USC’s SHOUT-Y BIKE LANES: Bikers “win”, our community loses

Attention notice: Sustainability advocates can be as bad as developers who want to plant megaprojects all over. Strong-arming control over urban space sucks no matter who does it.

My beloved USC has a pretty gnarly bike design problem on its two major thoroughfares. I was rather unsympathetic when my bicycle advocate students went into a fury about USC’s supposed bike ban, which actually consisted of restricting bikes from the major thoroughfares only about 7 hours a day. That left plenty of other walkways for students to use if they wanted to stay on bikes without dismounting.

Now, there are problems with that, too. The rest of the walkways on campus have smaller pavement widths. These major thoroughfares are also dead flat. They are easier to bike on, and the flatness lends longer sight distances that can help pedestrians and cyclists see each other.

Of course, this bike ban was intolerable to bike advocates, who see bike lanes as crucial to their mobility. Frankly, though, there is much of the USC bike advocacy that isn’t about mobility at all. It’s about bicycling advocates feeling like they have visual symbols of their social importance that are stamped on campus and roadways.

So I guess–I guess–there are now bike-only lanes on these major thoroughfares. I found this out today not because there were helpful bike advocate volunteers out working to help explain the new set-up and how people on campus can navigate the new facilities, but by getting screamed at.

I was pottering along dreamily, walking along, when one of USC’s ubiquitous rent-a-cops on a segue started barking at me to move to the side, complete with pompous-looking gestures. I simply thought he wanted through. So I moved to the grass–where, by the way, people sit and walk all the time–and Barney Fife yells at me to get off the grass.

“PEDESTRIANS ON THE OUTSIDE LANE.” He screamed at me as he whizzed by in all his wanktastic glory. I shot back that he should blow it out his ass.

Now, would it have killed him to alight his little scooter to chat with me about the changes and the plans? I get that security people like to project authority, but dude–you are wearing little postal worker shorts and driving a scooter. There’s only so impressed anybody is going to be by you to begin with.

I walk on, my mood destroyed by being verbally attacked at my workplace, and I see another rent-a-cop yelling at a young woman who was *walking her bike* in the ENTIRELY UNMARKED area in front of Tommy Trojan. Yes, these genius new bike lanes just disappear when you get to the campus’s biggest intersection. What was the girl supposed to do? Levitate? When she reached the end of the VERY VERY SPECIAL SEPARATE BIKE WAY, was she supposed to wink into a parallel universe or maybe a wormhole that takes her to the other side of the intersection via Bajor? WTH? She was doing exactly what she should have been doing to be polite, safe, and considerate of others. AND YET CAMPUS POLICE SHOUTS AT HER?

What are we DOING?

Ah, the restful civility that bike planning and campus sustainability brings to a beautiful, sustainable world.

And that’s my point. Hey, the bike advocates “got theirs.” Nothing else in planning matters, right? Culture doesn’t matter, community doesn’t matter, helping people with the transition doesn’t matter. All that matters is your win for the bike lanes. You got your pet project approved and/or built. Good job.

After all, bikers are savingtheplanetandfightingobesityandcleaningtheairandcombattingclimatechangeblahblahblahblahblah and…well, when you are on an important mission like that, making people welcome to use the space now that you’ve got yours doesn’t matter.

No, we aren’t going to train rent-a-cops to stop, get off their little scooters, and actually talk to people like me like we matter in this place. We aren’t going to have rent-a-cops on foot walking around and helping people understand the new, unbelievably crappy signage. No. We are going to shout at people on our campus like they are shoplifters trying to sneak out of the bookstore with Trojan gear shoved under their blouses.

Finally, the design and placement of the new ‘bike only’ lanes makes no sense in an American context, and their placement increases bike-pedestrian conflicts. The bike lanes are on the inside lane, so that NO MATTER WHICH way a bicyclist turns, he’s moving across the “pedestrian way.” By all means, let’s have the heaviest and fastest-moving vehicle have to demonstrate the most care.


Remember when biking used to be a fun thing rather than An Important Thing?

I think one of the reasons why there is a resistance to otherwise nice things like local foods and bicycling concerns the often terminally joyless way their advocates present the Great Social Good that The Better People Who Do These Things create, unlike you, you indolent, planet-killing dolt.

Before it became about Changing the World and Proper Urbanism and Saving the Planet and Fighting Obesity and Duking it Out With Those Planet-Killing Killers in Cars, Yelling at Everybody to Make Bike Lanes and Treating Bicyclists With the Respect They Deserve, riding a bike outside was…fun.

There’s part of me that thinks the fun part of it is a lot more worthy of public investment than many of the Important Social Claims.

Here are some kids messing around on bikes, no bike lanes, no Proper Urbanism, no multi-million-dollar bike parking facilities with lockers. Just bikes, a makeshift ramp, and some kids with free time (on a low-volume suburban street, for you sensitive viewers who will be scarred at the sight of the hopeless desperation in which these children of the Provo suburbs live, in single-family houses, rather than on the lively, sun-loving, Proper Mixed Use Streets of Much Righteousness). They don’t appear to have sidewalks.

The song is one of my favorites about bicycling, from a band called All The Apparatus.

I like how the kid with glasses mans up at the end. Well done, kid.

Wish they were wearing helmets though.

An interesting bike allocation puzzle

The Financial Times has an essay about the challenges of allocating bikes across a system of subscribers to common pool bike supply. Go check out the story.

Planners, particularly walk and bike planners, are fond of dismissing mathematical and analytical problems in transport, I strongly suspect because a good number of planners are badly trained in math. While it’s 100 percent true, I think, that much of planning is about negotiating and deal making, in private-sector transport services, the way the world seems to be going, things actually have to run, and for many things to run, you have to solve a math puzzle.

So London’s Barclay Bike services has a bike allocation problem that mirrors (but not quite) the basic empty backhaul problem in transport that plagues everything from freight to airlines.

Nick Aldworth, who manages the bikes for Transport for London, explained to me that running London’s scheme is about coping with all the people who want to get from A to B, while encouraging as many as possible to go from B to A, and C to D. “We need people to understand there is a limit to what we can achieve in one direction,” he said. “We need that balance.”

There is a limit, but people don’t have to understand–they are paying for service. If this market works and Barclay can’t figure it out, somebody else will.

Here’s the visualization of bike movements around London:

Boris Bikes redux from Sociable Physics on Vimeo.

So we have a standard spatial allocation problem, where the routing is generally figured out by customers, The issue for Barclay is that it probably has three separate market segments for origins and destinations: 1) are regular commuters whose demand patterns can be predicted, within reason, using Bayesian methods–i.e., what these customers have done on most every weekday; 2) ‘package’ commuters, who have multiple modal options and package services based on the whims and characteristics of the day (raining, snowing, etc). and 3) tourists and other stochastic (but somewhat predictable) consumers who are likely in their behavior to act like group #2 (people who will take a bike from one location, leave it, and then call a cab or take a bus when tired, leaving the bike in a potentially low-demand deposit area).

Customers from group 1 are easy to serve; the second two less so because of the stochastic nature of their timings and destinations, but, again, probably have some aggregate spatial demand patterns you can loosely predict by the days of the week, the seasons, and the likely aggregation of activities. You know people are going to visit Westminister Abbey, for example, or the Tower.

Barclay has a lot of data that the government would never get to collect, as the video suggests. They should be able to do the allocation with a reasonable amoun

The capital bias affects bike lanes: Disputes in New York

As we could have predicted with building more and more bike lanes, there are conflicts. Far from being able to assume that bicyclists and pedestrians have a solid coalition, bikes and pedestrians are coming into conflict in New York City, where the mayor has promoted the opening of new bike lanes.

The various aspects of this story are standard in planning conflicts. “We, of course, support bike lanes, but we don’t want them here.” You can, of course, substitute “transit, the arterial, the recycling center” or any other number of projects for the bike lane; community opposition is what it is. However, the opposition suggests that planners’ days of cramming development past community objections via New Urbanist promises are either numbered or over, and we’re going to have to go back to negotiating development with communities no matter how green greeny green we claim the changes, like bike lanes, are.

The controversy also suggests a capital bias in planning & policy for bikes much like what exists for transit. One of my shibboleths here is the willingness that transit advocates have to scream that agencies build projects that advocates spend no time or political capital on getting operating funds for. So we build, and we all get to look at our great choo-choo, and then somehow money is supposed to fall from the sky to operate the thing.

The same problem seems to be occurring here. The complaints aren’t really about the design—there’s nothing in the complaints all that specific about the bike lanes as infrastructure. The conflicts are arising because of rude, scofflaw bicyclists. That’s an enforcement issue, not an issue about where the lane is or how it is set up. If you had cops out ticketing bad bicycling behavior, there would probably be a change in behavior. Instead of arguing that that bike lane should go, people should be arguing for policing rather than bike lane removal.

Bicyclists get mad at me when I say this, but the bike culture in US is a problem on the bicyclists’ side as well as on the drivers’ side. In places where everybody from little old ladies to young kids ride bikes, you have drivers that know enough to look out for them and there are enough sane people on bicyclists that their conduct spans the spectrum. Yes, there are young people who think they are indestructible diving in and out traffic, thinking they are studs because they have just whizzed by a toddler at 30 mph with just inches to spare (dickheads). But there are plenty of sane bicyclists to offset the entire image of what it means to be a bicyclist. In many US cities, and LA is one of them, the street environment is hostile to bicyclists, so the ones that are out there I argue are more likely to be the big-headead risk takers—the guys like Puck from MTA the Real World—who sneer at pedestrians and boast openly of “taking on” drivers. Now–of course–there are plenty of bicyclists like my idealist planning students who are out there trying to save the planet and trying to be good citizens–but the hostile road environment means that all but the most risk-clueless or the most stubborn greenies are going to be discouraged. And that means that the bicyclists out there are going to be disproportionately prone to bad risk behavior and in need of policing.

This is obviously theory only–no evidence other than the fact that my husband and I come in every day and say something like “Well, this bicyclist tried to kill me….” when we walk around DTLA. But I think it’s pretty good theory, and the way to improve it isn’t to oppose bike facilities. The way to change it is getting more people to try it out, get people to enforce the rules of good conduct, and stop creating an environment where only thrill seekers thrive.

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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Cities for Cycling Video featuring Timothy Papandreou

Here’s a nice link for a video produced for National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). UCLA grad Tim Papandreou (who pretends to be from Australia, but I think he’s in the witness protection program) is a graduate from the UCLA planning program and a bike planner in San Francisco.

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David Sloane, Judith Butler, ghost bikes, and the entitlements of mourning

Earlier last week, Gothamist reported that the sanitation department was going to clear out the “ghost bikes”, shown here, largely because they have started taking up too much room. Ghost bikes are memorials created for bicyclists who have died on road in crashes with vehicles:

Leah Todd, who heads up the Street Memorial Project here in NYC, tells us, “It would be devastating for many people who use them to mourn or remember or advocate better conditions for safer streets.” When asked if the memorial movement had faced opposition in other cities, Todd said, “We’ve seen a lot of interesting things happen in different cities. In DC when a ghost bike was removed, 21 ghost bikes returned on that corner to replace it on the next day.”

link: Ghost Bikes Targeted by Sanitation Department – Gothamist

There were about 45 to 50 ghost bikes around New York City slotted for removal. The city rapidly saw (probably due to the tactic suggested above) that this wasn’t going to be politically worth the conflict, and so they dropped the plan:

City nixes plan to remove ‘ghost bike’ tributes after outcry from families of dead cyclists.

I have to admit to being somewhat torn about the ghost bike question. Of course memorializing bicyclists is important, but the space-consumptive nature of the ghost bike in the public sphere is off-putting to me. Ghost bikes do take up space where it is as a premium, and the reason why the bike advocates think it’s great is the same reason I pause over it somewhat: the in-your-face-there’s-a-victim-of-a-vehicle who died here. Fine, I get that.

But where are the very public, very prominent memorials for pedestrians who die the same way?

Or the public memorials for homeless people who die on the streets?

Of course we want safe streets. Absolutely. But why are bicyclists entitled to very public, and I guess now we’re supposed to allow them to be permanent, displays of mourning when others, also arguably victims of unsafe streets, are not?

Judith Butler said some really interesting about mourning and recognition in a recent interview:

It is not enough to have a politics that has “public mourning” as its final goal. The point of public mourning is to expand our ideas of what constitutes a livable life, to expand our recognition of those lives that are worth protecting, worth valuing. This is, importantly, not an individual activity, but something that not only happens in public, but has the power to redefine the public sphere.

link: Judith Butler – Ungrievable lives | Re-public: re-imagining democracy – english version

One of my favorite colleagues, David Sloane, wrote his dissertation on cemeteries and memorials, which he then published into an absolutely wonderful book on cemeteries and cities, which gets into the politics of prominence of mourning and the use of urban/rural space for memory.

Sloane, D. 1991. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. John Hopkins University Press.