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Cyclists, walkers to share space

Backpedaling on a ban, pedestrian-friendly West Hollywood prepares to legalize sidewalk bike riding.

July 08, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

As gas prices force some motorists to dust off their bicycles, West Hollywood authorities are backpedaling on a law that bans bike riding on its pedestrian-packed sidewalks.

The compact, walking-friendly city is preparing to legalize sidewalk bike riding along streets that lack marked bicycle lanes.

Bicyclists sharing walkways with pedestrians will be required to be careful -- and courteous to senior citizens and others who have long walked to Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards to shop and dine.

Local traffic laws and the state's vehicle code have traditionally lumped bicycles into the same category as motorized vehicles, meaning they must be ridden on streets, not sidewalks. An exception is Los Angeles, where only willfully careless bike riding is prohibited on sidewalks.

But bicyclists in West Hollywood have complained that traffic congestion and narrow roadways in some areas make it dangerous to ride in the street.

After learning that even some members of the Los Angeles County sheriff's bicycle detail were leery of riding in the street, city leaders spent more than a year studying the issue and polling residents and those who work and shop in the 2-square-mile town.

The survey showed that more than half of respondents ride their bikes on sidewalks, even though it is illegal. The idea of sharing the sidewalk between pedestrians and bicyclists was split, with 43.7% for coexistence and 52.7% against it.

On the street, the bikes-on-the-sidewalk debate continues to roll on.

Outside a Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard, lined with bicycles chained to parking meters and lampposts, Sam Lopez, 21, sparred with friends Francesca Consarino, 18, and Chelsea Medwin, 17. All live in next-door Beverly Hills.

Lopez, a talent agency intern, said that as a motorist he believes that bicyclists belong on sidewalks. The young women, both high school students who walk a lot, disagreed.

At a nearby sidewalk table, marketing expert Stephen Bender, 29, of Hollywood said bike riders are safer on the walkway than in the busy boulevard's marked bicycle lane.

Just then, Leonard Donnell pulled up to a stop on the sidewalk on his old cruiser-style bike. He dismissed the painted bicycle lane a few steps away as "too dangerous."

"If we use common sense, we should be able to ride and walk on the sidewalk together," said Donnell, 50, of West Hollywood.

Los Angeles County's bike law, which bans all sidewalk riding, also applied to West Hollywood. Santa Monica prohibits it too. Beverly Hills does not permit bikes on sidewalks in its business district.

Los Angeles, however, prohibits sidewalk riding only when it is done "in a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property." Bikes are banned, however, on Ocean Front Walk between Marine Street and Via Marina in Venice.

Before endorsing the opening of sidewalks to bicyclists on streets with bike lanes, the city's Traffic Commission considered alternatives such as allowing only children under 12 or adults over 60 ride on sidewalks or requiring bicyclists to use horns or bells when approaching pedestrians.

West Hollywood residents took a middle-of-the-road stance on bikes on sidewalks at a June council hearing that set the stage for a ratification vote tentatively scheduled for July 21.

One veteran bicyclist warned that allowing sidewalk bike riding was inviting a lawsuit if a pedestrian was struck and injured. "It will be dangerous . . . especially to older people and people walking dogs on leashes," she said.

A man told of almost running over a bicyclist who sped off a sidewalk and into the intersection at Ogden Drive and Sunset Boulevard. "We can't see these people. It's a bad idea," he warned.

But others favored pedestrians sharing sidewalks with cyclists. One woman asked officials to consider bicyclists as people who are helping the environment and reducing traffic congestion, not as criminals.

Another urged that bikes be outfitted with readable license plates that witnesses can identity in case of hit-and-ride-off collisions with walkers.

City administrators said a relaxation of rules against sidewalk riding would be accompanied by an aggressive safety campaign and strict enforcement of the bike lane rule.

Anyone caught riding recklessly or too fast or on a sidewalk on a street where there already is a designated bike lane would be cited by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and fined. Infractions could be bumped up to misdemeanors if the violation is serious, city staff members said.

Council members cited Sheriff's Department statistics that tallied 41 accidents involving bicycles and moving vehicles over one recent two-year period. There were no reports of bicyclists crashing into pedestrians during that time.

Others suggested that crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians go unreported. Councilman Sal Guarriello revealed that he was a victim of sidewalk collisions with bicyclists.

"Twice I was knocked over by a bicyclist, and he was as nasty as hell," Guarriello said. "We have places here you have to walk single file to walk on the sidewalk. And now we want to put bikes on the sidewalks? I can't buy this no way, no how."

Councilman John Duran questioned how enforcement of risky sidewalk riding could be done. But he said there has been a push to turn West Hollywood into a green city.

"If I was on a bike, I'd much rather collide with a pedestrian than a truck or a car," Duran said.

"We're choking on traffic congestion and getting ready to choke" on $6-a-gallon gasoline prices.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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