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Bicyclists Send Sepulveda Plan Back for a Revise

L.A.'s proposal for a reversible commuter lane would put too many cars on the road and keep cyclists' space too narrow, activists say.

May 20, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

A personnel matter still weighed on his mind but, other than that, the day had gone well enough and now Ron Skarin needed to get home.

Like many Southern California residents, he knew just how long it would take to get from his job on the Westside to his home in Chatsworth: 90 minutes. He could cut five minutes off that by taking a side street before facing the long, grueling climb over the Sepulveda Pass.

So Skarin, chief building inspector for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety's Westside operations, chucked his business garb in favor of a T-shirt and shorts, pulled a bright yellow Cannondale bike out of the trunk of his car and began his trek.

The next day, he would pedal back to work and take the car home, a routine he has perfected over years of combining cycling with automotive commuting.

In between would be two trips over Sepulveda Boulevard, a steep, crowded road that pulses with aggressive drivers. Some of the curviest parts of the designated bicycle route have no shoulder, so Skarin cycled in the traffic lane, where drivers honked and cursed as they zipped around him.

Sepulveda Boulevard is so clogged with cars in the mornings and afternoons that city transportation planners have come up with an $11-million scheme to put a reversible commuter lane down the middle of it.

Over the course of a day, 24,000 vehicles traverse the pass. In the mornings, about 3,300 cars and trucks traveling from the San Fernando Valley to the Westside are crammed onto the three- or four-lane street's southbound side at Mulholland. About 2,700 vehicles fill the northbound side on the way home in the afternoon. Far fewer vehicles -- about 300 -- go against the prevailing traffic during those times.

Because the street is on Los Angeles' bicycle plan as an important route between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside, the city also wants to put a bike lane on the northbound side and a modest shoulder on the southbound side.

To an outsider, such changes might seem like an improvement. But the area's bicyclists -- with Skarin as one of their leaders -- are having none of it. Cyclists have complained loudly that the proposal would put too many cars on Sepulveda while keeping the space where cyclists ride far too narrow.

Their activism has sent the city back to the drawing board. And the project, long in the works and approved by the City Council, might be delayed as planners work to revise it.

"What we're after is an actual dedicated [bike] lane," said Skarin, whose T-shirt bears the motto "One Less Car." What the city should really do, he said, is dump the extra car lane and build safe bikeways on either side.

The city's plan "would destroy Sepulveda as a bicycle route," said Susan Gans, a lawyer and cycling advocate. "It's going to be really, really dangerous. Somebody is going to get killed."

Negotiating a compromise may be difficult.

Bicycle enthusiasts and other supporters of alternative transportation have a deep distrust of the L.A. Department of Transportation, which they view as too highly focused on making streets broader to accommodate more cars.

It is an argument heard in many cities, and it's rancorous in L.A., where the city is designed for the automobile and millions of people count on cars to get around.

"The bicycling community and the automotive community have been at loggerheads for 100 years," said Martin Wachs, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley.

On the day Skarin rode over the pass, bicycle commuters numbered about a dozen during the afternoon rush hour. Among them were Marshall Woodson, 45, of North Hollywood, who had already ridden 94 miles by the time he reached the top of the hill at Mulholland Drive, and Carla Kohler, a UCLA biochemist and racing champion on her way to a workout on an Encino bike track.

"Bicyclists are very few compared to the number of people who drive, but they are enormously well-organized," Wachs said. "So they can produce crowds at public hearings and really make their point better than the auto interests. And if you have any environmental interest, you have to have sympathy for bicycling. They have a natural political advantage."

Sean Haeri, a city transportation engineer who is supervising the Sepulveda Boulevard project, said the city originally intended to widen the street for cars while putting bikeways on both sides. The plan also called for widening the narrow tunnel atop the pass, where traffic is funneled into three lanes and there is no shoulder, path or lane for bicycles.

But the Transportation Department, which applied for and won some of the money for the project under a state program designed to renovate bridges, lost much of the funding after state highway officials learned that it would be used for a tunnel instead. Then another pot of money disappeared, leaving the city with the funding for the additional traffic lane but little else.

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