Finding Equity in Cycling: Biking through South LA

Mobility has a number of issues. Access, connectability and safety are a few of them, but equity is one we are just starting to address.

It’s a bit of an uphill battle, as getting the underserved infrastructure up from awful to our local standard of bad doesn’t seem like a big victory, but raising our safety standards at any opportunity is a cause worth fighting for.

A couple of months ago, I was back down in South LA to do a shift for the LA Bike and Ped Count. I arrived early(something every good counter should do) and decided to swing by Watts Cyclery to say hello.


Exiting the 103rd Street Station

Coming off the Blue Line at the Watts Towers Station, there is a crossing guard on the 103rd Street exit metering the large flow of people coming off the train. Leaving the station is even more problematic as there is an overflow of people waiting on the sidewalk for the bus. As a note, on my train ride home later that evening, medics were tending to a pedestrian hit at that very spot.

Once I made my turn onto Graham Ave., the frenzy of being in a pressure point waded. On the way over, I also had to make my way by the Watts Towers to take in their majesty before continuing on.

I made my turn onto Wilmington and that’s where my fun began. There was only one lane and I took it like every cycling handbook would tell you, but each car kept tailgating me until they passed dangerously close. Happening in succession, this systematically forced me into the door zone until one driver had the patience of letting me have the lane. And yes, I was going over 20mph all the way.

Watts Cyclery finally came up and instead of testing everyone’s civility again by making a left turn, I pulled over to the right to cross the street by foot.

I stood in front of the crosswalk waiting for cars to yield, but I was as invisible as those box office receipts for Pan. Stepping out into the street made no difference either. It wasn’t until I pulled out my camera that someone finally obeyed.

Glad to be alive, I had to tell Stalin, owner of Watts Cyclery, how ridiculous performing this simple act was. We went outside and he gave me a demonstration on how to cross the street which went like this:

He actually did it for me twice. I didn’t have my camera on movie mode the first time, but same result. In order to cross the street, you’re forced into an act of aggression to establish a space that’s supposed to be yours.

When I asked what happens to kids who go to school right there, Stalin says the crossing guard stands two blocks north at the next light to avoid this intersection completely. Talk about unsafe routes to school.

Another interesting thing he pointed out was the number of cyclists going by his store riding in the street, but on the wrong side. Even though traffic stats say this is more dangers, Stalin was saying that people feel more comfortable seeing what’s ahead of them.


Crossing over the never fun Blue Line

After saying goodbyes, I headed back down Wilmington towards my count having to cross the infamous Blue Line tracks where the number of causalities continues to grow. This intersection is a vast expanse of streetscape with little indication of anything being built at human scale. With all this space to cover, it’s no wonder a great number of incidents have happened here.

After successfully crossing, I made it to my count location situated on the southern edge of the Willowbrook Metro station. From this point I’d catch most of entering/exiting all the trains and buses to the south.

Off the bat, there were a few things you easily noticed. Cars getting onto the Imperial Highway/105 Freeway had priority on Wilmington. This would have been a great spot for a crosswalk, but law abiders would have to travel a good distance to find one. Instead, about twenty people took their chances playing Frogger across this wide street. One person waited about five minutes to find a suitable gap.


Where do I go?

As frustration mounts, people start to take risks and that’s when collisions start to happen. Top it off with narrow sidewalks, the area wasn’t inviting for people who want to walk.

My bike count numbers also brought some sharp conclusions. Over my time period, there were about 100 cyclists to cross my line. All but about three rode on the sidewalk. Who could blame them?

Wilmington had car traffic primarily concerned with getting through or onto the freeway quickly maintain their 40mph+ ramping speeds. Who feels comfortable crossing one or two lanes of traffic to get through? I won’t do it unless I’m on my fast bike, but even then…

The next obvious point was that no one rode with helmets. Once again, I could count the faction wearing them on one hand.There can be a number of conclusions you can draw from this: helmets are expensive, people are going to work or they’re traveling a short distance. Probably a combination of these answers.


My vantage point for my count

The last interesting split was the number of female riders I saw. I’ll take a wild guess and assume the general population splits around 50/50 for women & men. Sarcasm aside, at the last LACBC bike count in 2013, ridership for women on regular streets was at 13%. During my count, I only had two, which was almost zero since they came in the last 15 minutes of my shift.

So what do I make of all this? Just from the small sample size against the other count locations I was at, a lot more people are riding their bikes here, despite not having a safe place to do it.

Even if you wanted to drive to the station, there’s a limited amount of parking nearby. People are going to bike and walk here no matter.

It always gets me that we’re more concerned about getting people through communities instead of using them. Major renovations are coming to this vital hub, but what do you say to person trying to get there from blocks away? Good luck getting here?

A bike network is only as good as your weakest link. It’s about time someone at least bought a chain.