As oil peters out, counties stagger under the financial burdens of suburban sprawl and ever-wider freeways devolve into soul-grinding parking lots as fast as we can build them, we are beginning to realize that the time has come for a change. Western U.S. cities have typically already surrendered up to 70 percent of their land surface to cars, yet it’s never enough. We need to let people move about without forcing them to take a car with them everywhere they go.
Going forward, the cities that move people more efficiently will gain a competitive advantage over cities that are mere traffic sumps – both in drawing the best people to live, work and buy there, and in costing less in taxes to maintain.
Although mass transit is vital, we need more. It is the bicycle that deserves a particular emphasis in Los Angeles. And it is the L.A. cycling community’s hopes for a “bicycle boulevard” on Fourth Street, from Hoover Street in the east to Cochran Avenue in the west, that could seed the Bicycle Millennium in our city.
Why the bicycle? What’s in it for us?
The modern bicycle was invented around 1880, only 20 years before the car – but it is a far more efficient technology. In fact, riding a bicycle is more energy-efficient than walking, requiring one-third the calories to move its practitioner four to five times as fast, and as far, as hoofing it.
A car outweighs its passenger by a factor of 22, while a bike weighs on the average one-sixth as much as its operator – which bespeaks a savings in the energy that goes into mining, smelting and manufacturing the vehicle.
The bicycle confers health upon its users, and doesn’t burden communities with fumes or noise, or obstruct public space.
All good things, yes – but what’s in it for businesses?
• Healthy, energized employees. Who will be more productive, someone who looks forward to their daily commute or someone who arrives prestressed by traffic jams?
• Less money spent providing parking. An on-street parking space these days costs more than $6,000; a slot in a parking structure costs from $30,000 to $70,000. If your business owns parking, you lose money. If your landlord owns it, he’ll charge you for it. If the city owns it, your taxes will go up.
• Less need for lane miles, which are expensive in more ways than one: First you build them, then you repair them, then the city loses the taxes that would have come from productive uses on that land.
• Money in retailers’ pockets. Studies in San Francisco and Toronto showed that while merchants believed that 70 percent of their customers came by car, when traffic was counted, it turned out that only 30 percent did so. Cars take up vast amounts of room; a street or structure filled with cooling metal doesn’t always translate into hotter sales. Each car, in real life, represents only one shopper. You can park 12 bicycles in the space of one car.
• Integration with mass transit, drawing more people to buses and trains. As the Transportation Research Board found in 2004: “Studies suggest that developments that incorporate bicycling and walking infrastructure in proximity with public transportation can reduce fiscal outlays of local municipalities towards roads and other infrastructure expansion by 25 percent.” This means lower taxes for you.
But why Fourth Street then?
Fourth is already a designated “bicycle-friendly street” – but so are dozens of others. However, Fourth, despite the abominable condition of its surface, is already being used by regular bicycle commuters in significant numbers. (A recent traffic count, comprising 11 hours spread over three weekdays, showed an average of more than 14 cyclists per hour already – with room for plenty more.) Fourth connects several distinct neighborhoods, from Miracle Mile in the west, through Mid-Wilshire, Larchmont, Hancock Park and Koreatown, to Westlake in the east. It parallels Wilshire Boulevard, Sixth Street and Third Street, and serves people of every race and income level, as well as thousands of businesses. All the streets in this area are heavily congested. Every commuter that bicycles down Fourth means that much less traffic, that much less stress, that much less burden on the public purse in this corridor.
In fact, making Fourth a true “bicycle boulevard,” with through car traffic filtered out by diverters and roundabouts, and dedicated bicycle-pedestrian crossings put in place at Rossmore Avenue and Highland Boulevard, would make the street more peaceful and pleasurable for its residents as well, whether they bicycle, walk or drive.
Fourth Street is the best present candidate for a remake as a bicycle boulevard, and could seed a network of inexpensive bicycle pathways of various grades throughout our city, leading to less stress, less expense, lower taxes and a better life for all.
Richard Risemberg is co-editor of the urban sustainability Webzine the New Colonist, publisher and editor of a bike commuter Webzine named Bicycle Fixation and owner of a small business that designs and manufactures clothing for bicycle commuters. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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