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LA, Metrolink Work Toward Bike-Friendly City

Agnus Dei Farrant |
December 14, 2011 | 7:20 p.m. PST

Senior News Editor

2010 Bicycle Plan (photo by Agnus Dei Farrant).
2010 Bicycle Plan (photo by Agnus Dei Farrant).

A city infamous for its traffic congestion and reliance on cars is slowly getting an overhaul to accommodate different forms of transportation – bicycling in particular. Los Angeles’ Metrolink that travels throughout Southern California now has rail cars designated for bicycle storage. Additionally, the department of city planning is working to refigure street standards to accommodate different modes of transportation.

Metrolink modified 13 existing rail cars, removing 30 seats from the bottom level and replacing them with bike racks. Each bike car can hold up to 24 bikes, compared to the standard rail car that can hold two.

Metrolink’s media and public relations manager, Sherita Coffelt, said that the company worked with bicycle advocates and the Federal Railroad Administration to design the cars.

Coffelt identified transportation to and from train stations as an obstacle for riders.

“Say you have two miles to your home and three miles from your job,” Coffelt said. “You can bring your bicycle and ride it from your home to the train stop, get on the train, get off the train and ride your bike three more miles. It’s a healthy way, you can save money by not buying gas and it’s more feasible than having to walk five miles every day to and from a station.”

Two rail cars were altered at first as a pilot program on Inland Empire routes.They were unveiled Nov. 10. Metrolink altered 11 more after seeing many riders use the bike cars. One bike car remains on standby while 12 others ride the rails.

Coffelt said that because train car sets become different route numbers once they arrive at a destination and receive a new destination, the 12 bike cars see more use. They make up 30 percent of Metrolink’s weekday trains.

She said that she has received mostly positive feedback but not a 100 percent approval rate.

Some riders were upset that they could not sit on the bottom level of the rail cars. Coffelt said signs were attached to the bike cars so riders wouldn’t be surprised.

“We’ve had some people say, ‘Why did you change these to bicycle cars? You don’t have enough bicycles to fill the need yet,’” Coffelt said. “And we know where they’re coming from. But our thinking is that if we build it, they will come. We think we have to accommodate the future of transportation. With the congestion levels in Los Angeles, more people are going to begin looking for alternative methods of transportation, we just wanted to be ready to accommodate that trend.”

Rider Aaron Blanton of Buena Park got on a standard rail car to L.A.’s Union Station with his bike. Blanton was riding Metrolink to work after his car broke down but said he would likely ride again because the cars accommodated his bike.

“This is actually my first time taking the train, but it was really nice I could bring my bike,” Blanton said. “I didn’t know they only allow two [per car], I was just going to put my bike there anyway. It’s cool that it encourages more exercise, I think that’s really important.”

Josh Ashenmiller of Eagle Rock also rode Metrolink with his bike. He hasn’t been on a designated bike car yet, but said he loved the idea.

“It’s good because the more space means the less of a chance that someone will be left behind which is always my fear,” Ashenmiller said. “It hasn’t happened to me yet but if I were coming from the other direction there would be more commuters. I’m going toward L.A. in the afternoon, most people are coming from L.A. in the afternoon.”

Ashenmiller has been riding Metrolink and Amtrak rail cars with his bike for six years.

“L.A. has the most accessible bike weather, the pavement is dry almost every day of the year,” he said. “Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s hot but it’s always good for biking. There could be more bike lanes and more bike paths but as I understand it, they’re working on it. From my perception, it’s getting better and better.”

The plan Ashenmiller looks forward to is the city’s updated bicycle plan. The bicycle plan is a required chapter of the general plan’s transportation element.

The bicycle plan originated in the 1970s with an end goal of 600 miles of bicycle facilities. These facilities would be made up of bike lanes, routes and bike-friendly streets. Only about 300 miles of the proposed plan were built. The city attempted again in the 1990s but again the plans failed.

In order to implement the bike miles, the city must analyze the impacts of the change to the environment according to the California Environmental Quality Act. The city must evaluate how changes to the roadway will effect changes on traffic.
L.A. Department of City Planning city planner Claire Bowin said that they are not forced to evaluate the impact on bicyclists, pedestrians or transit riders.

“We think that’s a problem because if we’re going to refigure our street standards to be accommodating of other modes, but all we continue to do is evaluate the impact of those changes on traffic, we’re never going to be able to make those changes,” Bowin said.

The bike plans in the past failed partly because the plans were written by the planning department, she said. Though the department recognized there were constraints by the environmental analysis, it never put in steps and resources to help implement them and work through the analysis. She said the department of transportation was left to put in bicycle lanes only where the space accommodated them without having to do the environmental work.

The new 2010 bike plan has an end goal of 1,680 bike miles and includes a series of programs about infrastructure, roadways and education.

“We think it’s really critical that not only bicyclists but pedestrians and drivers learn to navigate with bicyclists,” Bowin said. “Bicyclists also need to learn the rules of the road. Our police department needs to be more trained about what the rights and responsibilities are for bicyclists. We also need to do more programs geared at incentivizing people to ride.”

The 1,684 miles are broken up into three networks: green, neighborhood and backbone. The green network is focused on building off road bicycle paths. The backbone network is focused on completing 600 miles of bike-friendly arterial streets. About 200 of those miles exist today.

“We want to create a whole connected system of arterial streets that have bicycle lanes,” Bowin said.

The neighborhood network is focused on creating 600 miles of bike-friendly local streets.

“A local street might be only one lane each way today so you’re not going to take room out of that to put a bicycle lane,” Bowin said. “Traffic is slower on those lanes anyway, so it’s more accommodating for a family or any level of bicyclist. It’s about slowing traffic on those streets.”

Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition’s (LABC) planning and policy director Alexis Lantz said the bicycle plan took three years to develop and is a huge undertaking that will take 35 years to complete. The plan implements approximately 40 bike miles per year.

“It’s great to see such a range of projects from paths to bike lanes to bicycle-friendly streets and bike routes,” Lantz said. “The ones we’re really interested in are the bicycle-friendly streets and the bike lanes because we want to see more people of all ages get out and cycling.”

Lantz said the LABC compared bike counts from 2009 and 2011 where they studied 17 intersections. They saw a 32 percent increase in cycling at those locations.

Not only does LABC want to see a rise in cycling, but in the variety of cyclists.

“Right now in Los Angeles, according to the census, the majority of people cycling are men,” Lantz said. “I think 18 percent of people that ride to work are women. The literature tells us that better bicycle infrastructure – having bike lanes and protected bike lanes – is what attracts more women riders, younger and older riders.”

Lantz said LABC wants to see the city get away from developing bike routes to eventually developing comprehensive infrastructure seen in places like New York, Portland, Chicago, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

“We’re looking at how do we not only get bike lanes on the street but get better bike lanes that make moms and dads feel safer cycling with their kids or your 75-year-old grandfather feel comfortable cycling to the senior center,” Lantz said. “So how do we create streets safe for people ages 8 to 80?”

While Lantz identified infrastructure as the primary problem, Bowin said L.A.’s sprawling size and car culture are hurdles to overcome.

She said the streets are very wide, making it daunting for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit riders.

“When we do spend money to put these things in, it’s a drop in the bucket,” Bowin said. “If you put in bike lanes downtown, then unless you work downtown and you’re in the area, you’re not going to see them or get to use them. So you have to spend a lot of money doing these things over and over again.”

She said that L.A. has so many people that, because they love their cars so much, they don’t want to give up parking or lanes for bicycle lanes.

“There are a lot of challenges we still face. There is this growing movement and that’s really exciting but we are aware this is still going to be a challenge.”

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Reach senior news editor Agnus Dei Farrant here.

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