However, this is a large city. 3.8 million people live in the city itself and almost 15 million people live in the urban area. That's very nearly the same population as the whole country of the Netherlands, but Angelenos live with much higher density1 so there is much less to be done.
Are the numbers actually impressive or not ?
Despite the density, very few people cycle in LA. 13000 commuters may sound like a large number, it's not. This is a huge city with a huge number of potential cyclists. If it were an average Dutch city, over 3 million journeys would be made each day by people who lived in Los Angeles itself, and 12 million journeys each day by residents of the urban area of Los Angeles. There would be a million journeys per hour by bike through the working week. When cycling is truly successful as a mode of transport, it is something done by everyone, all the time. Even though cycling has grown in Los Angeles, the result is a cycling modal share of around 0.3% of journeys. This is orders of magnitude lower than average in the Netherlands.
When looking up another story which mentioned Los Angeles a few days ago, I came across the city's bicycle plan (also here). This is quite an interesting document in many ways.
The plan describes a proposal for "an ambitious 1,684 mile bikeway system". This number is clearly important as it appears in particularly large print in the document. Apparently this will "build off the existing 334 miles that have been installed over the past thirty plus years". Does that indicate that the rate of cycle path building over the last thirty years has been 10 miles per year ? Well, actually, no it doesn't. I first thought that a "bikeway" was a cycle path separate from the road, but actually it's not. A "bikeway" can be almost anything. Most of the "bikeway system" actually refers to on-road treatments of one kind or another. Of the existing 334 miles, only 49 miles are "Green Paths" segregated from the road. Of the proposed new 1350 miles of "bikeway", only a further 90 miles of "Green Paths" are proposed.
|The surprising photo chosen by the authors|
of the bicycling plan to represent "Green
paths" in L.A. Narrow and enclosed, with a
bad surface and concrete surroundings
"enhanced" with barbed wire. I hope it
doesn't all look like this.2
The photo shows an example of design with no regard at all for social safety. It's not a very inviting place to be in the daytime, and very many people would avoid this in the dark. It looks like a mugger's alley and will not attract the average person to cycle.
The plan's discussion about the "bikeways" includes a bit of history. While only 334 miles exist now, the 1977 plan actually promised 600 miles, and the 1996 plan promised 742 miles. Previous plans were not even half implemented: 408 out of 742 miles of the "bikeway network" that should exist by now simply does not exist. While it is true that the new plan "exceeds its predecessors substantially in its commitment to bikeways", can we have any confidence that this plan will be followed any more closely than the previous ones were ?
Sadly, the time-scales allocated make this almost inevitable. On page 107 the plan says that the extra 1350 miles of "bikeway", and 90 miles of separate "green paths", are to be built over the next 35 years. Yes, 35 years. Now that's a long term plan ! If it all goes to plan, and this network actually gets built, then Los Angeles will in 35 years time be able to claim to have built an average of 2.5 miles per year of extra "green path", or perhaps 39 miles per year of on-road paint and other tweaks. This really is not impressive at all. This policy document leaves all the decisions for future office holders, who may or may not go through with the plan. History tells us that they likely won't build more than half of what is planned. Luckily for those who made this lack-lustre plan, setting such a long term target means that most people involved now will be retired before anyone asks them to answer for what they've done, or perhaps more likely, what they've not done.
The Netherlands, which remember only has a population slightly larger than the urban area of Los Angeles, now has 35000 km of high quality completely separate cycle path. In addition there is an unknown length of lesser quality touristic separated paths, 5000 km of on road cycle lane and many thousands of kilometres of road which have been prioritized for bikes. Infrastructure here is being built at a rate many times higher than that in Los Angeles, and what is being built is to a much higher standard. Los Angeles can only continue to fall behind if it makes plans like this.
Under the title of "Equity: parking", the authors say that "Safe, visible and accessible bicycle parking is essential to encourage greater levels of bicycling activity." In this, I think they're right. There must be enough parking spaces. So what has the city done ? Currently there are "over 3600" cycle parking spaces, and "bicycle parking must be provided at a ratio of two percent of the number of auto parking spaces" at some kinds of developments. Is 2% an aspirational target ? And can 3600 spaces on street shared between four million people who live in the city be seen to be anything better than scraping the surface of what is required ? 3600 doesn't even come close to supporting a 2% modal share, let alone true mass cycling.
By way of contrast, and bear in mind that this is for a very similar population to Los Angeles, there are literally millions of cycle parking spaces in the Netherlands. Over 300000 cycle parking spaces for bikes have been provided at railway stations alone, and this figure grows by 25000 per year. To keep up current growth rates in cycling, Groningen, a city with one twentieth of the population of LA is currently adding 500 spaces each year to just one of its cycle-parks. Residential properties in the Netherlands must provide an area for secure bike parking which is 6.5% of the floor area of the home. i.e. Enough space for the family's bikes to be stored in safety.
And what else does the LA document say ? Well, they make a point of dividing cyclists into three categories - Advanced / Experienced, Basic / less confident, Children with or without their parents. There is a suggestion that parallel facilities will be built for these different types of cyclists.
This is a fundamental error. To build down for inexperienced cyclists is a waste of time. Good cycling infrastructure suits all types of cyclists. Infrastructure which isn't good enough for the experienced to use for efficient journeys without problems definitely is not good enough for the inexperienced to use either. This is doubly ridiculous when there clearly isn't enough of a budget to build one good network, let alone three.
A call for action
Angelenos ! You're being fed a line !
There are a lot of expensive consultants' words in that document, but this is not how real progress is made. The Dutch also had a bicycle master plan back in 1990 but they set high targets and since that time, they followed policies which resulted in real change. That is the reason why a population just slightly larger than that of the L.A. urban area now make an extraordinary proportion of their journeys by bike, whatever their age. The same could perhaps be achieved in L.A., but the current plan isn't even scratching the surface of what is required to make it a reality.
People elsewhere ! Don't expect too much just because a lot of words appear in a plan. You need to make sure that any plans written up actually make sense. Be wary when the same consultants are involved as helped with other lacklustre plans. Make sure to keep to the very highest standards.
1: 2570 people per square km in Los Angeles vs. 402 per square km in the Netherlands. Nowhere in the Netherlands compares with the high population densities of large US cities.
2: While reviewing this article I was sent this link to a discussion about one of green paths in Los Angeles. A couple of quotes: "The consensus is that this path might be one of the nicest in town, however, check the comments below, because some cyclists think it goes through some pretty bad neighborhoods, while others don’t. But, if you can feel safe (e.g. with a group), it’s a nice, pretty, breezy ride...", "It is generally a nice ride during the day, though I would recommend avoiding it after dark (no lights and bad neighborhoods are potential problems). I occasionally come across “less than upstanding looking citizens” on the way", "It certainly isn’t all that bad. Of couse, you wouldn’t want to ride it at night, but that’s because the path isn’t lit, and there’s no barrier between the path and the canal....", "some punks have been breaking glass bottles along the route lately, and it doesn’t appear that the city does much to maintain the path". Another path description says "Sadly, like so many of the bike trails described here, large sections of this path are incredibly run-down, virtually junkyards.", and another is "not very highly recommended, unless you’re into gangs and graffitti". Not everyone agrees, of course. Some people are always more sensitive than others. However, there is clearly a problem with social safety on these paths.
I know there are problems with money in L.A. but it's a false economy to ignore cycling because of this. Cycling infrastructure is cheaper to build than not to build.