DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On Sunday, Oct. 6, tens of thousands of bicyclists jammed Downtown Los Angeles for the latest installment of CicLAvia. As in past events, it was a wonderful example of community building and sparked all kinds of fantasies about city life without a car.
CicLAvia is just one in a series of events and actions that indicate that a slow, steady shift is taking place in Downtown. Over the past five years or so, a budding bicycle community has taken hold, and now we are starting to see various projects — from governmental to residential to community — that could be stitched together.
Though hardcore bike advocates will say Downtown has long been ripe for a bicycle-friendly transformation, only recently has the community arrived at a crossroads point. This is the time to seize the potential and to ensure that the current development boom takes into account two-wheeled travellers.
In the coming months, local business, political and community leaders should work with cycling advocates and area inhabitants and workers to come up with plans and strategies for enhancing bicycle travel specifically in Downtown (including for commuters cycling to the area). Those who get involved with the effort need to be open-minded and cognizant of the many challenges, and they can’t expect the area to become a bike hub overnight. There will be numerous disagreements in the city dominated for decades by automobiles.
Some entities and agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have been involved in pro-cycling efforts for many years. Additionally, the City Planning Department has done a lot of work on the matter; a Bicycle Plan adopted by the city in 2010 includes a lengthy section dedicated to Downtown. Still, this is a moment when the possibilities are breaking into the mainstream in the Central City, and the work done so far can be taken further.
The reasons for facilitating widespread bicycle use in Downtown are obvious. The most notable problem is gridlock, and as thousands of apartments and condominiums are built, traffic congestion will worsen. The current construction boom will lead, in particular, to a new residential nexus just south of the Financial District, in an area roughly between Eighth, 12th, Hill and Figueroa streets. Proactive planning to keep these residents out of cars as much as possible is required.
The environmental benefits follow. Everyone realizes that fewer cars — even fewer Priuses — means lower emissions and better air quality. It’s important for everyone, but will take on added weight as Downtown welcomes more families — people make different decisions when it comes to the air their children breathe.
Opportunities and Advances
People in Downtown have been recognizing bicycle potential in a piecemeal fashion, with some pedaling forward long before others. The advances made to date include:
The Spring Street Bike Lane: Although the path has been plagued by problems with paint — first getting it to stick to the ground, and then finding a color that doesn’t hamper film production — the idea is solid. Spring is a prime corridor connecting the Civic Center with the Historic Core and neighborhoods south. It lacks the steep hill of, say, Grand Avenue. It is exactly the type of street where cycling fits.
CicLAvia: As mentioned above, this has been a boon for Downtown. The bike event moves around to different communities, but the Central City has been a staple. The more people who are exposed to the area and its two-wheeled potential, the better.
MyFigueroa: The proposal to reduce car traffic and add bike lanes on Figueroa Street between Downtown and USC is fraught with controversy, as a group of business leaders and cycling advocates argue over whether the auto-choked stretch is the best choice for such a strategy. Both sides have persuasive arguments.
Bike Trains: A grassroots program that organizes group rides for those commuting by bike into Downtown for work has emerged. Bike Trains, which Los Angeles Downtown News wrote about in August, smartly tries to pull in newbie riders by having experienced cyclists lead the rolling caravans.
G12: Initial plans for a residential complex at 12th Street and Grand Avenue call for something stunning: 740 bike parking spaces, and just 595 for cars. Of course, things could change at the proposed $245 million development that would create 640 apartments.
The above advances can and should be built upon. While myriad things must happen to make Downtown a welcoming hub, a few of the most important are:
More Bike Lanes: Nothing creates a sense of safety for new or commuting riders like seeing part of the street set aside for them (having dedicated bike paths also helps drivers stay clear). Not every street needs a bike lane, but the concept would work in many places. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for those who live or work in Downtown to leave their cars at home — having safe travel paths is step one. It is also worth experimenting with protected bike lanes in certain corridors, though these will have a higher price and bigger impacts on auto traffic.
More Bike Racks: Once cyclists get where they are going, they need to be able to lock their rides. More outdoor racks at popular destinations could serve those zipping about the community. Additionally, the owners of Bunker Hill and Financial District office towers should look at installing indoor racks. This would speak directly to commuters.
More Buildings Like G12: The team behind G12 is gambling that more bike parking is what renters want. The effort needs to be successful so it can be replicated. The bicycle advisory unit (or whatever it is called) suggested above should determine what it will take to make this work.
It’s not enough to convince people to give up the car. Once the decision to try biking is made, potential problems remain. Some seem basic, but if not addressed, they can turn off nascent riders. They include:
Theft: In this day and age it seems amazing that people would leave expensive bikes unattended as they do something quick such as dart into a cafe to grab a coffee. Still, this happens every week in Downtown, and someone who loses an expensive bike may throw up their hands in frustration. The LAPD has sought to educate riders to halt the practice — the education and reminders to use locks need to continue.
Helmets and Crashes: Similarly, those who get on two wheels need to know that helmets are required. This includes some of the often-daring bike messengers. Cars still dominate the Downtown landscape. Even the safest rider is not immune to a driver distracted by a cell phone.
Be Courteous: Making a bike-friendly Downtown goes two ways, and riders also need to be considerate of others. On more than one occasion we’ve seen a cyclist grow furious and curse at a driver who honked when the cyclist was slowing traffic. Additionally, too many pedestrians have nearly been run down by cyclists who, hoping to get around traffic, come up on the sidewalk. They behave as if they have the right-of-way, but the law says they do not. Besides, these actions can turn people against the cycling community.
Creating a welcoming environment for bicycling won’t instantly resolve issues such as gridlock, but it will make Downtown a more livable and navigable place. The City Planning department has done solid work that can be built upon, and future outreach should focus on experienced riders as well as those who have never fathomed pedaling in the neighborhood. It’s a big effort, but the benefits are numerous and long-lasting.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013