Let’s not let oversized, inefficient SUVs get in the way of much needed bike lanes on Main Street

A proposed road diet could turn this...

Let’s talk road diets.

Or more precisely, let’s talk about the one LADOT proposes for Main Street in Venice.

Following the disastrous reception the Wilbur Avenue road diet generated in the Valley last year, with motorists outraged by the loss of their high-speed, cut-though commuter route — regardless of the benefits or safety for the people who actually live there — LADOT has gone out of their way to engage the public on Main.

And yes, in advance, this time.

Go figure.

Unlike Wilbur, where the arguments for and against the road diet took place after it was installed with no public notice, LADOT reached out in advance in an attempt to build support beforehand. But this time, instead of drivers complaining about the loss of a through lane slowing them down, or having to find an alternate route to one that was never intended as a cut-through commuter route, the complaints came from cyclists who didn’t like the plan’s specifications.

Valley, meet Venice.

And this...

That negative response from some people was surprising, because the road diet merely takes the street design that already exists in the Santa Monica section and extends it south to the Venice portion between Navy and Windward Circle.

So if you want to see what a difference a road diet can make, just take a ride between Windward Circle and Pico Blvd. Or vice versa.

Night, meet day.

I usually bike Main at least once a week; more in the summertime when the crush of tourists and locals out for a little sun make the beachfront bike path virtually impassible for anyone wanting to move above a slow walking pace.

And yes, like most of the bike lanes in Santa Monica, they’re far from perfect. More than once I’ve found myself dodging flung doors and swerving to avoid drivers casually pulling into and out of parking spaces, with no concept that the narrow band of paint on the street next to them might possibly suggest the presence of bikes.

Into this.

After all, why would anyone expect to find bikes in a bike lane?

But despite the fears expressed by some, I’ve never had any problems — with drivers or police — moving out of the bike lane when necessary to avoid obstacles real or imagined.

When time allows, I give a little signal — not quite a full extension of my left arm to avoid confusion that I intend to make a turn, but more of a three-quarter point to the left to suggest that I’m just coming out a little. Then I give a quick wave when I pull back over to thank the drivers behind for giving me a little space.

And I find drivers on the narrowed Santa Monica section far more willing to concede a little road space than on the wider, higher speed stretch to the south.

In fact, the stretch of Main between Rose and Abbot Kinney (called Brooks on the map) is the only road I ride regularly where I legitimately fear for my safety. Between impatient bus drivers, motorists hell bent on remaining well north of the speed limit and clueless beachgoers cruising for free parking — yeah, good luck with that — I’ve probably had more close calls there than anywhere else.

I’ve learned to ride aggressively there. I take the lane and keep my speed above 20 mph, merging into the flow of traffic. Yet still cringe as drivers blow by at over twice my speed, and bus drivers ride my ass so they can lurch to a stop just a few feet up the road. Or sometimes crowd me out if I continue past Abbot Kinney where the road gets narrower.

Which makes me wonder why anyone would prefer the dangerous, bike-unfriendly situation we have now to the much calmer, though admittedly not perfect, situation just a few blocks north in Santa Monica.

As it turns out, that’s not really the case.

For the most part, even most of those who oppose the current plan don’t advocate doing nothing. But other proposed solutions, such as traffic calming or separated bike lanes, while they might be preferable, aren’t viable in the current budget crunch and would require years before they could be implemented, while the proposed plan requires nothing more than a little paint and can be implemented almost immediately

That leaves advocates doing complex math to divide up the street to come up with a better solution, debating the merits of a 10 foot motor vehicle lane and 6 foot bike lane, as opposed to the proposed 11 foot vehicle lane and 5 foot bike lane.

LADOT prefers the 11 foot lane to accommodate all those wide buses, fearing that a rider traveling near the outer edge of the bike lane could risk getting mirrored by a passing bus. And having had sufficient experience with bus drivers in that area, I would contend their fears are well-founded.

I won’t reargue the merits of the various widths and configurations; you can find virtually every possibility debated in the comments on Damien Newton’s always excellent coverage of the story. Although as noted above, I have a strong preference for anything that will keep those bus mirrors away from my head.

But here’s the thing.

The entire debate hinges on the width allowed for parking, and the risk posed by the swinging doors of oversized SUVs.

LADOT’s plans call for a 5’ bike lane next to a 7’ parking lane — which means that all those Hummers, Escalades and Navigators so popular in L.A. would offer only a few inches of clearance if perfectly parked, or actually extend into the bike lane if parked like most people do in the real world. And their massive doors would block virtually the entire bike lane when carelessly flung open.

To some, that’s reason enough to kill the road diet and live with the dangerous situation we already have, preferring the devil we know to the one we know just up the street.

But consider this.

According to a study from San Francisco, 85% of all vehicle doors extend less than 9.5 feet from the curb.

Which means we’re concerned about the problem posed by just 15% of drivers who have more money than sense, and are willing waste their resources on the biggest, most expensive, least efficient and most dangerous-to-everyone-else private vehicles on the road.

Then consider that such a vehicle would have to be parked next to the bike lane, and occupied, at the exact moment you pass by. And just happen to fling open a door at exactly the wrong time.

That’s not to say it can’t happen. It happened to me on Abbot Kinney just last year.

But I would contend that the risk is a hell of a lot smaller than the danger posed by the speeding and frequently distracted drivers just a few blocks down the street.

As Joe Linton points out, with or without bike lanes, many — if not most — cyclists will continue to ride in the door zone, preferring the perceived safety zone next to the parked cars to what they see as the scarier, if actually safer, space further out into the lane.

So here’s my suggestion.

Let’s take a foot from the center turn lane, narrowing it from 10’ to 9’, as Linton proposed in his comment above, and add 6” to the bike lane on either side.

But then take it a step further.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no requirement that any car be allowed to park anywhere and everywhere. So let’s ban those massive SUVs and other oversized vehicles from parking along the curb on Main Street.

Do as other cities around the country have done for decades, and paint a line on the street 6’6” from the curb — wide enough to accommodate all but the widest cars and trucks — then ticket any parked vehicle that crosses it.

That will not only effectively ban big vehicles from parking there, but also force all other drivers to park close to the curb without encroaching on the bike lane.

They can find parking somewhere else. Call it their penance for buying a massive motorized behemoth like that to begin with.

After all, if you can’t ban an inefficient SUV in environmentally conscious Venice, where can you?

Yes, there’s a lot of room for improvement in the plan.

But even if we build the road diet exactly the way LADOT proposes, it will make the southern section of Main Street significantly safer than it is now. And provide a more livable, complete street that will benefit everyone who lives, works or goes to school nearby, while encouraging more people to venture out onto their bikes.

So lets try to improve the plan.

But not kill a good project simply because it’s not a perfect one.

.………

Before I forget — again — a friend of a friend is planning a new line of handmade bike accessories, and would like your opinion on exactly what cyclists might want. So please help me make it up to her by taking a couple minutes to complete this quick survey.

After all, it’s not like I’ve been distracted lately or anything.

10 comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SBBikeCoalition and Christopher Kidd, Ted Rogers. Ted Rogers said: Should cyclists sacrifice a much need road diet and bike lanes to accommodate oversized SUVs? http://bit.ly/hONT8p #bikeLA [...]

  2. The only reason bicyclists ever have to ride at the far left of a bike lane is precisely because we design door zone bike lanes. If the bike lane were wider and the other vehicle lane narrower, it would cause drivers to track their centering to the left further, giving cyclists more breathing room.

    As it is on most road diet bike lane treatments in Santa Monica, drivers have to merge into the center turn lane in order to give a cyclist a safe passing distance because cyclists are forced to the left of the bike lane. While the speeds are more tempered on say Broadway than Colorado, I get way less passing distance on Broadway.

    Lanes for any vehicle should be designed so that riding in the center of the lane is the safest place to be. Only with lanes for bikes do we design so that the center lane position makes you a prime target for being hit.

    Since many cyclists who crash from dooring do not report the incident to police, and police data is really all we have, we really have no definitive clue how safe or dangerous these minimum standard bike lanes are.

    I would prefer a bike lane over sharrows, but I would prefer sharrows over a bike lane which forces cyclists to hug the left 4 inches of the bike lane to be in a safe position.

    Something that was interesting to me, was some of the best passing distance I have ever gotten as a cyclist was months back riding Santa Monica Blvd. when it was resurfaced, and no lines were yet painted. Drivers passed with the distance that felt right rather than operating on auto pilot according to lines. It felt pretty glorious actually.

    I’d like to do some measurements, but I think with parking present you would find in some parts of Main St. the right lane is already less than 11 ft. wide.

  3. anty says:

    Something I’ve wondered about as I dodge the poorly parked cars that stick out in the Sunset Blvd bike lane or the garbage cans that fill up the Griffith Park Blvd bike lanes on trash day–is it even possible to issue tickets for blocking a bike lane? I’d love to see it enforced, but it’s my impression that it’s (unfortunately) totally legal.

  4. @ anty – I seem to remember that exact issue being brought up w/ Sgt. Krumer at a BAC meeting. If my memory holds, he said LAPD can ticket cars in the bike lane but not trash cans since they’re under Sanitation (not 100% sure about the second part). It’s definitely an issue.

    @ Ted – thanks for covering the issue. We’re working w/ Geometrics, CM Rosendahl’s office, and the Venice NC to see if we can adjust the roadway design to give bikes a little more room.

    • bikinginla says:

      You’re partly right in your response to anty. A bike lane is considered a traffic lane, just as the lanes to its left are; and just like those, it’s illegal to block them. Police can ticket any vehicle that blocks a bike lane without a permit — and could even ticket those jerks who place traffic cones in the bike lane to protect their doors. And yes, you can report it, though I wouldn’t expect it to be a high priority.

      The problem comes with things like trash cans. They aren’t registered and don’t have license plates, so they can’t be ticketed and determining ownership is a problem. Then there’s the issue of who put them there; it might have been the owner, it could have been the sanitation workers, or it could have been anyone passing by. We all know who is most likely to be responsible, but proving it legally is another matter.

      Best advice is to call the police, and contact LADOT to complain as well. And call your council member’s office as well, and keep on them until things change.

  5. Eric B says:

    The problem isn’t even about the oversized vehicles. It’s a simple math problem. Let’s take the 9’6″ door-width that 85% of cars are less than. That means that someone getting out of the car will take up all 7′ of the parking lane and then 2’6″ of a 5′ bike lane, leaving another 2’6″ free of the door zone for 85% of parking events.

    Should I feel delighted to have 2’6″ of width in which to ride my bike? Let’s see, I ride a road bike with 42cm bars–that’s a little under 18″. Most mountain bikes are around 2′. That leaves 6″ of clearance total between 85% of parked cars and moving vehicles to the left. I don’t know of any casual bike rider that has that has enough precision to avoid drifting 3″ off his/her line in either direction to remain in a DOT-approved position. Yes, most experienced cyclists will ride to the left, but that kind of defeats the purpose of a bike lane. All of this assumes that riders are not thrown off their line in reaction to doors swinging or drivers buzzing. Even if you’re riding out of the door zone, ever had a door open toward you and not flinched? I’d hate for that to happen with a bus in the next lane over taking full advantage of their spacious 11′ lane. If we’re not designing this for casual riders, then who is it for?

    If we expect motorists to pass with 3′, shouldn’t at least some of that 3′ be part of the bike lane so that the right lane marker actually guides drivers away from the bikes?

    None of this is to say that we shouldn’t build bike lanes in general or this project in particular. But, if we are really taking car capacity and dedicating the road space to bikes, can we at least give the bikes a space that actually fits them?

    I do believe that bike lanes are the better choice for this street than sharrows, although I remain a fan of sharrows in general. I will note, however, that the sharrows on Abbot Kinney are working well, mostly due to the ability to pass using the center median.

    I think it’s reasonable for bike riders to assume that bicycle infrastructure will place them in a safe location on the road. Before even talking about oversized vehicles, we’ve already established that fully half of the bike lane isn’t even for bikes. Heck, even Santa Monica’s experience has documented the problems with their current configuration.

    As an aside, LA has yet to actually try a decent application of sharrows. The paint doesn’t fully communicate the message to cars without the accompanying CAMUTCD-approved “Bikes May Use Full Lane” sign as seen in Hermosa Beach and elsewhere. This doesn’t even get to the level of Long Beach, but I know that pilot is a dirty word at LADOT. If you go see Hermosa, you’ll find beach cruisers moseying along smack in the middle of the right lane and drivers leaving them well enough alone.

    Those that make it over to the Streetsblog comment section will note that I also talk about groups of bicyclists (be it 5 or 75) that go through there all the time.

    So, in summary:
    Who is this lane for?
    Does it meet their needs?

    I’d argue no for the second question unless we can get a serious commitment for additional width from LADOT.

    Also, Ted, I ride Main Street (both SM and LA portions) on a near-daily basis both in the morning and at night. I’ve never had a problem taking the lane because most traffic stays in the left lane anyway. (Motorists don’t like driving in the door zone either.)

    The street is badly in need of a road diet in general. I saw a T-bone occur on Sunday afternoon which would likely have been avoided if lanes were better defined and speeds lower.

  6. [...] amounts of virtual ink spilled (from this blog, to Streetsblog – twice,to the LACBC blog, to Biking in LA, to Gary Rides Bikes, to Yo!Venice, and even the LAist), and the BAC also wanted to weigh [...]

  7. Technology says:

    I saw a T-bone occur on Sunday afternoon which would likely have been avoided if lanes were better defined and speeds lower.

  8. Mark says:

    Ridiculous suggestions in this blog post.

    I drove a Cadillac sedan recently. The doors were HUGE. I couldn’t believe how far out they swung. I own a Hummer H3. The doors are entirely normal in size.

    Your hatred of SUVs is causing you to see things irrationally.

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