Every two years the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition conducts a count of pedestrians & bicyclists. All across the county, volunteers stand on a street corner for a couple of hours with a clipboard to manually count those who walk and ride. Sounds inefficient, right? It is! But automated counters register only vehicles; they don’t measure multimodal trips. So intrepid volunteers take the reins! The objective: to document how people actually use streets and then use the data to inform policies that maximize safety and efficiency for all road users.
There is a certain meditative calm that comes with being in one spot for two hours with only the responsibility to observe one’s surroundings. Patterns emerge among pedestrians as crowds form at crosswalks and queue at the bus stops before periodically moving on with the light change or the next bus. One witnesses a kind of urban Brownian Motion of prosaic daily doings.
Of course in our region it is the traffic that predominates. Signals dam and release the vehicular flow; motorists queue up in the turn lanes; and driveways, like tributaries, feed boulevards and drain the congestion away. A river seems like an apt analogy for the ebb and flow of cars, trucks and buses on city streets. Compared to the vehicular flow, bicycle riders are a relative trickle in Los Angeles.
But what also comes to the fore is the obvious inefficiencies of surface transportation. The single-occupancy gas-guzzling vehicles that clog our boulevards and the environmental impacts generally that come with our over-reliance on motor transportation.
To get a better handle on the non-motor flow, I volunteered for the 2015 LACBC bicycle and pedestrian count. I observed at three locales: South Santa Monica here in Beverly Hills; Olympic and Alvarado (near Koreatown); and Wilshire and Westholm in Westwood. The contrasts among these places could not be greater.
South Santa Monica Boulevard: The ‘Gateway’ to Beverly Hills
West of Wilshire this two-block stretch of single-story commercial structures appears tailor-made for a bike-friendly business district. Not only is it well-located between Century City and the business triangle in Beverly Hills, it is within walking distance of not one but three large developments underway. And already it is undergoing a transformation from sleepy shops to art galleries and retail destinations.
The city wants more hospitality uses like cafes, too, but that is currently proscribed by code-required parking minimums. But that is a great opportunity too: refashioning this two-block long district’s boulevard for safe bicycle travel would take the pressure off parking demand. And if we put this segment on a ‘road diet’ we would reduce motor traffic volume and liberate available space for class II bike lanes. No longer would policymakers look to larger structures with underground parking garages to bring new off-street parking to the corridor.
Of course, a bike-friendly boulevard in a business district would allow for increased foot traffic without the accompanying vehicular traffic (and congestion). That’s no just our idea; this corridor is indicated as as a potential bike-friendly route in our city’s 1977 Bicycle Master Plan. The map below shows the proposed bike-friendly routes (this one is highlighted in red, at right).
But as I saw from two hours of observation, this route today is best recommended only to intrepid riders. The volume of motor traffic on the two travel lanes (in each direction), coupled with curbside parking, make South Santa Monica not only a squeeze for riders, but somewhat hazardous given the prevailing speeds.
PSA: riders are fully within our rights under state law to use the entire right-hand lane though this corridor, and would be well-advised to do so!
What about the South Santa Monica Boulevard riders? I found just ten or eleven riders on average in any given hour traversed these two blocks by bicycle. Those findings didn’t vary much from weekday mornings and afternoons to Saturday midday (I conducted three counts here). Not only did the total show fewer riders than I expected (this is an important crosstown route after all), but it may reflect something less than a robust cycling culture in our city. Or perhaps crosstown riders are not very familiar with this north Santa Monica Boulevard alternative route. (Of course it’s not signed as such.)
More telling is that few women riders made the journey past my count point. Just 10% of all riders were female! (The proportion of female riders is cited to reflect the prevailing perception of relative safety on a given route.) Perhaps it is explained by the character of those who I did see: sport cyclists, commuters or otherwise evidently experienced riders were most of them. Many, if not most, wore spandex and greater than two-thirds used a helmet. Just 15% on average used a sidewalk.
Olympic Between Alvarado and Westlake: Gateway to Central America
More immigrants from Central America have landed at Alvarado and Wilshire than anywhere else in the United States. And as a result it’s been utterly transformed over the past four decades: gone is the old-school aesthetic of high-rise apartments and romanticized Spanish Revival detailing. Even the pastoral layout of MacArthur Park seems out of place today. What I see today is a neighborhood shaped by the informal economy that is itself powered by the hard-knock practicality of immigrants.
I counted pedestrians and riders a few blocks south of Wilshire at Olympic and Alvarado, where the foot traffic thins a bit and the weathered storefronts reflect a long decline in urban investment in this section of Los Angeles. Here the fast-food restaurant is an institution while most businesses struggle to simply attract the occasional visitor.
I set up my stool at McDonalds and watched the flow of people pass by. They shuffled past as many as six to a family. Disheveled itinerants with time on their hands came and went (but never for long) as they always returned to the Golden Arches. Here they too have set up a kind of shop, the homeless, aimless, panhandlers, hustlers, and more.
This is clearly a pedestrian neighborhood (much of the motor traffic seems to be pass-through.) In fact I counted nearly 250 pedestrians – nearly 50% more than in Beverly Hills on a Saturday prior. (That’s even though South Santa Monica services a hotel and there is a Starbucks on the corner. Too, this is a corridor of service retailers. But still relatively little foot traffic.)
Despite more pedestrians, the mode share of cycling was surprisingly on par with that of Beverly Hills: 13% of non-motor travelers used a bike. That’s because there were more riders on Olympic too – fully 50% more than on South Santa Monica. That works out to an average of about 17 riders passing on Olympic per hour (compared to 11 on South Santa Monica).
But the big difference was the character of the riders on Olympic: 3/4 of riders used the sidewalk and fewer than 15% of them donned a helmet. (And no rider wore spandex!) More surprising was that just 1 female rider passed my station in a two hour period. Clearly this is a very different rider profile than found on the Westside! Here cycling is everyday transportation, not a pastime.
Wilshire Boulevard Through Condo Canyon: Gateway to Westwood
I counted at Wilshire and Westholm in Condo Canyon country. Here there is no commercial development so there is nothing to attract the destination rider. Except lots of apartments. Despite the density, there were very few people on the streets: not even 90 pedestrians in a two-hour stretch and just two riders passed my count line. Two! One per hour on one of the busiest boulevards for motor traffic in the region.
Few walk here because this environment is not engineered for walking. There are sidewalks, yes, but the predominant features are the driveway, port cochere, and the valet attendant. Here the auto reigns.
Of the relatively few walkers I saw, a few were missionary evangelists evidently seeking converts in the long shadows of Condo Canyon. But getting past the doorman on this stretch of un-neighborly Los Angeles is a formidable challenge.
Why do so very few riders take Wilshire? After all, the cycling mode share was just 2.2% the midday period during which I counted. Consider that Westwood is only blocks away and UCLA is just a 10-minute ride. That 2.2% pales compared to the 13% mode share on Olympic and South Santa Monica.
But ride Wilshire and you’ll understand why so few want to: it’s downright hazardous to your health!
To the east (toward Beverly Hills) is a gantlet; that no-man’s land between the country clubs is a corridor without a decent sidewalk and no shoulder for refuge. Only the fearless rider defends her right to use the entire right-hand lane when motorists pass by at high speeds too close for comfort.
To the west, Wilshire is also a speeder’s domain as hills and relatively few cross streets beg a heavy foot. Moreover, ill-advised land dedications (once required of property owners by the City of Los Angeles) have the effect of moving the curb into the roadway and back out. Rutted pavement and debris-littered drain pans force riders into the traffic flow. Cars constantly pull in and out of the driveways. And this nightmare only gets worse as one approaches the 405 because the sidewalks are impassable.
Planners and policymakers are well-advised to stand and observe for a couple of hours in any location to get a feel for the street. Few do; they take a few pictures and move on. But by moving on so quickly they give short shrift to the patterns in the environment that beg attention. For pedestrian, vehicular and bicycle flows suggest the fixes that will get us to a better urban future. No planning degree required.
For example, South Santa Monica has the bones of a true bicycle boulevard. Yet it’s nowhere near bike-friendly today. Reducing the overall demand for vehicular travel should be an objective, rather than speed pass-through traffic (which is city policy). Reduced vehicular traffic would have the ancillary benefit of taking pressure off the nearby level-of-service (LOS) grade ‘F’ intersection at Wilshire. And of course the reduced traffic volume would improve safety for all road users on this corridor too.
Reducing traffic by, say, putting a street on a ‘road diet’ is a long-term fix, sure, but failing to recognize the mobility problem won’t ever prompt Beverly Hills to adopt better transportation policies. Planners and policymakers should get in the saddle, too, if they want to appreciate the mobility barriers that today’s city presents to people who walk and ride. How will we ever get more folks riding a bicycle if we don’t make our streets more conducive to safe travel?