LA’s Sexy Backbone

My main gripe with the latest release of Los Angeles’ 2010 Bicycle Plan is that it uses the word “bicycle” and it refers to “bicyclists.” Nerdy!  Cycling cyclists, bikers biking and riders riding are so much more sexy than bicyclists bicycling . . . the plan sets back bikers’ sexual prospects decades.

On the other hand, the plan is so urban-planning sexy, that it might just even out in the end. For a constituency with such sex appeal, a sex-neutral bike plan is probably just fine.

Sex appeal starts with confidence, boldness, attitude, and some backbone. A man or woman standing tall is sexiest of all. This plan is Los Angeles standing tall. Riding tall. It has sand, guts & salt. It has ambition and it doesn’t run from problems – it runs with solutions. Running alongside, organizing the plan and engaging with it, is the Backbone Bikeway Network.

LA's officially sexy Backbone
LA's officially sexy Backbone

You see, Planning staff just went crazy loco with the latest iteration of the plan. They took that nutty Backbone proposal that Bikeside & The Bike Writers Collective had floated, and they owned it. Consequently, the Backbone no longer belongs to us bike scum. No, now it belongs to all of us Los Angelinos.

Los Angeles, your bike plan has a Backbone, and the Backbone, that handsome devil, is in the plan’s details:

Policy 1.1.2, Program A:

Backbone Network

Establish a Backbone Network at an approximately two mile grid to provide access to Downtown Los Angeles, Regional and Community Centers, and community and citywide amenities . . .

If you remember the old plan – that sounds like the Citywide Network has just been renamed as the Backbone. Is that all there is to it, just a change in semantics?

Policy 3.2.2, Program B:

Network Working Group

Establish an informal Network Working Group (Group) as for the Networks. Staff from relevant departments will participate, including but not limited to, DCP, LAPD, DOT, DPW-BSS, RAP, and the Mayor’s Office. The Group will have consistent and substantial representation from the cycling community. The Group may also seek engagement from other relevant local agencies including the County, Metro, LAUSD, and other municipalities . . .

That’s a genuine political mechanism for ensuring the implementation of the Backbone Network, as well as the other two networks – the Neighborhood Network and the Green Network. That alone suggests there might be more to this Backbone inclusion than simply semantics.

Notice that the Network Working Group will have outside cyclists on it. This sets it apart from Bike Plan Implementation Team, which does not have guaranteed citizen representation.

The plan actually outlines this somewhat explicitly, and the section it comes from tells a bit more about the Backbone:

Chapter 5: Collaboration

Collaboration is key to the implementation of the 2010 Plan. Many challenges remain, and each neighborhood will have differing perspectives on the role that bicycling should play in their community. The convenience and safety of cycling in Los Angeles is a street level question, answered day by day and block by block by the experience of individual cyclists. It is difficult to foresee which programs best address cyclists’ needs on each street segment. Therefore, apart from broad trends, the Plan does not try to discern future circumstances. In turn, the Plan leaves great latitude for the prescription of specific solutions to unknown circumstances. The Plan’s policies, programs, and extensive networks provide an alphabet of solutions that can be selected and applied at the right location at the right time.

Coordinating the selection of these solutions will be four key groups, the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (3.2.1.A), the Bicycle Plan Implementation Team (3.2.2.A ), the Network Working Group (3.2.2.B) and the Regional Bicycle Plan Implementation Team (3.2.3.A) ,which will assist in identifying, coordinating, scheduling, and implementing appropriate solutions. These groups, comprised of City staff and citizen cyclists with broad expertise and a finger on the City’s cycling pulse, will be well placed to negotiate the political and bureaucratic circumstances to maximize improvements for cyclists. They provide a conduit for City staff to access the skills of peers and the experience of cyclists, as well as a means for cyclists to communicate their needs to staff.

This is part of what’s sexy about the Backbone’s inclusion in the plan. It takes guts to take this approach. Creating a solution that includes citizens from the get-go goes against the traditions of the City. I like that the plan is confronting this problem head on.

I noticed when we were pushing for the Backbone at the last hearing that some of the bigger principles of the Backbone haven’t been well expressed. For example, many people thought we meant to have bike lanes on every portion of the Backbone. Absolutely not. Each street will need to be treated differently. Some streets might desperately need to a separated bike lane in order for most cyclists to feel comfortable. On the other hand, for many streets it’s not a question of facilities, but a question of respect. Education and enforcement may be a better solution.

Even with engineering solutions we can do better than the boring and bland “bike lanes for breakfast, lunch and dinner” diet. In some places signal timing, street resurfacing, changes in intersection configuration or sharrows may be better or more realistic.

The problem is to determine which solutions will work. Without millions of dollars of funding, there’s no way that the plan could determine the right approach to each of the streets in the Backbone. But the plan doesn’t prescribe solutions in this way. Instead it provides the Network Working Group as a way of resolving these issues dynamically. Yes, this kicks the can down the road a bit, but in addition to being unrealistic that we could prescribe solutions for each street now, it’s undesirable. We need the capacity to thoughtfully explore solutions for each street, and the Network Working Group provides this capacity.

As I mentioned in passing, the Backbone proposal is not to simply add bike lanes to each street.  Similarly, it is also not a proposal to only address connectivity with facilities & engineering.  Methods that use encouragement, enforcement, or education to make a street safe are top of the list for the Backbone.  In fact, since these types of solutions can often be less expensive, and because they sometimes involve less political strife, they can be more desirable.  Non-engineering solutions in many cases can be implemented on all the streets of the Backbone *today*, providing the possibility that we could have a functional Backbone within a year or two years, not decades.  Again, the plan:

With capital funding limited, and hundreds of miles of street facilities to maintain and improve, merely providing bicycle facilities would not provide the beneficial results that this 2010 Plan envisions. In some cases, infrastructure solutions alone cannot solve all of the problems that cyclists encounter, as we have seen with collisions that occur within bicycle facilities. Conversely, infrastructure modifications may not always be necessary to create a supportive environment for cyclists. Integrating engineering approaches with education, enforcement, and encouragement programs multiplies the benefits to cyclists. Just as the Networks weave together to form a complete Citywide Bikeway System, the Plan offeres an opportunity to focus a variety of its individual programs on a portion of a network in order to improve dramatically the safety and convenience of those select corridors.

I’m finding that it’s better to think of the Backbone as a goal rather than a prescriptive set of programs. Take the streets of the Backbone and ask yourself, “what would need to happen to make these streets ultra-safe and ultra-convenient for cyclists?” Whatever your answer is, or whatever our answer as a city is, that’s the Backbone. The goal is connectivity. The methods are whatever is politically necessary (and politically productive!) and whatever is physically and socially necessary.

There’se more to say, but not in this post. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who made the Backbone happen, whether it was thinking of it, facilitating it politically, or working it into the plan – Stephen Box, Claire Bowin, Heidi Sickler, and Joe Linton deserve special mention. Let me leave you with some quotes from the 2010 Bike Plan that show how the Backbone integrates with the plan. These are not all the places that the Backbone is mentioned, but it will give you a sense for how the Backbone is expressed:

The 707 mile Backbone Network will enable access to major employment centers, transit stations and stops, and educational, retail, entertainment, and other open space and recreational resources. It is expected that the Backbone will initially be used primarily by experienced riders who are comfortable riding close to moderate to heavy traffic volumes. However, in time, by resolving the perceived and actual dangers to cyclists on arterials, the Backbone streets may become more accessible to riders less comfortable with greater traffic volume.

Each network works with the others to enhance their individual functions, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Segments of each network were chosen with the other networks in mind to achieve maximum coverage. The target types of cyclists for each network were considered in relation to the others, and the types of potential engineering solutions on each network were drawn up with the other networks in mind.

At their core then, all three networks enhance neglected open spaces, and in this fashion, all three networks work together. Indeed, the Backbone and Neighborhood Networks, where they integrate seamlessly with the Green Network, put the City’s lively street activities in touch with its natural beauty.

The Networks are, at their core, not only a physical network of inter-connected streets and paths but also an organizing structure, around which to focus the Plan’s many policies and programs defined in Chapter 4. A holistic approach to creating supportive cycling environments on network elements will necessarily make use of many policies and programs.

Both the Neighborhood Network and the Backbone represent a rethinking of the city’s streets as more than conduits for moving motor vehicle traffic. Streets are our most abundant open spaces, and the Backbone and Neighborhood Networks provide the opportunity to enhance the function of these streets for cyclists, pedestrians, and indirectly, by making them more civilized as open space, and enhancing their function as places for commerce.

Policy 1.1.2 C

Five Year Implementation Strategy: In collaboration with the community and Council Districts develop a comprehensive implementation strategy to identify funds and construct at least 200 miles of bicycle facilities on the Backbone and Neighborhood Networks every five years until complete.

Policy 1.1.7 A

Transit/Bikeway Priority Streets: Establish Major Class II Streets within the Backbone Network that have Rapid Bus Service as Transit/Bicycle Priority Streets. Review the need for a peak hour travel lane on Transit/Bicycle Priority Streets. Install transit/bicycle only lanes where feasible.

Policy 1.2.2 A

Sidewalk Bicycle Parking Program: Continue to install and maintain City-standard bicycle racks on sidewalks. Identify areas with demand for bicycle racks and implement an installation schedule. Prioritize the installation of racks on streets within either the Backbone and/or Neighborhood Networks.

Policy 1.2.7 F

Expanded Bicycle Parking Standard: Explore the feasibility of permitting reduced vehicle parking in exchange for bicycle parking especially in locations along the Backbone Network and/or adjacent to a transit station.

Policy 1.3.1 B

Bicycle-Transit-Only Lanes: Allow bicycle use on surface street bus-only lanes as permitted by California Vehicle Code (CVC) 21202. Work with Metro to develop bus-only lane standards to accommodate bicycles and install appropriate signage and on-street markings. Identify corridors on the Backbone Network that are potential candidates for the inclusion of bus-only lanes.

Policy 1.3.2 A

Clean Mobility Hubs (Bicycle Commuter Center): Work with transit agencies and adjacent property owners to include attendant operated bicycle storage, lockers, restrooms and showers, and bicycle rental and repair facilities, and WiFi at all transit stations identified as Clean Mobility Hubs on the Bicycle Plan Maps. Coordinate and support Metro efforts as necessary. Leverage the role of the Mayor and the Mayor’s appointees as members of the Metro board and/or the Metro Technical Advisory Committee to increase support for the development of bicycle amenities at transit locations. Prioritize the development of Hubs that are located on the Backbone Network.

Policy 1.3.2 D

Bus Stop Bicycle Parking: Work with Metro, local transit agencies and adjacent property owners to include bicycle parking racks within 50’ of all existing and new transit stops. Prioritize bus stops that are located on either the Backbone or Neighborhood Networks.

Policy 1.4.1 C

Recreational Rides: Organize and lead local and citywide recreational rides ranging from 5-30 miles. Prioritize routes that include the Green, Backbone or Neighborhood Networks.

Policy 1.4.1 G

Streets as Public Space: Encourage the use of Backbone and Neighborhood Streets for a variety of events such as Farmers’ Markets, Art Cycles and other cycling events, parades, races, and art fairs to promote public awareness of streets as public space.

Policy 1.4.2 H

Wayfinding: Develop and install wayfinding signage along the Green, Backbone, and Neighborhood Networks to inform cyclists of key destinations along or adjacent to their route.

Policy 1.4.3 B

Bicycle Buddy Program: Develop and operate a Bicycle Buddy Program to encourage the use of the bicycle for commuting purposes on the Backbone Network. Work with the City and Metro to disseminate information about the Program.

Policy 2.2.1 B

Sting Operations: Target unsafe bicycle riding, and motorist driving behavior on the Backbone and Neighborhood Networks and in school zones as resources permit. Publicize the stings to improve bicycle and motorist interaction.

Policy 2.2.4 A

Hot Zones Map: Develop and update annually a GIS-based map of crash data … that reflects the number and types of all collisions (auto, bicyclist, pedestrian) that are occurring throughout the City …

Objective: Direct funding dollars and improvements to locations with moderate to high SWITRS collisions particularly those along the Backbone Network and in school zones.

Policy 2.3.5 B

Bikeways Maintenance Program: Establish and implement a routine maintenance program which responds to the visual inspection reports for repair/removal of potential hazards, including but not limited to potholes, railroad crossings, inappropriate/unsafe storm drain grates, and gutter cracks. Prioritize the maintenance of streets on the Backbone and Neighborhood Networks.

Policy 3.1.3 B

Bicycle Plan Trust Fund: Establish a trust fund to collect project related trip-mitigation fees to be used for 2010 Plan project and program implementation. Prioritize the use of funds on the Backbone Network.

Policy 3.1.3 C

Standard Mitigation Measure Revision: Revise the standard mitigation measures to include contributions to the Bicycle Plan Trust Fund and/or the installation of bicycle facility improvements and/or bicycle amenities such as parking, internal bikeway paths, etc. Focus fund improvements on the Backbone Network.

Policy 3.2.5 D

Annual Bicycle Count: With the assistance of local bicycle groups, count the number and type (sex, age) of cyclists traveling on the Backbone and Neighborhood Networks each year.

Alex Thompson

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

4 thoughts on “LA’s Sexy Backbone

  1. It was sexy until I got to the fourth or fifth policy bullet point… then it got nerdy… and I had to stop reading to protect my future sexual prospects.

    I think that the future debate might be “What’s sexier: the Backbone or CicLAvia?” not that we have to choose… let’s do both, together!

  2. Gushing over the bike plan as a sexy handsome devil, while noting it is primarily about creating connectivity throughout the city, does little to east my mind that this bike plan is a bit too promiscuous and should have included safe routes to our various free clinics.

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