AS SEATTLE, CHICAGO, AND SAN FRANCISCO BECOME SAFER AND FRIENDLIER CITIES FOR CYCLISTS, L.A. IS LETTING THE CARS WIN.
I wish I had not been asked to write this essay. I love to ride in my adopted home of Los Angeles and think it has all the ingredients to be the best city for cyclists in the entire United States.
But it’s not. As a renaissance of urban cycling continues to flourish across America, and most large cities become better, safer places to ride, L.A. is racing backwards.
Los Angeles should be heaven for cyclists. The weather is beyond dreamy—downtown L.A. has gotten less than four inches of rain so far this year. The city is an enormous, mostly flat grid of wide boulevards with plenty of room for smartly placed bike infrastructure. The traffic is literally the worst in the world, making it all the more reasonable to cover shorter trips by bike. The metro area boasts postcard-perfect oceanfront riding and spectacular climbing in legendary spots like the Malibu hills, Palos Verdes, and the San Gabriel Mountains. Every day, I see hundreds of people pedaling around town with smile on their faces, despite the challenges the city throws at them.
Death, Disaster, and Distracted Drivers
It all sounds quite lovely until you start to contemplate all of the cyclists who have been killed—and ask yourself why. In the past five years alone, more than 180 riders in the metropolitan area have been killed by people driving motor vehicles. During the last three years that national crash data has been compiled (2014-2016), only three U.S. states have seen more cyclist fatalities than just L.A. County—Florida, New York, and California as a whole.
The roads themselves are a disaster. The cruelest irony is that the city is spending money on them. But instead of investing in the quality infrastructure, millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent to pay out civil lawsuits brought by severely injured cyclists or the families of killed riders. The sad truth is that in L.A., it’s more politically expedient to pay seven-figure civil damages than to fix all the crappy roads and build the infrastructure that keeps people from getting hurt or killed.
These cases speak volumes about the challenges Los Angeles cyclists face. Most recently, in September a jury ordered the city to pay $9.1 million to an experienced cyclist who got hit on the Pacific Coast Highway by a motorist as he was trying to pedal around landslide debris that street sweepers had repeatedly failed to remove; the rider was left with significant brain damage. PCH is a magnet for cyclists. It’s the default gateway to hilly routes in Malibu for thousands of L.A. riders—but it is notoriously dangerous.
Other big civil cases include $7.5 million paid to a man who became a quadriplegic after he crashed on a stretch of road in L.A.’s Porter Ranch neighborhood, where tree roots had buckled the pavement. The city paid $6.5 million to a cyclist in Sherman Oaks who hit a giant pothole and suffered a traumatic brain injury. And there was a $4.5 million payout to the family of a cyclist who died after hitting a 2-inch ridge in the pavement in the Eagle Rock district. I could go on.
But the biggest hazards L.A. cyclists face may not even be broken roadways—they are hostile, speeding, or distracted drivers, and a legal system that goes easy on them.
Amid the carnage is a frightening surge in hit-and-run crashes involving cyclists. This past April, three riders were killed in such incidents in just one week. One of the cyclists was hit by two cars before he died—and both drivers fled the scene. A particularly visceral shockwave went through the city’s cycling community after the death of 22-year-old Frederick “Woon” Frazier, who was run down in South L.A. in broad daylight by someone who left the scene without rendering aid. As if that tragedy needed a bold underscore, a friend of Woon’s had to be hospitalized two days later after he was injured at a vigil protest by another hit-and-run driver.
And in 2013, music executive Milton Olin was hit and killed while riding his road bike on the city’s famed Mulholland Drive, by a police officer distracted by his onboard computer. Even though the officer was shown to be doing non-essential police work (and texting his wife seconds before the fatal crash), the District Attorney’s office declined to file any criminal charges (though Olin’s family was awarded $11.75 million from the county in a civil settlement earlier this year). The same can be said about the driver in the hit-and-run crash that killed young Woon Frazier in April. She turned herself into police a month after the crash, but criminal charges have not been filed. Cyclists in L.A. keep waiting for justice, but it never seems to come.
I ride roughly 8,000 miles a year around Los Angeles and the behavior of drivers I witness is astonishing. California has rigorous state laws that prohibit texting and the use of handheld mobile phones while driving, but every day I see motorists with their cell phones in their palms, dialing, texting, playing with Waze, or using social media. L.A. is massive—covering more than 500 square miles—and yet has one of the lowest ratios of police officers to residents of any major U.S. city. In neighborhoods not known for crime problems, the LAPD can seem truly invisible—certainly not present to enforce cell-phone use or speeding regulations. From a cyclist’s point of view, the roads can seem lawless.
Most drivers in L.A. are peaceful, well-meaning folks, but the reality remains that the majority are far more fired up about traffic jams than about the safety of cyclists and other vulnerable road users (or even about things like climate change and air quality). There is no populist drive to push carpooling or a stronger public-transit system, or to explore congestion pricing. The culture of the city remains oddly unchanged from the 1950s—a gigantic urban village (with 19 million residents at last count) where everyone still mythologizes the right for residents to wake up in a suburban bungalow and drive a long distance alone to their workplace.
A False Hope
In brighter days, the city approved two important initiatives with the ambition and provisions to reshape the too-dangerous streets of L.A. First, the 2010 Bicycle Plan, adopted in 2011, articulated very specific goals to build a well-connected network of bike infrastructure. If you look at a map of existing bike lanes, paths, and routes in Los Angeles, you’ll see that it depicts a seemingly random patchwork of infrastructure that fails to give riders safe routes throughout the city. That’s why cyclists were so excited about the Bicycle Plan, which explicitly proclaimed that the city would fund and install at least 200 miles of bicycle facilities every five years.
The second key document is the city’s inaugural Vision Zero Action Plan, released by the Mayor’s office in January 2017. Ostensibly inspired by cities around the world that have used data-driven methods to massively reduce the number of traffic deaths, the action plan identified the most dangerous corridors in L.A. and pledged to improve safety features on them.
But with the end of 2018 approaching, both the 2010 Bicycle Plan and the Vision Zero Action Plan read like an oral history of shelved projects, political battles lost, and broken promises. Even if one were to tally the relatively useless deployment of painted sharrows with “Share the Road” signage and accept the dubious double-counting of mileage on roadways with bike lanes painted in both directions, the city has failed to come close to the Bicycle Plan’s target of 40 miles per year. And on many of the corridors identified as Vision Zero priorities, safety reconfigurations have been defeated. The funding for Vision Zero has been a fraction of what was promised and what is needed. Our politically ambitious mayor, Eric Garcetti, signed the action plan, but has been painfully silent on the issue and most anything related to bike safety.
It’s a Fight, and Cyclists Are Losing
Compounding the problems cyclists face in L.A. is the lack of a powerful advocacy movement. The Los Angeles County Bike Coalition is a well-meaning organization, but has suffered from a leadership vacuum in the past year, and lacks 501(c)4 status that would allow it to endorse candidates and otherwise get involved in politics. And it’s up against relentlessly aggressive opposition and city leadership that charitably can be called apathetic.
One city councilman, commenting in response to the recent rash of civil payouts, proposed not that the city invest in fixing its crumbling infrastructure but instead to remove bike lanes from any subpar roadways. A few council members are legitimate champions of cycling, but the rest are undependable, or even outright hostile to the safety needs of riders.
Looking to sustain L.A.’s broken and ineffective transportation system are a cadre of well-funded organizations like Keep L.A. Moving, who are fighting any safety project that might remove a single driving lane from the urban grid. In their minds, one or two cyclist fatalities a month are acceptable collateral damage to keep a big car-centric city properly lubricated.
And these groups are effective. Tensions over bike lanes went from ballistic to thermonuclear with a road-safety project in the beachside community of Playa del Rey in 2017—probably the most contentious bike lane project in the U.S. since New York City installed a protected bike lane on Prospect Park West in 2010. But unlike the fracas in Brooklyn, where community safety ultimately trumped NIMBY complaints, the angry mob won in L.A. By flooding social media with deceptive memes, threatening a frivolous recall against the city council member who’d approved the safety modifications, and relentlessly labeling bike lanes as social engineering and proven Vision Zero strategies as #fakenews, they rolled back the safety measures to reduce traffic fatalities and pulled the bike lanes to regain their two lanes for cars.
This angry populist rebellion resonated far beyond the borders of Playa del Rey. L.A. City Council members saw the political might wielded by angry motorists. So did Mayor Garcetti, who has aspirations for national office and wants to shy away from unpopular controversies. And since the bike lanes in Playa del Rey got ripped out, the already glacial pace of making streets safer practically came to a stop in L.A.
The blow to the city’s cycling culture has been broadly felt. Data recently released by the League of American Bicyclists demonstrates the impact among bike commuters—after a decade in which the number of people biking to work in L.A. grew more than 50 percent, the figure fell by more than 13 percent in the most recent year surveyed. The sad truth is that many people have become scared. Someday in the not-too-distant future, I hope I will be asked to write an essay explaining why this sun-kissed metropolis is America’s finest cycling city. But that day is not today.