Backbone, 1977 Edition
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.)
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.