Blog: Updates on Urbanology

Can Cars and Bikes Just Get Along?

By Jack Skelley

(Originally published in Huffington Post)

Los Angeles is going through an awkward stage. Long famous for its car culture, it now has a sizable biking/walking populace that is only getting larger. Drivers are used to ruling the road. Non-drivers are claiming their share of public space. Clashes between them – dangerous clashes – are growing.

This conflict came into sharp relief at the most recent CycLAvia event: You know, the scheduled festivals that close streets to cars. These celebrations are carefree because they are car-free. They allow people to rediscover and reclaim neighborhoods in ways that can’t happen when it’s traffic-as-usual.

But they expose a problem. Streetsblog Los Angeles reporter Sahra Sulaiman described the moment at the close of CycLAvia when the traffic barriers were removed from Wilshire Boulevard and cars were suddenly sharing space with hundreds of bikers. Traffic officers ordered bikes to the right side of the road. But there was simply not room for so many bikes and cars. This forced scared or novice bikers (including children) up onto the sidewalks with pedestrians. Which is no solution either.

As Sulaiman wrote, “If we want people to take cycling seriously as a transportation option… then cyclists need to have options that indicate the city takes their safety seriously.”

Those options are protected bike lanes. And more are coming.

As part of his Great Streets initiative, Mayor Eric Garcetti last week specified six streets that will be redesigned to better accommodate bikes, pedestrians, wheelchairs, strollers, etc. (Plans include other ways to make streets more enjoyable and successful places. I wrote about the original announcement in Huffington Post.)

But until we get protected bike lanes on every major street – probably not in this lifetime – cars and bikes need to co-exist in the same space.

One solution is the three-foot law, recently signed by Governor Jerry Brown. Starting on September 16, of this year, California drivers must keep their cars at least three feet away from bikes they pass on the street. The law is bound to increase the friction between bikes and cars. Drivers are used to demanding full use of lanes. Some of them will aggressively resist the law. Some experienced bikers already claim that space. It’s not going to be pretty.

So here’s another solution: Drivers can slow down and become more patient. I realize this is a non-scientific demand. It requires a psychological change, not a legal one.

Today, when driving through a stretch of Overland Avenue, I saw a sign: “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.” That is exactly right. As drivers, too many of us feel compelled to get “there” as fast as possible. We squeak through the left-turn arrow. We adroitly shift lanes to get ahead. We dare the speed limit (when we can).

This is a natural reaction to driving in a city with terrible congestion. To “fight” the traffic we face every day is maddening. It can make the meekest person irrationally eager to “beat” the other guy and get ahead.

But if it’s your kids playing on the sidewalks, or you are biking in the right-hand lane, you have a different attitude. You want drivers to chill. They can be a few minutes – or seconds – late.

A beloved teacher of my daughter was riding her bike through an alley near school. A driver was cleverly taking this shortcut. There was a collision and hospitalization. That’s the problem we need to solve.

I realize there’s another side to this story: The driver’s side. Neighborhoods that have adopted lane restrictions, speed humps, etc. can make congestion “worse.” And that makes drivers even more frustrated. When you’re stuck in traffic, it’s hard to get on the “traffic-calming” bandwagon. But there is a trade-off, as explained by Michael Bohn, design director at Studio One Eleven which has created “complete streets” re-designs across Southern California.

“Congestion is not always bad: Two streets in downtown Long Beach originally had three lanes in one direction causing cars to roar down these streets and making them unbearable in terms of livability. Once one lane was converted for bikes, businesses such as restaurants and microbrews sprang up creating jobs and a more vibrant place. People don't always realize what economic hardships are imposed on a neighborhood when strictly thinking of vehicular movement. Streets are complex animals that need to respond to the desires and context of community as well as balance broader transportation movements.”

Maybe, one day, we’ll live in a frictionless city. Like the futuristic L.A. of that Joachin Phoenix movie, Her, where everyone takes smooth, quiet public transportation. But until we change our city that dramatically, we need to change our attitude.