Car Capital Los Angeles goes Bike


If you have had the pleasure of visiting California and Los Angeles in particular, you surely noticed the multi-lane expressways for the vast numbers of cars, along with the enormous rush hour traffic jams. Los Angeles gave the impression of being one of the last cities on earth that would plan the moves to being bike friendly.

In a move that could have been an unexpected twist in a Hollywood movie, LA has adopted “Mobility Plan 2035”, which will mean 300 miles of bike lanes, and over 100 miles of bus-only lanes and other road designs, some of which are aimed to reduce traffic speed and thereby the fatality rate from collisions.

As David Zahniser so pithily put it in the LA Times “over the decades, Los Angeles has bulldozed homes, paved through tranquil canyons, toppled countless trees and even flattened some hillsides, all in the name of keeping automobile traffic flowing as fast as possible”. So the Mobility Plan 2035 is a major change for a city so closely identified with cars.

Yet another planning department has recognised thatthe old way of building ever more road space is not a viable option.

The council vote was a resounding 12-2 in favour and was welcomed by transit advocates and, importantly, by business organisations, who recognise the plan’s significance for people who want to walk, bike and use public transport. But California also appears to have its share of people whose mindset is fixed in the past and are wedded to the belief that they should be able to drive everywhere and speed limits shouldn’t apply to them, and are threatening a legal challenge. One of their concerns is that the loss of car lanes will lead to congestion and delays by emergency vehicles, despite evidence on the far side of the USA in New York that turning some car lanes into protected bike lanes has brought about less congestion and higher traffic speeds – as well as an increase in retail business.

Los Angeles also has its own evidence of what this type of change can mean, when residents cut down on car travel during the 1984 Olympics held in that city, and traffic eased despite a temporary increase in the travelling public. Councilmember Mike Bonin said “these are the changes that residents need to have walking, biking and transit be safe and convenient choices”.

The General Manager of the LA Department of Transport, Seleta Reynolds, indicated that one of the objectives of the plan is to cut 1.7 million vehicle miles per day within 20 years. If successful, that should bring about a very worthwhile reduction in LA’s infamous smog.

California has already taken some significant steps against car culture. While there is some dispute about where the first American Drive-Thru was, one contender is Baldwin Park, around 20km East of LA. Baldwin Park was then the first place to ban Drive-Thru’s in 2010, partly in a drive against obesity, but also to reduce pollution. Stationary vehicles are by definition getting 0 mpg and puffing out emissions to no effect – a reason why countries like Germany and Austria introduced at least 2 decades ago a requirement to switch off the engine while waiting at a number of level crossings and so on. I’m pleased to have gone on record as voting against a drive thru in Ipswich for these reasons 4 years ago, but disappointed that I was outvoted by every other councillor.

So, as we add Los Angeles to the growing list of cities around the world that are moving towards cycling infrastructure, we have to wonder how long it will take to get through to the councillors in our area. The typical councillor according to the Local Government Association is male, white, and in their 60s. Is this the type of person who is set in their car-oriented ways? Will they get out of the rut and make the changes that are needed? Given that Norfolk County Council wants to spend an additional £30 million, on top of the £86 million already calculated, to achieve a bypass for just part of Norwich, you have to wonder. Just think what they could achieve with part of that money by copying Los Angeles, and making the city more like Copenhagen or Amsterdam or Münster (or New York, or Paris, or Dublin, or Barcelona, or a whole list of other cities around the world).


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