Paint, planning, for bikes on the ground in South Pasadena

South Pasadena City Hall's crosswalk
A new zebra-stripe crosswalk in front of South Pasadena’s city hall.In Los Angeles County it is easy to get distracted by the flash, and the piles of moving cash, in the City of Los Angeles. Yet the real action often happens in one of the 87 of other cities in the county – from scandals in the small cities in South East LA like Vernon and Bell to shining examples for what passes as bike -friendly planning in cities like Long Beach.

Add to that list of shining examples of bike planning the City of South Pasadena, which is right in the middle of a transition from a car-only to a people-first policy of mixed modes of transportation and traffic calming. This small city is leading the way with bike planning, a flush reserve account, and as solvent a government as any in Los Angeles County.

Postcard featuring the Opera House Building and Post Office building on Center Street (which would become El Centro in 1908) in South Pasadena, CA. From South Pasadena Public Library.

South Pasadena is a small city wedged in between Los Angeles and Pasadena, founded by residents wanting to distance themselves from the sin and vice sloshing around Pasadena in the 1880’s. Well, that and they wanted a bigger stake in their collective future. The city is well known (at least locally) for its 19th and early 20th century homes and traditional, human scale, small business districts. The small town is also well known for it’s opposition to freeway projects – being the last holdout opposing the construction of the 110 freeway in the 1930’s and stalling the extension of the 710 freeway for over a generation in the courts.

That is pretty serious street cred when it comes to opposing automobility. Yet, like most American cities, South Pasadena succumbed long ago to the mandatory motoring age on its small local streets – turning over expansive swaths of the carriage way to high speed private automobile travel and parking.

Corner of El Centro Street and Meridian Avenue in South Pasadena
The corner of El Centro and Meridian – the 710 freeway would have bulldozed through.

I regularly ride to, from, and through South Pasadena. Trying my luck on the main roads in South Pasadena like Fremont, Mission, Pasadena Avenue (which connects to York Boulevard in Los Angeles), Fair Oaks, and Huntington Drive always leaves me ticked off at how quaint the architecture is, yet how brutal the roads are for anyone daring to walk or ride a bike.

I took some time recently to talk with Dennis Woods, the new Transportation Manager for the City of South Pasadena to find how some of the auto dominance in South Pasadena is being mitigated by their brand new Bike Plan – passed just a few months ago, in August of 2011.

Woods is used to working on projects like this – having recently helped another small city, West Hollywood, complete their Bike and Pedestrian Plan. Woods also spent time at Metro (LA’s countywide transportation authority), working on bicycle issues in their Countywide Planning and Development Department.

Pedestrians crossing the zebra stripe crosswalk at Mission Street and Meridian Avenue in South Pasadena
Pedestrians crossing the zebra stripe crosswalk at Mission Street and Meridian Avenue in South Pasadena

In the past two years, South Pasadena has turned federal transportation dollars into traffic calming treatments in two major business corridors along Mission and Fair Oaks. The changes came with some controversy. Construction made traffic on these streets come to a standstill at times. The intent of the finished project was to make it safer and easier for people to walk (and shop!) and harder for people to drive above 30 miles per hour through these dense commercial areas.

The next phase of this transition in South Pasadena’s streets is being enacted through the Bike Plan. Woods calls the plan, “[a] great opportunity to improve mobility – not only locally, but between cities regionally.”

Cyclist and parents with a stroller wait for the Gold Line train to pass at Mission Station
Cyclist and parents with a stroller wait for the Gold Line train to pass at Mission Station.

Woods mentioned the Gold Line station on Mission Street numerous times as a key to the Bike Plan, and the city’s transportation network, serving a larger goal of allowing more flexibility in resident’s travel choices. Mandatory motoring is being made optional in South Pasadena, one bike lane at a time, it seems.

South Pasadena consulted Los Angeles and Pasadena’s bike plans while writing their own. Woods informed me that neighboring small cities San Marino and Alhambra don’t have bike plans, but Alhambra is working on one right now.

It is common, at least in Los Angeles, for our city departments to regard public outreach with great antipathy, and cooperation with the small cities surrounding LA as the purview of officials of at least the rank of a U.S. Senator or ambassador.

South Pasadena’s bike plan reflects their vision for multi-modal city with regional connectivity – ¬†and they have begun implementing this vision in a hurry!

Bike Lane on newly paved Marengo in South Pasadena
Bike Lane on newly paved Marengo in South Pasadena (heading towards Alhambra).

Marengo is a street that parallels the busy Fremont , running between Alhambra and South Pasadena’s business districts, with schools and parks dotted along its length. This was the first street to get a real, Class 2, bike lane – and the paint went down on fresh tarmac just a few months ago.

We’ve already used this route to visit a dim sum restaurant on one of our Dim Sum Rides. I’ve used it while visiting relatives in Alhambra – passing quickly through a beautiful, quiet, tree lined street in peace (for once!) in South Pasadena made a huge difference.

An older asian man rides a bike in El Centro Street bike lanes on a quiet Sunday afternoon
An older gentleman rides a bike on El Centro Street bike lanes on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

El Centro Street bike lanes in front of Arroyo Vista School in South Pasadena
El Centro Street bike lanes in front of Arroyo Vista School in South Pasadena.

The next facility to hit the ground was a short stretch of Class 2 bike lane on El Centro. This is an ideal street to go to the Metro Gold Line station at Mission. With a good bike and a baby seat (like the Gazelle Bloom and a Yepp Maxi or Bobike Junior – all for sale at our shop, of course!) you can safely drop your kid off at school, then catch a train to the office; after work, you can get the kid, and some groceries, and head home without ever using a car – this is the heart of what Woods was talking about.

What is next?

South Pasadena has the best geography to ride a bike between Los Angeles and Pasadena, or Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley – but the roads that make this transition between regions possible stink if you’re riding a bike.

A clipping from the South Pasadena Bike Plan's bike network map.

As Dennis Woods and I spoke, the engineering work to reconfigure Pasadena Avenue (which is York Boulevard’s name as it crosses over the Arroyo Seco and the 110) was out to bid.

In 2009, the City of Long Beach led the way with their innovative green shared use lane on 2nd Street in Belmont Shore – and Woods is working on South Pasadena’s version of this type of lane on Mission Street as it passes by the Gold Line station and connects to Fair Oaks.

Bikes locked to a lamp post in front of Buster's Coffee Shop in South Pasadena on Mission Street
Bikes locked to a lamp post in front of Buster’s Coffee Shop in South Pasadena on Mission Street.

What does this mean for South Pasadena? They are a small city, but they have held fast to their values: local control, local needs, financial stability, and quality of life. Communities of a similar structure that hitched their horses to Los Angeles and Pasadena rode the wave of rising and falling fortunes in the 20th century – giving up historic property, their human scale, and financial solvency.

Mission Street sign in front of South Pasadena City Hall

South Pasadena’s bike plan represents another step in the right direction for this small city. Hopefully, the big kids in LA County will look down from their jet airplanes, hungover from a party with campaign donors the night before, while they are flying to Sacramento, Wall Street, or Washington, DC to beg for more money and loans; they will look down and see a solvent city, a beautiful place to live, to work, a place that strives to embody the best of what being together in a city means.

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