Biking LA: Rethinking the Parkway

My friend Jordan pointed out a recent op-ed piece in the LA Times on biking in Los Angeles. In it, Robert Gottlieb makes the argument that the city should invest more energy in developing the city's woeful bicycle infrastructure. As an occasional cyclist myself, I couldn't agree with him more. Living on the Westside, as I have been, using my bike to commute hasn't been too problematic: several east-west streets have dedicated bike lines, and most of the north-south roads that I ride don't have enough traffic to really worry me. However, I'm getting set to move out to Koreatown soon, and it's interesting (and a bit disconcerting) to see how sparse the options are for moving east to west (for the pdf of the Metro Bike map, see here). None of the major east-west arterials (Wilshire, Olympic, Sunset, Santa Monica) have a dedicated bike lane, and having driven those streets, I'd hate to ride a bike down them. Between congestion and aggressive driving, it just strikes me as hazardous to one's health. And while there are certain streets listed as bike routes (4th comes to mind), there's no dedicated transportation system to move bicycle riders from east to west. Though Venice Blvd. is certainly an option, it would take me far off of my shortest route, which would run from Koreatown through Park La Brea, Beverly Hills, and Century City: all conveniently without any sort of bike resources (though my friend Nick has been good enough to map out possible routes here and here).

What I found most interesting about Gottlieb's op-ed piece, though, was the way in which his language picked up some of the original rhetoric used to describe the pleasures of the automobile. He ends his article by writing:
If bike riding can reassert its place in Los Angeles - as it briefly did five years ago - we can begin to reduce our dependence on the car. Imagine a city in which Griffith Park would be car-free, in which the Los Angeles River had a bikeway stretching its length, in which there were dedicated bike boulevards connecting Pasadena or Santa Monica to downtown. We could call the bike ride the "pleasure ride," as the car ride on the Pasadena Freeway, the first freeway in the West, was once touted.

Couple that language with his earlier comment about the growing visibility of bikers within the urban landscape, and it calls forth an interesting set of associations between politics, aesthetics, pleasure, and practice. Thinking about the whole parkway tradition and its Southern Californian legacy (consider, for example, the absence of billboards along many local freeways, or the tradition of the California Scenic Byway). Early sketches of the freeway system involved wide strips of grass to either side: in a very real way, the parkways were designed as parks first and thruways second. Significantly, of course, they were parks designed to be seen and driven through, and not necessarily lived in in the way that we often think of parks. But given Los Angeles' lack of public green space, Gottlieb's piece suggests all sorts of fascinating possibilities for linking urban bike use to public parks.

Speculating a moment longer (in a very BLDGBLOG way, perhaps), I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina before I moved out to Los Angeles last year. Both Chapel Hill and Durham (especially Durham) had undertaken projects to convert old railroad right-of-ways into bike paths. I've seen Culver City undertake a similar project, converting the old median along Culver Blvd. (which I assume used to be railroad right-of-way, terminating at the Ivy Substation) into a bicycle and pedestrian path. As far as I remember, there are plans to try to convert the Exposition Blvd. right of way into a light rail line, although a cursory glance at the map shows the problem of the Santa Monica Freeway as you move into West LA. But even so, identifying the old light rail right-of-ways in Los Angeles might be one way to identify spaces to cultivate these bicycle parkways.

A last, and perhaps arcane, note about landscape. There's been a certain amount of research within cultural geography that turns on the two competing senses of the word landscape (broadly argued here and here - restricted access). The first turns on landscape's tradition in Italy especially, where it refers to a prospect, a perspective, and a view. The emphasis in this instance is on visual organization, which in some cases speaks to a deeper moral, economic, epistemological or political organization. Significantly, I think it's this sense of landscape that most informed early 20th century landscape architecture, especially in the development of the parkway. However, the second sense of landscape emphasizes its Germanic and Dutch antecedents, whereby landscape (as landskap or landschaft) referred more to a lived experience. Given, as Gottlieb briefly notes, the growth of social biking groups that seek to reinsert bicycling into the urban landscape of Los Angeles, I wonder if that the second sense of landscape - as a lived experience - is more pertinent to understanding and to planning. In other words, when it comes to planning, planners should not worry so much about how a bikeway might look as how people might make use of it.

Of course, it all may be moot if we keep getting hit with earthquakes and split off into the sea.


Nick said…
And then of course, there was Arroyo Fest!

Popular Posts