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.
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.
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.
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.
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.