Who’s the man behind the curtain of L.A. bicycling?

Sometimes it seems like the standard mantra of L.A. cyclists.

Ask the city’s bike riders who’s responsible for miserable state of L.A. cycling and the horrible lack of infrastructure in what should be one of the world’s best cities for biking, and chances are, you’ll hear one name come up far more than once.

Michelle Mowery.

After all, it’s an easy case to make. As LADOT’s Senior Bicycle Coordinator, she’s the highest-ranking bike official in the city bureaucracy. And she’s been on the job since the adoption of the still unimplemented 1996 bike plan.

A period during which the city striped a grand total of 46 miles of bike lanes — a whopping average of just 3.3 miles a year — only 28 miles of which were included in the ’96 plan. That compares to New York, which has created 200 miles of bike lanes in the last two years alone, and continues to stripe at a rate of 50 miles a year.

Just one problem, though. Love her or hate her — and I’ve heard from a number of people in both camps — she’s not the one responsible for the city’s continued failure to make room on the streets for bikes.

I dare you to find the Bikeways Department on this chart; click to enlarge.

The simple fact is, even though she’s the city’s top bike official, her position just isn’t that important in the LADOT hierarchy. She has no authority over the engineers who design the city’s streets and no real power to move any project forward.

In fact, LADOT considers the Bikeways Department she heads so unimportant that it doesn’t even show up on their own flowchart. It took master bike wonk Josef Bray-Ali to ferret out just how far down it truly ranks in the department’s structure.

Any project she recommends has to be planned and designed by the department’s notoriously car-centric engineering staff, and approved — or more likely, modified or killed — by someone higher up the food chain.

The simple fact is, even New York DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan or Long Beach Mobility Coordinator Charlie Gandy would probably be unable to accomplish anything within LADOT as it currently stands. Especially in the same low-level position Mowery holds.

From the outside, it’s impossible to tell if she’s the anti-bike obstructionist some people think she is. Or if she’s been fighting a 14-year losing battle on behalf of bikeways as others contend.

But considering that she was the driving force behind the City Council’s all-but-forgotten anti-harassment ordinance — remember that one? — it might be the latter.

Or at least somewhere in between.

So if Mowery’s not the one ultimately responsible for the city’s failure to support cycling, who is?

Meet John Fisher.

It would be easy to point the finger at LADOT General Manager Rita Robinson. As head of the department for nearly three years, she’s the one in charge.

In theory, at least.

Despite rave reviews for her role in reforming the Bureau of Sanitation before coming to LADOT, she has, by all indications, been unable to bring much needed change to the Department of Transportation.

Robinson’s problem, it would appear, is the same one Mowery faces.

She’s not an engineer.

So while she can give all the direction she wants, it’s ultimately up to the engineering staff to design the streets, and tell her what is — and isn’t — possible.

And the top engineer, and second in charge at LADOT, is John Fisher.

Now, don’t misunderstand. By all accounts, Fisher is a highly respected traffic engineer, recently featured in an interview with the Atlantic. But you only have to look at the streets of the L.A. to detect a significant pro-car bias in the 11 years he’s held his position, despite his protests to the contrary.

Why did my name become associated with this issue as Umberto Brayj suggests? To what did I respond “no”? I do not supervise the Bikeway Section. But I certainly support a bikeway network and well-developed bikeway amenities. I was the one who sponsored San Francisco’s experiment with sharrows and pushed to have it adopted by the California Traffic Control Devices Committee. I also supported Long Beach’s experiment with the green lane. Further, I was also personally involved in developing State guidelines to ensure that bicycles can be detected at intersections and that there is sufficient signal timing to accommodate them.–John Fisher

Of course, it’s one thing to support sharrows in San Francisco and quite another to paint them on the streets of his own city. I also haven’t seen any green lanes in Los Angeles; but then, it’s a big city, right?

Though I’d have to suspect that if Fisher really supported a bikeways network like he claims, we’d have one by now. And L.A. cyclists wouldn’t feel like they had to beat their heads against the wall just to get a few sharrows painted.

As Joe Linton, one of the city’s leading bike activists, put it in a response to Fisher’s comments:

It’s laughable that you’re suggesting that you’ve shown bike leadership by stating your role in projects located in San Francisco and Long Beach. If you’re into these sorts of projects, then implement them in the city where you work – Los Angeles.

It’s also telling that you call bikeways “amenities.” Amenities are things that are nice to have, but not really necessary. Bike and pedestrian facilities need to be treated as an integral part of a safe transportation system… not as amenities.

Most deceptive of all is your implication that you’re not responsible for bikeway projects because you “do not supervise the Bikeway [sic] Section.” Do you really think that Streetsblog readers are so unsophisticated that we don’t know that to implement on-street bike lanes, the Bikeways Section must get approvals from the operations folks that you supervise? It’s your operations engineers who say “no” to implementing on-street bike projects. This includes your staffer Ken Firoozmand who last year lied about LADOT’s plans to kill the Reseda Boulevard bike lanes. You have ultimate say over bikeways on L.A.’s roads, and for your tenure at LADOT, you’ve failed to create streets that are safe and convenient for bicycling and walking.

Or as the previously mentioned Mr. Bray-Ali put it:

When it comes time to install bike lanes by narrowing lanes, removing travel lanes, traffic calming, you guys jump around with “CEQA lawsuits” and “crosswalks are dangerous” talk. Menacing council staff with “policies” that don’t even exist…

The “Department of No”, the “Department of Yes, We Can’t” – these are nicknames you guys have earned through your actions. Why fight with the citizens you serve? Does the Institute for Transportation Engineers swear you guys into some sort of brotherhood from which there is no escape?

Then there’s this comment from Ramonchu in response to the Streetsblog article about Fisher’s Atlantic interview:

…The city has not a single street standard that reflects anything other than how much traffic to move through it. If Fisher were serious about any of this, which he absolutely is not, he’d be moving even half as fast as the NYCDOT, who painted 200 miles of bike facilities in 2 years…LADOT did just under 2 miles last year.

Fisher is the one name every bicyclists should learn and use; he’s the man who keeps your wife, sister, girlfriend and mother absolutely shocked that you ride a bike every day, as he regularly stonewalls bike-friendly projects that would get large numbers of people on their bikes. And, as someone who has a senior role, and has had a senior role for a long, long time, in an organization that controls streets that kill a number of people nearly equal to the homicide rate, I’d go so far as to say he’s a man with a large amount of blood on his hands.

So is John Fisher the one responsible for the department’s overwhelming focus on automotive throughput and the massive failure to implement the 1996 bike plan — let alone virtually anything else to support bicycling in Los Angeles, including the woefully watered-down first draft of the new bike plan intended to replace it?

The jury’s still out.

But it doesn’t look good.

If Mr. Fisher really supports bicycling, this would be a good time to step up and prove it. And get some paint on the street, pronto.

And if not, it’s long past time for the mayor to step in and do something about it.

Correction: As I have long said, if anyone finds an error in anything I’ve written, I am happy to correct it. As Alex Thompson points out, LADOT does not have an official #2 position — they have two. In the newly revised proposed L.A. bike plan, both Amir Sedadi and John E. Fisher are listed as Assistant General Manager, directly below Rita Robinson. However, as Thompson points, Sedadi is in charge of parking in the City of Los Angeles, and therefore unlikely to have any authority over biking infrastructure; Fisher is and remains the highest-ranking engineer within the department.

………

Speaking of sharrows, LADOT’s blog explains the what and why’s. LAPD will soon give higher priority to car vs. bike collisions. How to lock your bike to keep all or part of it from being stolen. Culver City’s two-year bike and pedestrian plan outreach ends this weekend. LAist says cyclists want action, not words, from the mayor. Pasadena’s famed Fork in the Road is finito. Green LA Girl tells you how to trade in your old bike on a new ride and turn an old jogging stroller into a bike trailer. The AIDS/LifeCycle ride will arrive in L.A. on Saturday. Some cyclists stop for red lights, and maybe the rest should. The Race Across America — a non-stop competitive ride across the continent — kicked off on Tuesday for women, Wednesday for men. Tucson police offer a free, voluntary website to register your bike in case of theft; not a bad idea for the LAPD to consider. D.C.’s new Pennsylvania Ave. bike lanes take space from cyclists to give back to angry drivers. Scotland needs to increase spending on bicycling projects, or risk missing their target of a 10% boost in ridership. Volunteer speed gun operators in the UK are startled by a naked cyclist; maybe he was just a few days early. A Canadian cyclist gets clotheslined by fishing line strung over a mountain bike path. An Aussie study shows that investing in a new bicycle network would deliver $3.88 for every dollar invested; thanks to the Trickster for the heads-up.

Finally, courtesy of our friends at Cyclelicious, having an angry dog on your wheel is bad enough, now imagine being chased by a bear — which can probably run faster than you can ride. Also from Cyclelicious, a look at former L.A. D.A. Gil Garcetti’s new book Paris: Women and Bicycles; you might know his son Eric.

13 comments

  1. Great introduction on How Things Work. Traffic engineers have learned through experience that seemingly innocuous innovations can have drastically unforeseen results, so traffic engineers and planners have learned to be very conservative and tip toe through changes.

    Thanks for the additional info about Gil Garcetti! I had no idea.

    • bikinginla says:

      One more bit of information about the Garcetti book. The foreward was written by our own Jen Klausner, executive director of the LACBC.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by LACM and LACM, Matthew Klekner. Matthew Klekner said: RT @LosAngelesCM: Who is responsible for the lack if bicycle infrastructure & delay in implementing 1996 Bike plan? http://alturl.com/g2z4 [...]

  3. Kevin says:

    Thanks for clarifying who may be responsible for LADOT failing to implement bike plans. Now, if you could clarify what your readers can do about it. Although, I agree with you that our mayor should do something, I’m curious as to what we as bicyclists (specifically me) can do. Are there specific people we should be writing to (who are they? how do we reach them?) and what specific things should we be focusing on (getting projects done, or getting unproductive people removed from positions of power, or getting productive people into positions of power… etc.)?

    • Joe Linton says:

      Ted may have other suggestions… but here’s what I’d say to do:

      1 – Join bike advocacy group/s that you value – donate to them. This includes LACBC, CICLE, Bikeside, League of Bicycle Voters, Streetsblog, etc.

      2 – Write to Mayor Villaraigosa and tell him that you support culture change at the LADOT. Mention John Fisher by name. Ask Villaraigosa to direct his LADOT leadership to implement bike facilities that are important to you. Send your letter to your local councilmember. Send a copy to bikinginla, too – maybe Ted can post it.

      John Fisher wants to be the General Manager of the LADOT, and unless he’s able to change his stripes and support safe places for bicycling, then bicyclists should make sure that he never becomes GM.

    • bikinginla says:

      Damn Kevin, you ask good questions. But while I was writing my answer, Joe beat me to it and took the words right out of my mouth.

      The key is to keep pressure on the mayor and City Council to move forward with biking projects and support a culture change at LADOT — whether that means getting the people who work there to truly support bicycling, or bringing in people who do.

      So write the Mayor and your council member, and it can’t hurt to cc: Rita Robinson so she knows that we’re fed up with the status quo and will support her in making real changes. And like Joe said, if you want to send a copy to me, I’ll be happy to post it online — and that goes for anyone else, too.

      If you’re not already a member, I’d strongly urge you to join the LACBC. While they may not make as much noise as other groups, they’re very effective at working behind the scenes to keep pressure on our leaders to support bicycling. And every person who joins adds strength to their arguments, while giving you a powerful voice in city hall. I’d also encourage you to sign up for the League of Bicycling Voters to put pressure on candidates at the ballot box, or to support any of the other groups Joe mentioned.

      And in the near future, we’ll take a look at ways we can reform LADOT to give more consideration to alternative transportation, including bikes. Or merge its operations into other departments and eliminate LADOT entirely.

  4. [...] when the LA Department of Transportation got busy… stalling and making excuses. Though the LADOT’s notoriously-bike-unfriendly Assistant General Manager John Fisher supported San Franc…, despite statewide approval, sharrows presence in the approved city Bicycle Master [...]

  5. [...] of LADOT, claiming that Fisher is ultimately responsible for Bikeways failures.  In “Who’s the man behind the curtain of L.A. bicycling?” Rogers, a board member for the LACBC, exonerates Michelle Mowery by arguing that she is not [...]

  6. ubrayj02 says:

    I think I know why Thompson is on you for this article. He’s probably established (or someone he works with, Stephen Box?, has established) some sort of relationship with Fisher that they don’t want to see ruined by our rabble rousing.

    Your criticism is spot-on, and instead of lame trash talk from Thompson I’d rather see a well explained “Don’t attack John Fisher because …” essay out of him.

  7. Nice work.
    Something I have always suspected that Mowery, while a convenient target, so low on the totem pole that she cannot bare the sole blame. Thanks for bringing together a lot of great research to help open this subject up.

  8. [...] office for 32 years, 8 years as the DA. He’s famous for prosecuting OJ. According to Biking In LA, his son is on the LA City [...]

  9. [...] his post “Who’s the man behind the curtain of L.A. bicycling?” Ted Rogers shifts the blame for LADOT’s cycling failures off Michelle Mowery and onto [...]

  10. [...] LADOT erupted in the blogosphere last summer.  Ted Rogers at Biking In L.A. called Fisher “the man behind the curtain” at LADOT and laid many of the city’s ills at his feet.  In response, Alex Thompson at [...]

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