TO EXPERIENCE the full dysfunction of Los Angeles cycling, there's no better place than the Los Angeles River Bikeway.
Its northernmost four miles, from Griffith Park to Atwater Village, are a pedaling paradise: smooth pavement, lighting, a dedicated bridge over Los Feliz Boulevard. But cross Fletcher Avenue and the riding gets rough. The aged asphalt is in various stages of disrepair, and cyclists are forced to negotiate a number of rough drainage ditches. At the bike path's southern end, riders are unceremoniously dumped back onto Riverside Drive in the shadows of the Golden State and Pasadena freeways miles from downtown, Dodger Stadium or any other destination.
The Fletcher Divide, which has aged disgracefully over five years during three mayoral administrations, illustrates how glacially Los Angeles is integrating cycling into its transportation grid. L.A., which averages 329 sunny, bike-friendly days a year, should be one of the most forward-thinking cities on the subject. Instead, greater Los Angeles remains a vast patchwork of bikeways, bike lanes and bike routes that haven't coalesced -- as anyone who took part in Bike to Work Day this week surely noticed.
That's not to say nothing is happening. The city has an 11-year-old Bicycle Plan, and city and county officials cite the proliferation of on-street bike lanes as an example of the great strides being made. Yet the numbers leave a lot to be desired. Of Los Angeles County's 6,400 miles of surface streets, only 481 miles have bike lanes (320 inside the city limits -- five fewer miles than much smaller Tucson). In milk carton terms, if L.A.'s total street mileage equaled half a gallon, bike lanes would constitute a sip of about 4 ounces.
Whether one sees that glass as half full or half empty, I personally wish the city would just stop filling it. Quit while it's behind and not stripe another inch of bike lane. And yes, this is coming from an avid recreational and commuter cyclist who has pedaled thousands of miles over 20 years.
Here's why: By law, my bicycle is considered a vehicle with the same right to the road as your car or truck. Bike lanes provide an arguable buffer zone of safety (as well as a great place for people to put their garbage containers on trash day), but they marginalize cyclists and reinforce their status as second-class commuters who shouldn't be on the road.
Some bike lanes even put cyclists at greater risk, such as the newest lanes along Santa Monica Boulevard between Century City and the San Diego Freeway. Cars have to make quick cuts across the bike lane to get to side streets, shopping centers and parking spaces. The eastbound bike lane literally vanishes midblock, as if the Department of Transportation ran out of paint before reaching Avenue of the Stars.
L.A. Department of Transportation officials quote chapter and verse how the city's newest bike lanes safely conform to state regulations -- and not counting the disappearing act I mentioned, I'm sure that's true. But it's not enough.
What will be enough? I'll never be satisfied until Silverados and Schwinns can peacefully coexist on all surface streets. But an update of the city Bicycle Plan -- something the plan stipulated should have been done last year -- is a good place to start. Our city and county transportation agencies should be trying out fresher bike-transit concepts, such as shared-use arrows, known as sharrows, and bicycle-priority streets, also called bike boulevards.
Already successful in San Francisco, sharrows have a bike icon topped by two chevrons painted directly on the road. Instead of creating separation, they promote awareness that the right lane is to be shared by motorists and cyclists -- and they're easier and less costly to implement than bike lanes.
A network of seven bike boulevards has been used to great effect in Berkeley. All types of vehicles are allowed, but these designated roadways have been enhanced with traffic signals, signage and traffic control for bike safety and convenience. Here in Los Angeles, 4th Street is practically bike-boulevard ready from Vermont Boulevard to La Brea Avenue. Another could be Fountain Avenue between Silver Lake and West Hollywood.
A citywide grid of sharrows that complement and connect bike boulevards and off-street bikeways would go a long way toward fostering a civic culture that embraces cycling rather than treating bikes as a transportation afterthought.