Michelle Mowery has been working in the intersection -- or maybe in the crosshairs -- between cyclists and drivers for the two decades she has been bicycle coordinator for the city's Department of Transportation.
Back when most people in Los Angeles just wanted more road for their cars (and many still do), Mowery was talking about more bike lanes and bike-friendly streets. Along the way, she managed to frustrate some bike activists who thought she and the Department of Transportation weren’t transforming the city fast enough. (We’re not Portland yet.) At the same time, her advocacy for "traffic calming," "road sharing" and the just signed-into-law "3-foot rule" that requires drivers to stay 3 feet away from cyclists when passing them on the street has equally frustrated drivers, who complain about rude cyclists cavalierly disregarding traffic signs and rules.
But these days, Mowery, who is variously referred to as the city’s bike czar or bike queen, has more influence and input than ever as Angelenos weary of endless car traffic and as the city, presided over by its second consecutive bike-conscious mayor, becomes more serious about cycling. Currently, the city has 337.62 miles of dedicated bike lanes. The city’s 2010 bike plan calls for a total of 1,684 miles of bike lanes, routes, and paths.
I ask her: Are we hard-core bicyclists and hard-core drivers and never the twain shall meet?
“I think we are going to see more of a merging. We are going to see people who drive a lot use their bikes for short trips and errands. Except for our work commute, we will become more regional,” she says, pointing out that downtown residents have been doing that for a while.
As a devoted driver, what I like about Mowery is this: She gets it that she has to talk to the drivers of the city as much as, if not more than, the bicyclists of the city, who are already in the choir. And she gets it that most of us still need to drive to work and chauffeur kids to school. Less than 1% -- 0.9% -- of city residents bicycle to work, according to 2010 census figures.
Mowery drives -- in addition to bicycling and taking mass transit. She works downtown and has meetings all over the city. She can’t ride her bike from downtown to Pacoima at 7 p.m. for a meeting. But, on any given day, she would prefer to ride one of her several bikes than drive her Subaru Outback. About once a week, usually on Monday, she rides her bike the 30 miles from her Long Beach home to her downtown City Hall office. It takes the 54-year-old former bike racer two hours each way. “It’s a workout,” she says.
She definitely wants us to ride our bikes for fun. She was at CicLAvia on Sunday when the city closed downtown streets for cyclists. “CicLAvia is a big playground,” she said, watching riders go by. “This is about reminding people about the joy of riding.”
But she also wants to encourage city residents to use their bikes for errands. She grocery shops on her bike, hitching a trailer to the back, filling it with two or three bags and a watermelon or a pumpkin.
“People say you can’t go shopping. Yeah, you can. Costco is harder. One package of toilet paper and it’s all filled up.”
She is realistic: “The car is still the most efficient way to get around,” she says. But, she adds: “The time it takes to travel by bike is catching up with the time it takes to travel by car.”
Ever the politician, she winces at the term “road diet” to describe taking away a lane of traffic on a street to put in a bike lane. She prefers “road sharing” or “road buffet.” But whatever you call it, her goal is to create a network “that will get people where they need to go.”
The idea, according to Mowery, is to slow down or “calm” traffic on some neighborhood streets to make them more inviting to bicyclists, and let car traffic flow faster on other streets.
“The overall philosophy is that some streets will be better for bikes, some will be better for cars, some will be better for mass transit,” she says.
“I’m at a place where I’m finally getting all my professional dreams met … seeing the city transition, seeing the city really willing to wake up and be a different kind of city for transportation.”
This post is part of an ongoing conversation to explore how the city’s cyclists, drivers and pedestrians share and compete for road space, and to consider policy choices that keep people safe and traffic flowing. For more: latimes.com/roadshare and #roadshareLA.