Santa Monica’s Kevin O’Shea bikes down Main Street. Photo by Jorge M Vargas Jr.

Santa Monica’s Kevin O’Shea bikes down Main Street. Photo by Jorge M Vargas Jr.

Commuting by bicycle is becoming mainstream, but are the roadways ready?

By Rebecca Kuzins

It wasn’t long ago that bicycles were a neglected fifth wheel of the Los Angeles transportation system, basically ignored as a commuting option as automobiles retained road dominance. But the traffic congestion that permanently plagues the Westside and other areas has fueled increasing bicycle ridership and prompted city and county officials to begin viewing bikes as a viable alternative to driving.

A Westside Mobility Plan currently being developed by the city of Los Angeles includes provisions to install new bikeways and upgrade existing ones throughout Venice, Mar Vista, Playa del Rey and Westchester. County redevelopment plans for Marina del Rey aim to make bicycling safer and more convenient, and leading bike-friendly city Santa Monica is implementing a five-year Bike Action Plan that envisions an interconnected network of bicyclist-serving facilities.

Nationally, the number of people who bike to work has jumped from 488,000 to 786,000 over the past decade, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in May. A local biking census conducted last year by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition counted 18,000 riders at 120 intersections during a six-hour period and concluded that the number of riders in the city of Los Angeles increased 7.5% from 2011 to 2013. The Venice area boasted the greatest ridership of the count.

Though times may be better than ever for area bicyclists, the spike in ridership is also generating concerns. Biking advocates are pleased to see more bike lanes, but they maintain that many of these lanes are only lines painted on the street, enabling bikers to share space with vehicles but not necessarily providing safe routes. Bikers also argue that bike lanes and paths are often disconnected — the bike lane on Washington Place, for example, disappears between Lincoln Boulevard and Centinela Avenue — making for challenging commutes.

There are also serious safety concerns about sharing the road with motorists.

“The No. 1 thing is confusion between biker and driver,” said Kevin O’Shea, a 27-year-old digital marketing specialist who commutes by bike from Santa Monica to Marina del Rey. “I don’t go down Lincoln Boulevard at all. I don’t know anybody who does. Too many distracted drivers.”

But bikers also have a responsibility to keep the roads safe, adds Ron Durgin, general manager of the Santa Monica Bike Center. The city-leased facility at Second and Main streets is a hub for riders that provides bike parking, lockers and bathroom facilities for its 300-strong bicycle-commuting membership, bike repair services, a commuter bike loan program and rentals for visitors at the rate of 30,000 to 35,000 per year.

Durgin, who founded the nonprofit Sustainable Streets, also offers safe riding classes that teach bicyclists to better blend in with the flow of traffic and break bad habits such as creeping to the front of the line at intersections.

“Motorists don’t have the right to use their car to push bikes off the road — it’s not my problem if they choose to bring 7,500 pounds of extra stuff with them,” said Durgin, 50, who hasn’t owned a car in 18 years. But, “I see a lot of [bicyclists] making riskier decisions out there than they need to, making unpredictable moves.”

Beach towns are bike towns  

There are two main reasons why the Westside has “has the highest ridership of any part of the city of Los Angeles,” according to L.A. County Bicycle Coalition Planning and Policy Director Eric Bruins.

“First and foremost, the Westside has the best bike infrastructure, particularly along the coast.  Up until recently, other parts of the city didn’t have many bike lanes, and we’re only now seeing tremendous growth in bicycling closer to [central] Los Angeles,” says Bruins. “Second, the Westside is a pretty terrible place to drive and people are looking for alternatives. When biking somewhere takes about the same amount of time as driving and there are enough bike lanes and paths to provide a reasonably comfortable route, people will choose to bike.”

Miles of bike paths protected from traffic, in particular the seaside Marvin Braude Beach Path from Pacific Palisades to Torrance, also make the Westside more inviting for female riders. While the coalition’s count found that women make up fewer than one in five L.A. bicyclists, it also found the highest proportion of female riders on bike paths — “mostly because women tend to be more cautious about riding in riskier conditions on the streets,” said Bruins. “As biking has grown in popularity on the Westside, more and more women are feeling comfortable taking to the streets on two wheels.”

That checks out with Cynthia Rose, director of the bike advocacy group Santa Monica Spoke, who added that Santa Monica’s bike paths and more extensive and clearly identified network of bike lanes make for a more equal number of male and female bikers in that city.

“Beach cities tend to have more women on bikes,” she said.

Expanding the network

Head inland, however, and other Westside neighborhoods have fewer bicyclists primarily because there are fewer bike lanes. Bruins said the bike-friendly nature of Venice, Marina del Rey and Santa Monica creates opportunity to connect to adjacent neighborhoods like Mar Vista and Westchester.

“The one proven strategy to increase biking in a community is building more bicycle facilities,” he said.

That’s a cornerstone of the city’s Westside Mobility Plan, which plans to expand bike lanes and paths along McLaughlin Avenue from National Boulevard south to Washington Boulevard in Mar Vista; along Beethoven Street from Palms Boulevard in Mar Vista south to Jefferson Boulevard in Del Rey;  along Culver Boulevard from McConnell Avenue to Pershing Drive in Playa del Rey; along Walgrove Avenue between Rose Avenue and Washington  Place in Mar Vista; and along Pacific Avenue between Venice Boulevard and Washington Place.

In addition, bike lanes along Venice Boulevard would be upgraded with separations from motor traffic;

bike lanes along Washington Boulevard between Admiralty Way and Pacific Avenue would also become a separated track; and new bike lanes would be installed along portions of Manchester Avenue, Pershing Drive, and La Tijera Boulevard in Westchester and along Jefferson Boulevard in Playa del Rey.

The plan also seeks to alleviate traffic congestion along Lincoln Boulevard by connecting that major thoroughfare to two adjacent bike paths. The plan proposes to replace the Lincoln Boulevard Ballona Creek Bridge with a wider bridge, which will enable bike lanes to be installed along the street and allow bikers to connect with the Braude bikeway and the Ballona Creek bike path.

These proposals, however, are a long way from realization, pending various hearings and studies through spring of 2015, when the matter will reach the City Council for approval.  Los Angeles officials are also considering how the city could restructure its system for assessing transportation impact fees, which are levied on new developments, and make use of other funding sources to finance the plan.

In county-run Marina del Rey, a 20-year development plan being considered for the harbor pending approval by the Board of Supervisors seeks to fill in gaps in the existing bikeway system and to provide pavement striping and signage to improve visibility and safety at several intersections.

Supervising county regional planner Gina Natoli said the two most problematic sections are the portion of Admiralty Way near the Lloyd Taber Marina del Rey Library and the portion of Fiji Way where the Braude bike path cuts across just before Admiralty.

The development plan also proposes facilities for people to rent bikes and for bicyclists to store their bikes and transfer to another mode of transportation, she said.

The Santa Monica model

No place on the Westside is more receptive to bicycling than Santa Monica.

Before the City Council adopted the Santa Monica Bike Action Plan in November 2011, the city had already installed 37 miles of bike routes and created numerous facilities and programs to encourage ridership, including the centerpiece Santa Monica Bike Center.

The center, which opened in late 2011, currently offers 350 secure bike-parking spaces, a Bike@Work program enabling people who work in the city to borrow bicycles on weekdays to go shopping, run other errands and other activities, bike valet service for public events and a “Confident City Cycling” class to teach bicycling handling, road skills and rules of the road.

Its commuter bike loaner program serves 40 to 50 people at a time, with about three in four users eventually purchasing their own bike. Several local companies have also begun paying for Bike Center memberships for employees who commute to work.

“You hear people say they tried biking to work and hated it, then you find out they were riding a single-speed beach cruiser for eight miles,” Durgin said. “We’re not here to preach to the choir, we’re here to help them sing better.”

Similar to L.A.’s Westside mobility plan, Santa Monica’s five-year Bike Action Plan addresses one of the problems frequently cited by bicyclists: the need to fill in gaps that exist in some bike routes.

“Previously, cities had disconnected bike lanes. They put in bike lanes either where they thought they were good or … they didn’t go anywhere or they didn’t go where people wanted to go,” Rose said. But now, she added, Santa Monica Spoke is working with the city of Santa Monica to develop bike paths that “can actually connect to West L.A. and Los Angeles as you exit the city.”

To maximize intercity connectivity, the plan emphasizes the creation of bike lanes that would connect to the Expo Bike Path, a bikeway running parallel to the Expo light rail line, scheduled to begin operating in 2016.

Santa Monica plans to install or improve additional bike paths near the line so passengers departing the train can easily transfer onto their bicycles for the rest of their trip. In addition to an east-west bike path connector paralleling the Expo line from 17th Street to Centinela Avenue, the city will also construct the Colorado Esplanade, which will increase space for bicyclists along Colorado Avenue from the train’s Fourth Street terminus to Ocean Avenue.

Although there are already bike lanes on Ocean Avenue, Ocean, “is a comparatively high-volume, high-speed road that can be discouraging to many cyclists,” the plan states. As a safer and more inviting alternative, bright green bike lanes will be installed along Second and Main streets to create a connected bikeway from Montana Avenue to the south city limit. The intersection of Colorado, Second and Main, near the Santa Monica Bike Center, will be reconfigured to provide easier access to these lanes.

The bright green bike lanes that already extend south from the bike center into Venice are a major safety asset, said O’Shea, who frequents them during his commutes.

“Having those bike lanes with color to distinguish them makes all the difference. It alerts cars that there are bikes around and adds a kind of protection zone,” he said.

Building the better, safer bike path

As O’Shea suggests, there are several types of bike lanes and some are safer than others.

Many lanes are sharrows — lanes shared by both motorists and bicyclists that are marked with a logo of a bicycle and four lines on top of it.

“What a sharrow does is mark the road so that it reminds motorists that they might see bicyclists there and they [bicyclists] have a right to be there,” explained Rose.

However, shared lanes pose problems for both bicyclists and motorists. Although bicyclists have the same rights as motorists to use these lanes, many motorists feel uncomfortable when they are driving behind a relatively slow-moving bike.

“It’s curious how a driver will sit behind a slow car and not complain,” said Rose, “but if they get behind somebody on a bike, they’ll honk or try to push by them. … We feel like we have to scatter like cockroaches when cars are on the road because many drivers drive as if it’s their sole right to utilize that space.”

Many motorists, she adds, lack an understanding “about what the rules of the road are and about how they should share it [the road].”

Some bike riders, however, are equally ill-informed of basic road rules. Some riders fail to stop at red lights or stop signs, or do not cooperate with motorists who try to safely pass them by.

Santa Monica Bike Center classes teach riders not to ride too close to the curb, which Durgin said opens up enough lane space to tempt motorists into zooming past without first shifting lanes.

Riders who creep to the front of the line when traffic is stopped at signalized intersections also create dangers for themselves, he said.

“There might be two or three cars ahead of them but they filter to the front, and then when the light turns green they have put all this pressure behind themselves for no reason,” Durgin said.

Better than sharrows are bike lanes designed solely for bicyclists — those painted green lanes to the right side of the road that O’Shea was talking about. Motorists are not allowed to use these lanes, but they can cross the dotted lines near street corners to turn right, or can cross the lanes to enter an alley.

While these lanes are safer than sharrows, bike advocates maintain that protected bikeways — those that physically separate bikers from drivers by erecting poles, curbs and other barriers — are the safest routes.

In its 2013 bicycle count, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition recommended that Los Angeles officials build a network of protected bikeways in commercial areas because it is “the most effective way to create safe and comfortable bike access to business districts.”

“The L.A. area is really far behind other regions in the country that have been building higher-quality bikeways that are safer and more comfortable for people of all ages and abilities,” said Bruins. “It’s no secret that people don’t like riding next to high-speed traffic without some kind of barrier protecting them from the cars. That’s why on the Westside the most popular places to ride are bike paths along the beach and Ballona Creek, which easily see five to ten times the ridership of nearby streets.”

Bicycle safety education is also key.

The coalition recommends “age-appropriate opportunities for bicycle safety education” to promote a “culture of safe riding habits,” some of which Los Angeles and Santa Monica are already implementing in their public school districts.

Rose points to the Netherlands, where she says as much as 30% of commuters rely on bicycles but — due to expansive bicycle infrastructure and education — crashes involving bicycles and other vehicles are rare.

“Add more infrastructure and you will encourage more people to cycle, and the more people that cycle, the safer it is. Drivers become more aware because they see [bikers] more often,” she said.