How to make car-centric Southern California safer for bicyclists

ByAshley Mackey and Grace Manthey KABC logo
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
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LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- To save money in graduate school, Adé Neff traded his car for a bike.

He said the switch highlighted the car-centric culture in Los Angles.

"People make you feel like you are nothing if you don't have a car in Los Angeles," Neff said.

But the "crazy" part of that, Neff said, is it shouldn't be that way.

"The climate in Los Angeles is the perfect climate to bike, year-round," he said.

Neff, the founder of Ride On bike shop in Leimert Park, now participates in bike-and-walk audits to survey the state of the bike and pedestrian infrastructure in South L.A. The shop puts on community events centered around cycling education, mobility and culture.

"It's taken a while for us to actually get the conversation around...this is really about lives, people's lives. People are being literally killed in the streets. People are dying, because they're walking, and they're riding their bikes." he said.

The impact of the cars vs. bikes battle isn't equal

Between 2018 and 2022, an average of 35 bicyclists died and more than 2,500 were injured in crashes each year, according to an ABC7 analysis of data from UC Berkeley's Transportation Injury Mapping System.

The team at nonprofit, BikeLA, found four common factors of deadly bike crashes in its 2023 Bicycle Safety Report.

Most crashes happened on roads with speed limits of more than 35 mph, or roads with three or more lanes in either direction. More than half occurred at night and most did not have bike infrastructure, like dedicated bike lanes.

ABC7's own analysis of roughly 170 fatal bike crashes between 2018 and 2022 found similar results: More than half occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and about 77% happened where there was no bike infrastructure.

More research by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) shows 65% of serious bike crashes happen on less than 20% of roadways.

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And more than 80% of these roads, called "High Injury Networks," are in underserved communities designated by the state or SCAG that have a higher share of people of color, low-income residents or areas that are vulnerable to multiple sources of pollution.

"Something that we've known for years at BikeLA is just the disproportionate impact on more vulnerable communities," said Eli Akira Kaufman, executive director of BikeLA.

Adé Neff said in South L.A., residents walk and bike out of necessity. Areas clustered around Downtown, Central and South L.A. have some of the highest rates of people without access to a car, according to census data. These communities tend to be lower-income and have more vulnerability to health and climate problems.

Click here to open this map in a new window

"And so with those things, it's a recipe for disaster," said Neff.

"If there's any infrastructure that's gonna happen in Los Angeles, it's not gonna happen in our communities for us, right? It's gonna happen where the affluent communities are...we've seen it, you know, constantly," Neff continued.

Bike lanes to nowhere

There are a lot of approaches to bike infrastructure.

Shared bike lanes have signage and symbols painted on the roads signaling to cars that bikes may be sharing the road. But there's no dedicated space for cyclists.

Brian Wolfe with the BikeLA team said shared bike lanes "do absolutely nothing to improve safety. They kind of just show that the bikes have the right to use the roadway."

Traditional bike lanes are dedicated lanes for bikes, usually separated by a white line on the road. Wolfe said these provide some improvement over shared bike lanes, but "we don't really see the safety in place until we get to these protected bike lanes."

Protected bike lanes have some sort of physical barrier between the bikes and the road, and sometimes they are built on the inside of parallel-parked cars, providing even more of a safety barrier from traffic.

But this infrastructure isn't built overnight, and building a safe bike network is more complicated than adding bike lanes on a few roads.

"There's all these bike lanes to nowhere," said Kaufman.

"So as a family rider, it's terrifying to be riding, feeling protected, feeling fully supported, and then suddenly being dumped off into a street that has no amenities, no regard for our lives on our bicycle," he continued.

Solutions: more money, more planning

Part of the solution to these "bike lanes to nowhere" is having a bike plan, said Kome Ajise, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments.

Bike plans describe how and when a local agency will design and implement bike infrastructure.

With 88 cities in Los Angeles County alone, not including the more than 100 unincorporated areas, Ajise said plans should be as holistic as possible, with at least the potential to work with other cities.

Because even if one city builds perfect bike and pedestrian infrastructure by itself, the paths can quickly connect to nothing unless the city works with neighboring cities to expand the projects.

But Ajise said many communities in the six SCAG counties do not even have bike plans.

"Not because they don't want to. It's just a resource issue," Ajise said.

So, SCAG steps in.

"We work with our communities to help them address the funding that the state puts out. And then we also have at the regional level some amount of funding," he said.

BikeLA received some of that funding in the form of SCAG's Go Human program in 2021.

The program aims to "support street-level community resiliency and increase the safety of people most harmed by traffic injuries and fatalities," according to SCAG's website.

The funding provided by programs like Go Human "is essential for us to do this type of research, conduct this type of policy work, and actually get people on bikes," said Kaufman.

For Neff, more people on bikes is essential to changing the car culture of Los Angeles.

"I think a big part of this issue for me is that most of the people that work on these issues, are doing it from behind the wheel of a car. They're not walking, they're not biking. So they don't know what the experience is," he said.

"There's a lot of people in LA that do not have a choice, they have to walk and take public transportation, and they have to ride a bike. I was one of those folks. And what I would say is to actually listen to the folks and actually experience it a little bit, right? And then you see what really needs to happen," Neff said.