From there we heard of the trials, tribulations and triumph of activists in Mexico City.  Of the two activists in town, Bernardo Baranda Sepulveda the Senior Program Director at the Institute for Transportation Development in Mexico City.

Sepulveda stressed that another way to reach politicians is by taking the our message beyond what is good for cycling.  Don't forget that cycling is good for air quality, and the economy.  A comprehensive series of bike lanes will also benefit transit usage as people will have increased options to get out of their cars.  During the Question and Answer portion of the presentation, Noah Budnick pointed out that New York's new transportation plan came about because such a large part of the air pollution, nearly 25%, in New York City was caused by transportation.  Of course, in Los Angeles, that number is closer to 40%.

Once we have earned the support of politicians, the sky is the limit.  Currently, all of Mexico City's public workers are required to commute without their cars for at least the first Monday of the month, insuring that city-workers at every level understand the obstacles faced by cyclists, pedestrians and transit users.  Sepulveda also pointed to the Car-Free Sundays program where basically the city opens streets throughout and connecting to the downtown to cyclists and pedestrians by closing them to automobiles.

But it's not just about Sunday promotions and occasional car-free days for city employees, it's about using bike infrastructure to make communities more safe and more equitable.  If you have decision makers on your side, they can work with you, step-by-step to fix dangerous intersections and build bike lanes.  The City of Mexico, had over 94 kilometers of bike lanes in 2004 by 2011 they will have over 160.

The last speaker was Dhyana Quintanar Solares.  Solares hit on what by then was a familar theme by encouraging cyclists to demand the support of their Mayor.  With executive support, there is almost no limit to what can be accomplished, but without it we're just fighting at the margins.

From there, the city needs good bicycle data.  Before embarking on a bike plan, or increasing the bike staff ninefold, Mexico City by tracking the number of bike rides and figuring out the origins and destinations for those trips.  Bicycle VMT isn't as important as tracking the growth in trips and where they are going.  Later, during the Question and Answer portion of the presentation, Solares and the other speakers seemed somewhat confused when asked where the funding for these bike studies come from.  In most bike-rich cities studies such as these are built into the budget, not something special that needs a special appropriation.

Solares also emphasised a point brought up by the other speakers.  More important than anything else is making the roads more safe for cyclists and one way to do that is to slow down traffic on side streets and segregate traffic on main streets. 

Lastly, Los Angeles is a unique city and while we should look into and learn from other cities, Los Angeles needs its own unique plan to best serve our streets.  While we can learn a lot from New York, Portland and Mexico City; we shouldn't try to copy them but take what works there and use them to build a new, better Los Angeles.

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