Monday, October 2, 2017

Sustainable Transportation around UCLA: The way forward after the I-405 Widening

Below is the text we have shared with the members of the Westside Council of Governments, which is meeting early October to discuss the Westside Mobility Study Update.

The arrival of the Purple Line and the Olympic Village at UCLA offer important opportunities to improve transportation, environment and public health in the region around UCLA. The UCLA Bicycle Academy sees the need for a nimble regional entity which works closely with the campus and can better support those who would get around without a car. A complex network of overlapping authorities, sometimes called a "bureaucratic quagmire", has made it very difficult to improve connectivity for sustainable modes. The COG itself helps to overcome these barriers, but we would like to see a more dedicated focus on healthy and sustainable modes in the region around UCLA. The campus would play an important role in this effort. It creates most trips in the region, including some 50.000 weekly ride-share trips to campus. UCLA also has a track record of supporting healthy ways of getting around. The expertise among its administrators and faculty should become part of a long-term program to improve transportation options in the region. We ask the COG to investigate if such a round table would improve its ability to deliver improvements for active and healthy modes.

The Background:
The I-405 widening project had a singular focus: Adding more car lanes. It failed to follow the Complete Streets Policy Caltrans adopted in 2008. Today, the interstate has become a massive barrier between Westwood and Brentwood, severing UCLA from its hinterland, forcing people use the car for very  short distances. Sepulveda Blvd mocks us with a cruel grin that lacks sidewalks and bike lanes. Nobody represented future residents on the VA property who want to walk or wheelchair to Westwood away from the dangerous roar of a sea of fast cars. Residents are eager to do the right thing for the environment and for their health. But those soaring ramps and bridges which cross Wilshire so elegantly have become the Arc de Triomphe of Motordom, a stark reminder of what happens when traffic planning ignores the needs of those who would get around without a car.

The way forward: 
We envision an entity which can refresh bike markings across administrative borders, trim hedges without a long waiting period and has funding to implement non-controversial improvements fast. It would also offer a mechanism for walkers and riders, the real experts on our street, to give feedback and call for small improvements. Overlapping authorities need to work together in the long term to make walking and cycling more attractive in the area around UCLA. After 1.6 billion dollars have purchased our cars a few more lanes across the Sepulveda path, now it is time to facilitate a well coordinated regional effort supporting sustainable modes. Funding for such a regional forum could come from Measure M. It should also be able to apply for 3rd party funding for regional non-motorized improvements around UCLA. We believe that such a forum would be able to remedy the negative consequences of the I-405 widening in the region around UCLA.

This is a pretty comprehensive ask. We want to see UCLA play a more significant role in transportation planning in the area. We also want to see a streamlined process for minor maintenance and safety improvements. We also want to see new funding for demonstration projects, for safety studies or for workshops to develop new ideas to support and encourage healthy and sustainable modes in the region around UCLA. The COG is an appropriate forum for such projects, because it ensures the co-ordination and collaboration between jurisdictions. If the COG becomes convinced that the I-405 has become a massive barrier for pedestrians in the region, then it would be only natural for them to reach out to the Rep Ted Lieu and ask him to raise the issue in Washington. Then we could see a path forward to remedy the negative impacts of the I-405 widening and get our region back on the path towards healthy and sustainable transportation. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bring on the Experts: Bicycles: Yielding (AB 1103) for more health and cleaner air

California is a big deal. Just behind the US, China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom, our state is the sixth largest economy in the world. They do a lot of driving here in California, 327 770 million miles to be precise. All this driving is a big problem for air quality, and for communities which are hurt by traffic. Moreover, all those cars discourage and prevent people from using active and healthy modes like the bicycle.

Traffic planning has facilitated and encouraged cars for more than 100 years. Little wonder that those who want to use active modes, for their own health or for the health of the environment, confront plenty of hurdles and barriers. Plenty of them! On Westwood Blvd and elsewhere.

But now the law-makers in Sacramento have come out with a new plan. It is called AB 1103 Bicycles: Yielding. On February 17, 2017 Assembly Members Obernolte and Ting, supported by Senator Wiener, Assembly Members Bloom, Chávez, and Kiley (@JayObernolte @PhilTing @Scott_Wiener @RichardBloom @AsmRocky @KevinKileyCA) introduced a proposal for a bill which would bring the so-called Idaho-Stop to California. It would allow those who are riding a bicycle to treat a stop sign as a yield sign. The proposal states:

When the law was introduced in Idaho in 1982, it was shown to reduce collisions involving people on bikes. It is not a provision to blow through stop signs. It is an arrangement that takes into account the 360% visibility enjoyed by the person on the bike, and the ability to hear approaching vehicles. There are no A-pillars or windows on the bike. The law also takes into account that, compared with a motor vehicle, the bicycle poses much less of a danger to other road users. It would also end the annoying intersection confusion that often occurs when a cyclist comes to a full stop, finds himself waved through, but then needs to co-ordinate with drivers from other directions. 

I have a dozen of these signs on my own commute to UCLA. As an occasional unicyclist, I have mastered the art of trackstand to the degree that I can do red lights and stop signs without putting my feet on the ground, rolling back and forth slowly, regardless of wind and now also with onlookers. I will miss the opportunity of show off my tricks, but this law is not about me. 

It is about those Californians who would ride a bicycle but have been put off by a infrastructure which does not project safety, and by a legal system that does protect cycling. The law (and enforcement) fails vulnerable road users in many ways: It does not offer presumed liability, it fails to address the epidemic of hit and run collisions, and vehicle based enforcement by police remains structurally blind to the dangerous wave of distracted driving which we have to contend with when cycling. AB 1103 could be the moment when the legal system takes the most vulnerable road users out of the shadow. But the point of this proposal is not that it would legalize a widespread practice on the road, the real point is that it would and could encourage more people to try healthy and sustainable modes for the many short trips Californians drive. Aggrieved voices from behind a steering wheel feel this proposal gives those on a bike an unfair advantage: But the advantage of the California Yielding will be available to all drivers, they just need to get on a bike. 

Indeed, the true value of this law may well be the public discussion it will produce. This is a good discussion to have, to underline the urgency for more sustainable modes and less driving. When we bring this issue in front of 39 million Californians, each of whom is driving 14.000 miles a year, where more than 40% of all trips are less than 5 miles long, some insight may well occur, some lights my be switched on, and some drivers my venture outside their comfort zone and try how it feels to take advantage of the privilege California Yielding will afford to those heroes who pedal in traffic. 

Which brings us to the main question: How many lights will this proposal be able to switch on? How much enlightenment can a public discussion like this produce? Indeed, how many of the 327 770 million miles driven in California will be replaced by miles pedaled as a consequence of the law, and the simplification it offers for those who chose to do the right thing? How many more miles pedaled?

How will the public react? How much encouragement is in this new law? That then is the big question for the public health experts: Will AB 1103  yield 1 million, 2 million, or 20 million additional bike miles a year? Can we please urgently get a rough estimate from the experts? And would they be so kind to translate these additional miles cycled into air quality benefits, and translate them into health costs not incurred? How many premature lives not lost? And what would be the value, in  millions of  $, of carbon emissions avoided? What would be the value of health benefits achieved by these additional active modes? In millions of $ please. 

These figures are urgently required. They can help to structure the public discussion about the proposal. And they can teach even the most dedicated motorhead that there is real money to be gained from giving your people on bikes a legislative leg up.