By Nate Cherry, FAIA AICP LEED AP BD+C
Four years ago, I decided to ditch my car and try biking to work as a regular commute from my home to downtown LA. Now I am happy to say I have travelled the equivalent of one trip around the earth. Here’s the math to prove it: I live about 18 miles from work — a bit too long for a daily ride (for me) – but with the new Expo Line Phase I light rail opening four years ago, just a few miles away from my house, the combined bike/LRT/bike commute seemed reasonable. In total I bike about 27 miles a day, 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year for 4 years – that equals 25,920 miles (the earth’s circumference is about 25,000 miles).
I have learned a few things, so I thought it a perfect time to pause and reflect on what it means for my community and my city. What made it possible? What was discouraging? How viable is it to be a long term bike commuter in LA? How can we learn and transport lessons?
Types of Cyclists
In LA, there are roughly four types of cyclists. The first is the person who has no other means of getting around. They generally live close to their work, and are often carrying backpacks with lunch or changes of clothes on their bikes. This contingent represents, in my experience, 10-20 percent of the cycling population. The second group is the recreational racer. Clad in Lycra, these folks are working out in the morning or after hours, travelling with nothing in tow other than energy bars and sports drinks. Their cycles are light; their objective is fitness. This group represents about 20-30 percent of the cycling population. The third group is professional commuters. You can tell these folks because they are lugging laptops and clothes in panniers or on racks on the back of their bikes. This group represents 20-30 percent of the overall population. The fourth group is weekend cyclists who generally ride heavy beach cruisers. This group is a large contingent, probably over 40 percent of the biking population. By my measure, more than 50 percent of all cyclists are not commuters. If even a small percentage of that number would commute, it could have a fundamental impact on the city’s social structure, its culture, and the environment. To me, this is a branding and storytelling challenge for the city.
I seem to burn about 50 percent more calories per day when I bike. A typical day with 10,000 steps averages about 2,800 calories; with biking it goes up to about 4,200 calories burned per day. My seated heart rate before biking used to be about 62 BPM; now it’s roughly 57. All of this counteracts the challenge of sitting at work for 10 to 12 hours a day. In terms of overall health, cycling to work has been a great change.
I am assuming here that we are comparing the cost of driving a car that is already paid for (i.e. without lease or monthly purchase payments) versus the cost of riding a bike to work. In the US we artificially keep the price of gas low, which skews the calculus when comparing the cost of driving to biking. The cost of premium gas in the LA area is about $3.10 per gallon, and at 25 miles a gallon, that’s roughly $4.50 per commute. Parking is subsidized by my employer — depending on your title, it’s free to $100 a month out of pocket. The cost of my transit card is $1.75 per ride x 2 = $3.50; however, the fact that I am burning so many more calories in biking also comes with a cost – I need to consume additional food to compensate for the hunger caused by the additional exercise. In general, I would say the financial cost difference of driving versus biking is negligible. The real question is, what hidden costs are we incurring as a society fueled by cheap gasoline prices?
Studies show that roughly 14 percent of our contribution to greenhouse gases is caused by daily commuting to and from work. I wanted to see how much carbon dioxide I diverted by biking instead of driving (or flying). I believe I have diverted almost 15 tons of C02 from the atmosphere over the last four years by biking to work. What is the impact of the many flights I have taken over that same time period? As a point of reference, about 220 tons of C02 are released in a seven hour flight by one plane. I guess I have taken roughly two dozen flights of that length over the same four year period of time and there are about 525 passengers on an average Boeing747 – so my total contribution would be about ten tons of C02.
That means that over the last four years, I have effectively offset all of my flying contribution to greenhouse gases and about 1/3 of my driving contribution as well. Another way of saying that is that by biking to work, my transportation contribution to greenhouse gases has been decreased by 2/3.
Speed of Commute
My experience is that biking is faster than driving to downtown LA during rush hour. How can that be? For example, my car commute takes about 50 minutes, each way. It’s often an hour or longer. That’s 100-120 total minutes of car commuting. My bike commute takes about 75 minutes each way, 150 minutes total. However, if you factor in the time for a workout in addition to the commute, it’s actually faster to commute on a bike because I have integrated it into my daily commute. Many seem to make this calculation when considering biking to work, and it’s an important barrier to market acceptance in many cities. To that end, the City could consider design innovations such as intelligent transportation systems (ITS) that have made long haul commuting by bike much more viable by coordinating lights in a way that encourages cyclists to maintain speed. Examples of this system include the “green wave” in Copenhagen, where cyclists who maintain a speed of about 15 miles an hour hit only green lights into the city center, resulting in significant time savings in their daily commutes.
Popularity of Light Rail (LRT)
Predictability in headway times is important to market acceptance of transit. The second phase of the Expo Line recently opened, and my experience of it has been mixed. The expansion has caused a growth in ridership but coupled with a shortage of trains, it has caused an access crunch. Portions of the route with slower service are avoided when compared to those sections that stick to schedule, resulting some train platforms being overcrowded, others relatively desolate. It is interesting to note that those more predictable service areas tend to be elevated or below grade, fundamentally separated from the street. As urban designers we love the idea of LRT sitting in the road bed at grade, but from a functionality point of view this configuration can negatively impact line service reliability. My company, CallisonRTKL, recently completed two station designs for Honolulu Area Rail Transit, a system that is entirely elevated and automated. This system promises to be cost effective and functionally reliable in terms of service.
Of course, the big challenge we face is getting riders up to the platform efficiently, and mitigating the negative effects of elevated systems on the street environment. A number of key urban design elements were employed to address these situations, but the elevated track is fundamental to this system. No system is without tradeoffs, but it is important to strive for predictability and efficiency of service first and foremost.
We have found that there are a few elements essential to long-haul bike commuting. Without these key infrastructural elements, commuting by bike will never gain widespread acceptance. The first is a network of grade separated bikeways or cycle tracks. Cyclists need to have a safe, comfortable ride that feels protected from the car. It creates a feeling of safety for the cyclist, but as importantly, it shows commitment to alternative modes beyond the car. In a time of scarce resources, the areas along rivers and creeks can provide amenities for commuters that link to transit. The Ballona Creek bikeway is a wonderful example this type of amenity. The LA River offers another opportunity for this type of trail to occur along its entire 48 mile length. By contrast, Venice Boulevard has a dedicated bike lane, but it is not protected and can be quite dangerous with swerving cars, not to mention toxic car fumes. Storage areas on the trains are important, as are office showers. Luckily, CRTKL provides one, as does Brookfield, the owner of our building, but not all buildings can afford showers. Dedicated bike service stations are terrific amenities for cities to invest in (an example is the Bike and Park in downtown Chicago) because they provide key services such as storage, showers, repair, and rentals in central locations that individual buildings cannot.
Experience tells me that heavily trafficked streets with lots of slow moving traffic are generally safer than wide open streets with just a few fast moving cars. Why? The number of people texting while driving is frighteningly large, and densely packed traffic makes drivers pay closer attention to the road. A sharrows style of bike marking on a busy street is better than none at all. In addition, flashing lights on both the front and back of the bike are essentials. Keeping a defensive posture and anticipating the driver’s next more is always a good bet.
In conclusion, the health, cost, speed, and environmental benefits of bike commuting are clear. In Europe this mode of commuting has been widely accepted. Car culture has significant negative environmental and social impacts on cities; however, we can use health consciousness to incentivize good behaviors by attracting the large numbers of people who bike regularly and turning them into bike commuters. Barriers seem to include a lack of predictability, comfort, and safety. These seem like design and branding opportunities for those cities who are trying to attract a more environmentally-conscious workforce.