How Do We Take Advocacy to the Next Step?

Bikeside bikemap screenshot

Bikeside’s bikemap mashes up reported collisions with geography using a timeline slider.

Recently we received an online survey invitation from Bikeside, the LA-based bike advocacy organization that brings data smarts and mashup skills to its quest for safer streets in the region. Bikeside organizers Alex Thompson and Mihai Peteu (among others) have been on our radar for years for advocating real-world pro-bike improvements and also more accountability in the political sphere, where decisions are taken and resources apportioned. This survey plies the seam between those worlds. It asks your opinion: How can we make it more bike-friendly? Take a minute to register your view.

Bikeside first came to our attention when it called out Beverly Hills for obstructing progress on the proposed regional backbone bike network. In a Bikeside post titled, ‘Why Los Angeles Sucks’ Mihai Peteu wondered why bike lanes end when they meet Beverly Hills. We wondered too. And he asked why inequality reigns between hills and flats neighborhood and why in our “shitty city” we must settle for an environment that doesn’t serve us. “Why does my daily commute to work feel so unsafe?” he asked.

His “recurring feeling that something’s not right” in town echoed our own observations. Merely cycling the streets can encourage an adversarial perspective. And those of us in the flats (even in BH) do seem to have it worse. Mihai had no ready answers for us, though.  “If you want nice clean historical reasons why Los Angeles is so sub-par for pretty much everyone but those living up in the hills,” he said, “read a Mike Davis book.”

Is this simply another case Los Angeles exceptionalism? The region that sets a bar high for reaching new lows in banality? Will something better than the ‘shitty city’ always elude us? If reverse engineering the safe streets of Boulder, Davis and Portland hasn’t yet worked here, what kind of planning alchemy do we need?

That’s why we were especially interested to provide our perspective when the Bikeside bike-friendly city survey invitation popped into our inbox. And question #7 particularly caught our eye:

We’d love to hear your perspective on bike friendliness in Los Angeles and what, if anything, ought to be done.

(Emphasis is ours.) The appeal carries a hint of resignation, doesn’t it? But it also holds out hope that we can do better.

Land of the Skeptics

What would make our streets safer for bike riders? We could address our poorly-marked intersections and deploy better pavement markings and even bike signals like other cities do. We could reduce speed limits on arterial roads and enforce them rather than adhere to the 85% rule that lets speeding motorists set the limits. We could also create on-street bike lanes to separate human-powered from motor-powered modes or better yet, create bicycle boulevards to make riding more enjoyable. And of course we could introduce ‘road diets’ to make space for cyclists and slow traffic.

Such tactics require a culture change in city hall and reforms in how our departments of transportation view road safety. We’re clear on the challenge because we participated in the poorly-managed Beverly Hills Pilot program.  We suggested to transportation officials that they need to educate cyclists and motorists alike about sharing the road. (After all, isn’t it a professional responsibility?) We’ve even contacted our school district about bike-friendly improvements. But we’re simply striking out.

Part of the challenge is that we have no compelling image to offer officials or residents when we advocate for ‘bike-friendly.’ To most folks, it may suggest a bike lane here or there and even the loss of a travel lane. To shop owners it may suggest curbside parking will vanish. To the skeptical public, ‘bike-friendly’ is simply a giveaway to the “bike lobby.” (Yes it’s been so called.)

Our job is to argue that ‘bike-friendly’ means a safe trip to school and a convenient ride to the store. Tipping the balance in favor of two-wheeled trips means giving people a reason to believe that ‘bike-friendly’ can materially change the city of old.

We Need New Mental Maps

Bike Backbone Network map

The bike backbone network

Question #7 made us think again about the bicycle backbone network. Practically speaking, the backbone is simply a network of connecting bikeways that connect the far-flung and disparate areas of the region together. But the backbone is also a conceptual grab handle for envisioning a region re-engineered for two-wheeled mobility. It communicates the scale of our ambition and suggests the magnitude of the effort necessary. It’s the only tangible representation of what a future bikeable region will look like.

If we present it to the public, we’re asking them to reconcile it with their own mental map: the region of freeways and major boulevards. We’re asking them to adjust their mental maps of the Los Angeles area. We’re asking the public to believe ‘bike-friendly’ is no giveaway but instead is a step into the post-auto tomorrow. That it could be.

But the backbone is not only conceptual; it is also a readymade frame into which we can plug-in modular, bike-friendly constituent elements:

  • Jobs centers and commercial districts planned to include ample bicycle parking and project-level facilities and incentive programs that reward employees for riding to work;
  • Corridors marked for segregated cycling and punctuated by intersections engineered for safe transit to tie our neighborhoods together;
  • Residential neighborhoods that incorporate signage and sharrows to encourage local trips like school-to-home travel by bike; and,
  • Mass transit ‘bike hubs’ to anchor that first/last mile trip for bike commuters.

While such principles inform planning in some cities, they’ve yet to percolate through general plans of most cities. The backbone is the meta mental map of the bike-friendly Los Angeles of tomorrow.

New Mental Maps of the Bike-Friendly City?

Kevin Lynch Image of the City coverThe concept of the mental map takes off from the work of Kevin Lynch‘s Image of the City, an empirical study into how we organize our understanding of the urban environment according to landmarks, paths, nodes, and districts. We construct a ‘mental map’ of our neighborhood or city, Lynch found in his research, and by asking about it identified the key components that help make the city’s geography understood. Lynch then he turned around his findings to guide planning practitioners with a toolbox of concepts.

Kevin Lynch Image of the City illustration

Kevin Lynch asked people to identify the defining characteristics of their neighborhood to determine the composite elements of the city

Lynch’s findings are relevant to us in part because his research into the postwar urban environment suggested the extent to which our mental maps are structured by the street grid. Whether driver, pedestrian, or even transit taker, it seems that our mental maps have formed according to where we needed to go. On that armature we hang our landmarks.

Mental maps drawn by citizens

Consider these mental maps pulled from a Los Angeles planning document from 1971. Each of us holds in our mind a different concept of city space, yet often they are structured by the street network.

Seen in this context, against the mental map of the auto-era city, the road diet presents the threat of disruption like a wrinkle in the public’s mental map. And are those mental maps inflexible! Witness the discord over the Wilbur bike lane in the San Fernando Valley or the recent Westside brou-ha-ha around Westwood Boulevard bike improvements. Perhaps our mental maps are rigid simply because they have adopted the engineered streetscape as a template. The arterials and collectors become the paths in our own maps. The traffic engineers have organized our cognitive conception of urban space too.

In contrast, the rider’s mental map must adapt given our choice of mode. Regular riders continually fashion new maps to organize the city according to preferred routes while taking into account safety and topography. We like see a very different city than does the driver. (Maybe that’s why we enjoy talking about our preferred routes. We’re always looking for a better mental map.)

Our challenge is to persuade the public to reorganize their mental maps to accommodate to our changing transportation needs. But is it impractical to ask Joan Q. Public to set aside her map without a compelling replacement? When we talk about bike lanes and road diets, she probably sees only sacrifice. What do we have to offer to suggest what a bike-friendly future looks like? It has to be a compelling vision, and it has to be at a larger scale than just one city.

For example, we know that riding from Westwood to Silverlake is possible – even preferable – to driving. Our job is to show how traversing Condo Canyon and the country club need not a death-defying gantlet but can be a scenic descent into Beverly Hills with the right infrastructure. That she can take the Santa Monica Boulevard ‘bikeway-to-the-sea’ through Beverly Hills (or alternately the newly-bike-friendly Little Santa Monica through the business triangle for a lunch stop). That her safe trip across Beverly Blvd. puts her on a scenic climb up Silverlake Blvd – bike lanes all the way.

None of that infrastructure exists today, but we need to suggest that it will when we ask for a road diet or more spending on bike routes relative to other needs. We need to conjure in the collective mind a better mental map where the bike backbone is the organizing principle and bike-friendly improvements and corridors are the plug-ins. That’s at least how we answered survey question #7.

The good news is that the collective consciousness about resource scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions and mobility options has created an opportunity to revise that old mental map for a new map reflecting our post-auto Los Angeles of tomorrow. That’s the only way we’ll find our way out of the ‘shitty city,’ we think, but we’ve not done that communicative work yet.