(This is a non-Eagle Rock specific post mostly consisting of thoughts on bicycle infrastructure design standards that dictate bikeway design in Los Angeles)
When bicycling on the streets of Los Angeles I am expected to ‘share the road’ with motorists. On quiet residential streets this is rarely an issue, cars seldom go above 20 miles per hour. But even on residential streets there is the occasional pressure to speed up or move aside when a motor vehicle approaches from behind. However, residential streets are pretty manageable and subjectively safe for myself, and the many people I see who simply enjoy to go for a ride around the block. Intersections are not an issue either as residential streets are usually narrow with little traffic.
However, the comfort utilitarian and recreational bicyclists feel on residential streets quickly disappears when traveling on major, commercial streets. One of the biggest hindrances to people choosing the bicycle for travel is how dangerous larger streets with greater amounts of traffic feel.
Now I am an everyday bicyclist and I have no problem negotiating with motor vehicle traffic, or making left turns like a motor vehicle. I expect motorists to needlessly discriminate me by shouting, honking, and telling me to get out of the way. But this is not the reality I want to experience. When traveling by bicycle I’d prefer to be separated from motor vehicles traveling over 20 miles per hour;I do not want to breathe in exhaust, feel cars zoom by, or put up with the noise pollution and increasingly distracted drivers. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are many more who cite their number one reason for not bicycling more often being how unsafe and unpleasant conditions are, being forced to mix with motorized traffic to go to the grocery store, a friend’s house, or local restaurant.
So what is being done to address the concerns of the many people who want to get on their bicycles but don’t? Well, here locally in Los Angeles the city has a Bicycle Master Plan which seeks to create a 1,600 mile network of bicycle facilities over the course of the next 30 years. The city hopes that in those 30 years bicycling will eventually make up 5% of the city’s traffic.
Almost half, 700 miles, of the 1,600 miles of bicycle facilities will be on the a backbone network– that is, this backbone of the bicycle network will be on the heavy traffic streets many are currently afraid of. So what will the facilities on these major streets look like? Currently bike facility designs are largely dictated by: The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO); California Highway Design Manual (CHDM); and the California Manual of Unified Traffic Control Devices (CAMUTCD). What these design guides recommend will likely dictate what LA’s backbone network of bicycle facilities on major streets will look like. What do these manuals have to offer?
Facilities offered in AASHTO and CAHDM are:
- Class I Bike Path: Completely separated right-of-way for exclusive use by bicycles and pedestrians
- Class II Bike Lane: Provides a striped line for one-way bicycle travel on a street or highway
- Class III Bike Route: Provides shared use with pedestrians or motor vehicle travel
It is well known that the majority of people will refuse to start bicycling unless safe, separate facilities are provided. Anecdotally, when I ask my non-bicycling friends, my grandfather, my sister and mother– they all answer that they would love to cycle more if they had separated bike paths to use. This can also be observed where people do cycle most– bike paths such as the LA River Bike Path. Admittedly the majority of users on LA’s bike paths are recreational riders, but a few points can perhaps explain why: Current bike paths are largely isolated and are difficult to integrate into any kind of travel other than recreational; current bike paths are often linear, uninterrupted paths, optimizing them for sporty recreational travel; the facilities feel safe enough to use for recreational purposes (unlike any parallel streets).
Naturally, it seems bike paths would be recommended for installation on major streets, right? Let’s see what the CAHDM say about providing bicycle facilities…
“Pavement markings alone will not measurably enhance bicycling.”
The CAHDM admits that mere painted bike lanes are not too effective in enhancing bicycling. While painted bike lanes not physically separated from motorized traffic have been shown to increase bicycling marginally and enhance the experience a little bit, they are unsatisfactory to the majority of people. The existing bike lanes throughout Los Angeles demonstrate this very well.
So perhaps we could provide bike paths adjacent to motorized traffic to enhance the bicycling experience and get more people riding? After all, bike paths are the most desired kinds of infrastructure among non bicyclists and they are the most utilized pieces of bike infrastructure that do exist despite their lack of accessibility to the majority of people. Well, not according to the CAHDM:
“Bike paths immediately adjacent to streets and highways are not recommended. They should not be considered a substitute for the street, because many bicyclists will find it less convenient to ride on these types of facilities as compared with the street, particularly for utility trips”
The reasoning for not providing bike paths adjacent to streets is in complete contradiction to the reality. Many potential bicyclists would find bike paths adjacent to streets more convenient (and safe, and pleasant) than mixing with motorized traffic, given that the facility is designed well. One of the greatest concerns people currently have with cycling is lack of subjective safety from being required to mix with motorized traffic. Adjacent bike paths would reduce moments required to mix with motorized traffic to intersections and driveways.
Alright, so maybe no bike paths adjacent to streets. Perhaps bike lanes can be placed between the curb and parked cars to make facilities that feel safe enough for everyone? I frequently hear this as a solution from people who would like to cycle more or at all but currently don’t. The CAHDM doesn’t think so:
“Bike lanes shall not be placed between the parking area and the curb. Such facilities increase the conflict between bicyclists and opening car doors and reduce visibility at intersections. Also, they prevent bicyclists from leaving the bike lane to turn left and cannot be effectively maintained.”
Again, the reasoning surprises me. Given the average number of people traveling in a car is less than 2, bicyclists are more likely to have conflict with car doors opening from the driver’s side, where bike lanes are currently placed. As for reducing visibility at intersections, parking is seldom allowed close to intersections for this very reason– visibility. Additionally motorists already have to look for pedestrians on their right-hand side. This should not make it difficult for motorists to look for bicyclists at intersections, if parking is not permitted and the potential pedestrians need to be taken into consideration already. Left-turns are certainly not an issue for pedestrians, why would a bike lane between the curb and parked cars be much different? A similar motion can be made by bicyclists. In fact this is the solution often offered in the Netherlands and Denmark where bicycle facilities are placed between the curb and parked cars.
Cyclists are hardly ‘restricted’ when placed between the curb and parked cars if the facilities are engineered properly like in the Netherlands and Denmark, the countries with the highest levels of bike usage in the western world. Additionally, just as there are mid-block crossings for pedestrians, the same could be provided to bicyclists if placed between parked cars and the curb. This could arguably allow greater freedom of movement than when cyclists are forced to use the same lanes as motor vehicle traffic where mid-block U-turns are often not possible or allowed.
One wonders, how are intersections to be handled according to the CAHDM? Here is more, general discussion of intersections:
“Most auto/bicycle accidents occur at intersections. For this reason, bikeway design at intersections should be accomplished in a manner that will minimize confusion by motorists and bicyclists and will permit both to operate in accordance with the normal rules of the road.”
This sounds good in theory, but the reality is that there is ZERO evidence of intersections in Los Angeles and much of California where any thought has been made to minimize confusion by motorists and bicyclists. In fact, the CAHDM at current suggests two ways for bicyclists to make left turns at intersections, with or without bicycle infrastructure.
“A prevalent type of accident involves straight-through bicycle traffic and right-turning motorists. Left turning bicyclists also have problems as the bike lane is on the right side of the street and bicyclists have to cross the path of cars traveling in both directions. Some bicyclists are proficient enough to merge across one or more lanes of traffic to use the inside lane or left-turn lane. However, there are many who do not feel comfortable making this maneuver. They have the option of making a two-legged left turn by riding along a course similar to that followed by pedestrians.”
The above excerpt is interesting for a couple reasons, it admits that there is trouble with through cyclists and right turning motorists as well with cyclists turning left. The first problem, through cyclists conflicting with right turning motorists has already been addressed in the Netherlands and Denmark– both these countries have made efforts to mitigate this type of conflict. If safety is the highest priority, the issue could be dealt with by reducing speeds at intersections by requiring a sharper turn from motorists through design, as is seen in the Netherlands. It could also be dealt with by having separate signal phases for through cyclists and right turning motorists altogether.
The second problem, that of the left turn, the Highway Design Manual admits that most people would rather not have to cross one, two, or some cases three lanes of motor vehicle traffic to make a left turn like a motorist. This is especially true where speeds are between 30mph and 50pm, as they are on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock.
Yet despite knowing the majority of people would prefer to make a two-legged left similar to pedestrian design, seldom have intersections in California been designed to accommodate, encourage, or guide this style of movement. Interestingly, the diagram from the CAHDM showing the two-legged left displays a movement very similar to the diagram showing a left turn for cyclists in Copenhagen and it would only require paint on the ground to mimic this treatment.
Furthermore, by having two different ways for cyclists to navigate an intersection, a cyclist’s movement is more ambiguous and arguably increases the potential for conflict with motor vehicle traffic because there is no consistent way to expect a cyclist to navigate an intersection.
So what can we do when implementing bicycle facilities in LA?
Well, the Danish and the Dutch have addressed the concerns the CAHDM by experimenting with bicycle facility design for well over 30 years. Contrary to what the CAHDM implies are drawbacks of bicycle facilities that physically separate cyclists from motor vehicle traffic, bicyclists in Denmark and the Netherlands are the safest in the world… and they are frequently separated from motorized traffic on major streets, and they have no trouble making left turns.
It is time to raise the bar for bicycle infrastructure design in California. We know what will create more bicyclists, separated facilities. We know how the majority would be comfortable making left turns, it is written in our state Highway Design Manual. There are several places around the world (and increasingly here in the United States) to look for design solutions yet we do zero to accommodate, encourage, or pursue this.