USC’s big-bad bicycle ban (not)

As a pedestrian, I have the dubious distinctions in life of having been hit by both a very slow-moving car and a relatively fast-moving bike. The fast-moving bike incident was much worse for me, broke three of my ribs, chipped a bone in my knee, and left me in chronic pain. Had I been frail and elderly at the time of the bike accident, it could have been the beginning of a death sentence.

So yesterday some of our wonderful students posted emails trying to organize against USC’s new bicycle ban on its most heavily trafficked pedestrian corridors. I’ve been thinking through the question, and I have to admit: I don’t get what the big kerfuffle is about the rule.

LADOT Bike Blog has a number of comments, all of which strike me as making a big fuss where none is needed. Here’s the actual rule:

The areas currently under ban for bicycle riding are Trousdale Parkway and Childs Way (map), the primary north-south and east-west thoroughfares through campus, each almost half a mile in distance. Trousdale Parkway is currently listed as a bike lane in Metro’s new bike map and is listed as a bike path facility by google. As of Tuesday September 14, bicyclists must walk their bicycles on these two thoroughfares from 9AM to 4PM.

link: USC Bans Bicycles on Bike Lane, More Restrictions to Come « LADOT Bike Blog

Ok so let’s look at these two walkways on a map:



Two walkways out of eight routes are being restricted. One of those restricted routes, Trousdale, I can walk the length of in 5 minutes; the other one, Child’s Way, I can walk the length of in 12 minutes. Now, I am old and fat and out of shape–not a 20 year-old young healthy person. So students can get between classes even with being expected to walk their bikes.

Second, there are a lot of parallel routes. So it’s hardly the case that bikes won’t be allowed anywhere even if you did have short time between classes.

And the “ban” is in effect for all of 7 hours a day.

This isn’t much of a ban. This would be known as “expecting students to behave how anybody over 40 was taught to behave with a bike where there are lots of pedestrians.” That’s right. Before biking became a political idea about saving society and the planet, and bikers became activists who act like asking them to dismount for others’ safety is tantamount to making them sit in the back of the bus, kids on bikes were told that when you encounter a lot of pedestrians, you dismount, and you walk your bike. We didn’t have paths. We were simply taught to think about other people and their safety, and act accordingly.

LA Bike Blog’s point is that Copenhagen has found ways of accommodating high volumes of bikes. Note that the picture they choose to illustrate this point…has no pedestrians in it. None. That isn’t a picture of high volumes of pedestrians and bikes working together. That’s a whole a bunch of bike riders, all alone, at the center of the image.

And that’s kind of a problematic view of the bike-pedestrian world, don’t you think?

So the LA Bike blog’s answer is that USC should be educating bicyclists. Many students come from out of state and many come from outside the country. Teach them how to bike in a considerate manner rather than ban them.

Great answer. You know what? That’s exactly what the bike “ban” is doing. It’s teaching people how to behave with a vehicle in a place a critical mass of pedestrians. What my generation of bicyclists was expected to do out of politeness, the next generation of bicyclists is being normed into doing via formal rules because populations in play are larger, more diverse, and more transitory. They are thus more difficult to acculturate through informal means. So…people try to enact formal controls.

IOW, the formal rule is a sign of progress rather than failure; I suspect that this is leading to dedicated bike paths and new bike intersections as the conversation evolves.

As I say to my students in my transportation and the environment class, it’s a mistake to believe that pedestrians’ interests always align with bicyclists’. That’s only true when your focus is controlling cars. Otherwise, it will take negotiation and design to make things work between different groups. It always does.

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5 Comments

Filed under bikes

5 responses to “USC’s big-bad bicycle ban (not)

  1. Professor Schweitzer,

    Thank you for taking the time to address this issue. I think you’re on the money for the most part. I simply sought to flesh out the issue in order to stimulate the types of discussion that are taking place right now.
    While you speculate that the ban will be part of a wider campaign to dedicate bike paths and new bike intersections, this was not communicated at the bicycle safety forum on Tuesday. I worry that, once bikes are removed to the outer edge of campus, the issue will receive no more attention from the school. “Out of sight, out of mind” as it were. The fact that bicycles are under the jurisdiction of campus security rather than the campus transportation office is a discouraging indicator of how the school approaches bicycle issues.
    I would have no problem with pedestrian-only zones in some areas were adequate bicycle infrastructure provided elsewhere on campus. If having perimeter parking is going to be the theme moving forward, then it would be reasonable for the school to provide a ring of bicycle infrastructure from one outer parking area to the next, and connect that ring to existing and planned bicycle infrastructure in the surrounding community.
    Making an outer ring of bicycle parking would also be acceptable were the parking to be sited in safe, well-lit, high visibility areas. Again, the renderings at the bicycle safety forum seemed to show bicycle parking shoehorned against the backsides of parking structures, away from areas of high student traffic.
    I think your last paragraph really hits the mark. Negotiation and design will be absolutely necessary in order for bicyclists and pedestrians to coexist in the same space. Up until this point, the negotiation has been somewhat one-sided. We’re hoping to change that.

  2. Alex

    Thanks for the reality check. I think you have a point — the ban is only in effect for seven hours a day, and it’s not a gigantic inconvenience to dismount and walk those distances across campus.

    However, I think you place too much faith in the USC administration’s intentions here. I too hope that this is leading to dedicated bike paths and new bike intersections, but when the first action is a unilateral ban on riding — banning not just those crazy bike activists who want to pedal at top speed, but also those riders who know to slow to a crawl to navigate congested areas — it’s not looking promising.

    More outreach to the on-campus biking community in advance of these developments would have been nice. And now that a decision has been implemented, what are the means to facilitate this evolving conversation riders are supposed to be having with the administration?

    • drschweitzer

      But collaboration isn’t really how how USC works. They won’t go forward with plans for the infrastructure until they have the cash in hand for it. It’s that simple. And I think that ultimately people will be pretty happy once it does commit to something. It’s not a public university, so its planning behavior is going to be way more like a private developer than what you’d expect. Trust me, I negotiate with this place all the time. It’s not going to promise anything upfront, and it’s not going to put anything on the table until it’s ready with its own plan.

      Did you know that for highways, speed limits came before grade separation and single use?

      That said, your way of framing this issue doesn’t help me get on board. My needs matter, too, and I’m not willing to join your planning coalition until it’s clear that what you want is a plan that works for everybody. Just as you want USC to open its negotiation to you, I’m troubled by a what I see as a knee-jerk reaction to a simple, commonsense restriction on bike activity. My advice (which I realize is unsolicited) would have been to respond to the restriction with exactly what you are posting here, buried in my comments instead out of there for your web audience to see and get behind. I’m willing to support infrastructure for bikes, but I am simply not willing to spend any political capital to protect the nonexistent right for bicyclists to go whatever speed they want on busy walkways 24/7–which is how the original discussion reads. I also don’t think people will get anywhere advocating for bike education through USC. Right now, freshman are barraged with educational materials from USC on everything from plagiarism and binge drinking. You don’t want your ideas to just another pamphlet.

      • Agree 100%. The blog post was simply a starting point, trying to establish that the bicycle “problem” wasn’t really a problem, but an opportunity. Creating solutions for bicycles should and will create solutions for pedestrians, but I do understand your point that the shared solution should be stressed rather than a full-throated defense of bicyclists. It’s not about preserving bicyclists’ rights as they were last year, but creating a comprehensive solution that will benefit all modes of transportation.
        I find it discouraging that the school didn’t reach out to its own vast resource of transportation planning expertise on the matter, yourself being in the forefront.

  3. Pingback: USC’s SHOUT-Y BIKE LANES: Bikers “win”, our community loses « Urban ethics and theory