It was a beautiful Los Angeles Saturday morning, pretty much like every other. B and I made our way on foot to one of our favorite brunch places, where we sat outside and watched passersby while devouring our way through a delicious meal. The narrow sidewalk was full of people - both those sitting at the restaurant and those walking past - and Sunset Blvd roared a few feet from us as a row of parked cars provided a "buffer" of sorts between this crowd of people and vehicles zipping past at 30-40 miles per hour. For most Angelenos, this experience of outdoor dining complemented by the constant thrum of engines and smell of exhaust is pretty standard. It's the price we pay for a street system that places automobility above all else. Even with that, however, I was unprepared for what I saw next.
On the other side of Sunset, an adult male bicyclist made his way west along the narrow bike lane. What caught my attention was the child cycling behind him, likely no more than 10 years old, who I'm assuming was the man's son. This young boy was keeping up with his dad in the bike lane, albeit with a bit of a wobble. As this scene unfolded, a motorcyclist revved and roared its engine so loudly as it passed all of us that my chest vibrated and I instinctively recoiled inward. But I was 70 feet away from the engine - unlike the father and son duo who the motorcyclist passed with but a few feet to spare.
As he was being passed by the motorcycle, the small boy panicked and scooted up onto the sidewalk. Dad quickly followed, and the duo got off their bikes, choosing instead to walk them on the sidewalk for whatever portion of their journey remained (that I could see).
This scene epitomizes LA's street life. Why? Because our streets are designed first and foremost to move vehicles quickly, and not for the safe movement of all users. If the bike lanes were buffered and protected from traffic, their proximity to vehicle lanes would be less threatening to people on their bikes. If the car travel lanes were designed for and restricted to travel speeds of only 25 miles per hour instead of 35, the roar of the motors would be much softer, and the fumes less overwhelming.
I got to thinking about that kid. Here's someone who was still getting his own bearings in riding a bike. Maybe he asked his dad to go for a bike ride. Maybe his dad pushed him to join him on two wheels. Whatever the case, he's no pro. He's a kid. And he's a kid who got scared. Who got scarred. One could argue that he was too young to be on such a busy street on his bike, but Sunset is also the only flat, relatively easy topography to traverse by bike in all of the neighborhood. It's also the only street in the whole area with delineated bike lanes (other than Silverlake Blvd, which goes in a completely different direction). And yet even with the favorable topography, clearly-marked lanes, beautiful day, and encouragement of his father, this boy will likely think twice the next time he considers getting back onto his bike to travel this path.
Is this the kind of city and place we want for our kids? The kind where they have to rely on us to cart them around in our cars? The kind where they can clearly see and experience that we hardly care at all about their safety if they ride their bikes? The kind where they are barred from playing in the neighborhood streets, where they risk their lives if they want to just go for a bike ride, and where they will be afraid to just be outside where people are?
For all the studies and analyses of the things ailing our nation, I can think of few better analogies than the kid out on a bike ride with his dad on a lovely LA Saturday morning having the crap scared outta him. At some point we put our priorities for our cars above our human needs. And we're all paying the price now.