Rorshach Test: What Do You See When You Look at this Photo?

A man cycles along the sidewalk next to a bike lane at 96th and Central in Watts (photo: sahra)

Well, what do you see?

I’m guessing your answer will run along the lines of “a need for education.”

But who exactly needs to be educated?

Think for a second.

How many times have you seen a cyclist pedaling happily along a crowded sidewalk, completely uninterested in riding in the wide-open bike lane a few feet from him?

I see it all the time, multiple times a day. Especially downtown, where the green and buffered bike lanes scream, “Ride me! I’m totally here for you!” and many cyclists still choose dodging annoyed pedestrians on packed sidewalks.

These cyclists — often lower-income commuters and youth — are trying to tell us something with the choices they make. Namely, bike lanes are not enough to make them feel safe riding in the road.

Some of the fear is merited. In the location in the photo above, for example, drivers looking to branch off onto Hooper St. from Central are loathe to yield to cyclists looking to continue along Central. Trying to hold your lane could end very badly for you.

Other fears are not. Take this stretch of Central — it is very wide and cyclists have more than enough room. It clearly wasn’t enough for the fellow below, however, who rode next to the bike lane (using it as a buffer) in the street. And, he appeared to have only chosen to ride in the road because there is no sidewalk alongside the power station (to his right). Once the sidewalk reappeared a little further south, he was all over it.

A man rides alongside the bike lane on Central in Watts (photo: sahra)

Telling cyclists like these men to take a nearby bike-friendly street so that they can ride in peace won’t work. Depending on who they are and the area of town they are in, they may not feel safe doing so. Male youth also generally feel safer on busy streets where it is harder to be hassled, caught off guard, or cornered.

Educating the cyclists about bike lanes and explaining that they are there for their use and safety will not be much help, either. The only things that will disabuse them of the notion that “drivers are crazy!” are drivers behaving better and fewer hit-and-runs.

Cyclists I have asked about their riding patterns tell me they are simply afraid to be in the road. Some are not even comfortable along streets like Exposition, a favorite of mine because the bike lane runs adjacent to the curb and cyclists don’t have to worry about parked cars and doorings.

If they do ride in the street, they often do so on the wrong side because they feel safer when they are able to see what is coming at them. One youth stopped for riding on the wrong side of Wilmington Ave. told me he complained in vain to the officer that the street was too unsafe for him to ride with traffic, citing incidents where he and others had been hit from behind. Another youth who lives near Vermont and Gage reported having been hit four separate times, with the driver bolting each time. He, too, has been ticketed for riding on the wrong side of the street but still refuses to ride with traffic.

Instead of encouraging better riding habits, enforcement tends to push riders like these youth back onto the sidewalks, where (per my observation) they are more at risk. When cyclists shoot out from a sidewalk to cross through an intersection or a driveway, drivers tend not to see them coming until it is too late.

In short, fear makes it tough out there for a cyclist.

What’s the solution?

My concern in raising this issue is that people will see photos like those posted here and walk away with the idea that, if riders are so averse to using the lanes, it might not be worth investing in them in lower-income neighborhoods.

I would prefer people thought about ways to make these very needed infrastructure investments pay off.

For an area like South L.A., that might mean shifting focus away from investments in costly infrastructure for bike-friendly streets (in the South and Southeast planning areas) and looking at installing separated or protected bike lanes along major streets where regular painted lanes are supposed to go in. Or even lanes with some sort of physical marker (like red Solo Cups?) that would serve to make drivers think twice about cutting into a lane and give cyclists a little more peace of mind.

Separated lanes certainly appear to have worked some serious magic in Long Beach — new data from a year-long study of the separated bike lanes along Third St. and Broadway shows that, not only did ridership increase by 33%, bike accidents decreased by 80% (5 to 1), vehicle accidents decreased by 44% (80 to 45), and vehicle speeds dropped by several miles per hour along both streets. Most notably, the study found, sidewalk riding decreased from 63% to 27% along Third St. and from 70% to 28% along Broadway.

Even though separated lanes have been found to increase safety by huge margins, such changes tend to be limited to congested business districts where there is a high density of cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles and the goal is to encourage more biking and walking. But what if separated or protected lanes were more widely implemented?

In areas like South L.A., they could help in promoting better riding habits among cyclists while offering them more protection from hit-and-runs — a widespread problem in the area. The protected lanes could also encourage more families and recreational riders to take to the streets, something that could be helpful in addressing the high rates of obesity and diabetes in the area.

Such bike lanes could also help change people’s minds about the significance of bike lanes for their community. It is not unusual to hear some argue that bike lanes are a sign of looming gentrification. Silly as that may sound to some, it isn’t hard to understand how the appearance of something in the community that doesn’t seem to fit the needs or use patterns of cyclists there could set people wondering about what was afoot. Separated or protected lanes, on the other hand, would likely be seen as a benefit to the existing community and could help encourage more civic engagement from the very groups that advocates have a hard time reaching.

Lanes are costly investments. And, they are far more necessary along major thoroughfares in areas like South L.A. than bike-friendly streets. But if we’re going to invest that much money putting them in, it would make sense that they be in a form that people are most likely to use.

Educating ourselves about what makes these cyclists feel safe might be the best place to start.

  • Feeduprider

    I have been forced out of a bike lane @ 7th & Union Ave. by a woman that, as she pushed my bike with her car said “I need to make a right here.” Don’t educate cyclist, educate drivers. I ride everyday from south LA to downtown & I’m to the point that I Carry a police style baton on my bike. I’ve been hit 5 times, the last 2 i recived serious injuries. One guy was asked if he was distracted by talking on the phone & he said “no, nothing like that, I just had my head up my ass.” & the police let him drive away without anymore questions.

  • I ride as shown in the second picture. And I dont see why anyone would ride in the bike lane in such a case. 

  • Danny

    I don’t blame them. I won’t ride in bike lanes either unless they’re protected (and I’m in the inner-ring burbs). Drivers are too distracted and have too little incentive to drive well. 

  • Jasmine

    Educating the public really needs to be a priority. It is counterintuitive, but riding on the sidewalk is actually much more dangerous, then riding in a bike lane. Cars don’t expect cyclists there, particularly cars turning right and cyclists going straight.

  • Joe B

    I don’t know what you’re talking about; educating cyclists would work just fine.

    For example, “You should leave the quiet sidewalk and ride out there, right next to the fast-moving traffic. I promise you won’t have to make an emergency maneuver to avoid crashing more than once every two or three miles.”

  • Joe B

     Unfortunately, drivers don’t usually expect cyclists to be in bike lanes, either.

  • kellyp

    This is the way bike lanes should be designed. Parked cars should be protecting riders not the other way around.

  • Alex Vickers

    I bike to work daily from my Metrolink station in Orange County to the office, and while I never sidewalk ride in Los Angeles I sidewalk ride every morning. My reasons are mainly because 1) There’s NOBODY on the sidewalk, you couldn’t be in a more pedestrian unfriendly place. I maybe cross paths with one old couple walking their dogs, if that. 2) The speed limit’s 45-50-55 MPH on many of these streets. The bike lanes (if there are any) are extremely scary to use. 

  • Irwinc

    In the photos above, we can improve the safety factor pretty easily if we just re-striped the road and switch the parking lane and bike lane so that the bike lane are to the right of parked cars and next to the curb. You may still get hit by a door (from the passengers exiting cars) but I would think most people will feel a lot safer not riding next to cars passing at 40 mph.

  • Dennis Hindman

    The University of British Columbia surveyed Vancover residents about what factors motivate or deter them from cycling:

    The survey results of where people prefer to ride a bicycle are very similar to a subsequent study at the UBC of the types of bicycle routes which had the lowest rate of injuries in Toronto and Vancouver:

    There is also a recent report by the Mineta Transportation Institute entitled Low-Stress Cycling and Network Connectivity which is based on the principle that a low-stress route for cycling will attract a much greater proportion of the population:

    The LA City Planning Department has produced a draft of a proposed bicycle enhanced network of protected bike lanes based routes in the 2010 bike plan:

  • Though my own style is “vehicular,” I respect the desire, and ultimately the right, of others to ride separated from traffic — the only way we’ll ever get modeshare beyond a few percent.  Legal and/or tolerated sidewalk riding is key to the success of Capital Bikeshare in Washington DC, and above-average modeshare in the Maryland suburbs.

  • Wanderer

    Anybody on here care about what happens to the pedestrians on the sidewalks when cyclists come barreling at them?

  •  Statistically almost nothing. There are more people killed and injured by cars driving on sidewalks than bicycles, and there are a lot more bicycles on sidewalks than there are cars. Sure people sometimes get killed or seriously injured by other people riding bicycles, just as there are people killed or seriously injured by people jogging/running on the sidewalk. Neither one happens often enough to be a serious problem. As in most bicycle “problems” with pedestrians, perception is much worse than actuality.

  • Dennis Hindman

    It becomes much more difficult to take away a travel lane as the traffic count increases. An advantage of emphasizing unprotected lanes at first is that its much easier to quickly grab space away from motorized vehicles compared to the more expensive and slower to install protected bike lanes. After the space is reserved for bicycles, then the DOT can go back later and improve it. If the space is not available, then you can’t install any kind of bike lane.

  • Alex Brideau III

    The possibility of being doored in such a situation could be reduced by simply narrowing each of the car lanes by 1 foot and each bike lane by 6 inches, which would allow for a 3.5-foot buffer between each curbside bike lane and the parked cars. This could reduce the dooring threat.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Agreed. I think the key is to make sure the “phase 2” of protecting the bike lanes actually occurs.


Report from Last Week’s DTLA Bike Sting

On Thursday, March 1, 2012, the LAPD Central Traffic Division deployed eight motorcycle officers to Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) in what was called a “Bike Lane Sting.”  The LAPD’s mission was to educate and issue traffic citations to motorist, cyclist and pedestrians whose actions infringed on the rules of the road.   The focus was on […]