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By Frank Gruber
July 25, 2011 – Last week’s column in the aftermath of Carmegeddon-Not was about transportation in the mega and macro, about billion-dollar projects and freeways and mass transit, but this week’s will be about transportation at a more intimate level – it's about bikes.
Cycling has been in the news lately. Over the past few months Santa Monica has developed plans to increase the network of bike lanes in downtown, and the Lookout just reported on the potential of bringing bike-sharing to Santa Monica. (See Santa Monicans Discuss Possibility of Bike Share System , July 22, 201.)
Last week the L.A. City Council passed a law banning harassment of cyclists by motorists.
These developments reflect two trends, one leading to the other -- a significant increase in bicycle riding in the region and a concomitant increase in political activism among cyclists.
I moved my office to downtown Santa Monica in 1994, and I’ve been a bicycle commuter ever since. Beyond my commute, I am convinced that for most trips cycling is the best way to get around Santa Monica, assuming you’re in even moderately good physical condition.
I’m tired of the “Good for you’s” I hear when people learn that I ride a bike. I don’t ride a bike because I’m trying to be virtuous or environmentally conscious, or even for the exercise. I ride because (i) I get to my destination reasonably quick, without having to deal with traffic congestion or parking, and (ii) it’s fun. Santa Monica is largely flat, and usually the weather is perfect for cycling.
Yes, I’m aware that you can’t ride a bike to do a big shopping.
According to census figures reported in the Los Angeles Times last week, commuting by bike increased 48 percent in Los Angeles between 2000 and 2008. Having cycled Santa Monica for nearly 20 years, I am not surprised -- it amazes me these days, compared to years past, how often it is that when I pull up at a red light on my bike there are three or four other cyclists there waiting for a green.
The break point seemed to be when gasoline prices first went up a few years ago, but since most bike trips are not for long distances, the increased cost of driving can’t be the whole story. There’s something cultural going on; the latest trend I’ve noticed is young people on bikes with yoga mats under their arms.
There is a paradox about cycling, which is that those of us who ride our bikes around town feel generally safe doing so, but nearly everyone I know who rides a lot has had at least one serious accident. A few years ago I hit something (don’t know what but probably bad road-surface) and ended up in the hospital for two days. The doctor told me I’d have died but for my helmet.
Naturally, then, I wear a helmet religiously, but I’m not surprised when I see cyclists bare-headed, because when you’re riding you feel safe, or at least you should feel safe if you’re riding safely, which means following the rules of the road.
With the increase in cyclists on the road, there have been more conflicts between cyclists and motorists and, when cyclists ride on sidewalks, between them and pedestrians. The L.A. anti-harassment law passed last week reflects the first conflict. Reflecting the second was the action the Santa Monica City Council took last year to reduce the penalty for riding on the sidewalk with the idea that if the penalty were more reasonable, the police would give citations to violators more often. (See Sidewalk Bike_Riding Could be Infraction, November 29, 2010.)
It goes without saying that both motorists and cyclists should share the road and follow the rules, giving safety the highest priority, but it is equally plain that there is no moral equivalence between a cyclist riding dangerously in the street and a motorist driving dangerously -- the cyclist endangers himself, while the motorist endangers others.
But the same goes when an adult cyclist rides on the sidewalk -- except this time it’s the cyclist who endangers someone else. (Not to mention that it is also dangerous for the cyclist, inasmuch as data show that it’s safer to ride in the street, where motorists can see you, than it is to ride on the sidewalk and then show up unpredictably in intersections. Reckless cyclists also contribute to the attitude, dangerous for other cyclists, that everyone who rides a bike is crazy.)
If cyclists want to create an environment of respect on the road, then they (and I include myself in that “they”) should spend as much time creating a code and culture of good conduct among cyclists as they spend trying to make motorists drive more safely, as the one will lead to the other. Cyclists themselves should be telling cyclists to obey traffic rules and to stay off sidewalks.
This reminds me of something else that used to take place regularly on sidewalks until people decided to demand better conduct from others and from themselves: namely the change that’s taken place over 30 years when it comes to dog owners cleaning up after their pets. What began as a movement against dog-owners became a movement among dog-owners. Although there are still violators, our sidewalks are a lot cleaner than they used to be, and dog owners receive more respect from non-dog-owners.
Cyclists need to do the same thing. They need to let it be known that they, more than anyone else, expect cyclists to obey the law and ride responsibly. When they do that, it will be easier for them to obtain the changes in conduct and street design that they want to make cycling safer in the city.
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