DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In the past few years, Downtown Los Angeles has made significant progress in encouraging bicycling. As this page recently noted, important advances include the creation of the Spring Street Bike Lane, the extremely popular community event CicLAvia, and MyFigueroa, a plan to add bike and pedestrian lanes to the busy transportation corridor connecting Downtown and Exposition Park.

Then there is another element that should have been added by now, but has not: a citywide bike share program with a sizable presence in Downtown. 

This would seem to be the proverbial low-hanging fruit. After all, bike-sharing programs, which have been popular in Europe for decades, are starting to gain a foothold in the United States as municipalities look for ways to reduce automobile gridlock and air pollution. New York City has a privately run venture called CitiBike. Capital Bikeshare operates in Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles had been on the road to getting a similar program, though as Los Angeles Downtown News reported last week, the progress hit a brick wall. Although city officials as recently as April talked up a deal that had been signed with the Irvine company Bike Nation, the much-anticipated program never moved forward. 

The culprits were difficulties in permitting and, more significantly, issues dealing with advertising. Initial plans called for Bike Nation to pay for the entirety of the project (read: no taxpayer funds would be spent), with proceeds coming from advertising placed on the approximately 400 bike racks citywide (including 125 in Downtown).

However, that plan was scuttled by a previous outdoor advertising agreement the city had signed with the companies CBS Outdoor and JCDecaux. That deal covers a wide array of street furniture, including bike racks. Bike Nation officials were told that they could place ads on bicycles, but not on the racks themselves. Company officials said that doesn’t work financially.

That’s a big disappointment, and it’s shocking that the deal got as far as it did without someone recognizing that advertising on racks would be prohibited. We wonder who in the city dropped the ball and wasn’t familiar with the language in the older agreements. It’s frustrating, because time, money and patience have all been needlessly wasted.

It is also frustrating because a bike share program is a natural in Downtown. There are hundreds if not thousands of commuters who would be willing to take a train to Union Station, or perhaps to a Downtown subway stop, grab a bike from an automated rental rack, then pedal a mile or so to their job in the heart of the community, where they would leave the bike at another locked rack. Area residents might also use it for a short trip, and tourists could hop on and off as a way to see the city. These kinds of users were precisely who Bike Nation envisioned, with customers having the option to pay a daily or annual fee.

Can the problems be solved? That’s unknown at this point. The city appears to have put the kickstand down on creating a local bike share program. Instead, at the behest of figures including Mayor Eric Garcetti and County Supervisors Zen Yaroslavksy and Don Knabe, the full county is now looking into the concept. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors recently approved a motion to search for a bike share vendor to operate throughout the county.

That sounds good, but any traction will depend on whether the proposal has a champion capable of pushing the agenda. Having such a figure is vital because no target date for implementing a program has been announced, and so far, it appears no one has taken steps to address the CBS/JCDecaux quagmire. If ads were not allowed on Bike Nation’s proposed racks, and that is the prime driver for payment, then how will another private operator recoup its costs within city limits?

There seem to be potential solutions. Perhaps existing contracts could be reworked — maybe CBS and JCDecaux would be willing to relax the restriction on bike racks if the length of their deal is extended (it currently runs through 2021). Or, maybe the idea of getting people out of their cars and onto shared two-wheelers is worth the city and county paying for the portion of the proceeds that would be lost by a bike rack ad ban; the remainder could be made up by the ads on the bicycles.

Certainly there are more possible solutions, especially if some of the forward-thinking individuals in city and county government decide that this needs to happen. The area is full of strong biking advocates, and they can help the county replicate what has worked in cities around the globe.

Bike sharing should happen in Los Angeles and it should happen soon. 

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013

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