Bike Facilities In Historical Context (Part I)

As pedestrians we take comfort in the sidewalk. Separated from motor traffic and bounded by a curb, we take this basic feature of life in the Western city for granted. We roam among other pedestrians and we’re immeasurably safer for it. But sidewalks didn’t magically appear but instead were engineered to bring order to the mobility chaos of the industrial city. Of course, for the past century motorists have had their run of the streets. But what about cyclists? We fend for ourselves, as unwelcome in the streets as on the sidewalk. Why aren’t policymakers and engineers looking out for us with our own dedicated facility?

The Sidewalk: Engineered Pedestrian Mobility

Think for a moment how revolutionary was the ordinary sidewalk. Roads were long the primary means of personal and commercial transport between settlements. On foot, we shared it with those on horseback & horse-pulled carriages. As cities industrialized, they concentrated production in larger cities. Districts sprang up to differentiate the various aspects of production like finance, factory, storage, and labor ‘reproduction’ (aka domestic life.) To work more widgets presses, capitalists beckoned many more migrant workers, which made teeming cities more productive but more of a challenge to manage too.

Teeming nineteenth-century cityMobility was a key problem since roads serving all users quickly became overtaxed. Freight had to be shipped. People moved. Produce hawked. Carriages, wagons, and trolleys (and later buses, trucks and cars) clogged the urban street – a scrum into which the poor pedestrian entered taking life into hand, as this image suggests, taken from the Municipal Journal’s handbook, Planning Streets and Designing and Constructing the Details of Street Surface, Subsurface and Super-surface Structures of 1914.

Turn-of-the-century Sociologist Georg Simmel organized a treatise around the emergent problems of the urban titled, The Metropolis and Mental Life. Specifically, Simmel concerned his inquiry with the psychological effects of city life. This was prior to the turn of the century, when the frenetic activity characteristic of the urban “money economy” literally spilled into the streets. He warned of its disparate impact on the sociology of city dwellers, whom he saw sacrifice the emotional comforts of home:

“With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life.”

Market Street circa 1904 - an early view of transit chaosWatch the historic footage of San Francisco’s Market Street at the turn of the century to see firsthand just how chaotic nineteenth-century city streets were. Baseball enthusiasts will remember that Brooklyn’s famous baseball team took their ‘Dodgers’ moniker from the poor fans who dodged electric trolleys on their way to the game.

The regulated city keeps travel modes separatedSegregating transportation modes went a long way toward improving pedestrian safety. It also imposed some order on the city to increase traffic flow.

Well-planned roads and traffic regulation especially was essential to making the modern city work more efficiently, as suggested by this view from 1914 (also from Planning Streets).

At the forefront of these innovations were the city engineers and transportation technocrats who created the systems that managed growth the nineteenth-century city. Centralized water delivery and sewers for waste, for example, were also crucial in accommodating a higher population density while improving health and welfare. Planner-historians see this as the emergence of the ‘city functional.’

Creating the City Functional

Constructing quality roads and sidewalks was one of the most significant city planning initiatives of the nineteenth-century city. City Engineers played a key role in shaping the city: they regulated the development of private land and land uses and generated plans and standards for the streetscape. In the eyes of the engineers, development and transportation worked together, and without some discipline in every aspect, a city couldn’t function properly. It was all about systems!

Amid the cacophony of competing modes of mobility, the humble sidewalk was a key element in the transportation system. It separated pedestrians from the more rapid flow of mechanized transit. In literally carving out a refuge for the walker, the sidewalk practically engineered mode-conflict out of daily urban mobility. Before the sidewalk, commercial traffic and horse-drawn transit had ruled the road to the detriment of the pedestrian. Once pedestrians were provided a sidewalk, some semblance of order could be restored. And motor traffic itself could be better regulated too.

City engineers have long fought to exert an influence in how the city would develop. Here in Los Angeles, the position was public – an elected office as early as 1886 – suggesting the importance of the post and the accountability it demanded. Municipal engineers organized professionally into societies and conducted annual conferences dating to the turn-of-the-century, where they shared best practices.

Perhaps no invention has so enhanced individual human mobility as has the bike. It is the most efficient human-powered mobility machine known to man. As journalist Robert Penn writes in his homage, It’s All About the Bike [review], the device matured from novelty to primary means of everyday transportation as innovation after innovation multiplied human effort while improving safety for the rider.

The widespread use of the bicycle in the late-nineteenth century attracted the attention of municipal engineers because they placed a new demand on city streets: they had to be well-engineered and of good quality. The Municipal Engineers Journal, published by the Municipal Engineers of the City of New York in 1915, noted that American city streets suffered in comparison to European city streets – “a fact first brought to public attention in our country by the bicycle.” (p. 35).

Sidewalk elevated with Granite curbThe Journal went on to reference a catalog of excellent European street and sidewalk examples, lamenting for cyclists in particular “the absence of any plan for regulating the positions of pipes, ducts, and manholes, other than that of interests controlling each one.”

To the chaos of the disorganized city, municipal engineers would bring order! In Los Angeles, Public Works was organized as a city department in 1872 and within twenty years had laid down 78 miles of paved city road. Municipal engineers also brought innovations to the street, including durable granite curbs (above left) and even double curbs to further separate pedestrian from motor traffic (below right).

Sidewalk with double curbIndeed the ‘city functional’ concept and its high standards worked exceedingly well for pedestrians and vehicular traffic, but it hit the skids when it came to cyclists. Municipal engineers created no mode-segregated facilities for bikes. They specified no special signaling for two-wheelers. Most importantly, they neither called for, nor received, any dedicated funding or subsidy for bike-friendly innovations like the Veloway.

The bike, the most efficient and economical transportation device ever to hit the street since the cobbler’s shoes, lay largely beyond the municipal engineer’s purview. It just didn’t fit into the urban systems in a conventional sense, and makes few appearances in engineering journals of the period.

The Demise of the Bike

Well prior to the turn of the century, cyclists had attracted the engineers’ attention and even played an important political role by securing road improvements as part of the Better Roads movement. They introduced new transportation innovations to the city before the turn of the century, like mode-segregated, private rights-of-way built especially for cyclists, but these didn’t catch on with the systems folks. What a shame.

Dobbins Veloway connecting Los Angeles to Pasadena
Dobbins Arroyo Seco Veloway: the first ‘superslab’?

‘Veloways’ represented the marriage of opportunity to need: cyclists needed a more safe and efficient way to move about the crowded city; and money men saw a profitable opportunity to provide a facility that would serve as a limited-access bikeway that bypassed existing streets. These private roadbeds sometimes elevated bike traffic above the urban transportation cacophony, as did our own privately-financed ‘Veloway’ to connect northeast Los Angeles and Pasadena.

The Veloway is not entirely lost to history, however, Today the ‘flyover’ is sometimes recommended if bike traffic must move though a dangerous intersection. The Veloway was its forerunner – mode separation taken uber seriously – but such innovations didn’t capture the imagination of municipal officials. For more than a half-century, engineers and policymakers had progressively engineered a city of ever-greater efficiency, but for this single most efficient form of transportation they constructed nothing.

What an oversight. We’ve planned for the horse carriage, trolley, and metro. And when the automobile grabbed the public imagination, we planned for that too to the lasting detriment of cities everywhere. But we never did plan for bikes.

Long Live the Bike!

But it is the unsubsidized bike that may well deliver us to a better future. Though it remains an ingenious and efficient personal transportation machine, it still doesn’t get some lovin’ like the auto and public transportation industries do. In fact, cycling facilities receive scant support from our federal transportation dollars. We limp along on less than the one-half of one percent that federal transportation funding affords active transportation uses. If we’re lucky, pick up a few grants – again, like so much Dickensian gruel.

Trying to secure bike-friendly improvements in the face of a well-financed and well-connected auto & transportation industry lobby has our work cut out for us. Complete Streets-style accommodations and universal access principles are our best hope, though, of returning some balance to the urban mobility paradigm (literally) cemented in place by municipal engineers well over a century ago.

But Complete Streets will only get us part of the way there. We need a full-on press for out-of-the-box, bike-friendly innovations that will make cycling much more attractive, exciting, and efficient to the non-cycling public. And we need transportation officials to pick up on the challenge and return themselves to the leadership position on mobility issues they once commanded.

It’s clear that there is a precedent for making the effort and investment, and looking back at the history of urban transportation innovations as we’ve done here is a start.

After all, when we needed to accommodate pedestrian travel safely, we provided sidewalks. When we understood that traffic had to be accommodated, engineers created uniform streets. When it was clear that it had to be regulated too, policymakers crafted traffic law and managed road conflict through signals systems.

Yet transportation planning as utterly failed the cyclist. Municipal engineers and transportation technocrats are no longer solving our mobility problems. Today, transportation officials rely on funding from LA County Department of Health to do what is essentially a municipal function: creating safer roads (and even then too few and far between). Other cities, like our own Beverly Hills, look for help on the cheap from an intern – when they can be persuaded to bother at all.

What a travesty: the professional corps of municipal engineers would turn over in their graves at the sheer lack of planning for cyclists despite 56 deaths to date this year in Southern California.

It’s Still a DIY Project

Indeed it is the cycling community that is working to return this most marvelous means of mobility to the forefront of the nation’s transportation consciousness. We carry the torch for Complete Streets principles and universal access to public roads while transportation officials and their professional organizations are largely silent. (Beverly Hills here too is a case in point: there has been zero policy discussion about incorporating Complete Streets principles into city plans.)

Isn’t it ironic that more than a century after private interests first cut the ribbon on the Veloway, that serious effort at segregating bike traffic, getting even any bike accommodations on American roads is still a do-it-yourself project?

Freeway ribbon cuttingOur challenge is to recall for policymakers the long history of planning for the next era of urban transportation and then get them to make the investment necessary to get us to the next era of urban mobility: active transportation.

Thinking back to the humble sidewalk and its continuing role today as a carved-out safe haven for pedestrians, that innovation came directly from municipal engineers and today remains a model for mode-separated urban transportation. We need to get the professionals to apply some imagination to our mobility problems today if we are to change the old auto-centric, freeway-era motoring paradigm.