Tag Archives: infrastructure

the meaning of infrastructure

Via Streetsblog, House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner was recently quoted about the prospect of adding more money into the proposed federal stimulus plan:

“I think there’s a place for infrastructure, but what kind of infrastructure? Infrastructure to widen highways, to ease congestion for American families? Is it to build some buildings that are necessary?” He stated. “But if we’re talking about beautification projects, or we’re talking about bike paths, Americans are not going to look very kindly on this.”

Via the OED, infrastructure is defined as:

A collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure, foundation; spec. the permanent installations forming a basis for military operations, as airfields, naval bases, training establishments, etc.

A collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking… Which might just suggest the question of what we’re undertaking (Though thinking about training establishments and what I’ve heard of Cub Camp or the Wolfpack Hustle or reading the description of this makes it possible to think about Los Angeles as really having some of the best bicycle infrastructure in the whole world if only we realize it like these rides do).

Part of me wants to write to Rep. Boehner to suggest that he pull his head out of the gas tank he’s been inhaling, but part of me wants to try to rise to a different challenge: What is it, precisely, that I am undertaking when I get on my bike? Alex has a really thoughtful post up at WestsideBIKEside about embracing the challenge of being a bike activist in Los Angeles, and he makes a really thoughtful point:

When we feel victimized as cyclists, we should remember that this is what we want.  We ride where we want!  We all choose to bike for many reasons, and part of that deal is that we’re going to deal with some crap.  It’s a small price to pay for independence, fitness, fun, and a totally different worldview, free of the oppressive confinement of a motor vehicle.

I’m not a bike activist. I like to ride, I like to write about riding, and I like to think about what it means to ride a bike in Los Angeles. But even though I can’t really consider myself an activist, I want to think that it’s worthwhile to ask of myself if there’s something more that I’m riding for, whether it be global warming or simply saving money on gas. It’s not anything I have an answer for, but maybe I’m learning to ask better questions about biking in Los Angeles; maybe I’m beginning to put some words to this undertaking of mine (of ours?), some way to say that investing in cycling infrastructure isn’t just about making the roads look pretty – investing in infrastructure is about asking questions of the horizons we face, asking in a really honest fashion, What is it that we’re undertaking?


bike lanes and light lanes

Some while back, BikinginLA set forth a long list of legislative changes that could make biking in Los Angeles a safer and more enjoyable experience. A couple of his suggestions bear on bike lanes: For example, requiring that streets with heavy traffic also provide bike lanes; or placing full responsibility for an accident occuring in a bike lane on the driver; requiring that bike lanes be maintained in their original condition; and (though it doesn’t always require a bike lane) stipulating that cars must leave three feet of clearance when passing bicycles.

But as anyone who’s spent time riding in the city knows, bike lanes are sometimes few and far between. To confine yourself to riding only in bike lanes is to consign yourself to riding in small circles in local communities (not exactly true, but still…). So with that in mind, I was recently struck (reading my friend Jordan’s blog) by an idea a couple of designers had: Rather than putting bicyclists in bike lanes, why not have bike lanes travel with cyclists?

As they note:

A close brush with a distracted driver is enough to intimidate the most avid bikers from riding at night. The problem isn’t just about visibility, as safety lights are effective at capturing the attention of a driver. However, these lights are typically constrained to the bike frame, which highlights only a fraction of the bike’s envelope. Bike lanes have proven to be an effective method of protecting cyclists on congested roads. One key is that the lane establishes a well defined boundary beyond the envelope of the bicycle, providing a greater margin of safety between the car and the cyclist. Yet, only a small fraction of streets have dedicated bike lanes, and with an installation cost of $5,000 to $50,000 per mile, we shouldn’t expect to find them everywhere anytime soon. Instead of adapting cycling to established bike lanes, the bike lane should adapt to the cyclists. This is the idea behind the LightLane. Our system projects a crisply defined virtual bike lane onto pavement, using a laser, providing the driver with a familiar boundary to avoid. With a wider margin of safety, bikers will regain their confidence to ride at night, making the bike a more viable commuting alternative.

At first glance, it’s a great idea, though I’m still not exactly sure how visible the lane would or could be. It might be most succesful in places where car traffic was moving slowly enough that cars would see bikes before they were close enough to pass; car traffic moving at high speed might just miss the light entirely in the process of blowing by. But my favorite part about the idea is the way in which it suggests that bikes have a larger envelope than the couple of inches surrounding their person and their bike. A light like this might go some ways towards asserting that bikers actually should have a right to something more.

(Thanks again to mere pixels for the link)

UPDATE (22 january): Bike Commuters went the extra distance and emailed the designers with some questions about the project. Their response ends with this fascinating comment:

It’s been truly remarkable to see the excitement that this concept has generated, especially considering it was just a fun quirky idea to begin with. What’s been equally interesting in my opinion is to see how the product has pushed the debate of who owns the roads. This well established debate has been a common point of discussion within my own family, and clearly the LightLane, nor any product, will solve it. Instead we hope that it connects with people in a new and fun way.

Please see the full response over at Bike Commuters.

tensions of cycling and public transportation

Last week, I wrote briefly about my trip up to San Francisco, asking:

The city – coming from Los Angeles with foreign eyes – seems made for cyclists: Sharrows, bike lanes, well-marked bike routes, and a critical mass of people willing to ride for their commute. I have more – I think – to say, but an open question to anyone who knows the history of San Francisco’s infrastructure better than I: How did San Francisco seem to get right what Los Angeles has, to this point, gotten wrong? What has made it possible for San Francisco to seem so cycling-friendly when Los Angeles seems not?

Several people were good enough to throw out a couple of thoughts. Peter pointed out San Francisco’s relatively high density and its history of progressive politics. Alex added that San Francisco’s compact geography makes it an easier city to bike, and that LA has never really recovered from rejecting street cars. Gary echoed Peter’s comment about the density, and suggested that San Fran’s tendency to, I don’t know, mark out bike routes in a visible and useful way made the city more bike-friendly than Los Angeles. And Ryan, echoing Alex’s points, linked all of this into a larger history.

All good points, and I appreciate the thoughts.

But as I see it, there are really two conversations that could happen here: The first is what the city of Los Angeles could do to develop its cycling infrastructure – which is not, in itself, a question of public transportation; the second, however, is what precisely public transportation means.

After all, Alex noted in his comment that LA turned its back on public transportation, which isn’t entirely accurate. It’s just that LA’s public transportation system – second, in terms of total mileage, only to New York City – doesn’t actually make sense to those of us who have the time and the economic capacity to sit down and blog about biking. Most of us have cars. If we don’t, we’re of a certain income bracket where we could have a car if we wanted but don’t on principle or economics or what have you. Is public transportation what LA has now – a messy, crowded, over-subscribed way that still, in spite of everything, gets people around the city when they have no other way to get around? Or is public transportation something that might be pleasant?

For my own part, I’d love to live in a world of the latter, but we’re stuck in the present of the former, which is how we get back to bikes, because biking advocacy is not always public transportation advocacy. It could be, but it isn’t right now, in part because biking doesn’t seem like an activity that the public writ large participates in. Sure, we all bike here and there, but there’s not really a sense in Los Angeles that commuting by bike makes you part of some bigger group (in the way that, perhaps, Mini owners are encouraged to hang out with other Mini owners, or the way in which bus riders all share in something of the same bus misery).

One other thing that come to mind while I was in San Francisco: Biking seemed to appeal to a certain socioeconomic group, which stems, I think, from the way in which biking can seem something like a lifestyle choice.

But going forward, I think one of the challenges we face – as a city and as a biking community – is to figure out how to link arguments for developing cycling infrastructure to a broader social consciousness about public transportation. None of this, to be sure, is something I have an answer for, but I think we – messy and nascent culture and community that we are – have to think both about how cycling is already part of the broader public transportation agenda and the ways in which cyclists’ efforts for more infrastructure might part ways with mass transit.

After all, I used to bus a lot more before I got my bike. Getting on the bike is so much more appealing, I think, because I don’t have to share my space with anyone else, and that tension might be at the heart of these debates about cycling and public transportation as we go forward (though, as Bike Snob LA realizes, public transportation and cycling can go hand in hand).

And in the end, what do I know? I’m in Colorado now, staring out at the Rockies being overtopped by clouds heavy with snow. Happy Holidays to everyone, though I hope to be back on a bike in LA before the New Year. I’m already looking forward to it.

san francisco

Arriving in San Francisco from LA assaults the senses: The BART hisses and whines on its track through the tunnels and people sit near you. Coming out from BART to the intersection of Market and Powell, the sidewalks are thick with pedestrians. A sudden feeling of vertigo to be amid tall buildings amid the clatter of conversation and life. The screech of a cable car and the old trolleys that ply the F along Market. Traffic slows, clots, then pushes through on the next green.

And there, on a light post at the corner of Market and one of the big streets that cuts across, a yellow sign reading roughly: Cyclists have a right to full use of the road.

The city – coming from Los Angeles with foreign eyes – seems made for cyclists: Sharrows, bike lanes, well-marked bike routes, and a critical mass of people willing to ride for their commute. I have more – I think – to say, but an open question to anyone who knows the history of San Francisco’s infrastructure better than I: How did San Francisco seem to get right what Los Angeles has, to this point, gotten wrong? What has made it possible for San Francisco to seem so cycling-friendly when Los Angeles seems not?

Granted, I think Los Angeles is more friendly to cyclists than people sometimes make it out to be, but I’m trying to figure out some of the things – some of the institutional and infrastructural decisions – that San Francisco has done that have helped make the city what it is.

speaking from the street: on the cyclists’ bill of rights

A couple of weeks back, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik picked up the most recent biography about John Stuart Mill, that “nineteenth-century English philosopher, politician, and know-it-all nonpareil”. The whole article is well worth a read, but I was recently reminded of one of the article’s descriptions of Mill’s education:

It was nothing but history, math, economics, the classics, and the Benthamite axioms: actions could lead to pleasure or pain, happiness or distress, and the right action was the one that led to the most happiness for the most people. In hard hands, the principle could seem like a mechanical parody of ethics, but it had its points. Bentham’s real achievement was to squeeze the piety out of Enlightenment talk of “rights.” People didn’t have rights because their creator endowed them with rights; they had them because rights were useful to have. [My emphasis]

It came to mind because of a recent Streetsblog post, in which Ben Fried linked to a recent Hunter College study about the number of cyclists who break traffic laws in New York City [in the interest of full disclosure, I break traffic laws, but only the stupid ones]. Ben makes a good point when he writes about the authors’ call for “greater helmet use and adherence to traffic laws”:

Again, all well and good, but leaving it at that reinforces the perception that cyclists would be much safer if only they obeyed the letter of the law. It’s easy to hear echoes of NYPD’s insistence, in the waning days of the Giuliani administration, that “cyclist error” was to blame in three quarters of deadly crashes.

Alex Thompson of WestsideBIKEside was first to comment on the article, and added:

You know, Americans aren’t the Dutch – we’re not going to stand at a red light in the middle of a blizzard with no one around an wait. I’ll blow that light 11 times out of 10, and so will most Americans – motorists and cyclists. We need to get real about what we really want and expect from cyclists. Do we want safety, or do we want utter deference to the law? The answer is clear – safety – that’s the purpose of the law.

His comment brought me back to the Mill piece, and in particular to that section I’d italicized: People have rights because they’re useful, not because they’re inalienable or owed to us for something we’ve done.

All of which brings me in turn to the Cyclists’ Bill of Rights, due to be debated at tomorrow’s City Council Transportation Committee meeting (first announced on Streetsblog, with more recent discussion at green LA girl and WestsideBIKEside). Via Gary Rides Bikes, I happened upon Enci’s most recent post at Illuminate LA, in which the document is discussed at some length. She reads the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee’ version of the original Bill of Rights, and notices several fundamental changes.

First, the “Whereas” of the original version has disappeared. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “in view of the fact that”, the original “Whereas” took it as a given that cyclists were a fact on the streets of the city and not some planned or hoped-for future (echoes of DJ Waldie?). In taking out the “Whereas”, Enci notes that it’s been replaced with gibberish about people who had nothing to do with writing the document. Second, Enci notes that “sufficient and significant” has been changed to “significant and sensible”, continuing:

Giving someone the sufficient road space that is necessary for the safety of a cyclists as opposed to what is perceived as safe are two different things. I would also suggest that what is sensible to the LADOT is not the same as what is significant or sufficient.

Sufficient and significant would be what BikinginLA proposed in October. Significant and sensible? It’s people who’ve never ridden for anything other than recreation trying to get out of anything tangible. Enci goes on to work through the rest of the proposed amendments, and it’s well worth a read.

But it’s worth thinking a moment longer about this question of language and about the control of language. Without getting too abstract, I think it’s fair to say that language and power are intimately linked. To control the way in which something is talked about is to gain some control over the thing itself. Think, in a more concrete sense, about efforts to designate 4th a “bike boulevard”. These amendments might come out of a political decision on the part of the LA BAC [and nb: I know next to nothing about the politics or the process], an attempt to control the language and so frame the debate. What’s interesting about the amendments is how much they seem to be a top-down approach: Someone in a postion of authority took a document and refashioned it to serve their purposes.

Never mind the fact that that document came out of an experience of riding the streets of Los Angeles. Never mind the fact that that document was written by people who ride often, who ride hard, and who ride because it’s a commitment that they’ve made. Never mind the fact that that document asserts the simple truth that cyclists – like everybody heading home in traffic on a Thursday evening – are people too. One of the really inspiring thing about that document is the way in which it rises out of a social experience and suggests a distillation of language that people share. And it might be that that insurgent prose might actually be threatening, might be more radical than some are willing to admit.

But for my own part: As written, as ridden. I’m sorry I can’t make it to the meeting tomorrow, but I have high hopes for those who are going. Speak clearly from the street, and tell whomever is listening that we’re not asking for our rights as cyclists because of some inalienable truth or ineffable desire. We’re asking for our rights because they help us make our way in the wide wide world. We need our rights because they’re useful to have.

what’s in a network?

According to Streetsblog, the LA City Council’s Transportation Committee is planning a bike-themed meeting this coming Friday. Damien Newton writes,

Next Friday, November 21 at 1 P.M., the Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on six different bike themed measures as well as the continuing the shuttle service to Dodger Stadium, and a RAND Corporation report outlining short-term strategies to reduce traffic.

The meeting’s agenda can be found here, via the Streetsblog article here. A follow-up to that article was posted this morning, where Damien notes that one of the items on the agenda is bringing bike sharing to Los Angeles. As he continues:

The largest obstacle?  The city’s disjointed bicycle network.

This simple statement seems to be both a blunt assesment of the city’s failure to bring provide comprehensive infrastructure for cyclists, but also bit of bar raising for the Bike Master Plan currently being developed by the city and Alta Planning.

Again, being new to this whole discussion, I know next to nothing about bicycle sharing. What thoughts I’ve worked through (most recently here) about planning and infrastructure are very much shaped by the routes I ride (mostly east/west from Koreatown to Westwood). But I’m thinking of a comment that DJ Waldie made in passing the other day in conversation with Greg Hise at the LA Public Library (another reaction to that talk here).

Roughly, he said that one of the things that marks Los Angeles politics is our collective fixation on the future. We’re so busy trying to reinvent ourselves that we sometimes neglect the process of living in the present. It was a rather penetrating comment, and so I’m cheered that in addition to discussing the admirable (though perhaps distant) idea of bike sharing, the Council is also taking up the Cyclist’s Bill of Rights and adding sharrows to city streets. Looking to the future, I suppose, while staying firmly fixed (or if you roll that way, fixied) in the present.

form and function

Amid the fires again – the map the LA Times posted this morning is terrifying, even from Koreatown, and my thoughts are with people who’ve had to flee.

But on a biking note, commenter Ed was good enough to pass on a recent blog post from the New York Times talking about the city’s bike-rack design contest. The winner, it seems, has just been announced:

A simple circle, resting on the ground with a bar bisecting it. That concept, called “Hoop” — the brainchild of Ian Mahaffy and Maarten De Greeve, designers based in Copenhagen — is the winner of the CityRacks Design Competition and will be used as the new standard bicycle rack installed on New York City’s sidewalks, officials announced on Friday. Nearly 5,000 such racks are to be installed over the next three years.

The round rack and horizontal crossbar evoke “an abstracted bicycle tire,” the city’s Department of Transportation said in a statement. “Constructed of cast metal, the design is elegant yet sturdy enough to withstand New York cyclists’ harsh treatment.”

First of all, it’s absolutely phenomenal that the city supported a contest like this: It says a great deal that city officials were involved (including Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner) and speaks well for New York City’s approach to developing cycling infrastructure (Though, via BikinginLA, LA might not be a lost cause after all). On a related note, it’s interesting to see the way in which the DoT framed the decision: As elegant yet sturdy. Clearly, there was a question of aesthetics involved in this, as if the larger NYC public wouldn’t respond well to dull and predictable U-barred bike racks.

But what’s even more interesting is to read the comments that follow the post. As the first commenter pointed out, “Sure it looks sleek and edgy. But how will that thing “meet the City’s bike parking needs”? It looks like it can park 2 bikes maximum. They better put a dozen of these hoops side by side each site.” Other commenters worried that the rack’s shape and single point of contact would make it easy for thieves to level the whole rack out of the pavement. Another commenter worried, “Like many other nice-looking designs, it only handles 2 bikes. And usually just one, because 2 bikes attempting to share it end up mashed together, so the second cyclist looks around for an alternative…” Most of the comments continue in that vein, until the last comment is actually written by David Rulon, the original designer of the U-rack. Rulon has his own design to recommend (pictures here), but in the end, I’m still left with a couple of basic questions:

How much does beauty have to do with it? And how do planners know how balance form against function? One of the consistent concerns of the commenters was the apparent emphasis on form over function. Sure, several wrote, it looks good, but it doesn’t look all that functional! Several also wondered if any of the people serving on the award committee had actually ridden bikes in the city. From their perspective, the contest had more to do with people thinking about how to make biking pretty rather than knowing how to make it practical. The issue isn’t particular to this contest, either. I know one of my own complaints about the way in which biking infrastructure seems planned in Los Angeles is on the basis of what looks good on a map rather than what’s actually functional on the pavement.

Not something that I have an answer for, but these questions of form and function are going to come back again and again as the city develops its cycling infrastructure (and, via Streetsblog, the City Council Transportation Committee is hosting a bike-themed meeting!).