Six years ago, when I decided to abandon my car for a multi-modal cocktail of walking, biking and bus-riding, I lived in Hollywood. The pedestrian and transit parts came easy in my super-dense neighborhood, but biking terrified me — rolling out of my driveway I was confronted with three routes, each of them moderately suicidal: the extended on-ramp for the 101 that is Highland Avenue, the dangerously narrow lanes of Franklin Avenue, or the unpredictable shitshow of Hollywood Boulevard.
But I soon discovered Yucca — sweet, sweet Yucca, weaving a mellow east-west path through the heart of Hollywood that was surprisingly car-light. That's because the Department of Transportation had installed traffic diversions to keep motorists from using Yucca as a shortcut (and to prevent other unsavory behaviors). At a handful of intersections, concrete bollards and signage directed cars to turn right, while bikes could glide blissfully around them. It made the street a cyclist's wet dream. And in an interesting twist, the city has recently recognized this informal use with official infrastructural improvements, christening .8 miles of Yucca as L.A.'s first “bike-friendly street.”
This idea was actually not part of city's 2010 Bicycle Plan, which serves as a roadmap for the growing network of paths and lanes across the city. But the transportation planners rely on anecdotal reports to prioritize projects, and it appears that the city noticed the same thing that I (and lots of other bikers) did. “Yucca was unique because it wasn't originally designated as a bike-friendly street on the Plan, but we saw a great opportunity,” says Tim Fremaux, a transportation engineer in the bikeways division of the city's Department of Transportation. “The diverters on Yucca did present a unique opportunity to retrofit existing infrastructure to make it bike-friendly.”
As I rode the route last weekend, I was charmed by the way the city had transformed a good street for biking into a great one. In addition to “sharrows” (those painted bike icons on the asphalt), the curbs at each diverter (the median-like strips sticking into the intersection to divert cars) had been cut into paths just wide enough for a bike. A sign above each diverter amends the “Right Turn Only” message to autos with an “Except Bicycles” disclaimer.
It's a tiny gesture, yes, but it's the equivalent of the red carpet to a cyclist in L.A., where we have so little “bikes only” real estate. (Cars, there's something here for you, too: The $200,000 of improvements also included much-needed street repairs.)
This detail might not be obvious to a driver, so new signage signals to everyone that Yucca is different. Small green bike icons have been affixed to the top of each Yucca street sign, a massive aesthetic improvement over the “Bike Route” signs you see on most streets, which are usually tacked like an afterthought in places that are easy for drivers (and bikers) to miss. But here's the best part: On the larger cross streets, the signage has been swapped out altogether for new signs that include a bike icon as part of the street name. If you read it out loud you'd say it like this: “Yucca Street. BIKE!”
This incredibly progressive move is part of a new concept the city is considering citywide, says Fremaux. He also explains the various signs being used: “The 'Bike Route' signs have a different but related purpose, and are typically on routes themselves, versus the bike icon/street name signs which alert cross-traffic.” And they're working on other signs that will help bikers even more: “We're also in the process of rolling out wayfinding signage which should compliment both of these signs with destinations and distances.”
While the existing infrastructural landscape of Yucca will be tough to replicate elsewhere in the city, there is another street that's already in line for similar improvements. A pair of roundabouts are planned on 4th Street, a major east-west thoroughfare for bikers a few miles to the south that Fremaux expects to be next in line for declaration as a bike-friendly street. The key, of course, will be producing the same results as Yucca — reduced speeds, cyclist visibility, sharing the road — without the traffic-inhibiting diverters. For a taste of how this will work, check out Vista Street in Long Beach, a model “bike boulevard.”
As I rode last weekend from Highland to Vine, through the quiet blocks of apartments, I passed a dozen bikers, many of whom I saw using the street as a connector to other routes — heading north on Cahuenga, south on Vine. Although the official bike-friendly designation ends at Vine, you can keep going — past the Capitol Records building, crossing a somewhat gnarly Gower (a bike-ped combo crosswalk would help), until Yucca ends abruptly at Bronson in the depressing crevasse of the 101. But my gloom lifted as I remembered this was northern boundary of the freeway cap for the proposed Hollywood Central Park (which just got a hefty grant from the Aileen Getty Foundation). Eventually, Yucca's bike friendliness will roll right into the park, where a web of paths will let cyclists travel safely in whichever direction they choose.