Battling over bike lanes
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat idling through one traffic light, then two, then three, whether the mayor’s broken elbow had anything to do with the ruination of my favorite street.
For years, Wilbur Avenue had been a free-flowing community secret, a commuter street that bypassed the congestion of Northridge’s main routes. Then a “street improvement” project last month turned our speedway into a parking lot.
The street was repaved, restriped and reassigned.
A “road diet,” the city planners call it, aimed at slowing autos down and creating bicycle paths. Four traffic lanes were whittled to three — one in each direction and a center turning lane. Curbside bike lanes now hem in the cars.
Cycling advocates have been pushing for years for more bike lanes on city streets. Their campaign got a boost last summer after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa suffered a broken elbow when a cab abruptly pulled in front of him and he fell off the bike he was pedaling along Venice Boulevard.
A month later, the mayor convened a bike summit, ordered up hundreds of bike safety posters and promised to beef up construction of designated paths for his two-wheeled comrades. Within weeks street crews were hard at work — some on overtime and furlough days — painting bike logos along two miles of Wilbur Avenue.
The mayor’s “unfortunate accident” had nothing to do with the project, said L.A. Department of Transportation Assistant General Manager John Fisher. Wilbur had long been on the list for bike lanes, and “when we learned the street was being resurfaced, we saw an opportunity,” he said.
The suddenly reconfigured street “was a shock to the neighborhood and a shock to me,” said area Councilman Greig Smith. Complaints poured in. Tempers flared. Accidents increased. The morning traffic jam stretched for blocks, and driveways were blocked by slow-moving cars.
“Wilbur is the wrong street for this kind of improvement,” said Smith, his sarcasm clear. His district office is on Wilbur, at the bike lane’s southern terminus. “I’ve driven that street for 30 years, and I have probably seen a total of 30 bicycles on Wilbur in all that time.”
That’s exactly the point, bike czar Michelle Mowery told me. As bicycle coordinator for the Transportation Department, she has the job of getting people out of their cars and into cycling. That sometimes means adding bike lanes where the bike riders aren’t.
“We don’t know exactly where the need is,” she said. “We do know that people don’t feel safe on bikes; that’s the No. 1 reason they say they don’t ride.”
Putting bike lanes on residential streets like Wilbur is a way of spreading the wealth and sharing the pain.
“It’s a lot easier for you to push down on your gas pedal and take a detour than for a cyclist to divert to another street,” she said. “If you have to sit through a signal or two, that’s not such a big deal, compared to what we have to go through.”
That’s from a woman who commutes 46 miles on her bicycle every Monday, from Long Beach to her downtown Los Angeles office and back. The one-way trip takes about 90 minutes — not much longer than it takes to drive or ride the Blue Line in.
I don’t mind sharing my local roads with cyclists. But why inconvenience people rushing kids to school, running errands or wrapping up a long evening commute for the sake of prospective bike riders who may never appear?
My neighbor Stan is an avid cyclist, so I asked him what he thought. He hasn’t tried Wilbur’s bike lane yet, but he has spent enough time in its new traffic jams to understand the resentment of drivers.
“I’ve seen cars moving over into the bike lanes,” he said. “We’re stuck in a line of cars and you look over and see all those empty lanes, all that room. I feel sorry for them. They must be thinking, ‘There’re no bike riders there, why can’t I use that?’”
Stan rides his bike a couple of hours every week and on weekend excursions with cycling clubs. There are good bike routes in the Valley “but they aren’t consistent yet,” he said. “You get on, you get off. You’re in and out of traffic. You get honked at and flipped off; people yelling at you to move over.”
Bike riders, he said, want “a lane, a space; the same things that people in cars want.”
The city’s bike plan calls for 1,600 miles of lanes and paths 20 years from now. There are 400 now, and the mayor has promised to add 40 miles of lanes each year. Some will come at drivers’ expense. But where, how much and to what end?
“The bike people get mad at me, but cars ought to take priority,” insists Councilman Smith, who has introduced legislation requiring that neighborhood councils review any new traffic features planned for area roads.
“What’s our biggest problem in L.A? Transportation. Getting people from one place to another,” he said. “Why take lanes away to benefit 2% of the population to the negative impact on the 98% who are driving cars?”
The Northridge uproar is forcing engineers back to the drawing board. Officials have reviewed the traffic problems and promised “modifications,” Fisher said. But the city can’t create a network of connected paths without using “less-traveled” streets like Wilbur. “The question is, what is the balance point between accommodating bicyclists and motorists?
“We need to look for alternatives not just for Wilbur, but citywide,” he said. “We have to ask, to what degree are motorists willing to accept some inconveniences to accommodate a minority mode of travel?”
That might not be a question to ask a driver stuck alongside an empty bicycle lane in a block-long line of backed-up cars.
But it’s a question that will have to be asked and answered, neighborhood by neighborhood, in auto-addicted Los Angeles.