How to play in the street — Part 1: learn where to ride

June 30, 2009

My school had a good driver’s education program when I learned to drive, with emphasis on defensive driving techniques. And my father was recruited by the local community college to teach a defensive driving course after he retired from his job as a rural letter carrier.

So from an early age, traffic safety was drilled into my head. Along with the fact that no one can control what other people do behind the wheel, so you have to anticipate their actions and be prepared for anything.

When I took up cycling, I quickly learned that beginning riders weren’t exactly welcome on busy streets. And that my survival depended on learning how to apply those defensive driving techniques to two wheels instead of four.

Evidently, it worked, since I’m still here after 29 years of mostly urban riding — including 19 right here in Los Angeles. Over the coming days, I’m going to share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Starting with where to ride. And where not to.

Choose your battles

California law gives you the right to ride on any street, with exception of most freeways. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to casually cruise Wilshire Boulevard at rush hour. Yes, you have every right to be there, and drivers are required to share the road. But having that right doesn’t mean that drivers fighting their way through heavy traffic will be looking for you, or be willing to share the lane if they do — regardless of the law. If you’re a strong rider, you can usually pull it off; if not, you may want to look for alternate routes.

Try a little something on the side

Maybe you already know how to get where you’re going. But roads that might be fine behind the wheel aren’t always the best ones to take when you’re in the saddle (see above). Usually though, there’s a perfectly fine alternate route within a few blocks of the main road — one with little traffic and lots of room for riding that goes exactly where you want to go. For instance, I frequently see unskilled cyclists plodding along Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica on their way to the beach or the Promenade. Yet if they went just one block in either direction, they’d find a quiet street with a marked bike lane most of their way. Sure, you might have to deal with more stop signs. But that beats the hell out of dealing with an impatient bus driver running up your ass.

Consider your skill level

Sometimes though, the main streets may seem like the best choice, for whatever reason — despite the heavy and often unforgiving traffic. So look for streets that offer a marked bike lane, a wide smooth shoulder or a wide parking lane with room to avoid being doored. And consider your skill level before you decide where to ride. If you’re a beginning rider, or someone who only rides to the beach or the bookstore every now and then, you’re probably better off avoiding busy streets where you’ll have to ride in the traffic lane.

Practice the rule of 10 – 15

Over the years, I’ve found that relative speed is one of the most important factors in traffic safety. If you can ride reasonably close to the speed of traffic when you take the lane, drivers will usually accept you as part of traffic, willingly or not. But if you ride too slow for traffic, you become an obstacle, and the risk of danger increases dramatically. (Again, I’m not talking about what’s legal or right; I’m talking about what’s safe, given the realities of today’s over-crowded roadways.)

My rule of thumb is that I’ll consider roads where I have to take the lane if I can ride within 15 mph of the speed of traffic. With a cruising speed of 20 mph, that means I’m comfortable taking a lane for long stretches on streets where traffic flows at up to 35. But remember — that’s the speed of traffic, not the speed limit. On Olympic Blvd near my home, traffic frequently flows at 50 – 60 mph, even though the speed limit is just 35. If you’re not skilled or comfortable in traffic, use the 10 mph limit instead.

Learn to turn

If you’re still using your handlebars to turn, you don’t belong on busy streets. Your handlebars are great for going straight, but slow and inefficient method for turning — making you a hazard to yourself and those around you if you need to move quickly. So learn to turn by shifting your weight slightly in the direction you want to go. Shifting to the right will move your bike right, and vice versa, slight shift in the opposite direction will put you back on course. Find a quiet street or parking lot to practice until you feel comfortable. And before you hit the streets.

………

Stephen Box picks up the story of fellow Wheelman Rod Armas’ tragic death on PCH this past weekend, filling in the details and arguing that something has to be done. The best named bike shop in town gets new racers in stock. In case you missed it, a New York cyclist is intentionally doored by an SUV driver, then charged with causing damage to his vehicle. A Florida driver hits a cyclist, and drives off laughing. Korea plans bike-only subway cars. A 68 year-old cyclist says he’ll quit when it isn’t fun anymore. And finally, a Missouri writer argues that shared lanes should be painted red to hide the blood.


Evidently, another drunk driver and dead cyclist just isn’t a big deal

June 29, 2009

Last Thursday, my wife had the day off, so we decided to run a few errands in Westwood that afternoon. As soon as we stepped out of her car, we noticed the helicopters overhead.

For the uninitiated, there is a code to interpreting helicopters in L.A. One, flying low and circling, is probably a police helicopter responding to a crime report or looking for a suspect. Two or more, flying high and stationary, means news copters covering a story; the more helicopters, the bigger the story.

And one low circling helicopter combined with two or more stationary helicopters mean you probably shouldn’t go outside for awhile.

Clearly, though, something important was happening — confirmed by the presence of over a dozen news vans and satellite trucks parked near the new UCLA hospital. It was only later that we discovered that Michael Jackson had died less than a block from where we were parked, at almost the same moment we arrived.

By the time we got home, a full blown media frenzy had broken, unleashing a tsunami of all things Jackson.

It’s not that the coverage was undeserved. He had been, and clearly still was, a beloved figure, at one time the most important performer of his era. And he died on the cusp of a comeback that could returned him to prominence for his music, rather than the flurry of tabloid reports of recent years.

Yet that tidal wave of coverage swept aside all other news in its path. Including the death of a cyclist early Sunday morning, as well as his critically injured son who was taken to the same hospital where Jackson died.

I heard about the death early in the day on Sunday, but wasn’t able to learn much more than the minimal details included in that report. Finally, today I was able to learn a little more, thanks to the Ventura County Star.

An L.A. County probation officer named Rod Armas, a resident of Kern County, was the cyclist killed; his 14-year old son suffered numerous broken bones but is expected to survive. In addition to his son, he leaves behind a wife and two daughters; my heart and prayers go out to them.

They were struck while on the final leg of a double century sponsored by the Los Angeles Wheelmen. And the human waste of space allegedly responsible is being held on $100,000 bail.

I’m sure we’ll learn more soon as word spreads and the local blogosphere fills in the gaps, and those who knew him begin to address their loss.

But it’s shameful that the local media couldn’t interrupt their breathless coverage of the most minute and mundane details of Michael Jackson’s life and death to make a few phone calls to fill in the blanks in the AP report. Or mention Armas’ tragic death at all.

Then again, it was just another dead cyclist.

And another drunk hit-and-run driver.

………

Alex metaphorically beats his chest after dropping another rider. Will pays his dues for rolling through a stop sign, and gets a mention in New York Magazine for his touching story of meeting Farah Fawcett. GT in LA falls out of love with his bike. Streetsblog wants to know where LADOT should do more workshops on the bike plan. Ensie offers photographic proof of new much needed bike lockers on the Orange Line. A writer with the Downtown News explores L.A.’s reviving downtown by bike, and should have a new stretch of the L.A. River Bike Path to enjoy soon. And finally, the Atlantic day dreams about bike-only roads, while Russ Roca covers the unofficial and official unveilings of the new Long Beach sharrows, though not everyone shares the love; maybe they could tell LADOT what kind of paint they used.


The amulet from which I gain my super powers

June 25, 2009

It was probably the funniest book I’ve ever read.

Madonna del Ghisallo medal, which currently resides in my pocket when I ride, until I get a stronger chain

Madonna del Ghisallo medal, which will reside in my pocket when I ride, until I get a stronger chain

Not the best book. Not even the best funny book. That would probably be Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or maybe its sequel Sweet Thursday, though Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 wouldn’t be far behind.

But hands down, the laugh-out-loud funniest pages I’ve ever turned were between the covers of A. C. Weisbecker’s Cosmic Banditos. To over simplify the synopsis, it’s the story of a couple of small time drug smugglers who stumble across a collection of physics textbooks, and decide to live their lives according to Quantum Theory. Meaning that anything can, and probably will, happen at any given time, if it hasn’t already.

Something I learned the hard way as a result of the infamous beachfront bee encounter.

I mean, look at it this way. A totally random event — a massive swarm of bees — occurs out of the blue at what would normally be the safest place to ride — a quiet stretch of off-road bike path along the beach — at what should be the safest time to ride — the middle of the day after tourist season is over and the kids are back in school.

The result was a couple nights in intensive care, with no memory of what happened. Or how. Or why, for that matter.

And that’s been eating at me ever since.

You see, every accident I’ve ever had, every near accident, every mistake I’ve ever made on the saddle, I’ve analyzed to understand exactly what I did wrong. So I could make sure I never made that same mistake again.

But it’s hard to figure out what not to do when you have no idea what you did. Or didn’t.

And how you avoid something as random as a massive bee swarm suddenly materializing in from of you — and disappearing just as quickly — I have no idea.

So when a fellow bike blogger mentioned in passing that La Madonna del Ghisallo was patron saint of bicyclists, I was sold. Even if I haven’t managed to sit through a Catholic Mass since my mother died just after the millennium.

That’s the beauty of a Catholic upbringing, though. Once you’re in, you’re in. No matter how much you try to escape, or how hard you rebel against the doctrine of papal infallibility.

So, I may know on an intellectual level that a few bucks worth of sterling sliver won’t keep bees, or cars, or falling anvils away.

But I believe with every fiber of my being that if you truly believe something will work, it will. Whether that’s a lucky charm, a rabbit’s foot, or faith in a patron saint.

And in a world like this one, you’ve got to believe in something.

………

Streetsblog reports on the LAPD’s report on the Hummer incident, which evidently suffered only minor damage from the cyclist. LAist covers the meeting as well, and Alex rebuts most of the LAPD’s report — including offering a photo proving the Hummer had no plates, despite what the report claimed. L.A.’s ex-parking meters are reborn as bike racks, some of them, anyway. Tucson Bike Lawyer relates how local police threaten to ticket semi-conscious cyclists after a collision. After all these years of Portland envy, now we have to turn green towards Minneapolis, too. Denver police ask cyclists to obey the law on their local Bike to Work Day, as roughly 6% of local downtowners regularly commute by bike. After three dead cyclists in one month, Boise authorities say it takes time to investigate them thoroughly. San Francisco tries to make 18th Street more bike, pedestrian — and yes, even business — friendly. Finally, North Carolina police say cyclists are starting to cause problems, too.


An open letter to the L.A. City Council Transportation Committee

June 24, 2009

As things stand right now, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to attend today’s meeting of the City Council Transportation Committee. So this morning, I emailed the following letter to each of the committee members:

Dear Councilmember,

During recent City Council and Transportation Committee meetings, I have watched as council members have made a number of specific bike-related requests to various city agencies. These have ranged from requesting a trial Sharrows project from LADOT, to asking the LAPD to report back about recent bicycle incidents and improving training related to bicycle activities.

However, instead of proceeding with a Sharrows project, a representative of LADOT first claimed uncertainty over what type of paint to use to avoid liability for cyclists slipping on wet paint. Yet they could have answered that question by calling their corresponding departments in San Francisco or New York, or any of the countless cities which already use Sharrows – or they could have simply visited UCLA, which has had Sharrows on campus for a number of years. Now LADOT reports that they will be unable to move forward with an initial Sharrows project until at least next year.

Meanwhile, the LAPD initial response on the Hummer incident barely scratched the surface, concluding that the investigating officer had been correct – without addressing the concerns of the cycling community that this accident could not have occurred in the manner the officer described, or that by their failure to respond appropriately, they had given drivers tacit approval to assault cyclists.

The clear impression given by these inadequate responses is that city agencies do not feel they have to take council members seriously, or respond to them in a timely or accurate matter. Frankly, as a resident of Los Angeles, I find that prospect frightening, as it raises questions of whether our elected officials are actually in charge of this city.

Today, you are scheduled to hear from Alta Planning regarding the new Bicycle Master Plan, as well as receiving a report from the LAPD following their failure to appear last week. I hope that you will insist that all city agencies, as well as outside contractors, respond to the Council and its committees in a complete, accurate and truthful manner, and that you will not accept any response that fails to address the questions at hand.

I would also call your attention to the MassBike Police Officer Training program, developed in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as a national template to educate police departments about laws relating to bicyclists. I would request that the representatives of the LAPD be asked whether this information is currently being taught at the police academy; and if not, if there is any valid reason why this free, two-hour program cannot be incorporated into the existing officer training curriculum at the police academy.

As for Alta Planning, I hope you will ask them if the current version of the Bicycle Master Plan accurately reflects their vision and work, or if there is an earlier draft which is more reflective of their efforts. In addition, I request that you will ask them if any city employees or departments have played an active role in restricting their efforts, resulting in the expensive failure of the current proposed plan.

As citizens of Los Angeles, you are our representatives in governing this city. Unless and until you hold every city agency accountable for failing to respond appropriately to your requests, we will have no voice in the management, future and livability of our own city.

Sincerely,

Ted Rogers

Los Angeles 5th Council District

………

Alex marks the one year anniversary of Taco Tuesdays, and the rapidly evolving bike scene that gave birth to it. Mikey Wally is one of 42 cyclists making their way from New York to L.A. A San Diego-area cyclist riding across country is killed in Illinois by a hit-and-run driver. Long Beach is moving forward with a new bike trail along the old Red Car line. Kiplinger calculates how much you can save biking to work. Bike Week comes to my old hometown. Alabama discovers that narrow country roads and inattentive/aggressive drivers could pose a hazard to cyclists. New York marks over 30 years of bike racing in Harlem. And finally, evidently, the recent Arizona letter writer was right, as one of those selfish cyclists in Utah is killed when a driver goes into diabetic shock.


Summer’s here and the time is right for riding in the streets*

June 23, 2009

Last week I was a nice guy; yesterday, I was an asshole.

The difference was that the seasons officially changed, June Gloom finally ended and local schools let out for the summer. And that lead to an exponential increase in the number of people on the Santa Monica and Venice portions of the Marvin Braude bike path — the Class 1 bikeway that runs along the beach from Palos Verdes to Pacific Palisades.

And that means it’s time to ride somewhere else for awhile.

From September to May, it’s one of the most pleasant rides in Los Angeles, offering beautiful views, lots of sunshine and no worries about traffic. Even as late as last week, it was still a pleasant place to ride.

As always, pedestrians ignored the faded No Pedestrian and Bicycles Only markings, and walked wherever they wanted. But for the most part, they were considerate of other users, and vice versa, and there weren’t so many that I couldn’t easily ride around them.

As I rode, I came across a young woman who had just fallen off her bike after hitting a patch of sand.

Fortunately, she wasn’t badly hurt. If she had been, the city could have been liable, because state law requires adequate warning of any hazards along an off-road bike path. And loose sand is a common problem on the bike path, frequently resulting in falls.

She did have a large road rash abrasion on her upper hip, though. So I stopped just long enough to offer an antiseptic wipe and a large bandage from my first aid kit. She and her friends thanked me, and I continued on my way.

Yesterday was a different matter.

The upper section of the path, from Pacific Palisades down to the Santa Monica Pier, was crowded but still ridable. Closer to the pier, though, it was virtually impassible.

Large groups of pedestrians blocked it in both directions, ignoring the yellow line down the middle — as well as the markings indicating they shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Some walked their dogs along the path, allowing the leash stretch across the bikeway, which could have been dangerous to me — and fatal to the dog — if I hadn’t seen it. Skaters swerved across the path, oblivious to the presence of anyone else, let alone the warnings blocked out by the earbuds from their iPods.

And tourists raced by on rental recumbents, gawking at the sights and paying no attention to which side of the path they were on. Or whether anyone else was in their way.

In other words, it was not a pleasant ride.

However, the tipping point came when I noticed three young children, all under the age or four or five, riding their tiny bikes and tricycles with no adult supervision.

Personally, I think anyone who leaves their children alone on a crowded bike path is guilty of child endangerment. But hey, that’s just me.

As you might expect, they were all over the place, swerving from one side to the other with total unpredictability, regardless of whether anyone else was occupying that space.

I watched as other people dodged out of their way, some annoyed, others thinking it was cute. But I’ve seen people seriously injured by little kids like that, including an older man who went over his handlebars when a toddler on training wheels drifted across the center line and crashed into his bike.

So I slowed to a crawl as I passed. And concerned for their safety, as well that of those around them, I called out to them to ride carefully.

For that, I was called an asshole.

The woman who said it was part of a group of pedestrians that clogged the better part of the bike path. And she seemed unaware of the irony, as they literally stood on a No Pedestrian symbol, just feet from a separate pedestrian walkway.

Yet somehow, I was the asshole.

It was over a month ago that Steve Lopez of the Times wrote about Santa Monica’s complete lack of enforcement of its own bikeway restrictions. He quoted city officials promising that steps would soon be taken to correct the problem.

It hasn’t happened yet. And I doubt we’ll see it anytime soon.

Or in my lifetime, for that matter.

And yet, the League of American Bicyclists cited this bike path as one of the prime reasons they recently gave Santa Monica a Bronze Award as a Bicycle Friendly City. And local cyclists consider it just one of many reasons why that award was undeserved and should be revoked.

So I’ll stop riding that part of the bike path for another summer, just like I do around this time every year. And yet another bike to the area’s overcrowded streets until school is back in session and the tourist season is over.

And we can once again use it for its intended purpose.

*With apologies to Martha and the Vandellas, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

……….

Streetsblog compares New York’s bike safety PSA with one from our own LADOT. Guess which one puts the blame on bikers? LAist reports the TransoComm will once again take up cycling issues tomorrow, and swears Alta Planning and the LAPD may actually show up this time. A local cyclist relates his recent ride up Mt. Baldy. Bicycle Fixation discusses a recent encounter with a false cycling prophet. LACyclist wrenches his way through C.R.A.N.K. Mob. Speaking of wrenching, Flying Pigeon encounters a rare Shanghai Forever. The governor of Texas decides cyclists don’t need to be safe in his state. The 91 year-old hit-and-run driver who injured 10 Arizona cyclists, leaving one with severe brain damage, gets three years probation — and sues the county for damages the next day. Opus analyzes the cost of wear and tear on the roads for bikes compared to cars and trucks, and Bob Mionske makes the case for cycling insurance. The next phase in Google Maps’ Streetviews is being done by tricycle. Finally, more uncoverage of the World Naked Bike Ride, as cyclists in London and Seattle celebrate the solstice.


They drive among us — this is so wrong in so many ways

June 19, 2009

Courtesy of the Tucson Bike Lawyer comes this letter to the editor, from a writer in Vail — no, not that one, the other one:

Re: the June 10 article “Man faces additional charges in cyclist death.”

Having a stroke or some other medical impairment, a tire blowout, equipment failure, are all potential causes for a driver accidentally killing a cyclist riding on the shoulder of a road.

Every person who chooses to exercise or train for competition via roadside biking (and that would constitute the lion’s share of all roadside cyclists) needs to recognize that there is ever-present danger, even when all parties are abiding by the rules of the road. I personally find it illogical to take on such a risk when the same goals may be accomplished in safer environments.

What of the lives affected and possibly ruined by the accidental taking of a human life? Given current road conditions and laws governing these matters, roadside cycling seems selfish.

John M. Towle
Self-employed, Vail

Let’s ignore the fact that cycling is one of the best ways to avoid having a stroke in the first place.

What I love here is the blame the victim mentality, merged with a severe case of carhead. In his mind, it’s not the driver’s fault that he killed a cyclist. It’s the cyclist’s fault for being there.

After all, shit happens when you’re behind the wheel of a two-ton instrument of mass destruction.

And it’s not like anyone’s responsible for that, or anything.

No, we’re being selfish for riding our bikes on the roads. It’s entirely our fault if someone should happen to ruin his or her life by killing us.

Got it.

………

Travelin’ Local walks the same Venice canals I rode through the other day, but her pictures are a lot mo’ betta than mine would be. Stephen Box reports on the TranspoComm meeting that sort of was, considering hardly any of the members showed up. Bike licensing in L.A. just won’t go away, no matter how many times we drive a stake through it. LAist interviews two L.A. riders on a 2,000 mile journey from Vancouver to Tijuana to fight plastics in the ocean. The local Boulder, CO newspaper says disobedience that could get cyclists killed isn’t very civil, after all. A Michigan cyclist suggests that Port Huron could use a law like the one that just passed in Columbia, MO. We could use one here, too. A bike blogger in Springfield, MO asks when is it okay to run a red light? Finally, it has nothing to do with cycling, but my good friend at Altadena Blog notes that the unfriendly, non-housebroken cat someone out there found looks a lot like a possum.


Yesterday’s ride, on which I stop traffic

June 18, 2009

Maybe it was the uptick in my mood after yesterday’s surprisingly pleasant encounter with the LAPD. Or maybe everyone was just in a good mood brought on by the Lakers parade.

But everywhere I went, people just seemed a little happier to share the road. Pedestrians — other than the hothead who touched off yesterday’s incident — thanked me for warning them when I was about to pass. Bus drivers waited patiently for me to ride out of their way, and even waved in thanks when I moved out of the way so they could turn.

But the highlight had to be the young mother waiting patiently to cross the street with her small daughter.

They were standing next to a crosswalk with no traffic signal. The kind where drivers are legally required to stop so people can cross.

But as I rode up, I watched several cars drive past without even pausing, leaving both mother and child stranded on the curb. So when I got there, I made a point of stopping, and nodded to indicate they could cross.

Just as they stepped off the curb, though, I noticed a car approaching on my left, clearly intending to pull around me and drive through the crosswalk. So I stuck my arm out, signaling him to stop — though it did occur to me later that he could have just as easily read that as a left turn signal.

Either way, it did the job. He stopped, and mother and child crossed safely.

About halfway across, though, she turned back to me and said “Thank You.” Then as she continued on her way, she added “You rock!”

Over 24 hours later, that still feels pretty damn good.

……..

Flying Pigeon adds Dutch bikes to their lineup of proletarian cycles. Damien Newton observes that yesterday’s Downtown street closures prove the city could host a ciclovia. Streetsblog also notes that cycling and pedestrian projects depend on federal funding, and examines the failure of the Chicago parking privatization plan our mayor wants to emulate. Curbed offers a suggestion to replace the 10 freeway with a bikeway, among other green improvements. A Hoboken cyclist addresses common concerns about adding new bike lanes — maybe LADOT should read it. The Fox News staffer who dragged a cyclist through Central Park has been arrested. And finally, the Beeb examines Britain’s ghost bikes.


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