I am simultaneously inspired and troubled by the hubbub regarding the Backbone Bikeway Network (BBN). It’s inspiring to see so many bicyclists working together for an ambitious unified citywide vision. On the other hand, some of the supporting rhetoric troubles me because it is packed with extremely simplified reactive viewpoints that are oblivious to the very large and very blatant barriers to progress for bicycling in Los Angeles.
One troubling component within support of the BBN is an almost total disregard for history. Some of the most outspoken bicyclists in our community don’t recognize that the City of Los Angeles already did this. Transportation planners looked at maps and marked off a loose grid of bikeways on arterials in the 70’s, which eventually trickled down into the 96-02 plan.
Unfortunately, almost none of these facilities have ever been implemented beyond bike route designation. Although critique of the New Draft Bike Plan lamented that it was worse than the 96-02 plan, no one addressed the old plan’s failure. And this is precisely—predictably—where a network that resembles it (like the BBN) will also fail. City officials, residents, and business owners, are not willing to trade arterial curb-parking, travel lanes, peak-hour parking restrictions, even travel lane width, for bike lanes or sharrows.
Another troubling aspect of BBN support is found in the repeated slogan: “Secondary roads are for secondary road-users.” This is a delightfully catchy phrase, and while I practice vehicular cycling (read: I assert my right to the road as an equal to drivers), I don’t think anyone can deny the benefits of a bicycle network on non-arterial streets.
First, a non-arterial network is easier to implement. Residential and collector streets are a less contested space. LADOT leadership is not concerned about losing throughput on them. And residents are constantly telling planners how they want slower traffic on their streets. This is the opposite of how Angelinos and LADOT feel about arterials.
Second, non-arterial roads are safer for bicycling, which means they are more popular for a very important target population: non-bicyclists. It may not be popular to think of non-bicyclists when imagining the future of bicycling in Los Angeles. In fact, promotion for the BBN prided itself as being “made by bicyclists for bicyclists.” I’m glad bicyclist are duly motivated to work towards improving their environment, but the shortsightedness of the “all about us” attitude is counterproductive. Bicycling is growing in popularity (Wal-Mart is selling track frames!), but bicycling as a transportation mode undeniably remains a marginalized activity in Southern California. It is imperative that we convince more non-bicyclists to try commuting or running errands on a bike. A non-arterial network will do that. A strictly arterial one will not. Don’t get me wrong; I love riding on arterials. Riding a bike on 4th Street is qualitatively different from cruising Hollywood Boulevard. But a collector bikeway network is bound to yield more converts than a head-on contentious struggle over major roadways that currently lacks popular support.
Most importantly, although riding on secondary streets is not the same as riding on arterials, people who characterize it as inferior are wrong. A simple glance at the design guidelines in the New Draft Bike Plan reveals physical solutions that prioritize secondary streets for bicyclists, de-prioritizing them for auto-traffic. We don’t have to subscribe to the auto-oriented hierarchy of roads (i.e. freeway-highway-arterial-collector-residential). We are bicyclists! We are free! We can invent our own system. We can embrace the solutions that turn collector streets into bike boulevards and create a new world for ourselves, rather than futilely struggling to be part of one that is hostile to us.
Possibly the most egregious part of BBN support comes with the claim that it represents a “plan with a backbone.” Planning is more than drawing lines on a map. In a city like Los Angeles, it entails a mind-numbingly awesome amount of research and work, collaborating with various government branches and assessing the needs of myriad communities. Creating a plan that incorporates all competing interests takes time, effort and energy—not to mention risk of public shaming, which has happened plenty within the zany LA bicycle world. It isn’t easy to hash out specific solutions and details in a room with other people who disagree with you. It is much easier to insulate oneself in a room where everyone agrees with you, and it is even easier to mistake that insulation as strength.
There are two potential problems here. One small and one large.
The smaller problem is that the plan ends up being another toothless document that doesn’t change anything for any bicyclists. Informed sources tell me that the BBN is now guiding the LA City Planning Department’s unilateral (re)development of the LA Bike Plan. I am told that the collector network—that’s code for bike boulevard grid—that was originally proposed has largely been abandoned upon suggestion of BBN-supporters. The document’s ineffectual status is almost guaranteed if collaboration between City Planning and LADOT has dissolved since LADOT has the ultimate say in what happens on the street. “Infeasible” became a dirty word for LA bicyclists, but the people that developed that stance haven’t gone anywhere, and a BBN-guided plan isn’t going to change their response. This is the small problem because I already bike. So, if things don’t change, it’ll be a grave unfortunate missed opportunity, but I’ll be okay.
The larger problem is that bicyclists have set themselves up to be further-identified as an extreme alternative community. We are a subculture for now, and all subcultures experience an inherent resistance to mainstreaming, but unlike some historically empowering notions of “other,” progress for bicycling requires recruitment and normalization. The goal should be to encourage people who don’t ride a bike to try it with us, to ultimately embrace our vision. The Backbone Bikeway Network is a glorious vision, but it won’t encourage anyone to join us, especially the people we need most.