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Transport / Mass transit

Los Angeles: A Tale of Two Bike Lanes

It was the best of plans, it was the worst of plans. It was a plan hailed as a success, it was a plan that failed miserably. It was a plan that had won over those who’d been sceptical; it was a plan that once-supportive council members sent unceremoniously to the scrap heap. And, to top it all, both the biggest success and the biggest failure of Los Angeles’ plans for cycling infrastructure took place on the same street.

LA wasn’t always a driver’s town. In the 1920s, it had the longest urban rail network in the world, and innovative infrastructure was built for cyclists as well. Despite this, Angelenos fell in love with the car early on and moved for more highway projects, making it the road-based city it is today.

Lately, though, the city’s residents have become increasingly supportive of transportation projects that go beyond the car. In 2008, they voted for Measure R, which includes one of the most ambitious rail construction plans in the United States. Two years later, the city approved a bike plan that calls for 1,684 miles of bikeways.

All the same, implementing these plans has been slow going: voters who supported the creation of bike lanes in theory changed their mind when it came time to take away their precious car lanes or parking spaces. The Los Angeles Times estimates that, of the more than 1,600 miles of proposed bikeways, just 200 have been built.

One particularly acute case of this has occurred on one of the city’s most important roads, Figueroa Street. Though not as famous as other LA thoroughfares like Hollywood Boulevard, it’s a key artery for the city’s downtown, connecting the rolling hills of gentrifying Northeast Los Angeles with USC, the Coliseum, and the city’s distant port to the south.

The planned bike lane for Figueroa in Northeast Los Angeles has become a case study in exactly how much can go wrong with a seemingly good plan. In documents released in 2010, the area was listed as a priority. But after locals became hostile to the idea, councilman Gil Cedillo, who’d previously supported the plan, suddenly changed his mind; in July, the Los Angeles Times reported that Cedillo had halted all work on advancing the bike lane project. Citing concerns that adding bike lanes would restrict access to emergency vehicles, he added that cyclists are a “tiny but vocal segment of the population”.

Naturally, this didn’t go over well with the cycling community in Northeast LA. Josef Bray-Ali, owner of the well known Flying Pigeon bike shop and a vocal supporter of cycling infrastructure throughout the city, said of Cedillo, “We’re going to have to get in his face non-stop, constantly…  I’m not going to back down.” Rick Risemberg, another advocate, accused Cedillo in a blog post of responding to pressure from those who don’t live in his district but do provide much of his financial backing.

As cycling advocates in Northeast LA regroup, perhaps they could learn from the tactics used to quell opposition to a scheme further south on Figueroa. In 2010, a plan for bike lanes along the two mile stretch between Downtown and the USC/Exposition Park complex, known as the MyFigueroa plan, began to take shape after a series of public meetings.

As with many other plans, the plan drew widespread, though diffuse, popular support. By contrast, its opponents were few, but dedicated – and, most importantly, rich. The website People for Bikes reported in April 2014 that the most visible face of opposition to the project was Darryl Holter, owner of eight car dealerships along the route, who vocally opined that the project would hurt his sales. But behind the scenes, other major local players, such as USC and the Natural History Museum, were dragging their feet, too. Though they publicly supported the plan, they also called for a traffic study that would jeopardise key funding for the project.

Fortunately for bike advocates, such opposition was overwhelmed by the strength of grassroots support. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition mobilised supporters to put pressure on the city council. The plan won backing, too, from others in the local business community and all five local neighbourhood councils. In March, the campaign found another ally at the very top of the city’s government: mayor Eric Garcetti. By May, opinion had turned and construction was under way; even Holter backed down, and withdrew his case.

It’s unclear whether this strategy would work in Northeast LA. Though this area was included in Garcetti’s “Great Streets” plan, the mayor has stayed silent on the issue. Maybe the shadowy interests accused of manipulating Cedillo are more powerful than those further south along Figueroa. Nevertheless, this example has important lessons for all cities looking to build bike infrastructure. Car dependent cities elsewhere should take note. 

This article was amended on 18 August to correct some inaccuracies concerning Mayor Garcettie’s “Great Streets” plan.
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