The bike world outside L.A.

Today, local blogger Will Campbell and Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole compare and evaluate other cities’ bicycle infrastructures. Previously, they discussed motorist-cyclist confrontations and spending public money on bike lanes and paths. Tomorrow and Friday, they’ll debate bike activism and commuting.

Shamed by Paris and Portland
By Will Campbell

As Randal somewhat riskily revealed in his first post, he’s never actually biked in Los Angeles. Instead, he’s logged many thousands of miles elsewhere. Conversely, the vast majority of my biking has been here in L.A., with little experience anywhere else. I’ve done the famed Rosarito-Ensenada ride several times, and I started a 475-mile trek down the California coast in 2003 by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and working my way through San Francisco onto the Great Highway and ultimately back here eight days later. Then there was that time back in 1995 when I decided to bomb the Mt. Whitney Portal Road high above Lone Pine with a huge video camera strapped to my helmet, but my uncanny ability to survive being an idiot isn’t the subject of this debate.

The subject is bikeable cities, but I don’t see much of a debate about it. I was in Paris last summer and was very impressed with the prevalence of bike lanes in the area around the Notre Dame Cathedral where I stayed. A couple months after I was there, the city debuted its public bike program, installing more than 10,600 bikes available for rent at 750 self-service docking stations. If that’s not a good model, I don’t know what is.

Two of the cities with which Randal said he has in-depth cycling experience — San Francisco and Portland, Ore. — are notoriously bike-oriented, and I’m certain he can build on my general statement with specifics as to why. Berkeley is another one I’ve long wanted to visit for the sole purpose of riding its integrated network of bike boulevards. So is Davis, renowned for its efforts to support and encourage the growth of cycling. In fact, the League of American Bicyclists has bestowed on it the highest honor of being a Platinum Level Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) — the only one so designated in the entire country.

What about locally? One might consider Burbank a BFC candidate, but then again in October 2006, when its NIMBY-stoked city council summarily killed established plans for a bike boulevard that would run through that town, connecting the Chandler Boulevard Bikeway to the L.A. River Bikeway, it blew it big time. Pasadena might have been in the running too, until last year, when in response to complaints about the pelotons that circle the Rose Bowl at speeds destroying everything in their path (not really), the city council briefly considered then dropped a proposal that would have made outlaws of any cyclists who ride two abreast. Alas, such actions represent all too well the disconnect existing here that’s so absent in places throughout Northern California. And they serve to more sharply illustrate the sad state of the region’s dysfunctional network of bike routes, paths and off-street bikeways.

Wait a minute, though! It looks like in Los Angeles there may be a glimmer of hope. On the League of American Cyclists BFC map, it seems Brentwood is one community that has been honored, even if the award is but the lowly bronze level. But wait ... no. Upon further examination, it’s not our Brentwood. It’s the one near Oakland. Figures.

Silver Lake resident Will Campbell beat his 2007 goal to bike 2,007 miles across L.A. by nearly 1,100 miles. He blogs at and and is an editor with Ascend Media.

Bike friendly by being auto hostile
By Randal O’Toole

Will, you point to many bicycle-friendly cities. But the question here is, where do bicycles and cars happily coexist? In most of your examples, planners explicitly favored bikes at the expense of auto users.

As you note, my old hometown of Portland, Ore., is “notoriously” bike-oriented. But it is also notoriously auto hostile. It is converting busy four-lane streets into streets with three auto lanes and two bike lanes. That’s great for cyclists, but it is unfair to give 25% of street space to the 2% or 3% of people who get around by bike.

I used to love cycling in Portland. But Portland has also installed many “traffic calming” blockades, including speed humps, curb extensions that shut off right-turn lanes and other obstructions that narrow streets. These are in both residential and major commercial streets. I personally don’t like to bicycle in Portland anymore because narrower streets actually make cycling less comfortable and probably more dangerous.

Like San Francisco, Portland bicycle numbers are aided by land-use policies that made housing unaffordable, so families with children have moved to distant suburbs. The population left behind includes large numbers of twentysomethings who are more likely to cycle than older people and families. For all these reasons, Portland is a poor model for both auto drivers and cyclists.

Davis is indeed bicycle-friendly. But it, along with Eugene, Ore., and other university towns, has a disproportionately large population of young people. Both Davis and Eugene are also somewhat long and narrow in shape, and so can be served by one or two trunk bike paths. These features aren’t found in L.A.

You also mention Paris and other European cities. Like Portland and San Francisco, they benefit from a sorting process that has pushed low-income people and families with children to auto-friendly suburbs. Yes, they have bicycle-friendly inner cities, but most European urban areas as a whole are nearly as auto-oriented as Los Angeles.

Of the cities you mention, Berkeley, which pioneered bicycle boulevards, may be the best model for Los Angeles. Bike boulevards are local, usually residential streets open to autos but optimized for cyclists. Ideally, these streets have a minimum of stop signs and bike-sensing traffic signals at busier streets.

To prevent motorists from using these streets as alternative through routes, bicycle boulevards often have diverters at some (usually more than necessary) intersections that force autos to turn while allowing cyclists to continue straight. Because they are well signed as bike routes, motorists know to drive with extra caution.

Many experienced cyclists like myself consider bicycle boulevards a “stepping stone” for less-experienced riders. We still want the option to safely ride on busier streets. That means city engineers need to take bicycles into consideration when planning intersections and traffic signals.

But I object to plans that are bike friendly by being auto hostile. Bicycles and autos can peacefully coexist if cities take the needs of both into account and don’t favor one over the other.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the new book, “The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.”

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