Backbone, 1977 Edition

Legend to the 1977 Backbone
Legend to the 1977 Backbone

LA already has a Backbone . . . from 1977.  City Planner Claire Bowin discovered and scanned this map from the 1977 LA Bike Masterplan.  It’s a map of the planned bikeways from that plan, and it plans for two systems – a Backbone system and a broader (but one assumes, lower priority) Citywide system.  That’s right, someone in 1977 conceived of a Backbone network for Los Angeles and you can download the scanned map here (2.3 Mb pdf.)

1977 Backbone, Central Area
1977 Backbone, Central Area

Not only that, they appear to have had a similar concept – a sparser network of big streets that would connect Los Angeles cyclists to all parts of LA.  They even chose some of the same roads – for instance check out this screenshot of the central area.  The heavy squiggly lines denote elements of the 77 Backbone, and  that’s Venice Blvd, Santa Monica Blvd, Sepulveda, and Vermont in heavy squiggles.  Those streets appear both in the 77 Backbone and nearly finalized 09 Backbone.

What blows my mind about this is that we never knew about the 77 Backbone.  Stephen and I brainstormed this concept along with a bunch of others independently.  So, how did we arrive at the same place?

I contend that a Backbone network is a natural idea for Los Angeles.  Sprawling Los Angeles as it is today inspires the Backbone.  Los Angeles as it was in 77 also inspired a Backbone.  We see phenomena like this all the time where an idea is arrived at independently by two different persons or groups.  Einstein and Hilbert both discovered the equations for general relativity independently and nearly simultaneously; Newton and Leibniz derived the fundamentals of Calculus independently.

We’re no math & physics geniuses, trust me.  But, we see a similar phenomenon in nature which doesn’t require individual genius.  Often species evolve similarly in response to their environment.  Birds and bats both evolved wings.  Dolphins and sharks both developed dorsal fins, and have similar swimming surfaces to the “swimming dinosaur” Ichsyosaurus.  It’s a process biologists call convergent evolution, and it happens when natural selection pressures select for similar characteristics in different species.

Was either the 77 Backbone or the 09 Backbone a product of an evolutionary process?

Consider this: out of 20 or so concepts from that brainstorming session, and a number of others brainstormed in Bike Working Group (BWG) III, only 12 made it to the finish line, including the Backbone.  Then the Backbone was selected as one of the top 5, and then one of the top 3, by a vote at BWG III.  The Bike Working Group steering committee was so enamored with the idea, we selected it as the focus for BWG IV and V.  Even the streets were selected in a competitive process, where participants at the BWG IV and V proposed streets and other participants supported or countered their suggestions.  As well, at each step the BWG Steering Committee refined the non-physical aspects of the Backbone concept.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the 77 Backbone also arose through an evolutionary planning process, beating other ideas to the finish line again and again.

So what is it about LA that provokes, that needs, that inspires a Backbone?

Well, maybe it’s just the sheer size of the LA sprawl . . . it just goes on for miles and miles and miles.  And unlike a place like NYC, it doesn’t have the geography of the rivers defining it’s sprawl.  Sure, we have the hills, the mountains and ocean.  But a river has a harsher effect on transportation, a decisive way of stopping you.  You can ride up a hill, and over a mountain, but you can’t bike across a river.  I guess you can call the LA river a factor, but it’s just not that expensive to cross, so it presents far less of a barrier than the Hudson.

Further, LA’s development is so lacking in definition.  NYC has a distinct core, Manhattan, which defines it’s center.  LA has . . . what?  Downtown LA is developed, but it’s not really the hub of LA.  Without Manhattan, NYC would be in shambles, but without DTLA, LA would make do.  LA is like a sprawling carpet of moss – no one part completely dependent on the others, all the parts equally important and equally unimportant.

If you lose the freeways, it’s the same with LA’s streets.  There’s no one street or two streets or three streets that define LA.  Take out Vermont, Van Nuys Blvd, and Venice, and traffic just shifts east or west or north or south.  That’s true for motorists and cyclists.

In other words, LA geography doesn’t choose a Backbone for us.  It doesn’t, by way of geography, indicate what roads are important and what aren’t.

So in lieu of that, Los Angelinos must make their own decisions about what roads are important.  That’s the Backbone – cyclists creating and defining and owning the cycling geography of Los Angeles.

Alex Thompson

Bikerowave co-founder, Cyclists' Bill of Rights co-author, President of Bikeside, and Math Phd. HULK SMASH straight from Michigan!

30 thoughts on “Backbone, 1977 Edition

  1. Holy crap, that’s unbelievable. Spot-on analysis of the phenomenon, Alex.

    I do think our new version is an improvement on the old.

  2. Amazing. So LA hasn’t been doing much since ’77! Holy smokes, it’s like bike advocates never existed in this city.

  3. This is both mind blowing and completely discouraging…. the city has sat around on it’s FAT ASS while traffic congestion blew up… Could have saved billions in health, time and road repair by facilitating bicycle infrastructure. Instead we’ve got a greenline not to LAX a subway not to the sea and an LADOT that doesnt want to lift a finger to provide alternate modes of transportation to it’s citizens. The city is run by numb nuts generation after generation…

    Alex, what about a lawsuit? c’mon, there has to be some kind of lawsuit that can be filed against the LADOT.

  4. Ha ha – for once I’m the positive one. When Claire showed me this map I just laughed and got stoked. I still think it’s hilarious! The actual physical copy is kind of funny – it’s a lot different from our digital age maps.

    People have always dreamed in this city, but we’re lucky enough to have the digital infrastructure to share and organize our dreams. LA moves so fast, changes so quick, and cares so little about documenting things, that it often seems like we’re a city without history, without memory. Fuck that – let’s stay remembering, let’s remember all the times that DOT was asked to include the Cyclists’ Bill of Rights in the Bike Plan and didn’t, let’s remember all the Hummer incidents, let’s remember all of it, and then use that memory to make sure it doesn’t keep happening.



    But Alex has a point about history and what we can do. Look at the past five years! We’ve huge momentum.

  6. @Matt

    I don’t get the bashing of LADOT. It is the politicians who lacked the vision and leadership. Most of them, at least. But it is the citizens who did not kick them out for better are to blame.

    I think things will be different now, thanks to a motivated, organized and effective bike community, I think we will see the changes that were pipe dreams for ages.

    Light rail was the same. There were plans to revive it for decades, but it took dedicated citizens — and the Internet — to make it happen.

    By an large, the establishment politicians and the homeowners associations are not agents for change.

    In my neighborhood, the homeowners associations have banded together to stop the Expo light rail. They succeeded for decades. Sure, they now say build it and build it right. But in 1989 they said don’t buy the right of way. More recently, they said build it only with a detour around our neighborhood. Now the mantra is build it right (i.e., bury it — pun intended.). The local politicians kowtowed. Then-Councilman Yaroslavsky opposed the line, and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke promised the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Association she’d stop it at Venice Boulevard. Fortunately, some leaders (like Zev) have seen the light. Diane Watson was a light and a leader. And citizens including Darrell Clarke and Presley Burroughs built a groundswell. Twenty years later, our train is about to arrive.

    Flash back to the 1973 gas crisis and consider these quotes from Westside progressives Marvin Braude and Ed Edelman about the 20 year West Los Angeles Plan.

    “Councilmen Marvin Braude and Edmund Edelman, who represent the area involved, said the plan marks a historical turning point for other means of transportation besides the automobile ‘because people want to breathe clean air.’

    “Councilman Louis Nowell and S.S. Taylor, city traffic engineer, warned that deletion of several street widenings sows the seeds for future traffic chaos.

    “Taylor said if people thing traffic in the area is bad now, ‘They ain’t seen nothing yet.’”

    “Melvin Silverman, president of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn., said that widening roads through that residential area and ‘encouraging traffic is no way to meet the energy crunch.’

    “Nowell said, ‘It should be obvious to everyone you can’t plan a city this way, increasing people and downgrading circulation.

    [Braude]”We must move toward ways to supplement the automobile as a way of getting people to and from work. This will make for more jobs and a healthy economy.”

    “The past planning process is wholly oriented toward the automobile but is now shifting to such things as car pools and rapid transit.”

    “We cannot keep relying on one man in one automobile . . . . We have to move away from sole reliance on the automobile. That is what this plan symbolizes.”

    “West L.A. Plan OKd, Called Move Away from Autos” (LA Times, 12/12/73, p. WS1)

    Flash forward nearly 40 years, and Cheviot Hills now (still) opposes Expo AND the Expo Bikeway. Remarkable. But they are in the minority, even in their own neighborhood. The Westside passed Measure R by a large margin.

    Was it DOT that failed us? No. The voters before us failed. DOT, with some notable exceptions, is only a tool (pun intended).

  7. The LA DOT has an employee supposedly advocating for us. They have plans ‘the people’ have supported. They don’t implement. They are doing the opposite.

  8. Bashing the LADOT is totally justified.

    They are the roadblock to positive changes in the way the City’s streets are designed.

    Time and again, our politicians have pushed as hard as they can against an indifferent mayor’s office and a conniving, insular, culture at the LADOT – and have come up short.

    You have to go to war with this department in order to get the simplest traffic calming done. They will find nearly any excuse not to do something. They’ll sit on plans to wear you down, while sending their minions to design high speed car-only sewer pipe streets behind the backs of local councilmembers.

    How many council members have woken up to yet another street having speed increased on it, with pissed off parents at local schools, without so much as a “How do you do?” from the LADOT?

    This department has aggressively fought traffic calming around elementary schools. This department has overseen the destruction of numerous commercial corridors through car-throughput planning – removal of on-street parking, raising the speeds on roads in commercial districts.

    Bad for safety, bad for business, the only thing keeping this department afloat is an incompetent mayor absorbed in keeping our bankrupt city’s bond ratings afloat and filling the city with political flacks and the LADOT’s own managerial mafia-like system.

    They have, and continue to, lie, straight up, in your face lie to us. They will invent “policies” that don’t exist, they will cite laws that aren’t on the books – exploiting any advantage they can gain to do no substantive work other than continue 20th century tradition of driving the urban core into ruins.

  9. @ ubrayj02

    I don’t mean to convey that LADOT is not a problem. I don’t dispute your anecdotes, and I could add some of my own. My point was that LADOT will not make moving people and bikes a priority until it is forced to change its policy — until, for instance, the mobility element of the City Plan counts people moving instead of cars moving.

    I don’t expect the bikeway engineers or that department to be able to change the entrenched philosophy of moving cars, not people. Politicians from Marvin Braude to Bill Rosendahl have not (yet) changed that. What has changed is that blogs, like this one, are vetting politicians on these sorts of issue before they are elected.

    In my eyes, the effort should not be at changing DOT per se. Instead, the effort should be on creating and demonstrating the political will so that the politicians will follow — so that they will change DOT. Only then will DOT as a whole change.

  10. What happened? It’s what happened across the country at one point – car culture took over our country, and the resulting pollution and congestion are only just making people realize that it’s not a sustainable culture.

    I’m sure this impacted our ability to build bikeways or anything else that presented an alternative to driving.

  11. Umm, the fact that we’re even debating who’s to blame is silly in itself. Bottom line is that that someone is NOT doing their job.

    LADOT is either apathetic or spineless. There is no difference between the two, the end result is the same – cyclists get no love. It’s up to us to take action, simple and plain. I bought into the “help is on the way” bullshit for the first year or so, now it’s crystal clear that we have to take charge.

    Our safety rests in the balance. Let’s buy some white paint and get to work on this backbone.

  12. You mean we should grow some backbone? (Again, with the puns.) We can and will have even more political influence with the advent of the League of Bicycling Voters LA. Check out BikingInLA’s recent article: “So you say you want a revolution? Introducing the League of Bicycling Voters LA.”

  13. the 1977 plan failed to be implemented beyond bicycle route designation because city officials, residents, and business owners, were (and are) not willing to trade arterial curb-parking, travel lanes, peak-hour parking restrictions, even travel lane width, for bike lanes or sharrows.

    an unresolved question arises: why believe that the *new* backbone bicycle network will fair differently? i am not convinced that re-making something that’s already failed isn’t going to fail again. we are supposed to learn from history, not repeat its mistakes.

    this post seems to get excited about plunging down a well-paved dead end road. it’s exciting to realize that someone else had the same idea as you, but the lesson to be drawn from the ’77 plan isn’t “man we are SO f#cking awesome!!” it should be, “maybe this isn’t going to work.”

    i wrote a more detailed response:

  14. ^ the dif is a more politically-engaged community of cyclists that has learned from past mistakes and a unique time of environmental and economic concern.
    And the proliferation of comfort bikes.

    Back to LA DONT. Remember that crazy report with all the restrictions on pedicabs? That was them, no? Req black shoes and other nonesense?

  15. I had trouble submitting a comment on your blog, adrian, but here’s what I think:

    If the Backbone Bikeway Network can be integrated with physically separated bike lanes between the parked cars and sidewalk like cycle tracks, I think THAT would result in a boom of bicyclists. I can bike around my community without infrastructure since everything is already close together (less than 3 miles away from anything) and residential streets become part of my ride because I know the area and my destinations. When I want to bike anywhere else I feel very unsafe being among cars that are not used to seeing a bicyclist and sharing the road requires more attention and care than usual with parked cars, turning cars, rapid buses, speeding cars, delivery trucks. If the BBN is implemented like the cycle track on SW Broadway in Portland, the only major concern will the occasional bus pulling in to drop passengers off. I think such a system would put sidewalk cyclists and current car commuters on bikes, in recognized bike lanes. People still driving (maybe even women!) would see the ease and safety in a well integrated bike network and ditch the car. A drawback to a neighborhood network is that it still doesn’t formally recognize bicyclists when they need to go on major streets. BBN would legitimize bicycling as a viable form of transportation rather than something done solely on residential streets. Bike boulevards certainly have their place and can be important in commuting/K-12 school/recreational/errand activities, but I think less people would jump on board a neighborhood to neighborhood system than a city network. If nothing else, the Bike Friendly street network would simply limit the amount and distance one can cycle.

    That’s not to say I disregard your points, I think the important factor is how well a BBN is integrated. If current standard bike lanes are installed, there won’t be as big a leap in the number of bicyclists on the road as a proper safe lane, but there will be an increase nonetheless. In the end, if the BBN can make it convenient to get around, there’s no reason why there would not be increased ridership, and that is what a BBN creates, convenience. Strictly Bike Boulevards I won’t necessarily know where I’m going, I won’t see any shops or new restaurants, but yes I will see less cars which is always nice.

    Sorry if my comment does nothing but state the obvious, but perhaps I am able reinforce an existing view or give new evidence for support.

  16. Adrian, many thanks for the long commentary.

    Sounds like you are suffering from an acute case of stockholm syndrome when it comes to the grip the car and parking has on our city.

    If we are going to learn anything from history it is that the irresponsible acts of the subsequent economy turnaround after oil crisis of the seventies landed us in the state of economy we are in now. We have depended SO much on the car in the past few generations that now the bike mode is seen as dangerous, low priority, and second class.

    The Backbone is more than just classifying streets. There are a few layers of policy that you are missing when you criticize the Backbone — road maintenance and repair, law enforcement and education, bike infrastructure and signage, wayfinding, etc. All these things in conjunction with “drawing lines on a map”, come from many meetings that had intense public cooperation and involvement. In comparison, the public presentations LA Planning held could not have yielded as much constructive public input as the Bike Working Group. Why? Beacuse no matter what people said at the LA Planning meetings they were met with the negative and beholden attitudes of the urban planners and followed up by “this is a presentation only–here fill out a sticky note”. I mean to say: planners that have pretty much given up and let the car make the rules because they mostly drive cars and bought into it all (ex. most of them drove cars to every LA Bike Plan meeting).

    If anything is different this day and age it is that developers and politicos are starting to embrace transit oriented development, green technology and lifestyle/neighborhood amenity rich walking communities. Why should the economy or humanity suffer because a planner says we need parking. It just gets even more ridiculous when I hear a planner say that in an environmentally impacted region. We can’t just keep following the established code and plan blindly. We have to change it to change our situation. That is what we here are to demand you give the bicyle it’s fair chunk of the road it has been denied since this senseless, autofocused planning metality took hold. Maybe you as a planner need to change.

    What destinations are on 4th St. Bike Blvd? not many, it can’t even span the city and the street condition is crap even after years of lobbying for it as a bike blvd.

    Not everyone is going to start out riding as vehicular and in listening to many people WANTING to ride but scared to (read: baby boomers) NEED to have some facility for everyone to feel safe. Doesn’t mean we’ll require you to ride it.

    Lastly, why do you feel the need to run red lights? Thats not VC. Are you really trying for that “subculture” “extreme alternative community” street cred? Why not stop for red lights and show that bicycling isn’t “all about us”; because, when you run lights with a “mischievous grin” you’re just making it ALL ABOUT YOU.

  17. “adrian” is Adrian Leung, planner for Alta Planning, the consultants who wrote the first draft of the LA Bike Plan in collaboration with Planning and DOT for $450,000. Alta is no longer involved in the bike plan.

    It is true what Adrian says in his blog – Alta’s plan for a neighborhood non-arterial network has been deprecated in the working draft of the bike plan in favor of a “Citywide Network” which is on arterials – I’ve had a look at the working draft of the bike plan. The Citywide Network currently includes all the streets of the first draft of the Backbone Network.

    Adrian, I loled.

    Y’all – should I respond with an article, or should we just leave Adrian be?

  18. I always love your writing Alex, so maybe I am biased in saying you should respond with an article.

  19. Severin –
    i will find out why you weren’t able to post on my blog. sorry, i’m new to this. while i do think cycletracks could work the way you imagine, they are not camutcd approved, which means the LADOT is afraid to implement them out of fear they might be sued for going outside accepted guidelines. the sharrow marking IS an accepted design, and bicyclists are having an incredibly hard time getting them installed as an experimental treatment. additionally, cycletracks on arterials would require removal of travel lanes and/or curb-side parking, which city officials, residents, small business, and drivers, aren’t ready to do.

    as an aside, it should be noted that cycletracks have been wholly rejected by the vehicular cycling movement. personally, i think they could work, especially in encouraging non-bicyclists to try riding a bike. i would ride them. i usually ride vehicularly on roads, but i am not against running a light, riding a path or sidewalk, or going the wrong way on a one-way road, provided that the conditions are relatively safe (i.e. no cops and no threatening cars). i’m a bicyclist. i’m free. i don’t have to restrict myself to any one thing.

    Jer –
    with your suggestion of stockholm syndrome in mind, i want to make it clear that my input is not from a place of sympathy for drivers. rather, it is from an experienced bicycle planning perspective. alex is right. i used to work for alta planning, which means in addition to riding all over the city for my regular transportation, and talking to countless people who bike, or think about biking at the bicycle kitchen, i have also been paid to get really good at improving cities for bicycling.

    i am really glad that the BBN meetings provided a venue for people to voice their needs and concerns with each other. i have always felt that the public outreach portion of the plan was inadequate. but i do not think that the provision of the forum legitimizes the product. also, though i share your excitement about the growing bicycling community, and the growing interest in green technology, and even potential changes to the planning code, i think it’s an overstatement to assume that bicyclists have political leverage comparable to entrenched LADOT leadership, residents (i.e. homeowners associations), council people, mayors, drivers, and small business owners. that’s not to say that we can’t get there, or that we shouldn’t be working on it. we should. we are! but, where we’re at right now isn’t there.

    i want to make this clear: i am not against the vision of the BBN. and i strongly hope that bikeways along arterials are someday realized in LA. but good planning requires realistic strategy. and while the BBN is a wonderful goal, i consider it a strategic blunder to prioritize it over the low-hanging fruit that will further grow our community.

    there was a somewhat personal jab in these comments about whether i was reaching for “street cred” in an unrelated blog entry. i post my opinions as a rational, trained, experienced, professional. i don’t speak on behalf of anyone else. i have, however, noticed that a large amount of writing, related to the BBN acts as if it expresses the views of ALL LA BICYCLISTS, and that is just factually untrue.

    overall, i want you to know that i appreciate this forum as an opportunity to posit and consider each other’s ideas . my input comes from a place of love for bicycling and a love for Los Angeles, which i feel we share, and i hope we can avoid personal insults in the future.

  20. Alex-
    I amiably parted ways with Alta at the end of January. I didn’t post my qualifications in my comment to qualify my input. I put them there in response to a suggestion that i was sympathetic to drivers and parking, and to his response that I was trying to gain street cred or speak for anyone else. I’m not speaking for the sake of it as a malcontent. I think these are serious things to consider, and I am curious as to how they can be resolved.

    I am happy that you’re so passionate and so knowledgeable. I am especially pleased with the vetting you’re doing with endorsements for people running for office, and the bicycle accident database, along with the ongoing pressure you apply to the LAPD. Just your dedication to regularly posting articles is inspiring. Keep up the great work!

    I hope that my critique of the viewpoints supporting the Backbone Bicycle Network are not mistaken as personal attacks on you or the people who are staunch supporters. I recognize that I’ve used strong language, but I believe I’ve backed up every point logically. Honestly, so far, the answers that I’ve received that specifically dissent to what I wrote, can be summarized as follows: we are more politically engaged now; there’s a proliferation of comfort bikes; cycletracks will help nonbicyclists start riding, but before that happens, whatever we create, new bicyclists don’t have to ride it if they don’t want to; the planning environment is different now with new embrace for TOD and being green; (and my favorite comment) quit being soft and buck up in the name of hit-and-run victims.

    As I’ve said, we ARE more politically engaged, and I think that LA IS in a different place with planning, but some of the same problems that have always existed are still here. I am not pro LADOT in the least, but they are there, and they will poo poo actual implementation of the BBN for now. Bray is right: in order to leverage the LADOT, we have to leverage the politicians. to do that, we need to encourage more non-bicyclists to start bicycling. and we have to overcome the general public’s apprehensiveness, and sometimes outright hatred, of bicycling.

    Again, I appreciate your leadership in the community. I may not always agree with you, but I hope we can talk about it and compare notes because the points where people disagree are typically more interesting opportunities for growth and understanding. I am just starting to post my thoughts more publicly, but it seems easy for things on the internet to snowball into flames. I want to avoid that as much as possible so that we offer constructive analysis rather than blatant antagonism.  In short, I welcome dialogue.

  21. Man, the LADOT is worried about getting sued? They are one of the worst departments for workers comp suits and out of court settlements in LA. Clearly, lawsuits aren’t what bother them.

    No, the lawsuits are what they use to threaten people that know better.

    Elected officials have been falling for their bullshit for years. Without a political push, and fear of being despised by constituents, our politicians will continue to wilt before the LADOT’s spin meisters and bullshitters.

    The LADOT does what it does for whatever reasons its leadership tells it to. The law, good planning, safety – all take a back seat to the prerogatives of a morally corrupt culture of civic disassembly.

  22. yeah, no doubt. LADOT leadership is full of crap. but, i’m not sure elected officials get off just “falling for it.” they spew too, and sometimes it’s even worse cuz they ACT like they care, but they fold easy. we definitely have to lean on ’em.

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