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Making a more bikeable UCLA

By Alison Hewitt
Originally published in UCLA Today

The campus community will learn about this and more at a noon event Wednesday, “Creating a Bikeable UCLA” at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute Auditorium.

The campus’s Transportation department will unveil updates to the bicycle master plan, and experts from across campus will discuss the health and environmental benefits — as well as the planning and logistical challenges — of making UCLA more bikeable. They will be joined by the Los Angeles City Council’s transportation deputy for Westwood’s council district, along with other city and neighborhood bicycle advocates.

“This is really important to UCLA, but at the same time it’s challenging because UCLA is a very crowded, dense, urban campus in one of the most congested parts of Los Angeles,” said Nurit Katz, UCLA’s sustainability coordinator and the moderator for the event.

UCLA has made progress, Katz said, but lots of work remains. And bike-riding Bruins, she added, have concerns that extend beyond campus. “One of the chief complaints from cyclists is that it’s not about the campus, it’s about the routes to campus,” Katz said.

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Improvements at UCLA

Not counting the thousands of students who pedal around campus, UCLA has about 1,750 employees who commute via bikes each day. UCLA’s attention to bikability has grown in recent years, said UCLA Transportation Director Renée Fortier. Her department has added campus bike racks that more than doubled the number of bike spots to about 3,050, and joined a campaign reminding cars to give bikers space. Transportation has also worked with UCLA Recreation to create the campus bike shop and developed a departmental bike program that put bikes in 27 departments across campus. A bike rental program for students is regularly cleared out and new bike repair stations are popping up around campus. Transportation and Recreation created a “bicyclist commuter passport,” that lets bike commuters use gym showers without ponying up for a full gym membership, which will switch from $20 a quarter to fully subsidized by Transportation under the revamped UCLA bicycle master plan, Fortier added.

But UCLA’s geography presents its own challenges to bike-riders.

“On campus, the biggest obstacle is it’s such an incredibly dense environment,” Fortier said. “There’s not a lot of land to make improvements, so everyone really needs to share.”

Under the revised bike plan, Transportation hopes to make it easier to wheel bikes up and down the stairs between Ackerman and South Campus by adding a bike channel, a kind of gutter that gives cyclists a flat surface embedded in the stairs where they can walk their bikes instead of carrying them. The department has also begun early discussions with L.A. city officials, Fortier said, encouraging them to develop a bicycle-rental system similar to those in Paris or Washington, D.C., where people can grab bikes from hubs all over the city.

Prioritizing bikes over cars

UCLA is headed in the right direction, but the most important change will be a cultural shift on campus giving priority to bikes and pedestrians over cars, said Richard Jackson, the chair of Environmental Health Sciences and a professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

“UCLA is a biking and pedestrian environment and the cars are guests, not the other way around,” Jackson said. All new construction should include bike racks and all staircases should include bike channels, among other changes, he said. “Cars are the priority now, and we need parity for bikes. But it took 70 years to build this place, and it’s not going to change overnight.”

Making biking easier is just one component of making the whole city healthier, Jackson added. “The nation is confronting epidemics of diabetes, asthma and more related to obesity and inactivity, and one of the best ways to turn this around is for people to build more incidental exercise into their day,” he said.

Conversely, Los Angeles’ car culture has built exercise out of people’s lives, he said. In IoES’s Spring 2011 Southern California Environmental Report Card, Jackson gave Los Angeles a D- on bikeability.

“We need the city to become more bike-friendly, but we have no right telling others to become more bikeable unless we have taken care of our own house,” Jackson continued. “UCLA has too much car parking, and inadequate bike parking, and does not have protected bike routes. But it’s going to be very hard to add protected routes, so the other option is reducing speed, and I’m arguing for strong enforcement of a ‘20 is plenty’ campaign.”

For a pedestrian hit at 20 miles per hour, the likelihood of dying is 5 percent, he noted. At 30 miles per hour, the death risk jumps to 45 percent. Transportation is having an engineer review the posted speed limits on campus streets to consider what kinds of signage or speed reductions would increase safety for cyclists.

But changes will also take buy-in from top UCLA administration — support Jackson says he’s already getting from UCLA Administrative Vice Chancellor Jack Powazek, who will join the panelists at Wednesday’s event.

Benefits to the community

Making UCLA and the city more bike-friendly would also improve the city’s air, said Cully Nordby, the academic director for the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability as well as the chair of UCLA’s Sustainability Committee.

“We are committed to doing what we can to make UCLA more bikeable and encourage more people to commute by bike,” Nordby said. “That would reduce greenhouse gases and create a more healthy, vibrant community. However, we have challenges from being located in the middle of Los Angeles.”

One good approach would be to start with the “low-hanging fruit,” said Madeline Brozen, a professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs, where she specializes in transportation planning and is director of the school’s Complete Street’s Initiative.

For example: “The bikeway that comes up Westwood [Boulevard] stops at Wilshire [Boulevard], and it would be great to bring that up to campus,” Brozen said. “Doing things on campus is great, but if people don’t have a safe way to bike to UCLA, we won’t see a return on our investments on campus.”

Transportation’s Fortier said her department is working with the project manager for the 405-freeway widening project to increase the focus on pedestrian and cyclist safety at the Wilshire and Sunset underpasses, entrances and exits. Transportation also hopes to pair UCLA’s 1,750 experienced bike commuters with newer bicyclists to share their know-how about the fastest and safest side-streets, Fortier said. And while there’s still plenty still to do, she said, UCLA’s progress caught the attention of the League of American Bicyclists, which last year designated UCLA as a Bicycle-Friendly University, one of only 26 nationwide.

It’s not enough for just the cyclists to be engaged, Katz said.

“The drivers also need to know the rules, pay attention and slow down,” Katz said. “We need the whole community to be engaged so that when you cross that border, you know that biking and walking are the priorities.”

The six UCLA representatives will be joined Wednesday by Jay Greenstein, the chief field & transportation deputy from City Council District 5; Andrew Thomas, the executive director of the Westwood Village Improvement Association; and Jonathan Weiss, a member of the City of Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee. Register online to attend the event.