A little over a year ago, I took a bike ride on a cool, pleasant evening in downtown Los Angeles. Traffic was calm and the bike lane I was riding in was freshly paved. I allowed myself to relax and enjoy the beauty of the night.
I should have known better.
Moments later, I was bloody and unconscious on the pavement. After crossing Cesar Chavez on my way to Chinatown, the smooth Main Street bike lane I was riding in unceremoniously ended without a signal. What followed was a stretch of road the city considers among the most poorly maintained in Los Angeles. Caught off guard, I couldn’t avoid a massive pothole and flew over my handlebars, face first onto the asphalt. At least I think that’s what happened. My helmet saved my life, or so the doctor said. I have no idea how long I lay blacked out in the road before a Good Samaritan helped me to the curb.
For bicyclists, walkers and, increasingly, scooter users, my story will hardly be surprising. Yes, L.A. has bike lanes and pedestrian “scrambles” and other “alternative transit infrastructure” designed to protect vulnerable road users. But the infrastructure is spotty, badly maintained and confusing for drivers and cyclists. It can be almost as dangerous as no infrastructure at all.
It took me months after my concussion to get back on a bike. As it happened, my return to the road coincided with the completion of the redesign of Figueroa Street from Exposition Park to downtown Los Angeles. “MyFigueroa” or “MyFig” as the project is called, took a decade to build at a cost of more than $20 million. Vehicle traffic lanes were removed to create exclusive bus lanes. New “protected” bike lanes separated from vehicle traffic were installed. Raised, sheltered bus platforms were built.
At the project’s launch last August, Mayor Eric Garcetti boasted of a “safer” and “more enjoyable” way to get around Los Angeles — a harbinger of our transit-friendly, less-car-reliant future.
But when I hopped on a bike share and rode the entire south to north length of the project, I discovered the same patchwork approach to safety that governs the rest of L.A.’s infrastructure.
Consider Martin Luther King Boulevard from Figueroa to Vermont Avenue, which MyFig maps include as part of the renovation: There is no bike or bus infrastructure in sight, just a six-lane surface freeway for cars, which makes riding a bike anywhere other than the sidewalk seem like a death sentence. Anyone planning safe passage to Exposition Park has to read past MyFig’s marketing materials and into its fine print to figure that out.
As for the rest of the re-do, protected bike lanes exist for only a few blocks at a time; for most of the 4-mile corridor, cyclists have a lane, but it’s as exposed as ever to the whims of car and bus traffic, delivery vehicles and construction trucks.
Worse yet, MyFig illogically and abruptly ends at Wilshire. The clearly painted bike lanes and the dedicated bus lane disappear.Extending the project just half a mile north, to 2nd Street would have granted riders safer, faster access to Little Tokyo, the Arts District and even Echo Park. Instead, buses slow to a crawl, cars regain lanes, and bike riders get just a faded white line between them and vehicle traffic.
At MyFig’s unveiling, Garcetti, already aware of complaints about the project, promised the city would work to make it better. So ever since, I’ve ridden in its bike lanes. I’ve taken transit on its exclusive bus corridor. I’ve even driven through it.
It’s still a monument to L.A.’s half-baked efforts.
At Fig and 7th Street, even when traffic is light, I’ve been trapped in buses that take 15 minutes to get through the intersection. Figueroa is one-way at this busy juncture, northbound. The MyFig redesign smartly bars cars from turn turning right onto 7th from Figueroa for safety and efficiency at this busy intersection. But car drivers either don’t know or simply ignore the new rule, clogging bus traffic and endangering bikers and pedestrians.
Last month, I rode the Silver Line bus north on Fig, got off a stop before 7th and walked the almost half-mile to the Metro station. I arrived five minutes before my bus. As I stood and waited, I saw a dozen cars turn right illegally from the bus-only lane.
Drivers no doubt complain about the loss of traffic lanes along the corridor, but, in reality, MyFig makes too many concessions to cars. Between 7th and Wilshire, for example, the city allows a valet stand to operate during rush hour, making the 7th Street intersection even more chaotic.
In isolation, and for blocks at a time, MyFig’s enhancements are worthwhile, even exemplary.But benevolently making things safer for a block or two — only moments later leaving anyone without a car inconvenienced at best, in danger at worst — isn’t enough of an improvement.
As a pilot redesign, what MyFig doesn’t do is as instructive as what it does.
Matthew Fleischer is senior digital editor of the Opinion section and founder of its Livable City vertical.