Fleshing Out the Backbone

There’s been pushback against the new LA Bike Plan lately, and, holy crap, it’s not from the usual NIMBYs, but from fellow cyclists! Vehicular cyclists, to be precise. (See a couple of particularly vitriolic rants in the comments from “Txarli” here.)

Some will find it ironic that I am distressed by this–after all, I’ve read Forester, I am a vehicular cyclist and have been for over forty years, and I put in 500 miles or more every month, with not that much of it in bike lanes or on paths. I even participated in one of the design charrettes for the “Backbone Network,” then later helped in the campaign to get it included in the new bike plan. And the Backbone Network consists mostly of bikelanes on big arterial streets–exactly the sort of facility I do use, when I find it.

But, simply, I don’t think the Backbone Network will do much if it’s the only element in the plan. Without the “Neighborhood Network” and the occasional cycle track (“Green Network,” in LA-bike-plan-speak), we simply won’t get too many people riding for transportation in LA.

Bike route in Culver City, equivalent to one of the several treatments for “Neighborhood Network” streets in the LA Bike Plan

The Backbone Network is important to riders like me, who travel long distances across town. LA is big, and needs what are functionally “bicycle freeways.” And the “Green Network” park and levee paths will be too few and far between to serve. The Backbone does serve up high-speed arterial lanes for regional travel, and functions as a freeway.

It’s also less than half of the mileage of bicycle facilities in the complete city plan–mileage that was determined in part by the rest of the community in many meetings with the city. It’s also the part least likely to be used by non-vehicular cyclists, which comprise the vast majority in successful cycling cities worldwide–not just in cozy Northern European towns, but in megacities such as Tokyo.

It’s important, not just for cycling, not just for our own indulgence, but also for the health of the SoCal community, to entice the “interested but concerned” cyclists who would ride if they felt safe, which they do not on arterial bike lanes. The Neighborhood Network envisioned in the complete plan is an important part of this: calmer, quieter streets that will allow the hopeful yet uncertain people who presently drive lots of one and two mile trips to try and habituate themselves to cycling.

Many present riders don’t need those streets–hell, I don’t need them.

But present riders comprise a mighty 1% to 2% of traffic.

There are people out there–lots and lots of people–who feel trapped in their cars because they feel the big streets, even with bike lanes, are unsafe.

Concentrating on the Backbone Network (which is necessary, especially in a city like LA) excludes the vast majority of future cyclists. Survey after survey in city after city across the world shows that about 60% of the people would ride if they felt it was safe as well as convenient.

And while I think the real answer is to limit car speeds severely on all surface streets–keeping them below 30mph on arterials and below 20mph on local streets–that won’t happen here soon (unless LA becomes a lot more assertive in implementing road diets than it has been). It would require more than signs and cops; it would require changes in the physical design of streets. Riding on arterials will mean, for quite a while, sharing the road with fast car traffic.

And providing only “bicycle freeways” shared with speeding cars will not get the “interested but concerned” potential riders to integrate cycling with their daily lives–though they may load a bike onto a car to take it to a beach or river path now and then.

So we can’t just have a “backbone” without any flesh on it, and expect urban cycling to stand up and move ahead.

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  1. Carter Rubib
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Great story! I think your main point is well evidenced by the scores of people you can find riding on the sidewalks of Venice Blvd — not the bike lanes — because they don’t feel comfortable riding next to cars and buses going 40+ mph. Even though sidewalk riding is fraught with its own safety issues.

  2. angle
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    The Backbone Bikeway was never intended to be the sole bicycle network for Los Angeles; it was conceived as being the “first-level” skeletal structure that other local networks could connect to.

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