In many cities throughout North America — and especially in Los Angeles — there’s a street fight over shared public space. Up until 100 years ago, streets served everyone — people walking, people on bikes, people on horses, people taking public transit. Basically, streets existed for the greatest good — to serve as many people as possible. Then, with the introduction of mass market, more affordable cars, everything changed. All of a sudden, we started redesigning our cities to serve not people, but cars. This graphic does a great job of explaining the progression:
Today, there is a renaissance of planning for more livable cities. While many in cities may want to, and even need to drive, citizens also want breathable air, streets that are safe enough to cross, a city that’s quiet at night, transportation options, and vibrant, lively communities. And a simple, inconvenient fact remains — having a livable city is incompatible with having a car-centric city. Cars simply take up too much space and move too few people in the space they occupy. In addition, they cause all sorts of issues, from traffic violence to poor air quality to raising the cost of rent.
Especially in Los Angeles, this is a “third rail” type of political issue. Because LA — whether by choice or unwittingly — dismantled its public transportation system, built highways through its neighborhoods, and created ordinances that guaranteed a surplus of parking (LA County has 18.6 million parking places for 10.2 million residents). Most Angelenos (myself included) grew up with the car being the obviously and only choice. You turned 16, you got a drivers license, and you begged, borrowed, saved for, or were given access to a car. I have memories of my mom driving us 5 blocks from our house to the Westside Pavilion to grab a bite in the food court — today, it sounds absurd to me. But back then, it was just normal, as mocked by this clip from Steve Martin’s L.A. Story:
I used to be addicted to my car —just ten years ago, I was the guy that drove a few blocks to the grocery story and complained there wasn’t enough parking when I got there. Because I used to be on the other side of this issue, I’m in a unique position to empathize with the plight of people that drive and simply see no alternative to doing so (and therefore fight every inch of change). I’ve also educated myself on the topic — from starting Streets For All to reading books like Streetfight, The Mechanical Horse, Happy City, The Big Roads, and Fighting Traffic — I have opened my eyes as to what could be.
Here are some things I wish people that fight against bike and bus lanes in Los Angeles knew:
1 — By giving people non-car transportation options, you actually reduce the number of cars on the road — freeing up the space that’s left for people that actually need to or want to drive. In other words, even if you “give up” parking spaces or a traffic lane for a bike or bus lane, the net effect will be that you’ll be able to drive with fewer cars and less traffic. A certain percentage of people that used to drive will choose to bike, scoot, or take the bus, freeing up more road space for you!
2 — Bike and bus lanes make our streets safer for everyone — including people driving cars. According to the CDC, automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for people ages 1–54. By narrowing lanes and putting in fewer lanes for cars, the cars that remain will drive more cautiously, which will keep everyone safer — including the people in the cars. Also, wouldn’t it be nice to cross the street or go on a bike without fearing for your life?
3 — Maybe you can’t see yourself taking a bus or using a bike today, but you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’ve never biked to the grocery store to buy food, the idea might sound crazy — until you’ve done it once. Then you get addicted to not having to look for parking, getting free V.I.P. parking in front, and getting in and out faster than if you had driven. If you can’t see yourself taking a bus in LA, you’re not alone. Buses are much slower than driving today — if you can arrive somewhere in a car in 30 minutes, or take an hour and a half on a bus with two transfers, which are you going to choose, if you can afford to drive? Now imagine a different future where buses came every 6 minutes 18 hours a day, and had their own dedicated lanes so they flew past private cars at rush hour. Imagine you could take a bus safely and reliably and get to your destination quicker than being in a car, all while reading a book or relaxing. Given that two third of the trips in the City of Los Angeles are 5 miles or less, there’s a tremendous amount of potential for people to ditch their car, if we just made it easier.
Even if you can’t see yourself using a bike or taking a bus today, if both options were made safer and more efficient than private cars, you might consider it.
And even if you decided to not bike or take a bus even with dedicated lanes — that’s fine! Because many others will, it means less traffic for you driving.
4 — Cars are expensive! At an average cost of $5,508/year in California, the burden of having to own a car to get to/from work is huge. At $15/hour (just above current minimum wage), you’d be making $29,250 /year— and spending nearly 20% just to have a car, an unfathomable burden during a housing and homelessness crisis. Many people don’t want to have to pay for a car, but don’t have good non-car options — they can’t afford to chance taking the bus and getting to work late. Networks of dedicated bus lanes and physically protected bike lanes would change that, and relieve those that can least afford cars from having to have them.
5 — Cars have many negative consequences that we’ve just grown to accept. It can be scary to simply cross the street in many places. LA has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the county. We lose $19 billion per year of lost productivity due to people being stuck in traffic. Domestic violence goes up by 9% on extra heavy traffic days. Our nights are filled with helicopters and sirens — many of which are tending to crashes or other car-related indicents. We don’t have to live like this! You can learn more here, and watch the brilliant video below on how we have “Stroads” that don’t serve anyone well:
6 — Cars sit idle 95% of the time! The average car is driven one hour per day. So we design our cities all around that 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening, when we should be designing for the 23 hours where we don’t need the car infrastructure we have. If more people chose not to drive because they have good, safe, and reliable alternatives, we would free up demand for that space that we could fill with parks, sidewalks, trees, outdoor dining, and bike and bus lanes. And yes — people would still be able to drive, if they chose to.
7 — Cars can’t be the future of transportation in cities if we want to survive as a species.
While most people in Los Angeles might believe in climate change, it doesn’t mean they’re willing to give up their SUV to fight it.
Electric cars — while better from a tailpipe point of view — aren’t a panacea. They do nothing to solve the space demands, traffic violence, or lost productivity of our current situation. And by relying on them as “the” solution, we let ourselves off the hook from making the harder infrastructure changes needed. There are cities in the world that used to be built around cars, and decided to change. And these places today have cleaner air, more transportation options, and less traffic violence (Oslo actually achieved Vision Zero, with zero traffic deaths — possible when you control speed and design roads for people). In Holland, kids as young as five bike themselves to school. Imagine not having to drive your kids to/from school, and giving them a sense of freedom and independence at such a young age!
In summary, you don’t have to use bus or bike lanes to benefit from them. Even if you love driving and want to drive for the rest of your life — you can! All I ask is that you don’t hold an entire city hostage by insisting every inch of space on our roads must be for cars, because our reality today is that most people drive. Cities can change. And a city that is safe to walk, bike, and scoot in, a city that has safe and efficient buses, a city that prioritizes people is a more livable city for all — even those that drive.