Wednesday, December 23, 2009

CityWatchLA - 2009: The Year of the Bike!

CityWatch, Dec 23, 2009Vol 7 Issue 104

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We won some battles, we lost some friends. We grew as a community, we matured as a movement. We celebrated the fun, we embraced the utility, we established common ground. We made friends, we made enemies, but most of all we made progress. We rode with fear, we rode with joy, we rode with the conviction that the streets of Los Angeles belong to the people and we discovered allies of other modes who agree that it's time to take back the streets. It was 2009 and it was "The Year of the Bike!"

Los Angeles Magazine got it started in January when they asked the question "Can Bike Culture Change LA?" They sent an editor to ride the streets of LA and late on a weekend night he witnessed the LAPD pull cyclists over on a deserted street in downtown LA and cite them for not having bike licenses. This incident served as the catalyst for a group ride to the LAPD in which every single bike license was purchased, leaving the LAPD unable to fulfill its bike licensing mandate. Thus galvanized, the cyclists continued to the Transportation Committee and to the Police Commission, arguing that the enforcement of the bike licensing law was punitive and that it demonstrated bias-based policing. It took a while but the cycling community prevailed, a moratorium was declared and the LAPD was directed by Chief Bratton to stop citing cyclists for not having bike licenses. A small victory over a small ordinance but a large leap in cohesive bike activism for the community.

The Metro attempted to limit cyclists on the Metro Rail to two bikes per rail car, quietly navigating the public process and almost making it to the Metro Board before the cycling community engaged, arguing that cyclists with bikes are gap connectors and transportation solutions while the other unregulated "stuff" such as luggage, shopping carts, Christmas trees and baby strollers were allowed with no limitations. Again, the cyclists prevailed and a movement was underway.

The Transportation Committee, first under Wendy Greuel and then under Bill Rosendahl, began holding "themed" Transportation Committee meetings to engage the cycling community and to deal with the many issues that come with a shift in the consciousness of transportation professionals as multi-modal solutions become the norm instead of the exception.

Along the way, the Cyclists' Bill of Rights picked up more endorsement from neighborhood councils, stirring conversations and debates that resulted in robust discussions of mobility, access, public space, safe streets and multi-modal transportation. Assemblyman Paul Krekorian's Safe Streets bill challenged the logic behind the routine increase in speed limits and the "Good for Bikes, Good for Business" campaign picked up steam.

Tragedy struck quickly this year, it struck often and it stirred feelings of vulnerability and rage and fear and resolve.

If getting hit by a car and left in the streets by hit-and-run motorists was a disease, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) would be all over Los Angeles, declaring an epidemic and fighting to find a vaccine. But it's not a disease, it's simply the collateral damage that results from the clash of cultures as pedestrians and cyclists challenge the primacy of the motor vehicle.

Cyclists responded to tragedy by installing ghost bikes at the locations were cyclists were killed by motorists. Painted white, they memorialized the cyclist's name and date of death. As often as not, it was all that we knew about the dead cyclists but we mourned them as family and from that grieving came a resolve and a commitment to stay together.

A father and son on the LA Wheelmen's Grand Tour were hit from behind by a hit-and-run motorist who left the father dead and the son broken and bleeding. A repeat offender in Santa Clarita crossed the line and drove head on into a group of cyclists, leaving one dead and several injured before he left the scene.

300 cyclists lay down on Glendale Blvd. with their bikes for a silent "Die-In" to commemorate the death of Jesus Castillo, hit by a drunk driver and left for dead on Glendale Blvd.

Another motorist on Glendale Blvd. hit a cyclist from behind, leaving him lying in the street. The LAPD didn't find the motorist. It was the cyclist who tracked him down and then presented the evidence to the LAPD. It was the cyclist who pushed the Prosecutor to file charges. It was the cyclist who discovered the hard way, that in LA, justice is a DIY endeavor.

That sense of "We're on our own!" resulted in the establishment of as a tool for collecting anonymous hit and run tips, for mapping incidents with motorists and StolenBikeLA for reporting stolen bikes and enlisting help in their recovery. Add to that Bikely, the bike route mapping service and BikeMetro and it's evident that the real progress in the cycling community is the result of DIY work.

The cycling community's DIY spirit originated in LA's co-op bike shops which now total four with the Bike Kitchen in East Hollywood leading the way for the Bike Oven in Highland Park, the Bikerowave in West LA and the Bikery in the Valley. Along the way, the DIY movement moved past the mechanical, the legal, the educational, and the political actions and took to the streets.

Bicycling Magazine documented LA's unique brand of DIY activism, celebrating the Fletcher Bridge Bike Lanes that appeared in the middle of the night courtesy of LA's Department of DIY. The lanes didn't last long but they accomplished a couple of important things. They prompted the LADOT to respond with lightning speed to remove the guerrilla lanes, demonstrating that when the LADOT really wants to do something, it can act quickly and decisively and effectively. It also resulted in the LADOT's spokesperson going on record and revealing their attitude to cyclists in Los Angeles. "There's no more room!"

Unfunded but unfazed, the Department of DIY continued the good work, embracing Park[ing] Day LA as the occasion to unveil the Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter Community Park at the corner of Wilshire and Vermont, an event that was heralded by the Load(ing)Zone bike ride, resulting in the dispersal of seed bombs that must surely be enjoying the most recent rainfall.

The Department of DIY's most recent "volunteer" improvements to the streets of Los Angeles resulted in the installation of 16 Sharrows (shared lane markings) in the Highland Park area, an overnight action that did what the LADOT has been unable to accomplish in spite of a City Council ordinance, funding from the East Hollywood Council and the clamoring of the community. The LADOT's representative has offered many excuses, including the fact that the paint might be slippery. That must explain why the crosswalks keep disappearing throughout LA. "The paint is slippery!"

Through it all, the City of LA did their part to bring the cycling community together by presenting a Draft Bike Plan so lacking in substance that the cyclists of LA moved past complaining and simply organized the LA Bike Working Group and set out to draft LA's Best Bike Plan. The City's feeble and over-funded effort was the proverbial last straw and it was here that cyclists discovered that it is about more than the Bike Plan, it is about civic enragement turning to civic engagement. This led to the establishment of common ground and the cyclists of LA found allies in neighborhood councils who embraced the Cyclists' Bill of Rights and joined in calling for a Bike Plan that will connect our communities, not just serve as more consultant fodder to litter the planning landscape.

For all of the thrill of the DIY movement, the real cause for celebration in LA came when the system worked, when the courts and the police and the community all worked together to deliver justice, embracing the simple fact that cyclists are people and when a motorist uses a car as a weapon, they have committed a crime.

Dr. Christopher Thompson, the emergency room doctor who used his car as a weapon against two cyclists in order "to teach them a lesson," went on trial and ended up guilty of six felonies and one misdemeanor, held without bail for sentencing and demonstrating once and for all that the system sometimes works. While Dr. Thompson still faces sentencing, the verdict alone was cause for celebration around the world and it gave hope to the cycling community that no longer would "They had it coming!" be accepted as a defense against charges of mayhem on the streets.

Through it all, we learned that riding a bike in LA is not about riding a bike, it's about creating community, it's about opening streets to people, it's about celebrating public space and it's about changing the world. To think, it all started with a simple bike ride!

The year 2009 closed with LA's Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa using the word bicycle in a sentence. He said, in an interview with KPCC's Patt Morrison, "In the area of bicycling I've gotta do a better job and the city's gotta do a better job." Finally, something we can agree on!

As we look forward to 2010, the Mayor's words are soft and hardly the substance of a battle cry, but they work. They work for all of us and they work in all endeavors.

"In 2010, we've gotta do a better job!"

(Stephen Box is a cyclist advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at

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