“A vision to deemphasize cars” How Los Angeles is trying to reinvent itself – and why bikes are so important for that.
Ernesto Hernández-López is not just Professor of Law at Chapman University in Orange, CA, he’s also an avid cyclist. Combining profession and passion, he examined how Los Angeles’ vision for its future, the Mobility Plan 2035, is trying to change how Angelinos will live in the future and why it created major opposition among citizens.
We spoke to Mr. Ernesto Hernández-López about how the Mobility Plan 2035 is approaching the problems LA is facing, why people are opposing bike lanes, and what the future will look like – for LA and for other cities that might follow its example.
The interview was conducted by Tobias Finger.
Mr. Hernández-López, can you outline the traffic related problems that the city of LA is facing?
E. Hernández-López: The problems in LA can be traced back to the middle of the 20th century. After World War II, the city prioritized suburban development, single use homes that you can get to and away from with highways. In the 1970s, traffic reached levels that frustrated people. These frustrations have remained or grown. Fast forward to 2015, the city of LA is trying to tackle these problems by implementing a vision to deemphasize cars: the Mobility Plan 2035.
What does that plan look like?
E. Hernández-López: Part of it is instituting bike lanes. It also includes other things that aren’t very common in LA, for example public transport. That’s how the city is trying to plan for the next 20 years how it can reduce traffic. Not by building new roads but by getting people out of their cars.
So part of the Mobility Plan 2035 is to put a stronger emphasis on the bicycle as a means of transportation. What role does cycling play right now?
E. Hernández-López: Not a big one. And that’s ironic. Southern California is ideal from a biking perspective. In LA, 87% of the roads are flat. We have 300 days of favorable weather every year. And still, cities like Chicago or New York are far more supportive of biking. These cities and many more in North America have more developed urban biking cultures and more governmental support for biking infrastructure. Even though, most of these cities have long winters, more rain, and snow. Utilitarian biking has increased a bit in LA, too. But still, 84% of trips under three miles are taken by car.There needs to be a big change in how the city is structured and how people envision their means of transportation.
How is the Mobility Plan trying to achieve these goals?E. Hernández-López: The Mobility Plan structures decisions in the future. It doesn’t say: “We have this objective and we’ll do A, B and C to get there.” Instead it says: “20 years down the road, this is what we would like the city to be.” So when you have to make a decision in the future, it should always be aligned with this vision of the future. The Mobility Plan sets goals that balance various transportation means. This balancing includes pedestrians, shared roads, bike lanes, and public transportation in terms of buses or trains. The sad reality is though, that since the Mobility Plan went into effect in January 2016, the bike lanes that have been implemented are increasingly facing more political resistance.
Why is that?
E. Hernández-López: Because of what we call “road diets”. You have a road that is assumedfor motorized traffic and you re-purposesome of that space for a bike lane. So the car traffic pattern is re-routed or slowed down. That creates opposition. This resistance frames bike lanes as diets, something that people may be unwilling to undertake or something that’s forced by city leaders or impacting their protected road space for cars.
So it’s drivers who oppose the bike lanes?
E. Hernández-López: Biking in LA is still seen as fringe. For example, there is a group called Fix The City which represents developers and residents. Their argument is that bike lanes aren’t good because they take away space on the roads that is assumed to be, and that’s what it has been like for decades, reserved for cars. Granting that space to bikes doesn’t make sense to them. So they’re the first ones that will fight on a city government level or even go to court. Then there are people who complain that their daily commute will get worse because of a new bike lane that takes a car lane away although, according to them, biking isn’t even popular. And finally there are people who aren’t affected by bike lane implementation at all but have assumptions about who has protected access to public roads.
It seems like a big part of the problem is the mentality of the people.
E. Hernández-López: Very much so. It is pretty much assumed in LA and the US in general that cars are the default and that’s what roads are about.
What would you reply to those people?
E. Hernández-López: Most people in this country assume that more roads will decrease traffic. And that’s a misconception. The only thing that is going to decrease traffic is less cars out there and more people who use buses or trains or bikes or walk. Still, the toughest issue when convincing someone of bike lanes’ use, is that there is no way denying that someone who was used to having four lanes on their daily trip in a car will now spend 5 to 20 minutes more in their car. And that’s what really drives people crazy.
How can the Mobility Plan challenge peoples’ views?
E. Hernández-López: The Mobility Plan is not a transportation plan, nor is it a bike plan. Instead, it is trying to balance uses of streets and use of the city from many different aspects. If it was simply a bike plan it wouldn’t have gotten the support it received. Because it includes things like bike lanes, traffic calming or pedestrian infrastructure in the bigger packageof a vision,it makes the future city it envisionsrelatable for most residents.
In what ways would a shift in focus towards other means of transportation affect the city of LA and its citizens?
E. Hernández-López: Essentially, it would mean a different way of living. You put in some bike lanes, you increase leisure or recreational activities in the streets and people will come out of their cars. First the people who already biked before use the lanes, then bike sharing becomes a popular option and that makes other people start using bike lanes. Once they use them, they realize that what takes 45 to 70 minutes in everyday traffic only takes 15 minutes by bike. Maybe they don’t commute to work by bike but they go to the grocery store, visit friends or go to the park. That way it becomes a self-reinforcing process.
So more bike traffic would mean an improvement in quality of life for LA residents?
E. Hernández-López: Very much so. Biking nowadays is becoming something that has benefits not just for the cyclist, but for cultural aspects of the city: It helps people be more in tune with their community, the environment, traffic and health. But it’s more than something antagonistic as cars versus bikes. For example, LA has a big homeless population. With the Olympics 2028, the city is envisioning a huge change in how it is designed and portraying itself. It’s a great opportunity to restructure the city; to redevelop the currently unused river for recreation or housing, to implement bike lanes and public transport to create higher mobility, and to already realize parts of what the city wants to be in the future.
You have been comparing LA to other cities but it always posed as the negative side of the comparison. Let’s try it the other way around: To what extent can the efforts in LA to overcome traffic related problems serve as an example for other cities?
E. Hernández-López: Lots of big cities in the southern and western US that had their largest developments after the 1940s are structured similar to LA. Most of them are very car dependent, very spread out. Therefore people have the mindset that they need acar for every single trip. The lesson in LA with the Mobility Plan is that you should have a bigger objective 20 years down the road that you reach with conscious decisions. So other cities could say “That’s our future, that’s what we’re planning for, that’s what we want to be.” That may guide decisions better than just saying “Let’s put a bike lane here because it’s a popular route or a street that’s not used a lot.”
And you personally, what do you envision for the city in 2035?
E. Hernández-López: Ideally we would get a large increase in people who actually use bicycles as their everyday transport. For that, we need continuous bike lanes that can serve a purpose for people to get somewhere and to get back. This integrated view is the big benefit of the Mobility Plan. If LA could reach 5 to 10 % of daily trips by bike that would be a great achievement. But it’s going to take a lot of effort.
Read the full article “Bikes Lanes, Not Cars: Mobility and the Legal Fight for Future Los Angeles ” here.