Sunday, June 13, 2010

How Embarrassing! LA's new Sharrows misplaced by LADOT's Bikeways Department

The LADOT's Bikeways Department just blew their biggest opportunity at relevance by misplacing LA's first official Sharrows, revealing an LADOT adherence to the mythology of "Ride to the Right" cycling instead of the safer and more effective "Ride Where it's Right" mandate.

News that Sharrows were actually going down on East Hollywood's Fountain Ave. prompted tweets of celebration and blog posts memorializing the long overdue implementation of the simple street marking that is meant to direct cyclists to the correct lane position and alert motorists to the appropriate location for cyclists. Unfortunately, the news was tempered by the revelation that the LADOT Bikeways Department failed to place the Sharrows in the correct position.

The Shared Roadway Bicycle Marking is intended to:

1) Reduce the chance of bicyclists impacting open doors of parked vehicles on a shared roadway with on-street parallel parking.

2) Alert road users within a narrow traveled way of the lateral location where bicyclists ride.

3) Be used only on roadways without striped bicycle lanes or shoulders.

Fountain avenue is a narrow roadway with parking on both sides and one lane of traffic in each direction. The street is approximately 40' wide allowing for 8' of parking lane and 12' of travel lane. The Sharrows are positioned a consistent 12' from the curb face, meaning that the right edge is 10'4" from the curb and the left edge is 13'8" from the curb face. This position if incorrect for the following reasons.

1) The current position does not direct cyclists to the correct lane position in order to avoid the door zone. The correct position for a effective Sharrow would then be 8' for the parking lane plus 5' for the door of a Suburban for a curb face to Sharrow centerline distance of 13'.

2) The current position does not direct cyclists to the correct position for a non-sharable lane. At 12' in width, Fountain Ave. is non-sharable for a motorist and a cyclist, meaning that a cyclist should "control" the lane by riding in the center of the travel lane, in between the tire tracks of the motor vehicles. The correct position for the cyclist and for an effective Sharrow would then be in the center of the travel lane which would then be 8" for the parking lane plus half the travel lane of 12' for a total of a curb face to Sharrow centerline distance of 14'.

3) The current position does not alert motorists to the correct lane position of cyclists and instead communicates that on a narrow lane, cyclists belong to the right and out of the way of motor vehicle traffic. This is incorrect and dangerous, encouraging motorists to drive side by side with cyclists, even when there is no room.

While other cities have moved quickly to place Sharrows (a simple roadway marking that communicates correct lane position to cyclists and alerts motorists to the appropriate integration of cyclists into the traffic mix) on their streets, Los Angeles has taken its time, lots of time, so much time that one would think that the resulting program would be worthy of the years of debates, research, planning, fine-tuning and funding but such was not the case.

This past Friday the LADOT, the Bureau of Street Services, and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition were all joined by City Council President Eric Garcetti in what should have been a defining moment, the advent of a new era of traffic engineering for Los Angeles that facilitates and supports safe and effective cycling as a valid transportation choice but such was not the case.

Granted, lots of Sharrows were laid down on Fountain Ave., between Western and Vermont, directing cyclists and alerting motorists and demonstrating the unique City of LA support for cyclists that has prompted Bicycling Magazine to refer to LA as a city with "great potential for biking." Lots of promise but not much in the way of results.

LA's Sharrows program didn't happen overnight, it came into existence with a great deal of struggle, relying on community support, regional planning (SCAG) support, planning consultant (Alta Planning) support, private foundation (Bohnett Foundation) support, neighborhood council (EHNC) support, and city council (Garcetti/Rosendahl) support. All of which makes it harder to understand how the simple placement of the Fountain Ave. Sharrows could go so wrong, yet that's what happened and it is significant for several reasons.

1) It demonstrates the complete ineptitude of the LADOT's Bikeways Department.

2) It jeopardizes LA's nascent Sharrows program by engineering conflict and positioning the project for failure.

3) It establishes a standard for mediocrity that sets the course for the implementation of future engineering innovations.

4) It damages relationships, betraying the confidence of the City Council President, the Southern California Association of Governments, the Bohnett Foundation, the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and LA's cycling community.

5) It squanders precious resources at a time when the City of LA can least afford it, all on a simple project that now moves forward with an inflated pricetag and limited efficacy. 

The issue of the misplaced Sharrows is simple, Fountain Ave. is a narrow local street with on-street parking and one lane of traffic in each direction. There are abundant driveways on the short stretch between Western and Vermont, each one representing a conflict point that cyclists should avoid. In addition, the street has some potholes, nothing new in LA, but each one representing an obstacle that a cyclist should also avoid. The narrow width of the travel lane (12') and a cyclist's need to control the lane to prevent motorists from squeezing by on the left are all indicators that the correct position for a cyclist on Fountain Ave. is in the center of the travel lane, between the tire tracks of the motor vehicle traffic.

The LADOT's Bikeways Department has put cyclists in a tough position:

1) Ignore the placement of the Sharrows and "Ride Where It's Right" but incur the wrath of the motorists who expect cyclists to follow the position of the Sharrow?

2) "Ride to the Right" and give up control of the lane, getting squeezed by motorists on the left, watching doors on the right, all while invisible to motorists exiting the adjacent driveways?

3) Evaluate the LADOT Bikeways implementation of the Sharrows program and objectively measure it against successful programs, further alienating a city department that has long ago given up any pretense of benefiting the community it purportedly serves?

4) Lower the standard and accept mediocrity as the Sharrows program standard and prepare for the further implementation of ineffective and unsafe Sharrows?

There are many who will argue "You know, they don't look that bad!" In fact, the LADOT's implementation partners have already circled the wagons, looking for examples elsewhere of Sharrows that are even closer to the curb line. None of which is responsive to the basic charge, that the Sharrows are too far from the left and that they move the cyclist out of correct lane control position. The centerline of the Fountain Ave. Sharrows are 12' from the curb face, 11' is the minimum. At issue here is not the distance from the curb (although it is a problem) but the distance from the centerline of the street. The edge of the Sharrow is ~7' from the center of the street, just enough distance to allow a motorist to think that squeezing through is acceptable. It isn't. The best way to avoid getting squeezed is to control the lane which would put the cyclist down the center of the lane, not to the right.

Saddest of all is the simple fact that apologists for the LADOT Bikeways Department would consider offering the "Not that Bad!" argument for the Fountain Ave. Sharrows while a city such as Long Beach rallies around their battle cry of "The most bicycle friendly city in the country!"

Charlie Gandy, Mobility Coordinator for Long Beach and the force behind the award winning Green Lane Sharrows, says "If the street isn't 14' then it needs to be shared one in front of the other, not side by side, it's all about safety." Charlie refers to the correct Sharrow position as being in the center of the lane and believes that Sharrows should be an invitation to ride, not an instruction to get out of the way.

John Fisher, Assistant General Manager of the LADOT and a member of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and of the California Traffic Control Devices Committee, referred to the positioning of the Sharrows as a Bikeways Department decision but pointed out "From a maintenance standpoint, it would be more effective to put them in the center of the lane so they last longer."

David Bell, President of the East Hollywood NC, said "It would be great to celebrate the arrival of the Sharrows in East Hollywood but unfortunately, the failure to properly implement the Sharrows Pilot Project demonstrates the need for standards and professional oversight."

Michael Bluejay, in his excellent "How to Not Get Hit by Cars" article, says "if you ride to  the right, someone exiting a parked car could open their door right in front of you, and you'll be less visible to motorists pulling out of driveways and parking lots, and motorists coming from behind may pass you way too closely in the same lane because you didn't make them change lanes."

Ron Durgin, President of Sustainable Streets and a LAB Certified Instructor, says a cyclist's first responsibility is their personal safety and that maintaining a confident and consistent lane position is an important technique for controlling the lane and for communicating with other road users. "If the lane is 13 feet wide or narrower, it's generally not shareable and you're best off claiming your legal right to the entire lane. If you give cars the space, the average driver will take it and then you get squeezed," he says.

Dan Gutierrez, League of American Bicyclists instructor and creator of the Cyclist View training program has developed extensive materials that all demonstrate that importance of good lane positioning as a basic tool for the most safe and effective integration of cyclists into the traffic mix. Dan calls for Sharrows at a minimum of 13' from the curb face and also considers the resulting lane position as a mitigating factor when positioning Sharrows. Attached is a Door Zone diagram that demonstrates 13' as the minimum centerline position for cyclists.

 Courtesy of CABO District 7 Director Dan Gutierrez (

This simple event on the streets of East Hollywood is reminiscent of the story of the Scorpion and the Frog. In the tale, a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too." The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp "Why?" The scorpion replies, "It's my nature..."

The LADOT's Bikeways Department (the Scorpion) has a horrendously poor track record for the successful implementation of bikeways projects and programs in the City of Los Angeles, laying down 1 mile of bike path, 4 miles of bike lane and 0.5 miles of bike route per year for the last 15 years. Why would the cycling community (the Frog) trust Bikeways to properly implement the Sharrows program? Because, logic would dictate that Bikeways can't fail the cycling community without failing the LADOT. The public, like the Frog, was satisfied.

Yet, the LADOT's Bikeways Department delivered another stinker, just like the long overdue Proposed Bike Plan, just like the Topanga Canyon Bike Lanes, just like the dormant Bike Parking program. The LADOT's Bikeways Department is big on talk, bigger on attending daytime meetings, much bigger on reports and analysis and studies, but grossly disappointing when it comes to delivery. Based on results, often harsh but always fair, the LADOT Bikeways Department has a legacy of failure. "Why?" The LADOT Bikeways Department replies, "It's my nature..."

The LADOT's Bikeways Department is not part of Operations. It is part of Capital Funding. It's purpose is to fund, not implement. Look at the $1.25 million that was secured by Bikeways as funding for cycling improvements on the Fletcher Bridge. Once the money was awarded, the Bikeways Department went to work moving the money to a different bridge widening project. The cycling community of LA serves as a funding source, not as a constituent group served by the LADOT. Bikeways serves as a funding tool, it exists in order to fund its existence.

The first Sharrow installed in Fountain leads cyclists directly to the upcoming pothole, one of many that lie along the right tire track of the motor vehicle traffic, another reason to move the Sharrows so that they position cyclists in the center of the lane, not the right side.

At the end of the day, these Sharrows belong to the people of Los Angeles. So do the streets themselves. And yet, somehow, the LADOT's Bikeways Department, Alta Planning, and the LA County Bicycle Coalition have managed to work together for a significant amount of time, avoiding the public process on the actual placement of the Sharrows (not just the streets but the actual position on the street) and without the oversight of the Caltrans 7 Bicycle Advisory Committee or the LA Bicycle Advisory Committee or the public in general on the placement of the Sharrows.

When the campaign coordinator for the LACBC was asked how the decision on the location for the Sharrows was made, she said didn't know who made the decision on the location nor did she know how it was made. Is the LACBC simply hired as a bikewashing cover for the same old ineffective LADOT Bikeways behavior?

When Hermosa Beach put down their Sharrows, they spend about $2K. When Los Angeles put down three times as many Sharrows, it took an estimated budget of $100K. All that money spent on research and planning and preparation and implementation and yet the LADOT Bikeways failed to accomplish the three goals of a Sharrow. (Get cyclists out of the door zone, position cyclists in the center of a non-sharable lane, communicate clearly to motorists the correct position of a cyclist on a narrow lane)

Welcome to Los Angeles, the city where "almost" is not only an engineering standard, it's an acceptable performance standard for city staff and it's our current status as a Great City.


Ron Durgin: said...

That second video (Bad Positioning) shows just how tight it will be for cyclists riding over the center of the Sharrow while sharing the lane, side by side, with a medium sized sedan. I'd hate to be in that position when its an Escalade or Yukon or some other typical giant urban assault vehicle. Not to mention, many people (cyclists) will be inclined to ride on the right edge of the Sharrow, complicating the situation even further by inviting side by side "squeezing" and possible dooring at the same time from an improperly aligned symbol.

To me this demonstrates a clear lack of commitment by LA to accommodate safe travel for cyclists'. And why does it cost more than ten-fold in LA over what other cities pay for similar street treatments? I'd also like to see LACBC take a critical review instead of cheerleading on the sidelines. Thanks again Stephen for taking your personal time to inform the people about yet another mediocre LA Bikeways implementation.

Erik G. said...

Fountain Avenue is an arterial.
Arterials are roads intended to move goods and people.
Explain to me again why we allow free storage of private property (a.k.a. "parking") on an arterial road?
No parking = plenty of space for sharrows or even a Copenhagen style cycle-track.