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Exposition Phase 1 Bike Facility: A Review

In honor of the Exposition Line opening it is time for a comprehensive review of the Phase 1 Bike Facility. I use it every day to get to work, to ride recreationally in the Santa Monica Mountains and to get to the Ballona Creek Bike Path.

The Exposition Phase 1 Bike Facility begins at the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Vermont Avenue adjacent to the USC campus. From this point until Exposition and Harcourt Avenue, the facility is a 4-6 foot wide bicycle lane. At Harcourt Avenue, the route turns north and resumes as a 5-6 foot wide bicycle lane from Jefferson Boulevard and Harcourt Avenue to Jefferson and La Cienega. Here the alignment transitons into a 12 foot wide bicycle and pedestrian path immediately south of the Exposition Line right of way from La Cienega to National. The final portion of the facility is another 12 foot wide bike/ped path from Jefferson/National to approximately Washington/National, here north of the Expo ROW.

The Good

The very existence of this bicycle facility is a great thing for the City of Los Angeles. Never before has such a comprehensive and convenient east-west bicycle route existed in the city. For the most part the bicycle lanes and pathways are adequately designed  and the connection to the existing bike path at Ballona Creek that leads to Marina Del Rey is well thought out. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has been helpful in responding to cyclists’ concerns over design issues so far – hopefully they will note the issues below.

The Bad – Safety and Design

Like any new traffic pattern, the Facility needs adjustment after a break-in period. Significant engineering design and safety issues exist with the current configuration of the Facility. I will discuss them from east (7th Street/Metro Center) to west (Culver City).

No Bike Route from Downtown to Expo Park

This issue is somewhat of a no-brainer. While the EIR for the Expo Line stated that a bicycle facility would be constructed for the entirety of the line, no bikeway or even bicycle route exists from Downtown LA to Exposition Park. The abundance of north-south streets with significant excess capacity, especially Flower Street, could have made for a great bicycle lane (even a green lane like Spring Street). Unfortunately no such route was built as part of this project. The isolated, and dangerous nature of accessing Downtown LA from the south via bicycle is a huge problem that this Facility did not solve.

Bike Lane in the Gutter – Entire Route, Especially Vermont-Gramercy and Harcourt-La Cienega

Excuse the civil engineering lingo – but when designing the cross section of a street, you never consider the gutter as part of the traveled way. The ETW is usually the limit of the gutter – and for good reason. Asphalt concrete pavement and reinforced concrete gutters settle at different rates due to their differing material properties so a large gap forms at the junction of these two materials forms after several years or months of roadway usage. With tires often less than 1″ wide, this gap is dangerous for cyclists. When riding these bike lanes a rider is forced to stay to one side of the crack – on the gutter side it is in the door zone, so there is little choice but to exclusively use the innermost two feet of the bicycle lane. Numerous catch basins also exist in the bicycle lanes which present an even greater hazard to bicycle riders and must be avoided at all costs. Placing dangerous conditions within a lane designed for the exclusive use of cyclists is poor design – new striping that does not include the gutter as part of the bicycle lane is needed as soon as possible.

Right Turns at Exposition/Normandie and Exposition/Western

In both the easterly and westerly directions of travel on Exposition between Vermont and Gramercy traffic is at its highest along the entire route. This traffic includes right turning vehicles which must cut across the bicycle lane. Other cities make good use of “Begin Right Turn – Yield to Bikes” signs at all right turn pockets and despite the lack of pockets, these locations would be an ideal candidate for similar signage reading “Right Turn – Yield to Bicycles.” I have nearly been hit several times by motorists turning right without looking to see if a cyclist was present and some motorists take the bicycle lane while waiting at a red light far in advance of the intersection, impeding cyclist travel to the stop bar. A further step to improving safety would be banning right turn on red at these intersections and striping bike boxes so cyclists have improved visibility to right turning motorists.

The Exposition/Rodeo/Gramercy Intersection

This intersection is the most complex and potentially dangerous along the entire phase 1 route. Rodeo diverges from Exposition across the LRT tracks. In the westerly direction of travel, the bicycle lane is acceptable for continuing on Exposition. Cyclists who wish to switch to Rodeo at the intersection face the harrowing task of crossing non-perpendicular railroad tracks. This task is nearly impossible on a road bicycle and the potential for crashing and remaining on the tracks and in a traffic lane is dangerously high. Because of this risk a “No Bicycles” sign should be installed at this intersection in the lanes that turn ont o Rodeo. Cyclists wishing to access Rodeo may easily do so at Arlington Avenue right up the road where the tracks cross a cyclist’s path at a 90 degree angle.

In the easterly direction of travel all hell has broken loose. Here a hybrid solution of sorts exists to guide cyclists across the tracks. From the stop bar, the bicycle lane turns sharply right over the tracks, through a gap in the fence, then left on to the main traveled way of Rodeo/Exposition. I applaud this rather creative solution to an impossible intersection, but most cyclists do not know this is the proper way to ride this intersection. Better signage indicating the correct route would be helpful. The unconventional cycling route through this intersection means that motorists are not looking for cyclists in the correct places. Motorists traveling due north on Gramercy are not looking for bicycles turning left on to Exposition during a red light. More than five times I have nearly been hit by motorists turning right on red from due north on Gramercy. “No Turn on Red” and “Watch for Cyclists” signs are immediately needed at this intersection on Gramercy to prevent catastrophic collisions.

Right Turns at Exposition/Crenshaw

Similar issue to Expo/Western and Expo/Normandie, although only in the easterly direction of travel and right turn on red is already forbidden. A simple “Begin Right Turn – Yield to Bikes” at the beginning of the right turn pocket lane would do wonders. Here motorists are not used to waiting for a right turn signal and many do not obey it properly – better signage is needed for motorists.

Jefferson/Harcourt Intersection

In the westerly (northerly on Harcourt) direction of travel the signal timing for this intersection is horrendous. Either the detector loop is failing to pick up on my bicycle (all the others along the Facility pick it up fine) or the allocation of Harcourt compared to Jefferson that it takes more than 3 minutes to change cycles. I have stood on the loop for over 5 minutes waiting in vain to get a green to turn left on Jefferson – it simply does not work. The only solution is to ride on to the sidewalk and press the pedestrian crossing button which is time consuming and very inconvenient. Generally, this left turn on Jefferson from Harcourt changes the a trip Exposition Bike Facility from competitive with driving to much slower than driving due to this issue. LADOT – please check the loop and also adjust the timing here. It is unacceptable.

Jefferson Blvd

Generally awful and dangerous pavement conditions exist along the portion of Jefferson the Facility traverses. Bad pavement just before the Jefferson/La Brea intersection in the westerly direction of travel has nearly caused several crashes (because of the gap between gutter and pavement, see above) and numerous potholes exist between La Brea and La Cienega in the westerly direction of travel.

Jefferson and La Cienega

This intersection presents one of gravest dangers for cyclists, especially in the westerly direction. The Facility transitions from a bicycle lane on Jefferson to a dedicated path south of the Exposition Line tracks. One single sign directs cyclists to this path, but there is no good way to access it from the westbound side of Jefferson. Crossing in the crosswalk south across Jefferson then west across La Cienega is time consuming and bicycles should be treated as vehicles, not pedestrians, and forced to use crosswalks and the sidewalk. Most cyclists (myself included) continue straight on Jefferson through this intersection, where, due to the presence of a double left turn pocket in the opposite direction, Jefferson westbound constricts into two 11′ lanes. The risk of being sideswiped by a motorist both in the intersection and just past it on Jefferson is extremely high. Immediate action is needed to prevent collisions, injuries and even death at this point in the Facility. Here are tw0 solutions:

1. Re-stripe the intersection to include a bicycle lane in the westbound direction on Jefferson between La Cienega and National. A temporary measure until this bike lane can be implemented would be sharrows on Jefferson with large “Share the Road” and “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs so motorists expect bicycles in the right lane.

2. If cyclists are to use the existing bike path south of the tracks, a proper way to actuate the signal to access the bike path from the west must be implemented. Ideally, a new cycle in the light, activated by detector loops in the westbound bike lane would prove a red in all directions, with a green bicycle signal to allow cyclists to turn left from the right side of the roadway. Because of the large delay this extra cycle would cause motorist, a less ideal addition would be a push button in the bicycle lane to activate a walk signal south across Jefferson. From there, cyclists could cross west across La Cienega on to the bike path.

Coming back in the easterly direction things are a bit better. Access to the bike path is straightforward at Jefferson and National and the transition back into the bike lane at Jefferson and La Cienega is relatively safe. One huge issue, however, is the massive column that blocks the view of right turning motorists. Sight distance around this column is essentially zero and it makes for a harrowing experience crossing La Cienega on the south side of Jefferson as a cyclist or pedestrian. This would be another great location for a right turn on red ban or perhaps ban of all right turns.

LADOT needs to do something about this intersection before someone is seriously injured or killed.

The Bad – Operations and Enforcement

Generally two major problems exist in the enforcement and operations area.

1. The neighborhoods through which the Exposition Line runs are not yet accustomed to a bicycle facility. Illegal stopping in the bicycle lane, and placement of trash cans, transient’s carts and other objects in the bicycle lanes are hazardous and desperately need to be reduced or eliminated. A combination of community outreach and education, and stronger enforcement by LADOT traffic officers could significantly improve the safety and sanctity of the bicycle lanes.

2. Street sweeping in the bicycle lanes is woefully inadequate. Piles of broken glass and rocks force cyclists out of the bike lane into traffic and cause numerous flat tires. Nothing discourages casual cycling like needed to stop for 10+ minutes to change a flat tire. LADOT needs to step up their street sweeping program along the route in order to ensure safe passage for cyclists.

The Verdict

Thank you Metro and LADOT for building this bike facility. Its a big step towards making Los Angeles a more bicycle friendly city. With a few tweaks and changes, the Exposition Phase 1 Bicycle Facility will be a great place to ride and soon will take cyclists all the way to Santa Monica with Phase 2 (under construction). Bring it on!

Redeeming Los Angeles’ Urban Form

View from Griffith Observatory on a Clear Night, from Wikipedia

Until very recently, the only jobs I held that required a commute were located in Downtown San Francisco. Say what you want about the Bay Area’s development patterns, but Downtown San Francisco is the best place on the West Coast to work if you prefer to make your commute via transit. I had a choice between a speedy AC Transit Transbay bus and BART’s rapid, convenient service. I could even casual carpool. These downtown jobs allowed me to fulfill a promise I made when I was in high school – to never drive alone to work. Living in Los Angeles has made this promise much more difficult to keep.

The Western part of Los Angeles County, from Brentwood to Torrance, is the most job-rich area in the Western United States. Unfortunately, most of these jobs are dispersed among suburban-style 4-5 story buildings, making transit service to job centers mostly infeasible. To make matters worse, Los Angeles has a very unique urban form – surprisingly uniform density between city and suburbs, with the city being less dense than average, and suburbs more dense. Uniform density means that the trip patterns for Los Angeles are truly unidirectional. Whereas New York City has a strongly defined suburb to city morning commute, and the reverse in the evening, in Los Angeles commute patterns are generally in all directions in both peak periods.  Now, the City of Paris largely shares this pattern and is able to effectively use transit to move people between home and work, but Los Angeles’ lower density and the lack of political support for major infrastructure investment in the United States means that Los Angeles will likely never be served by a rail transit system as effective as Paris’ Metro, RER and Trams.

So with uniform, but fairly low, density, Los Angeles presents a conundrum – how can the region continue to grow when crippling traffic congestion severely limits the mobility of its residents and development patterns are not conclusive to transit or pedestrian modes? The answer for Los Angeles, and suburban office space anywhere is to fully embrace cycle commuting. When I say fully embrace, I do not mean the severely watered-down City Bicycle Plan or the even worse County Bicycle Plan. I mean a  multi-agency and multi-disciplinary approach to challenging American conceptions of cycling.

The cultural impacts of cycle commuting have never been addressed in the United States (or the UK for that matter). A significant barrier to cycle commuting for many in Los Angeles is the perceived danger of riding a bicycle on the street. Yes, you are more likely to be injured cycling than driving, but even in the existing condition of LA’s streets, I have ridden over 3000 miles in the last year without a collision. Unlike most proposals to increase the viability of cycling, I am not going to argue that new infrastructure should be the solution. New cycling infrastructure is great, but the Los Angeles Region has already made a massive investment in a gridded system of wide arterial roads, with ample room for cyclists in the right lane. Instead, this perceived danger of riding should not be addressed by building exclusive bicycle facilities, but rather should be eliminated through driver and cyclist education.

The California Vehicle Code and the VC for most other states treat bicycles and automobiles as equals, hence the term “share the road”. This principle is not effectuated in real life conditions. First, to be licensed, all drivers should be required to answer a supplement about the laws of cycling. Nearly all drivers with whom I have spoken, and even a majority of the law enforcement officers with whom I have spoken have been ignorant of the cycling-specific portions of the California Vehicle Code. How many of you knew that if a lane is of substandard width (less than 14ft), cyclists are permitted to take the lane, and that there is no law on the books forbidding two or more cyclists from riding side by side?

The Ad Council has spent millions on anti-drug and anti-tobacco commercials, but on average 93 people in the US die from traffic collisions every day. An extensive public relations campaign by the Ad Council or another government agency to promote cycling as a means of transportation would go a long way to breaking down the cultural barriers preventing many from biking. Cycling reduces carbon emissions, could reduce the obesity rate and takes cars off the road. What’s not to love?

Although it may be controversial, I think that cyclists should be held to the same standard as motorists. Violations such as running red lights, turning without signaling and riding on the wrong side of the street should be regularly enforced. In this vein, cyclists should also recieve some sort of training on the rules of the road, although requiring cycling licenses for all riders has proven ineffective in the past. More thought is merited on this topic.

The critical infrastructure improvement for improving cycle commuting is a responsibility of employers – providing appropriate shower and locker facilities so workers can feasibly commute via bicycle is critical. It is also relatively cheap and easy.

Bottom line is, I have kept my promise. I cycle commute the 12 miles from Downtown LA to a suburban office park in Playa Del Rey, and don’t drive like most of my coworkers. Why don’t you?

The Politics of Wilderness Trail Use

A nice MTB trail in New Mexico, from trailsource.com.

Today I’d like to continue with the trail use and cycling theme a bit and discuss the sensitive politics of wilderness trail use. Again, this issue is dear at heart to me – I’m a racing mountain biker – but hopefully the following points will meet with your sense of logic, not just be blindly advocating for mountain bike legal trails.

Urban Wilderness Areas are precious. Two that I use most frequently – Tilden Park in Berkeley, California, and Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California, were set aside as park land almost 100 years ago and continue to be preserved. Both of these areas have extensive trail systems, and winding back country roads. These features provide great opportunities for transportation and recreation in the form of cycling, hiking, or equestrian uses. Both Tilden and Griffith see a large number of cyclists on their roads, but a fundamental difference between these two parks is that bikes are illegal on all off-road trails in Griffith Park, whereas they are legal on most trails in Tilden.

Like most logical fallacies in public policy, this difference is easily explained by the interests of an unusually powerful minority, in this case equestrian riders. Griffith Park, by no coincidence, is the closest major open space to Hollywood, and the largest equestrian center anywhere near Central Los Angeles. Thus, horse use is substantial on the park’s trails, and many of those equestrian riders are wealthy and politically connected. The interests of this group are served rather than the interests of the public at large.

Mountain biking is a great activity for everyone. From the SoCal High School Cycling League to recreational riders, mountain biking increases awareness of wilderness areas, promotes cycling as a means of transportation and is great exercise. Other places in the Los Angeles area have multi-use trails, even skinny single track that is available to cyclists, hikers and equestrians (Altadena comes to mind). Normal arguments against allowing cyclists on trails, namely worries about crashes and erosion, are not major factors if cyclists behave in an appropriate manner. In addition, equestrian traffic damages trails far more than cyclists, especially when trails are wet.

The extensive network of trails in La Canada Flintridge shows how an ideal mix of hikers, equestrians and riders can best use wilderness areas – with low volumes of users and polite trail etiquette – can function effectively. To scale up this sort of operation on a Griffith Park scale, LA City Park Rangers on mountain bikes could patrol trails and eliminate crimes (especially drug dealing) that occur on the trails and ensure all users of the trail are riding or walking in a safe manner.

So, LA City Council, what are you waiting for? Let’s get the ball rolling on trail use in Griffith Park and start to promote wilderness appreciation among the young of this city. Hell, most of them have never even seen the San Gabriels or gone to the beach. By opening up mountain biking opportunities, the City of LA can do what government is supposed to do: treat everyone in a fair manner. Let’s get those mountain bikes rolling!

The Law & Cycling

Alright drivers in LA –

Please try not to kill me when I’m on the bike. Really. Is my life worth 30 seconds of your time waiting to pass safely? I would hope so.

If you drive in California, especially Los Angeles, please read the following two pages – it will enlighten you as to why I ride the way I ride.

California Vehicle Code and Cycling

Why you shouldn’t honk, swear at, and cut off cyclists in LA.

Thank you. I’ll have a post about mountain biking and trail use up tomorrow and I’ll get back to transit coverage on Monday.

Karl.

How to Build a Bike Path

A major recent development in the political landscape for trails and bicycle paths has come with the Obama Administration’s focus on liveabiliy, an initiative that spans the Department of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. This new focus has brought direct federal funding to path projects across the nation. Indeed, the Ballona Creek Path through Los Angeles and Culver City (one that I frequent quite a bit) is currently being repaved with funding from ARRA (the stimulus).

Sadly, like many bicycle lanes (look for a post later this week), bicycle paths are largely built in ineffective ways. A prominent issue is the failure to properly segregate pedestrian and cycling traffic, leading to considerable slowdowns in cycling speeds and greatly increasing the potential for collisions. The normal width for paths, 8 feet, can not possibly fulfill the needs of all users in a safe and effective manner.

The most obvious solution is widening the path, or, as seen in El Cerrito and Albany, California, build a separate path for pedestrians, and, just as importantly, enforce this separation. A wider path can have aesthetically pleasing design to separate pedestrians and cyclists, including brick overlays of different colors or clear signage.

Far more important is the safety of path users at grade crossings. The general walkability of an area largely dictates the safety of any trail grade crossings. For example, the Ohlone Greenway in Albany, California has a grade crossing on every block through the city, but slow car speeds, wide lines of sight and well marked crossings make these intersections exceedingly safe. On the other hand, the Iron Horse Trail in more suburban Contra Costa County has less frequent grade crossings, but they are far less safe. In Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek, two major intersections (Treat Blvd and Ygnacio Valley Road) have bridges over them, greatly improving travel time and safety. Further south, pedestrian and cycling conditions quickly deteriorate. At Broadway in Downtown Walnut Creek, trail users are required to brave an intersection of two 6-lane streets, and use the crosswalk signal to cross the street twice to resume travel on the trail. In this scenerio, a grade separation may be expensive, but it would be the ideal solution. If a costly bridge isn’t an option, diagonal crossing across the street or tight signal timing could markedly improve the delay at this intersection for trail users.

The most glaring safety issue occurs further down the train in the Alamo-Danville area. Grade crossings in this area are with smaller residential streets, but the speed of cars and lines of sight along these intersections are terrible. The only crossing protection afforded to trail users are button-activated flashing lights, impossible to operate while cycling. These intersections beg for full traffic lights, with a default green for trail users and an activated green for motorists.

The best trails are those that are entirely grade separated, like the Ballona Creek Path, LA River Trail and San Gabriel River Trail in Los Angeles. These trails follow massive drainage canals in the LA basin, thus use an already existing grade-separated right of way.

Moral of this story is – build trails, but build them right!

Cycling on USC Campus: The Wrong Way to Build Bike Infrastructure

The University of Southern California is the most urban university on the West Coast. The street grid from the surrounding neighborhood extends onto campus, and until the 1920’s automobile traffic was permitted on all thoroughfares on campus, as they were public roads. After acquiring all of the properties between Jefferson Boulevard, Vermont Avenue, Exposition Boulevard and Figueroa Street, allowed the campus to become a gated, private facility. The growth of the University has begun to move north, with most students living north of campus, and huge new projects like the New University Village and University Gateway are massively increasing the concentration of students north of campus.

The most popular means of transportation between North University Park and campus is the bicycle. Based on University counts, 15,000 cyclists a day enter and leave campus, perhaps more than much of the rest of the City of Los Angeles! This overwhelming quantity of cyclists is concentrated in the last 15 minutes of the hour, before and after classes dismiss. This condition creates crush loads on campus and also at the intersections of Jefferson Boulevard with Hoover Street and McClintock Avenue. Last year, LAPD and DPS (USC Public Safety) Officers began to ticket cyclists for riding through these intersections, even though riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is legal and even encouraged in the City of Los Angeles. This type of enforcement and neglect of the California Vehicle Code on and around the USC Campus has been the de facto bicycle policy of the University, with no attempt to accommodate cyclists.

On campus, current bicycle infrastructure is essentially limited to bicycle racks in front of most buildings. Most days, these bike racks are overused and many bikes rest on their kickstands instead of a fixed rack. USC has not even attempted to designate specific bicycle routes or paths on campus. Now that people have begun to complain about bicycle overcrowding, the University has banned all bicycles on Trousdale Parkway and Childs Way, the main north-south and east-west routes on campus, respectively. In addition, all bicycle racks in the center of campus will be moved outside a perimeter, or eliminated, in an effort to clear up center campus.

This policy will create three major problems. First of all, racks or not, people will park their bicycles in center campus, meaning that thousands of bicycles will be parked on kickstands with no organizational structure. Second, the smaller paths in the area will not be banned for bicycles, creating a far more dangerous situation for pedestrians. Finally, this policy does not deal with congestion at the intersections north of campus, or the terrible riding etiquette and technique in which most USC campus riders engage.

Here are my suggestions: ban bikes on the small paths on campus, not the main thoroughfares, and keep the bike racks in center campus. The old bike racks could be replaced by more aesthetically pleasing racks, and bikes not locked to racks could be confiscated. DPS could begin to enforce the California Vehicle Code, including ticketing cyclists with headphones on, and those who choose to chatter away on the cell phone. Also, cyclists can be ticketed for moving violations, so bad riding could be punished. For this policy to be fair, DPS must also initiate a large cycling education program. A requirement for a 20 minute online course before obtaining a license to operate a bicycle on USC campus could do wonders for riding style and etiquette on campus.

Also, a designated system of bicycle paths is critical on USC campus. The streets used for motor vehicles, like 34th Street, 36th Place, 37th Place, McClintock Avenue, and Watt Way, should be designated bike routes. Vehicular traffic should be severely limited during peak hours on Weekdays, allowing the entire street to be used for cyclists. On pedestrian malls, like Trousdale Parkway and Childs Way, European-style bike paths should be installed. These lanes could take the form of a different kind of pavement, such as brick. Cyclists must ride on the brick surface, stop at all intersections, and signal turns, allowing the chaos of these areas to cease.

Countering the problem of cyclists on campus will take this proactive approach. Covering up the problem with enforcement and bans will simply make it worse and infuriate students. After all, USC is essentially a corporation and students are its customers. It’s never a good policy to piss off your customers.