When Transportation Officials Won’t Keep Us Safe, Should We Do It Ourselves?

Example of an elevated streets from the Netherlands
The elevated street is a marvel when done properly!

What are we to do when public-sector transportation officials and planners in their charge fail to create safe conditions for cyclists on public roadways? One answer is to take the reins guerrilla-style, like the Dept. of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) did to create bike lanes in NE Los Angeles. Another option is to democratize planning with DIY charrettes for hands-on participation to create the plans and programs that might just keep us safe.

Glasgow junction redesigned detail
DIY planning in Glasgow brings much-needed safety innovations to a dangerous intersection.

Reading ‘How To Build Your Way Out Of A Death Trap‘ on the Pedestrianise London blog recently, I was reminded that sometimes we cyclists have to step in when transportation professionals fail to safeguard our safety. In this overseas exercise in DIY planning,  “wannabe road designers” from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain simply took to a flipchart to sketch out changes to a motorway junction north of Glasgow to make it more traversable. These lay planners were addressing a problem common to cyclists here in the states, too, but largely unaddressed by transportation planners and engineers: how to ensure that “120 lbs of human on a bicycle” (as they say) can safely coexist in intersections when freight haulers can make mincemeat out of those of us who bike.

Logan Square DIY planning for safety
DIY Transportation planning in Chicago: residents take responsibility for improving ped & bike safety at Logan Square. (Click to enlarge the animated overlay.)

Now, Grid Chicago brings to our attention a bit of DIY planning for the Logan Square area (in NW Chicago) where an historic park over time has been nibbled away to create a three-lane racetrack for motorists. This complicated three-way intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, Logan Boulevard and Kedzie Boulevard poses numerous challenges, including how to move mode-separated traffic through. Not least, it’s bisected by a busy boulevard, increasing the number of conflict points.

Over time, planners and traffic engineers have literally tried to ’round the Square’ rather than completely re-engineer it for pedestrian and cyclist safety. But why go through the trouble to make the juncture safe when we can simply look to traffic laws to assign personal risk to cyclists and liability (mostly, but not exclusively) to motorists? Isn’t that a fair deal? Well no, it’s not. With public spaces like Logan Square, we need to question the professional ethics of the transportation officials and planners that maintain a system that so disproportionately heaps the costs of inaction on cyclists.

Logan Square replanned road detail
Logan Square re-engineered for safe transit: order comes to this historic square and surrounding roads.

Logan Square is a great example of why local stakeholders need to take control of the planning process. Here we have an historic square, home to the Illinois Centennial Monument built in 1918 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Illinois’ statehood. Yet it’s ringed with a racetrack and bisected by a busy thoroughfare. That makes it perilous to access this lovely public space. While it’s guaranteed that yesterday’s city officials didn’t envision the volume or velocity of today’s traffic, we’ve had the better part of a century to identify and implement improvements to make these streets universally accessible and a joy to use. And isn’t that a function of public space, to serve, uplift and ennoble? For God’s sake, Chicago birthed the City Beautiful Movement, and look at the shambles of Logan Square!

As Grid Chicago describes, three residents, working with Active Transportation Alliance and a local preservation group, decided to act where officials would not: they tapped innovations already in use elsewhere to achieve what Grid Chicago calls “multi-modal transportation harmony.” Here residents stepped in where transportation officials were afraid to go (or worse, simply unable to go given prevailing political winds). They looked at the problems. They divined some answers. And they made a plan for a better place.

Now, we understand it’s easier to gin up a vision than it is to get officials to move a major capital improvement project through city council. But isn’t there a professional responsibility to at least envision and advocate for improvements to keep all road users safe? How many cyclists have to be run down from behind or nicked by a delivery truck turning right for transportation professionals to strongly make a case for mode-separated intersections?

It’s not just Chicago, folks. Here in the Los Angeles area we endure roads every day that are exhibits A, B and C for how not to create and maintain roadways. And we have a few right here in Beverly Hills.

Beverly Hills Case Study: Wilshire & Santa Monica Boulevard North

Wilshire & SM intersection aerial viewLook no further than our own Wilshire & Santa Monica Boulevard North intersection. This juncture is actually two intersections rolled into one: both SM North and its local-route cousin, SM South, cross Wilshire here – making this one of the most busy, and most dangerous, intersections for cyclists to traverse in our city. According to official ‘average daily traffic’ data from 2010, Wilshire and Santa Monica North each ferry 50,000 motorists daily – meaning this intersection facilitates throughput of about 100,000 vehicles including buses and trucks on any given day.

With this high volume of motor traffic cyclists must compete. And compete at a profound disadvantage, an imbalance of risk perhaps proportionate to our weight. For every 120 lbs of cyclist there is many tons of low-visibility truck or bus to contend with.

Rider with a bent wheel at Wilshire and SM Blvd
This rider waits for the bus after a collision at Wilshire & Santa Monica bent his front wheel.

This intersection is not meant to be shared; in fact, it’s designed to fail non-motor users. If you’re on two wheels you’ll find no bike lane, bike box, place of refuge protected from a bus stop or a turn lane, or even a safety sign. We ourselves saw how this plays out when we conducted last Fall’s Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition bike count and we posted about it then.

We watched as cyclists approached this intersection westbound on Santa Monica North, only to find themselves at Wilshire hemmed in at the curb by two right-turn lanes. And they had no chance: green turn arrows keep a steady stream of fast-moving, right-turning traffic flowing until the signal turns red. More than a few times in an hour we saw cyclists find themselves frustrated; in one case, a rider sprinted across Wilshire on the red, simply because he felt his ability to continue west frustrated.

Santa Monica & Wilshire
No lane markings guide this cyclist heading west across this 100,000+ vehicle-per-day intersection.

With Santa Monica Blvd. North to be reconstructed sometime in 2014, we’ve been told by our city that there will be an opportunity to address the safety problems for both cyclists and pedestrians then. But Beverly Hills has committed to no cyclist safety improvements on Santa Monica Blvd anywhere, much less to this intersection in particular.

Indeed rather than re-think it, the city is planning to widen Wilshire Boulevard as a traffic mitigation associated with the nearby Hilton project. While this chronically-failing level-of-service intersection (‘F’) will suffer ‘significant’ traffic impacts that can’t be mitigated (according to the Hilton EIR), the city will nonetheless try by turning even more asphalt over to motorists. Isn’t that like punching your way out of a paper bag? Transportation professionals call it ‘induced demand.’

An alternative would be to encourage folks to take up the bike by showing them that they can safely cycle in Beverly Hills. With innovative improvements to this horrendous intersection we can allow cyclists of all ages to make their way across here without a road warrior attitude and a death wish. Heck, they do it in Northern Europe, don’t they? Cycling is baked into the national psyches and road networks. As a result, they don’t struggle with ‘F’ grade intersections and useless mitigations. They simply plan prudently.

Beverly Hills Can’t Do It for Ourselves, But a Dutch Planner Can?

Let’s turn to Denmark. Following on the ThinkBike event last year, we reached out to the Danes who brought their cutting-edge innovative ideas [presentation PDF] to Los Angeles. We asked a simple question: What can we do to make this nightmare intersection safer for cyclists? That’s a question that we’ve asked of our own Transportation officials and received no satisfactory answer. So we turned to Denmark.

Dutch planner, Richard ter Avest, Senior Adviser from the firm Goudappel Coffeng, suggested a few fixes. The firm is notable not only for its advanced transportation designs, but for being a company that’s mutually owned by employees and administered by a foundation. No end-of-quarter Wall Street thinking here: this is long-term management and truly accountable ownership.

Of our nightmare intersection “is indeed an impressive junction in Beverly Hills,” he said by email, “It is a big challenge and it looks like situations in Delhi India.” Indeed! Beverly Hills has always harbored global aspirations. Here not in a good way.

Mr. ter Avest suggested bike lanes, of course, which we’ve been recommending for nearly two years. These are the most easily implemented option and at a minimum would separate the traffic modes to at least give cyclists a fighting chance. Coupled with European-style traffic markings, we can provide a safe harbor for bike travel and show cyclists how to safely move though this junction. Time will tell if Class II lanes make it into the Santa Monica reconstruction project as an option, however; the jury’s still out.

But Mr. ter Avest went father, suggesting two other innovative (for here) but standard (for there) treatments: bike tunnels and grade-separated roadways.

Tunnel concept via ThinkBike's Richard ter Avest
The tunnel concept provides cyclists with a down under solution to road conflict.

Bike tunnels is the more controversial option. They may be fine for European streets, but there is a constituency in the US who not-so-fondly recall an earlier era of pedestrian tunnels (built in conjunction with the freeways) that created an unsafe harbor where vandals and criminals could prevail. Insufficiently policed and maintained, these spaces are a reminder even today that ‘tunnel’ without the protection of an automobile is not very inviting to cyclists.

Tunnel example from the Netherlands
First class bike infrastructure: ample room makes the tunnel safe and practical.

When done properly, however, as in the Netherlands, they can be a marvel of functional efficiency or, unfortunately, fall prey to the same predations that we deal with here. In any case, this is a Gateway intersection for Beverly Hills, and the prospect of a warren of narrow bike tunnels – along with the cost – won’t persuade any policymakers.

A Flyover for Beverly Hills?

Grade-separated roadways is a more interesting choice for this intersection. For one thing, bicycle ‘flyovers’ have a long history in the region, going back to the California Cycleway that connected Los Angeles and Pasadena via the Arroyo Seco early in the 20th century. The principle is the same as the bridges of the old trolley system: to separate those grades, minimize traffic conflict points, and keep traffic moving.

California Cycleway passing the opera house
The California Cycleway passes the opera house in 1902

Wilshire & Santa Monica North would be perfect for flyover system or even a grade-separated intersection. The treatment here can be quite elaborate (as pictured at the top of the post) or more lightweight as in a flyover. There are good reasons to undertake a grade-separated improvement at this location: within just a couple of blocks we’ll have a new 4-story Gateway development at the Starbucks site; a high-rise at Moreno & Santa Monica South; and of course the Hilton Project. Without moving more people to bikes, that augurs for many more cars on the road (hence the unmitigable impact).

We’ve advocated a flyover on Santa Monica North as an integral part of the Gateway’s overlay zone, requiring, for example, that projects adjacent to Wilshire incorporate a cycleway into the project. That would not only thematically integrate active transportation into tomorrow’s real estate developments, but would incorporate the surrounding area into the structure and function of the intersection itself.

Elevated street concept from ThinkBike's Richard ter Avest
Full commitment to grade separation lets all travel modes coexist.

Mr. ter Avest has sketched out a more modest step here – grade separating the corridor with elevated streets but keeping to today’s footprint – but for a Gateway we encourage our transportation professionals to think more imaginatively. If we’re willing to make land owners deed some land to widen Wilshire as we do today, let’s think about how we could reconstruct this Gateway to look more like an European example of cutting-edge infrastructure, as at top.

Shouldn’t the new Santa Monica Boulevard be the Avenue des Champs-Élysées of the Westside? Shouldn’t our Western Gateway signal that we’re entering Beverly Hills, much as the Arc de Triomphe heralds your entry into central Paris from the Northwest on the Avenue? The risk of not acting boldly here is that we wind up an intersection like we have today: an utterly banal testament to the car that continues to sacrifice cyclist safety to motoring flow and depresses both the spirit and the imagination.