Almost Perfect Is Not Perfect

South Pasadena—just over the York Boulevard bridge from NELA—recently repaved El Centro Street between Pasadena Avenue and Orange Grove. This street had had a Door Zone Bike Lane before the street work, and the little city that hosts it actually gave it a bit of an upgrade when they repainted the freshly-laid blacktop: they added a buffer.

Not an actual berm or curb, nor even those flexible bollards that motorists seem to take a delight in running down, but a painted buffer. You can see it in the photo above. It’s psychological, not physical protection, but given that people burdened with at least some fragment of intellect are driving all those cars, it’s bound to help a little.

It may even convince the interested-but-concerned potential riders to dare pedaling down a real street, safe behind a squad of stalwart diagonal stripes.

But…it doesn’t seem to. Although the street is pleasant and quiet, the trees lush, the air often sweet, and the separation of cars and bikes firmly established, I rarely see another cyclist on this street, which I ride once or twice a week. And this disuse exposes a philosophical problem that afflicts planning agencies all over the USA: the low-hanging fruit conundrum.

DOTs and planning departments know that city residents by and large want more bicycle infrastructure. They also know that, for the most part, city councils will listen to motorists (whom they see as people like themselves) over cyclists or pedestrians (whom they see as odd and foreign), and will give the planners and engineers grief for giving up, or seeming to give up, road space that “should” go to cars, “to prevent congestion.”

Of course, the nation as a whole has been giving vast swathes of road space to cars for eighty years, and congestion has grown steadily worse, outpacing population growth. The engineers and planners have heard of, and understood, the principle of “induced demand.” They also know that city council members, on the whole, have not heard of it, have no sense of history, know nothing of empiricism, and hold the ultimate power in most cities.

And so they take the easy way out and build a beautiful bike lane on a wide, quiet street somewhere out of the way, hoping that it will be tasty enough of a dog biscuit to stop the whining of their cycling constituents.

But such lanes basically go nowhere—unless, of course, you actually live on that street. But few people live on these low-density, suburban-plan avenues. So there’s little reason to ride along them.

One short block to the north of El Centro you find broad and busy Mission Street. Mission sees lots of traffic—not just cars, delivery vans, and large trucks, but…bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles. Bicycles all day long. With nary a bike lane in sight.

Why is this?

Because Mission is replete with offices, workshops. stores, bars, and restaurants, that’s why. It is full of destinations.

It is where the bike lanes should be. El Centro is quiet and little-trafficked; it’s easy to ride there, bike lanes or not. Mission is busy and needs a bike lane. But doesn’t have one.

An odd irony: the western extension of Mission, which is Pasadena Avenue, does have bike lanes. But it hosts almost no commercial establishments. The eastern extension of El Centro hosts a number of commercial blocks, but, being narrower, it enjoys no bike lanes.

I hate to disparage such an inviting and sincere bike lane as El Centro’s. But, sad to say, it represents a failure of vision—one that is all too typical of transport planning in Los Angeles County.

We could do better. We can do better. The question is, when will we?

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2 Comments

  1. WALT!
    Posted June 1, 2016 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Worth noting: This stretch of El Centro was planned as what would have been the city’s first curb-separated cycletrack. But the El Centro single-family home owners with alleyway garages balked about losing parking.

  2. Alan
    Posted June 3, 2016 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Hi Joseph. All good points. I used to take El Centro instead of Mission on my evening commute because of the traffic on Mission. El Centro was in terrible condition. I mean having to swerve in front of cars to avoid potholes terrible. So this is a huge improvement.

    My understanding is that there is a plan for green lanes on Mission from Grand (The TJs store) to Fair Oaks. It just hasn’t happened yet, most likely waiting for the funds to resurface that street and do everything at the same time. Here is their bike plan. See page 4.9 http://www.ci.south-pasadena.ca.us/index.aspx?page=291

    best.

    Alan