Los Angeles: A Tale of Two Bike Lanes

The scene of the battle: Figueroa Street runs for 30 miles north from the port of LA. Image: JM Rosenfeld via Flickr, re-used under creative commons.

It was the best of plans, it was the worst of plans. It was a plan hailed as a success, it was a plan that failed miserably. It was a plan that had won over those who’d been sceptical; it was a plan that once-supportive council members sent unceremoniously to the scrap heap. And, to top it all, both the biggest success and the biggest failure of Los Angeles’ plans for cycling infrastructure took place on the same street.

LA wasn’t always a driver’s town. In the 1920s, it had the longest urban rail network in the world, and innovative infrastructure was built for cyclists as well. Despite this, Angelenos fell in love with the car early on and moved for more highway projects, making it the road-based city it is today.

Lately, though, the city’s residents have become increasingly supportive of transportation projects that go beyond the car. In 2008, they voted for Measure R, which includes one of the most ambitious rail construction plans in the United States. Two years later, the city approved a bike plan that calls for 1,684 miles of bikeways.

All the same, implementing these plans has been slow going: voters who supported the creation of bike lanes in theory changed their mind when it came time to take away their precious car lanes or parking spaces. The Los Angeles Times estimates that, of the more than 1,600 miles of proposed bikeways, just 200 have been built.

One particularly acute case of this has occurred on one of the city’s most important roads, Figueroa Street. Though not as famous as other LA thoroughfares like Hollywood Boulevard, it’s a key artery for the city’s downtown, connecting the rolling hills of gentrifying Northeast Los Angeles with USC, the Coliseum, and the city’s distant port to the south.

The planned bike lane for Figueroa in Northeast Los Angeles has become a case study in exactly how much can go wrong with a seemingly good plan. In documents released in 2010, the area was listed as a priority. But after locals became hostile to the idea, councilman Gil Cedillo, who’d previously supported the plan, suddenly changed his mind; in July, the Los Angeles Times reported that Cedillo had halted all work on advancing the bike lane project. Citing concerns that adding bike lanes would restrict access to emergency vehicles, he added that cyclists are a “tiny but vocal segment of the population”.

Naturally, this didn’t go over well with the cycling community in Northeast LA. Josef Bray-Ali, owner of the well known Flying Pigeon bike shop and a vocal supporter of cycling infrastructure throughout the city, said of Cedillo, “We're going to have to get in his face non-stop, constantly…  I'm not going to back down.” Rick Risemberg, another advocate, accused Cedillo in a blog post of responding to pressure from those who don’t live in his district but do provide much of his financial backing.

As cycling advocates in Northeast LA regroup, perhaps they could learn from the tactics used to quell opposition to a scheme further south on Figueroa. In 2010, a plan for bike lanes along the two mile stretch between Downtown and the USC/Exposition Park complex, known as the MyFigueroa plan, began to take shape after a series of public meetings.

As with many other plans, the plan drew widespread, though diffuse, popular support. By contrast, its opponents were few, but dedicated – and, most importantly, rich. The website People for Bikes reported in April 2014 that the most visible face of opposition to the project was Darryl Holter, owner of eight car dealerships along the route, who vocally opined that the project would hurt his sales. But behind the scenes, other major local players, such as USC and the Natural History Museum, were dragging their feet, too. Though they publicly supported the plan, they also called for a traffic study that would jeopardise key funding for the project.

Fortunately for bike advocates, such opposition was overwhelmed by the strength of grassroots support. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition mobilised supporters to put pressure on the city council. The plan won backing, too, from others in the local business community and all five local neighbourhood councils. In March, the campaign found another ally at the very top of the city’s government: mayor Eric Garcetti. By May, opinion had turned and construction was under way; even Holter backed down, and withdrew his case.

It’s unclear whether this strategy would work in Northeast LA. Though this area was included in Garcetti's “Great Streets” plan, the mayor has stayed silent on the issue. Maybe the shadowy interests accused of manipulating Cedillo are more powerful than those further south along Figueroa. Nevertheless, this example has important lessons for all cities looking to build bike infrastructure. Car dependent cities elsewhere should take note. 

This article was amended on 18 August to correct some inaccuracies concerning Mayor Garcettie's "Great Streets" plan.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.