Uncertain Progress on the Expo Line Bikeway

Why can't safety begin with Metro?On this past Saturday’s Bike Talk podcast we took the opportunity to highlight the ongoing challenge of creating a safe and functional bikeway alongside the new Expo Line. This multi-billion dollar project will link Los Angeles and Santa Monica by rail for the first time in fifty years so that when complete the traveler can depart 7th Street/Metro station Downtown to arrive at USC, La Cienega’s gallery row, downtown Culver City, the Westside Pavilion and the 3rd Street promenade. The need to move travelers from solo-occupancy vehicle to other modes of mobility found the backing of two-thirds of voters for Measure R, but are cyclists well-served by this investment?

Cyclists have looked to Metro to create a separate cycling infrastructure adjacent to surface transit so that we can move around the greater Los Angeles region on two wheels. In fact, many cyclists might rather ride long distances on summer days under good weather than get behind the wheel for even a milk run. But we do need safe conveyance on city streets. In the best case, we will see a regional network of bikable routes take shape like the freeway system did earlier. Indeed projects like the Orange Line busway and adjacent bikeway, and now Expo and its bikeway, complement our existing regional bicycle routes along the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek. (Find them in Where to Bike Los Angeles.)

When the public spends a few billion bucks, shouldn’t safe bike routes be part of any transit project? We think so. Are public agencies and political institutions delivering? We’re not so sure, particularly where the Expo Line’s bikeway is concerned. Looking for more information, we caught up with Gary Kavanaugh and Kent Strumpell (both cyclists & advocates) to talk about the political and substantive aspects of the Expo bikeway for Bike Talk.  We checked in with Expo Construction Authority project manager Monica Born to get that organization’s view, and we spoke with Paul Backstrom, Bill Rosendahl’s transportation and planning deputy, for his perspective.

It’s Politics, Stupid! Or is it Stupid Politics?

Creating streets and facilities that are safe for cycling is not rocket science but it is not exactly simple either. The challenges are often political: motorists are a phantom constituency that our policymakers like to serve while cyclists aren’t so prominent in the policymaker’s mind. So parochial anxieties rooted in a small city like Beverly Hills can thwart safety measures like sharrows and bike lanes that might promise a greater margin of safety on congested streets.

But that policy discussion is sometimes laden with erroneous assumptions. Sentiments expressed at a May 2012 Bike Route Pilot hearing, for example, included canards like bike routes pose a threat to property values; that cycling exacerbates road conditions already “unsafe and dangerous” due to motor traffic; that residential neighborhoods are somehow not compatible with “24-7 bike routes”; and our favorite – that sharrows can cause accidents and thus precipitate lawsuits to hold the city liable. (Never mind that Caltrans approves every on-street sign, marking and treatment in California.)

In such transportation policy discussions, anecdotal observations often rule. One northside resident in that meeting was put off by the “arrogance and self-entitlement” of cyclists and he concluded, “There’s no reason to provide these people with that attitude with bike routes.”

His reasoning appears rock-solid compared to counter-intuitive claims that safety improvements give cyclists a “false sense of security.” Why? We shouldn’t feel secure on our dangerous city streets anyway. What about a claim that streets already “an absolute mess” would be made worse if sharrows were to highlight the presence of cyclists? Or that sharrows would somehow render a two-lane street like Charleville “more narrow” after the treatment? Those sentiments were expressed not by residents but by our Traffic & Parking Commissioners. The Commission Chair put a fine point on it when, just before tossing out the very routes that most needed sharrows, she said, “Certain streets weren’t designed for sharrows and bike lanes.”

Which of our region’s roads were designed for cyclists anyway? None was. The challenge is to retrofit our region for non-motor modes of mobility, of course, but neither our streets, nor our bureaucracies, were built to favor active transportation.

Now, cyclists don’t discount the challenges. Our region is crosshatched with a legacy of transportation systems layered one atop another. Our newest transit line, Expo, follows the path of an earlier streetcar (the ‘Air Line’). On a line map the route seems straightforward enough. Fitting a bikeway alongside would seem to be a cakewalk, right?

Expo Phase I line mapBut our auto-dominated street grid bedevils the project. We can elevate rail above problematic intersections, but until we elevate cyclists too, we will remain in harm’s way. We must subjugate last century’s transportation priorities (the car) to this century’s mobility demands (all modes). The challenges are great, of course, and we can meet them, but a look at the existing Expo Phase I bikeway suggests we’ve chosen not to do the political heavy lifting to ensure that cyclists have a trouble-free ride along this new rail line.

Expo rail line mapAnd more to the point, as currently proposed, we can’t help but feel that we won’t meet the challenges along Phase II between Culver City and Santa Monica if we don’t step up with engineering ideas and political mojo to get it done.

Expo Bike Bikeway Redux: Replicating Past Mistakes?

Common sense dictates that the adjacent Expo bikeway should be an integral component of the rail project – planned, funded, and constructed as part of the whole. But Phase I  delivered a bikeway that satisfies no cyclist. It feels like the afterthought where on-street sections hug the gutter and intersections present a tortured pathway through for the cyclist. Adding insult, one off-street section between La Cienega and Culver City feels like a back alley with the attendant safety concerns. The lesson? Don’t hand the project over to a design-build contractor with little experience in bike planning. Don’t whittle away at safety treatments when the budget gets tight. And most importantly, bring cyclists in from the beginning to advise.

Roundly criticized, the Phase I bikeway should have persuaded the Expo Construction Authority to handle Phase II differently. But with fully 30% of the Expo Phase II design work now complete, according to Expo Construction Authority project manager Monica Born, it appears that the same inattention that we saw earlier has compromised the design here too.

Cyclist, cycling advocate, and BAC member Gary Kavanaugh calls out the proposed Gateway-Pico crossing as emblematic of the Phase II mistakes. Consider how cyclists would have to navigate this junction according to the current design:

As presently proposed, bicyclists heading eastbound must first leave the path, and cross a crosswalk to a tiny triangular island. Then they must cross a second time along a very broad crossing this time, to get to an extended bulb out sidewalk bikeway space. They then make one final crossing at an unsignalized intersection where drivers would be making sweeping turn movements, before finally getting back to a fully separated bikeway. (The Challenge Of Getting The Expo Bikeway Done Right, Aug. 24th 2012).

Expo Pico-Gateway bikeway design proposal

A tortuous path for the hapless cyclist traversing the proposed Pico-Gateway intersection!

That’s no satisfactory engineering response to a design challenge. Rather it suggests the same kind of afterthought that characterizes the Phase I bikeway. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition in mid-August posted an ‘alert’ titled Expo Bikeway at Risk of Serious Compromise in order to focus attention on the problems. Besides the Pico-Gateway intersection, the LACBC called out:

  • Westwood, one of the busiest stations, for requiring cyclists to dismount and blend with pedestrian traffic;
  • Centinela maintenance yard planners for placing a rail support right where cyclists need to cross from the south to the north side – a reflection of design considerations that preempt cyclist needs;
  • Bikeway segments designed not to be safe owing to poor visibility (one suggested remedy: security cameras).
Expo Centinela bikeway designs

The evolution of the Centinela bikeway crossover through three iterations: the best option (center) is precluded by an poorly-placed railway support.

The Centinela crossing is worthy of singling out because the procession of designs (right) to route cyclists across the surface rail line shows how the Construction Authority’s de-prioritization of cyclist needs today will likely affect the cyclist’s experience tomorrow.

Where designers had remedied a clumsy crossing from the Spring (top) with a more fluid approach (center), by this past August’s BAC meeting the better design was jettisoned simply because the rail design places a support structure in such a way that the bikeway can’t get by (bottom).

Now we could redesign the support structure to facilitate the bikeway crossing, Kavanaugh says, but the Authority is unwilling to hump the cost. That one of the largest public works mobility projects in our region has again de-prioritized cyclists’ needs says much about the process.

It’s the Process, Stupid! Or is it the…

One critical change for this phase of construction is that an appointed Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) joined the discussion earlier this year. The promise of consensual approaches to design challenges held promise, but it came to the party late, and optimism seems to have a short half-life. (It is only August after all!)

Damien Newton, Editor of Streetsblog LA and one of seven BAC appointees, recently penned What the Heck Is Going on with the Expo Bikeway? This harsh assessment of the process asks whether the creation of this BAC “is more about controlling bike advocacy [rather] than receiving meaningful input for a safe and useful bike path.” Like the LACBC’s alert, his post is a call to arms over a series of design decisions that at every step opens wider the gap between the Construction Authority behind the project and the local governments that will manage the safety consequences.

The last leg of this stool (after process and designs) is of course the budget. The Expo Construction Authority let a sole-source contract to a design-build outfit (Skanska/Rados) to get this project done. According to Expo project manager Monica Born, the challenge is to fit design details (like the bikeway facility) to a tight budget. She assured us on Bike Talk that the contractor has staffers who are experienced in bikeway design and even they themselves like to ride a bike. That may be reassuring, but the budget is the budget and the budgeted design is likely to be the final design.

We wondered whether the BAC and the Expo Authority could resolve the issues identified by the LACBC’s alert (Westwood station, Pico Gateway, security, etc.). Was the budget  sufficiently flexible to address these concerns with better designs? Monica offered scant room for hope: the project will be what it can be on opening day, she said, and we’ll have time later to lingering safety issues. (She said that ‘betterments’ could deliver some of the improvements that cyclists care about. Betterments are locally-administered funds for improving local segments.)

When we look ahead to the Expo Phase II bikeway, aren’t we really looking backward to the Phase I bikeway missteps? The earlier contractor was criticized for insufficient bike planning expertise. The Authority was criticized for “engineering-out” safety measures because when the budget got tight. And of course the Authority was criticized for an imperious relationship with the bike community.

In Phase II we have a new contractor with broad mobility expertise, the Authority says, and we have a BAC board packed with experienced bike folks. Yet the most critical takeaway from Phase I was not heeded: opening the process up to meaningful public participation. Not merely consultation but participation.

During another era of contentious federal public investment nearly a half-century ago, Scholar Sherry Arnstein, an adviser under the Johnson Administration’s Model Cities Program, took gimlet-eyed view of federal programs and their outreach to the community. In 1969, Arnstein identified a metaphorical ‘ladder’ of participatory processes and ranked them for meaningfulness from ‘manipulation’ (at the least-effective bottom rung) to full-on citizen control at the top of the ladder. Power-sharing was true empowerment, she said;  the lower rungs merely shaded the community’s influence. Her main point:

…participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless [that] allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo.

Arnstein's ladder of participation

Degrees of participation from Arnstein’s ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’ (1969)

Are things much different today? Back then, Johnson’s administration had succeeded in opening the doors to public participation. Under Model Cities in the mid-1960s, local federally-funded projects were contingent on a required public participation element. And the program helpfully supported local groups to organize to deliver it. But the prospect of grassroots empowerment didn’t sit with local parochial interests (nor Hoover in DC) and under Nixon the opportunities for involvement were dialed way back. Washington controlled the purse strings and local governments asserted greater project control, but the grassroots were left with only street demonstrations in the shadows of mega-projects like urban renewal and freeways.

From the angst and agitation emerged a well-organized citizen militia bearing not arms but writs. They used the courts to beat back projects (think 710 freeway) and in Los Angeles succeeded in forcing the city to ‘down-zone’ citywide to match standing planning policy statements. Without access to the process through the front door, they used the backdoor of the courts to hold the city to account. When a large project like the Expo Line comes along today, neighborhoods are well-organized to lever their collective power.

Meaningful public participation must move beyond the tokenistic gesture, Arnstein says, but cyclists know that we’re not yet there with the Expo Construction Authority. The number of organized cyclists is currently too small to be threatening to policymakers. We’ve not organized ourselves to maximize political leverage. So we can stake a claim to safety, but the Expo Line’s budget and design decision-making exists in the political arena where the BAC has little juice. Or do we?

Damien’s admixture of dashed hopes and latent optimism is bittersweet. He closed his message with some perhaps unintended but metaphorically sage advice: “If the front door is locked, you might need to go around to the back of the building.” He was of course offering simple directions to access the meeting. But we cyclists would do well to apply that direction to our current situation. When the front door to meaningful participation was effectively gated, those folks back in the 1970s sought other means of access. Sometimes the back door needs only a little elbow grease and a crowbar to swing it open. Let’s learn from our recent history – namely the Phase I bikeway mistakes – and organize for a better outcome this time around.

Metro intersection safety diagram

Guidance for the cyclist? Metro thinks so. But few Expo Line bikeway intersections look like this one. Instead of the Metro slogan, “Safety Begins With You,” perhaps Metro and the Construction Authority can take a lesson from this advisory diagram. Intersections like Pico-Gateway would benefit from many of the features shown here. So we’ll turn it back to Metro: Why doesn’t bikeway safety on the Expo Line begin and end with Metro and the Expo Construction Authority chartered to build a safe facility?