Michelle Mowery: She’s mapping out L.A.'s cycling plan

If you’re expecting a new bicycle alongside the Christmas tree, or just rolling out your old one, Michelle Mowery is on your side of the street. The city of four wheels is turning a corner on two wheels. Nearly 350 miles of new bike lanes, out of a planned 1,684, have opened to bicyclists. Mowery has spent two decades in the city’s Department of Transportation as senior bicycle coordinator, and she’s finally finding critical mass and critical money for L.A.'s bike plan. She knows there’s an information gap about the laws, and a culture clash, but a bike-culture shift, she believes, will be the saving of L.A., from the obesity epidemic to the daily commute — including hers, from Long Beach to downtown.

Is there a sign on your desk reading, “I told you so”?

No, but on my computer I have a Gandhi quote: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” I’ve made it through the first two — clearly no one is laughing anymore. We do have some people who are uncomfortable with change, but we’re also having some big wins.


FULL COVERAGE: Sharing the road in L.A.

I spent the first few years figuring out what things I could do that weren’t going to make so many waves that they would upset people or affect automobile traffic. Then things really started to take off in the last six years, and they’re just flying now. We used to be known as the Department of No, which is a sad thing; nobody liked it. It’s nice to be able to say yes or “let’s see if we can find a way.”

What’s the model for L.A.'s bike plan?

Copenhagen is more like us than it is different from us. They have a graduated system of [space for] pedestrians, bikes and cars. They’re a lot smaller than we are, and they have this big winter, but I think that’s where we will head — splitting up [space].

You can’t drive a car without passing a test; what about licensing bicyclists?

If you were doing bike licensing like [driver’s] licensing, that would require an education process. I believe it’s the [Netherlands] where in fourth grade everybody gets bike education. I think that’s the way to go. We’re writing a grant to take bike education into the high schools, like we used to do driver’s ed.

What about a helmet law for adults, not just those under 18?

Recent studies show 74% of bike fatals are head injuries. I don’t ride without my helmet. I like my brain. [But] there was such a backlash against an adult helmet law, I don’t know if it will ever be mandatory. One of the kids’ bike education coordinators says she’ll see kids with helmets and parents without and say, “Oh, we call them orphans.”

I’ve been noticing a higher proportion of bikes than cars running red lights.

Everybody brings this up. There are a couple of cities, one in Germany and one in England, that removed all their traffic control devices — no signs, no lights. The idea is to get everyone to slow down because they now realize they’re on their own. Everybody needs to obey the law, especially the stoplights. Blowing a stop sign is absolutely dangerous.

What’s going on with bike lanes in the proposed seismic retrofit of the historic Hyperion bridge between Atwater and Silver Lake?

The original plan was to widen the bridge with enough room for bicycle lanes, but the historic nature of the bridge requires it stays the same width. Our own documents say we need to have bicycle lanes, so we’re trying to figure that out. There needs to be a way for bicycles, cars and pedestrians to access that bridge.

And what’s the status of permitting pedicabs?

Our taxi regulation group is working on it. There have been some fatalities in other cities, so [we] want to make sure the rules are in place and that drivers have some sort of regulation so it’s not a free-for-all.

What will L.A.'s finished bike system look like?

We hope to have a mile grid — anywhere you are in the city, you’re within a mile of a bikeway of some kind. We have a very dense, very robust map that the City Council adopted. We’re creating three networks: a transit-enhanced network, TEN, a bicycle-enhanced network, BEN, and a vehicle-enhanced network, VEN. It kind of divides the entire system into three types of roadway.

So if you had a bike GPS, it would tell you different ways of getting somewhere than a car GPS would?

Yes, it would say these are better streets for you. Every street will be open for bikes but wouldn’t have a dedicated bikeway. So some streets are probably not ideal for bikes; Wilshire is probably one of them.

You are a big proponent of traffic calming. How does that work?

We’re now focusing primarily on roundabouts, for a number of reasons. We no longer have the funding for speed humps. We hope to make better streets for bikes and pedestrians and neighborhoods, and traffic calming [can] cut down on cutting through and speeding.

A bike can legally take up a whole traffic lane and cars have to move at that bike’s speed. Isn’t that a recipe for conflict?

A bicycle is a legal user of any roadway. If the lane isn’t wide enough to share, 14 or 15 feet, then the bicyclist does have the right to take the whole lane and go as fast as they physically can. That’s where “cycle tracks” come in, [totally] separated from traffic — sidewalk, cycle track and roadway for cars. The Bicycle Enhanced Network is looking at that.

On Second Street downtown, which tunnels under Bunker Hill, 50% of the lanes were just devoted to bikes, maybe 1% of traffic now. How is that the best use of that space?

The No. 1 reason for Second Street [bike lanes] is safety. It’s one of the few ways that we don’t have a big hill to get over from downtown toward the other side of the city. We need to get bicycles through downtown.

We did a “road diet” on Seventh Street and took one [car] travel lane out. But motorists still have First, Chavez, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, Pico, Venice — all those streets.

Copenhagen started little by little; now they have more people on bikes than in cars. I don’t know that we’ll get to 50%, but I can see 10% easily. I grew up here. I rode my bike all over. I had a driver’s license when I was 16. I didn’t ride a bus until the Olympics because it never occurred to me. We’re going to have to be a vastly different place. We’re out of room for cars. If we don’t make a change to transit and bikes, we’re dead.

On Seventh Street, I’ve heard the change has meant a lot more pollution from idling cars in traffic jams.

I hadn’t thought about that. I acknowledge the initial congestion is going to be a problem. We’re going to go through some growing pains to get there.

Is there a generational split?

At public meetings, I took a tally. Depending on where you were, over the course of four or five meetings, everybody under 30 was pro-bike, the 40s were a mix and in some parts of the city everyone over 50 was anti-[biking] facilities. So there is a real generational thing happening.

Some of the rules seem patchwork. You can ride on the sidewalk in the city of L.A. but not in the county.

California allows municipalities to determine sidewalk riding. The city says you can’t ride in a hazardous manner on sidewalks, but it doesn’t prohibit sidewalk riding. We will probably revisit that [as bike lanes increase]. On the LADOT bike blog, [we have] an assessment of all the laws in the 88 cities in the county and unincorporated [areas].

How well do police know the laws in order to enforce them?

We had an educational program, and we continue to work with [the LAPD] on enforcement. The city of Davis is going to reduce some traffic fines for bicycles because they want their officers to cite bicyclists more and thus get better enforcement.

At dusk or at night, you can barely see some cyclists. Any new requirements there?

The California vehicle code just requires a reflector. At night you’re required to have a headlight. We’d like to see the state law upgraded to include a blinking light in back. The lights are better than they used to be. The vehicle code needs to catch up.

Bike laws in general have changed a lot.

The city passed an anti-cyclist harassment law two years ago. It allows a bicyclist to sue a motorist who caused a collision or injured them or if they have a helmet cam that shows people harassing them. You’d be shocked — people throwing bottles and cans, women get their butts slapped by people in cars. The city’s trying to build in protections. As we build more facilities, some of that [behavior] is going to go away.

The DMV reminds us that driving is a privilege; is bicycling a right?

By federal and state law, access for bicyclists to the roadway, is a right as it is for drivers. But at the same time, it’s not something everybody will do. The question is, can we build the facilities to make it safe enough?

FULL COVERAGE: Sharing the road in L.A.

I ride pretty much everywhere in the middle of traffic pretty comfortably, but I’ve done it for a long time. That’s not to say there are not times that I’m afraid. A woman cut in front of me and passed me with this much space on San Pedro. I rode her down and knocked on her window and reminded her there’s a new three-foot [distance from bicyclists] law. I said, “That was really scary for me.” She apologized — I was kind of surprised.

Carmageddon had Ashton Kutcher tweeting for it. Do you have a celebrity cyclist?

We’d love to have a celebrity work with us!

This interview was edited and excerpted from a transcript. Twitter: @patttmlatmes