When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa crashed his bike on Venice Boulevard last summer, he did more than bruise his head and shatter his elbow. He became an advocate for the city’s bicycling community.
After he was jolted off his bike by a turning taxicab, Villaraigosa convened a bicycle summit, launched a safety campaign to educate drivers and threw his support behind the city’s first CicLAvia, which closed 71/2 miles of city streets to traffic for most of a day.
He also put his clout behind an ambitious bicycle master plan that is expected to be passed Tuesday by the City Council.
The plan lays out a long-term goal of 1,680 miles of interconnected bikeways and calls for more than 200 miles of new bicycle routes every five years. It suggests that such major arteries as Figueroa Street, Wilshire Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard get bike lanes in the near future.
And it marks the ascendance of a brash new breed of cycling civic activist.
“They’re very vocal, and I like that,” said Villaraigosa.
It’s not just in the plan that they’ve made their presence felt. Bicycle racks recently have gone up outside City Hall. And one of the most vocal cycling activists, Stephen Box, who found his calling after he was nearly hit by a bus, is running for office against veteran City Councilman Tom LaBonge.
Box’s campaign has held get-out-the vote bicycle tune-ups at local farmers markets and canvassing rides across Council District 4, which includes parts of Koreatown, Hollywood and North Hollywood. The fight over the bicycle plan, he says, was a turning point for the cycling community.
City engineers and transportation consultants started working on the plan three years ago. But when they released their first draft in May 2009, cyclists were dismayed.
“It was bad. It was terrible,” said Allison Mannos, urban program coordinator of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, who described it as a piecemeal network of bikeways that seemed chosen for the city’s — and not cyclists’ —convenience.
The coalition was founded in 1998, when many fewer cyclists braved the city’s famously unfriendly streets and activism consisted mostly of Critical Mass bike rides. Early meetings were held over potluck dinners.
But cycling has become more popular, with local census data showing a 50% increase in commuters bicycling to work over the last eight years. A string of high-profile accidents in which cyclists were hit by cars helped to galvanize at least some of that growing population to raise awareness for cyclists’ safety and right to the road.
In 2008, two cyclists were seriously injured on a narrow Brentwood road when a driver slammed on his car’s brakes in front of them. The driver, physician Christopher Thompson, was convicted of numerous charges, including assault with a deadly weapon.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the district where the crash occurred, said it made him rethink the way the city puts cars on a pedestal.
“There has been a real awakening in the city,” he said. “We’re starting to think of our streets differently. They’re not just conduits for making cars move fast.”
When Rosendahl organized a town hall in 2010 to let cyclists speak directly to Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, it turned out to be a very emotional gathering. One by one, cyclists stood up to share their stories of run-ins on the roads. The result was the creation of a bicycle task force and new training to make sure police officers know the laws that protect cyclists.
Cyclists also were speaking out against the bicycle plan on blogs and at City Hall.
Box and fellow cyclist Alex Thompson launched a website laying out their own version. The coalition armed members with talking points and dispatched them to every City Council member’s office.
When city planners held meetings seeking public input about which routes to retrofit for bicycling, hundreds of cyclists showed up. Michelle Mowery, the senior bicycle coordinator at the Department of Transportation, said she remembers in the mid-1990s when few attended meetings.
By the time the final draft was approved by the Planning Commission last month, many cyclists felt pretty good about what they’d been able to push through. Mannos said she was pleased with the stronger emphasis on safety and education — including a city-sponsored bike-to-work week — and the call for bike-friendly improvements in low-income neighborhoods, such as the area around MacArthur Park.
One of the new plan’s central features — a freeway-like system of upgraded streets known as the “backbone network” — was first suggested by Box on his website. The idea is to work quickly on the city’s major arteries, which can then serve as the spine of a complex of similarly improved residential streets.
Box said he isn’t satisfied. “I’ve never been an incremental guy,” he said.
Damien Newton, the writer and publisher of the transportation-focused Streetsblog, said the plan should help Los Angeles catch up with more evolved cycling cities, including Portland and New York and nearby Long Beach and Pasadena.
“Our plan closes that gap,” he said. “If it’s implemented.”
But that’s a big if.
“Right now it’s just lines on paper,” said Councilman Ed Reyes. “The council and the mayor have to bring the lines to life.”
Last year, bicycle advocates successfully lobbied the City Council to put 10% of the city’s share of money from Measure R, the 2008 sales tax to support transportation projects countywide, toward initiatives for cyclists and pedestrians.
“We’ll have a couple of million dollars right out the gate,” Rosendahl said.
If the plan is approved, the mayor will sign it on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday. He has mostly recovered from his accident, although he still cannot completely straighten his right arm.