Sunday, November 2, 2014

Distracted Policing @ UCLA ?

Erin and her husband are both UCLA staff. She works for the dental school, he works in research admin. Even Junior, their one year old son, attends UCLA, daycare that is, a few days a week. They live in Santa Monica, Ocean Park and they ride their bike to campus whenever possible.

Their commute is not without hurdles, of course. Two freeways to cross, for instance. Also the lack of welcoming bicycle routes in Westwood itself, which forces those on bikes into dangerously close vicinity with vehicles where texting, facebooking, tweeting, hand-held phones, loud music, eating, drinking, applying make-up etc is very common. But on 8/22/2014 a new hurdle appeared in the form of an UCPD patrol car, light flashing, with an officer on a special detail for a "distracted driving" crackdown. At the corner of Westwood and Le Conte, as Erin was entering the campus, the officer intercepted her, and duly issued a ticket for distracted driving. CVC 27400: A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs in, both ears.

Distracted driving by cyclists? Scientists point to the fact that "windows up" impairs hearing more than a pair of earbuds would, but the law is the law. Not being "all ear" while in traffic can indeed be a problem. On the bike, I personally use all my senses, especially those ears, to recognize the environment around me.

When her husband contacted us about his wife's adventures with the California vehicle code, he expresses it well: "The whole reasoning behind applying identical laws to cyclists and drivers just infuriates me. It is also frustrating that UCPD would penalize a cyclist so severely for such a minor violation when the campus is presumably trying to encourage more sustainable and healthy methods of coming to campus."

Given that driver distraction is involved in a large percentage of traffic fatalities, it is problematic that the enforcement seems to make no distinction between those who may harm others, and those who may harm themselves. Still more worrying is the suspicion that UCPD may use the wrong tools when enforcing distracted driving. These tools seem optimized for ticketing cyclists and fail to reach those whose distraction can do most harm to others. Those who ride a bike already feel very poorly served by the existing road system, second-class citizens on the roads of LA. Should they now also enter the cross-hairs of misguided enforcement?

The ticket will set our cyclist back some $ 197 and may involve two court dates. But how does such punitive enforcement fit with our bicycle friendly campus designation? Is there a bias against cyclists in UCPD police work? How?

An insidious anti-bicycle bias seems embedded in the tools the campus police used here. Compare a vehicle patrol and a bicycle patrol. Each tool offers a different view of the road. The elevated view of the cycling officer and the ease which which the officer on the bike can pass multiple vehicles in stationary or slow traffic, all this makes the bike a perfect tool to detect unsafe activities of drivers as they drive around campus. But put the same officer into a patrol vehicle, and send him on the roads of Westwood, he will complain that you make his work hard or impossible. He just can't observe the multitude of distractions going on around him.

When the cycling policeman can pass and inspect 50 vehicles, the colleague in the driving patrol car may only able to get a view of three or four. Seated inside a patrol vehicle he can barely see what is going on in front and behind his vehicle. His presence is quickly noticed. He may be able to scan the vehicle beside him, but not much more. The car-based officer is virtually blinded with regard to potential distraction occurring near him. But those lovely snow-white ear-buds Erin was wearing when she listened to NPR, these he can spot with ease. If a distracted driving crackdown is conducted from a patrol car, then cyclists suddenly become the perfect target: Easy to spot, easy to stop, easy do deliver the required number of tickets. Distracted policing occurs when the agency fails to recognize the bias inherent in their tools.

In order to learn more about this enforcement activity, and in order to find out how the choice of patrol vehicle can lead to institutional prejudice, we have asked UCPD a few questions:
What was the nature of the distraction crackdown? Was it supported by special funding or outside police officers? 
How many tickets for distracted driving were issued? 
How many of these to cyclists?
How many traffic tickets are written by officers on bicycle patrol?
In order to avoid the bias outlined above, what is your policy of using officers on bicycles to police vehicular traffic and issue tickets for moving violations?

Which still leaves Erin with her $197 citation. UCLA is about education, not punishment. This is why UCLA should have a court approved Bike Education Program that could dismiss a ticket when the recipient of a citation attends an educational course. The benefits of such citation diversion programs are compelling: They allow officers to ticket cyclists more freely, because they know that the program will produce better educated and safer cyclists. Some of these programs are delivered on-line, others require attendance, all should be designed with input from local bike advocacy organisations. Many universities offer such a programs already, including UC Davis and UT Austin. Is it not time for UCLA to have its own? Erin tells us she would love to help to bring this about. Therefore we added a few more questions to UCPD:
Would UCPD be interested to develop a citation diversion program with the local jurisdiction? 
Does the UCPD have a Bike Liaison officer?
Is this officer be prepared to have a meeting with the UCLA Bicycle Academy and other agencies to discuss the establishment a ticket diversion program?
Would you be interested to develop a pilot program on the use of cycling officers to police vehicular traffic?

Some Links:

Updates: (waiting for updates)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Koretz Called to Account on Bike Lanes

by Calla Wiemer

At last year's annual meeting of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association (WSSM HOA), Councilmember Paul Koretz announced he was authorizing the LA Department of Transportation to study bike lanes for Westwood Boulevard between Santa Monica and Pico. In a turnabout just a few months later, however, he canceled the study. At this year's meeting on June 18, he was called to account.

The Councilmember offered two justifications for the cancellation. One was that he realized that incorporating bike lanes into Westwood Boulevard would only make the situation more dangerous. The other was that he recognized an "overwhelming consensus of the community" in opposition. In light of these considerations, he determined that regardless of any LADOT findings, he would not approve bike lanes for Westwood Boulevard. There was thus no point wasting time with a study.

Photo: Wayne Howard

Let us explore each of the Councilmember's reasons for canceling the study in turn. That the current road configuration presents grave dangers to cyclists is well documented. The six block stretch of Westwood Boulevard that runs through the WSSM neighborhood has in recent years yielded an average of four collisions involving cyclists per year according to police report data. On a per mile basis, this rate is more than 20 times that witnessed on LA County roads generally.

The Councilmember did not explain why he believes striping bike lanes would make the situation even more dangerous. Currently, travel lanes are shared in spaces too narrow for motorists to overtake cyclists without crossing into adjacent lanes. Defining separate lanes for bikes would alleviate the conflict between motorists and cyclists. Granted, to carve out space for bike lanes, something would have to give. A proposal LADOT was to have studied involves floating bike lanes – a design the Councilmember is on record as judging "far too confusing" for LA motorists. The design has been implemented with success in San Francisco, however. If our neighbors to the north can manage it without danger, you would think Angelenos could too.

The beauty of the floating bike lane design is that it allows for flexibility in the allocation of space between mobility and parking. Westwood Boulevard is already subject to time-of-day restrictions on street parking. With more than 90 percent of parking currently provided off street, property owners have long since adapted to meet the need. Parking can be provided off street while mobility cannot. Any sacrifice of mobility for street parking thus calls for careful consideration.

Questions as to the dangers of alternative road configurations and the trade-offs among competing goals in road design are complicated. LADOT employs professionals whose expertise should be fully brought to bear to address these questions. Relying on the realizations of one councilmember is not enough.

Koretz’s second justification for canceling the LADOT study was an ostensible "overwhelming consensus of the community" in opposition. The hundreds of riders who brave Westwood Boulevard daily on bikes would surely be surprised to discover the ease with which their interests can be overwhelmed in the view of the Councilmember. Moreover, those in favor of bike lanes extend well beyond the cycling community, or even the would-be cycling community taken to encompass those who would like to ride Westwood Boulevard but are deterred by present conditions. All who drive Westwood Boulevard regularly have the experience of getting stuck behind cyclists and wishing them out of the way. For motorists too, then, bike lanes are the answer.

Formally, UCLA as an institution has registered its backing of Westwood Boulevard bike lanes with the Councilmember. The university energetically promotes the use of alternatives to the private automobile for its 60,000 daily commuters. When the extension of the Expo Line opens next year, a bike connection through the Westwood corridor will be essential for moving rail commuters the last two miles to the campus. UCLA students have mobilized in support of bike infrastructure through the UCLA Bicycle Coalition which boasts a Facebook membership of more than 300.

The sentiment of the local business community is difficult to gauge because interests south of Santa Monica Blvd are not organized to speak with a representative voice. Anecdotal signs of support for bike lanes have been apparent. Pitfire Pizza, for example, provided free food to over 100 participants in the Ride Westwood campaign of February 9, 2013, an event the Councilmember's deputy took in from the sidelines. More generally, much evidence has been marshalled to show that bike lanes are good for business along commercial corridors such as Westwood Boulevard. Reasonably, then, business owners ought to be fans of bike lanes.

One public hearing was held to solicit citizen comment on Westwood Boulevard bike lanes, this taking place on February 19, 2013. Those speaking for and against seemed about evenly divided in numbers (although the opposition was certainly louder).

With support of bike lanes for Westwood Boulevard so much in evidence, an "overwhelming consensus" in opposition would require a counterforce of a scale difficult to imagine. UCLA is, after all, the largest employer in Los Angeles after government and contributes $12.7 billion a year to the local economy. To understand the influences at work on the Councilmember, a group of UCLA students filed a public records request for all communications of the District 5 Council office pertaining to bike lanes. Covering the period February 24, 2010 to November 22, 2013, the file runs to 1035 pages. It is tough to read through all this material let alone infer any consensus from it. Views are presented on both sides of the issue with a relatively small number of people dominating the input. The most vocal opposition comes from the leadership of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association.

One problem with this whole scenario is that the few who run the WSSM HOA carry such disproportionate weight in the Councilmember's assessment of public opinion. Another problem is that a group constituted on the basis of homeownership in a diverse neighborhood of single family homes and condominiums, young and old, cyclists and non-cyclists would take such a strident position on bike lanes. As a member of this homeowners association myself, I am an indication of the range of opinion that exists in the neighborhood with regard to bike lanes.

In a more positive vein, Mayor Garcetti has identified Westwood Boulevard through the Village for Great Streets treatment, which means creating a more welcoming environment for all road users. And the Expo Line will open next year with a station at Westwood Boulevard to offer no car parking. All this means that bike riders will be plying Westwood Boulevard in ever increasing numbers. At some point, even the leadership of the WSSM HOA may wish to see bikes in their own separate spaces. To achieve the best possible outcome for accommodating all road users, we need to involve the experts at LADOT and encourage the councilmember to lead a process of public discussion as he promised to do a year ago when he first authorized the study.

Calla Wiemer is a consulting economist and serves as a community liaison for the UCLA Bicycle Academy. She may be contacted at

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How the Professor Discovered Cycling and What Happened Next

(This is a first installment of a series of portraits of Bruins who cycle. Please get in touch so that we can tell your story too!) 

Was it a stroke or heart attack? A stroke, Jim grumbles, slightly annoyed that I would not know the difference, a light TIA, to be precise. The doctor said I needed to get more exercise. Well. What would more exercise be for a professor at UCLA? Writing more books? Grading more essays? More lectures? I am just not an exercise person. Never been to a gym. And no intention of going there, to say the truth.

We are sitting in the afternoon sun in Santa Monica, between Washington and California. Jim remembers: Back then there was this article in the New York Times about women always starting a new diet, and invariably going back to the old pattern. The article spoke about the need to integrate better food and exercise into daily routines. Integrating. Not as a special effort, just make it part of your everyday life. Then I knew it would be cycling for me.

So I wandered up to Helens on Broadway and eyed some of their beach cruisers. Luckily, the guy made sure I got a proper bike. I paid about 500$ and rode it back home. Riding a bike is something you never forget, although at that stage I had not done it for, well 40, 50 years. Go figure. Jim says bi-cycling, like bi-metal, with the emphasis on the first syllable.

A little hummingbird flies by. I'd ride to Pico and Ocean and would go up and down the beach. I would do this almost every day, but not on the weekend, when it is too crowded down there. I'd get up really early, before 6, and go from the Marina to Will Rogers Beach. I would really enjoy it. I'd sleep better too. On a day without cycling, I would miss it, and I always looked forward to it. You could perhaps say it made me happy.

Jim offers me a drink. About a year into my new cycling life I ride under the pier, when this little kid in front of me suddenly makes a sharp left, and bang, I break hard and go over the handlebars. Everybody springs into action. Suddenly there was a sense of community among cyclists. The life guards were also very good. I had done my collar bone twice before, in sports, but this time they bound me up differently so that I had full use of both hands, so that was good. But it took a few months to heal, steel pins and all.

Was this the end of your bicycle adventure, I ask. Giving up bi-cycling? No, never. I loved it too much. I just realized that the beach path is too dangerous. Children and dogs and the sand, it is just not safe. So I decided to leave the old BMW Z4 in the garage and get my daily dose of cycling by riding to UCLA. People say it is much more dangerous, but they have no idea. Yes, I take the slower streets. I would never ride on Wilshire. I also do leave early, before 7, to avoid all the mums driving their kids to school. They should be cycling too, seriously. There are two hills, but I do enjoy them, because you really want the cardio.

Jim has just finished the substantial revisions for the third edition of his book on the middle east. Earlier he has been on the phone with a radio station in Canada. He likes these professional interviews, but they are pretty exhausting too. He shows me the folding bike in his living room. He continues: I love cycling and I love to go out for a drink with friends. That’s why I have this folding bike here. The Dahon has internal gearing, so you can shift gears when waiting for a green light. Even better, when we get together with friends, I ride it to the place, we have a few drinks, and then I fold it up and our designated driver gives me a ride home. Bingo.

I do have a thing about cyclists overtaking each other in traffic. So at the red light I try to make up my mind if I am going to ride ahead or behind the other cyclists. This way we avoid overtaking each other. I find shopping with the bike is really easy. I have this routine that I shop often, but little. This way I am not having to much weight on my bike, and I have stopped to throw away food. I just buy what I need.

When I cross 26th Street, coming home from UCLA, I really feel I am home and safe. Cycling is so much better in Santa Monica now. But some drivers really have no idea how dangerous they are. They just don't seem to use turn signals any more. This is really dangerous for cyclists.

My bike really opened a new chapter for me. I feel great now and I know I do the right thing, driving less. Who would have thought that my BMW Z4 with a soft top would see so little of me these says. I just had a $ 1800 repair and the mechanic said I better make sure that I drive it at least once every week! You should have asked me 10 years ago about cycling, I would have said you are crazy. It would never have entered my mind. But now I am convinced that it is a cure for so many ills. I am still learning about bikes, but I have already infected a few of my friends.

[James Gelvin is a Professor of History at UCLA. His main bike is a KHS Urban Express. This interview was conducted by Michael Cahn. It was first published in the Santa Monica Daily Press]