LA’s New 6th Street Bridge Has Bike Lanes, But Will They Protect Cyclists?
They’re better than nothing, but local cyclists say the bike lanes on the newly opened 6th Street Bridge also could be much better.
More than a decade in the remaking, the new viaduct spans over the Los Angeles River, connecting Boyle Heights to the east with the Arts District to the west. It cost roughly $588 million, with funding from the Federal Highway Transportation Administration, Caltrans and the city of L.A.
The bridge opened to the public last weekend, but even before that cyclists and safety advocates were voicing concerns over the bike infrastructure included in the project.
$600M spent on a brand new bridge here in Los Angeles and they put the car crash barrier on the wrong side of the bike lane.🥴— | Ethan Tufts | (@MrEthanTufts) July 9, 2022
LA has beautiful weather year-round, it should be a cycling oasis. But we can't even get things right with brand new infrastructure. 🚮 https://t.co/i1HhiOtya2
One important piece of street trivia: it’s the 6th Street Viaduct, but the roadway is actually Whittier Boulevard east of the river, running southeast through Boyle Heights and all the way to La Habra.
The bridge has Class IV bike lanes on both sides of the four-lane roadway, consistent with the direction of traffic lanes. That lane type is “physically separated from motor traffic with a vertical feature,” according to Caltrans.
On the viaduct, that’s achieved with round plastic posts set on rubber strips that are similar to parking blocks. The strips are placed a few feet apart from each other, with the plastic bollards set roughly every 15 feet. The bike lane is separated from the pedestrian sidewalk by a short concrete wall.
Many wondered why the concrete barriers weren’t placed between the bike lanes and car lanes to better protect people biking the span, given that concrete is harder for a vehicle to crash through than plastic posts.
I took that question to L.A.’s Department of Transportation and its Bureau of Engineering, along with Caltrans.
LADOT was tasked with striping the pavement on the bridge and also worked with the construction contractor on the design and installation of the bike lanes, according to spokesperson Colin Sweeney. He said the decision to place the bike lanes outside the concrete walls that protect the pedestrian walkways came from Caltrans.
“Since there are no shoulders on the viaduct, Caltrans requested that the bike lanes be ‘permeable’ to act as an emergency lane,” Sweeney told LAist, saying the bike lanes offer “the highest level of protection that could be accommodated by the width of the bridge while also allowing emergency vehicles to enter if needed.”
For cyclist Michael Schneider, the lane design is flawed and indicative of why people who ride bikes “so often feel like afterthoughts.”
“The whole premise of that protected bike lane is to act as a shoulder for cars versus protecting people on bikes,” said Schneider, who founded Streets For All, a street safety advocacy group.
“That whole thinking that a bike lane is fine, unless it's needed for other car use, is just so backwards,” he told LAist. “It's not going to inspire the confidence people need to actually use the facility on a regular basis.”
Sahra Sulaiman rides her bike most places in L.A. (she’s been car-free since the mid-'90s) and writes about urban planning and its impacts in Boyle Heights and South Central L.A. for Streetsblog LA. She covered the planning and building of the new bridge for a decade and said community concerns were raised multiple times about the bike lanes and who would use them.
“If you don't have a protected bike lane, folks who are not comfortable or not confident riders are going to ride on the sidewalk… and there's going to be conflicts in the pedestrian zone,” she said. “Why wouldn't you plan for that?”
Sulaiman noted that the broad spectrum of people who ride bikes in L.A. goes far beyond “the young crowd on their fixies.” She wonders how families who want to ride with their children to see the bridge will weigh the risks.
“I just can't imagine that they're going to look at the bike lane and decide that's the safer option for their five-year-old,” she said.
Other frequent users are workers who commute to and from downtown on bikes “out of necessity,” Sulaiman said.
“They're not doing this for the joy of it — they just want to get safely to work and back,” she said. “They don't trust drivers. They don't trust what happens in the street — they've seen too much.”
I asked the city’s Bureau of Engineering for more clarity on the bike lanes design and here's how that went:
- A spokesperson referred me to LADOT’s response.
- Then a Caltrans spokesperson deferred to L.A. officials, saying the bridge “is a project of the city of Los Angeles.”
The best way to describe the intergovernmental gumbo is that L.A.’s Bureau of Engineering managed the design and construction of the new bridge while Caltrans has jurisdiction of the bridge itself and holds most, if not all, of the approval power.
I also reached out to Michael Maltzan Architecture, the firm hired by the city to design the bridge, but was referred to an outside PR firm, which would not provide comment on the record.
How Protective Is Plastic Against The ‘Worst-Case Scenario’?
If the bike lane is “permeable” as LADOT describes it, is it fair to call it protected? There’s a reason we don’t put screen doors on submarines.
Schneider considers the bike lanes “a visual deterrent that does nothing to actually physically protect cyclists.”
There’s no real contest between thousands of pounds of motorized metal and a flexible plastic post, as demonstrated in a photo tweeted by @SweetSlinky on the bridge’s opening day.
Cyclist Damian Kevitt said he’s happy the bridge has designated space for bike riding, but that “it's not up to the current standards, as we define a protected bike lane now.”
A truly protected bike lane would be designed “for the worst-case scenario,” he said, explaining:
“To the best drivers, a stripe of paint is a deterrent. To careless drivers, a bollard might be a deterrent. To reckless drivers, a bollard is nothing. We need to cater to the most dangerous drivers. Unfortunately, those are the ones that are most likely to hit and kill people.
That's [why] you need to design streets to be safer for the most dangerous drivers. Obviously, the average driver is not a dangerous driver. But the average driver is not going around hitting and killing people. So [if] a life’s lost, what are you going to say? ‘Well, they unfortunately ran into an unaverage driver?’”
Kevitt said the outcry from safety advocates is a result of the growing number of cyclists being hurt and killed in recent years.
Nearly 160 people riding bikes in L.A. were killed by drivers over the past 10 years (2012-2021), according to preliminary city data. Hundreds more cyclists were severely injured in crashes in those years (and there are many other collisions that go unreported to police and aren’t accounted for in the city’s data).
Kevitt was almost one of those fatalities. In 2013, while he was riding his bike near Griffith Park, a driver in a minivan struck him, pinning him under the vehicle, then dragged him 600 feet onto the 5 Freeway onramp before fleeing the scene. Kevitt lost part of his right leg and now advocates for safer streets as the executive director of Streets Are For Everyone, or SAFE.
Kevitt expects local cyclists and community groups will formally request that the city upgrade the bike lanes to make them truly protected, though he’s not optimistic changes will be made — at least not before a cyclist is killed on the bridge.
“Honestly, unfortunately, as it works with the city, it's going to take a tragedy before there will be an agreement that it needs to change,” he said.
Lack Of Connections In Boyle Heights
Another issue raised by cyclists: On the eastside of the bridge, the bike lanes end (or begin) several hundred feet shy of Boyle Avenue. That means cyclists riding in each direction — into Boyle Heights from the bridge or toward the bridge from Boyle Heights — have to merge into car lanes or veer onto the sidewalks (as I saw a few riders do last week).
Eli Akira Kaufman, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, told LAist a serious crash in that section of the roadway is not a matter of if, but when.
“It's just not set up for keeping cars and cyclists at a safe distance from each other,” he said.
Merging into the westbound bike lane gets even more harrowing when drivers block traffic lanes and the bike lane entrance, as some cyclists documented on Twitter.
There’s also a disparity in where designated bike lanes connect to and from the bridge. On the westside, the city painted lanes on a stretch of 6th Street leading to the viaduct (though cyclists have to merge into general traffic lanes for about a quarter mile before they enter the bridge bike lane). The eastside is a different story.
The main intersection connecting the bridge on the east is Whittier Boulevard and Boyle Avenue, but neither street has designated bike lanes, so people riding to or from the bridge either have to ride on the sidewalk or take their chances in the streets with cars.
Kaufman said he and fellow coalition members are concerned by the lack of safety infrastructure once people ride or walk away from the bridge.
“There's not enough leading to the bridge and from the bridge to protect the lives of cyclists and pedestrians,” he said.
There is one other access point for cyclists underneath the viaduct on the east side of the L.A. River. A helix-type ramp spirals between the bridge deck and down to Mission Road below, connected with ramps and walkways from the southeast side of the viaduct. A two-way bike lane was added to Mission Road, buffered with plastic bollards.
The city is also set to construct a 12-acre park under the viaduct, creating sports facilities, dog parks, play areas and more on both sides of the river.
Some Upgrades Are In The Works
The viaduct and the neighborhoods it connects are part of L.A.’s 14th Council District, represented by Councilmember Kevin de Leόn.
District spokesperson Pete Brown said that district officials are aware of the bike lane gap on the Boyle Heights side of the bridge. He said they’re currently working with Caltrans to “develop a plan to extend the bike lane in a safe way for cyclists.”
There’s also a proposal to create safer bike connections into Boyle Heights.
Earlier this year CD14 officials applied for a $30 million grant through the state’s Active Transportation Program to add designated bike lanes and other mobility improvements along Boyle Avenue. The goal is to “connect the Metro station at Mariachi Plaza all the way to the 6th Street Bridge,” Brown said.
Grant winners are set to be announced in October and there’s not a timeline right now for when that potential project could open, he noted.
The View From The Bridge
I wanted to get a sense of how people are using the bridge after the fanfare of its opening weekend. So I walked across both sides of the 6th Street viaduct on a weekday afternoon to see it for myself.
The bridge’s rolling arches and the views it provides are stunning, but I’ll stop short of calling the viaduct a serene place for people walking and biking the span. The near-constant flow of cars — many speeding, some revving their engines — creates a barrage of noise and the occasional waft of toxic air. The speed limit across the bridge is 35 mph, but many drivers either didn’t know that or didn’t care.
Still, the bridge is popping. In the roughly 60 minutes I spent on the span last week, I saw dozens of people riding bikes in the dedicated lanes, along with some on e-scooters and skateboards (plus a pile of evidence that a horse had been in the bike lane and can process food just fine).
A few gaps spaced along several spots of the concrete walls allow cyclists to enter or exit the bike lane from the pedestrian paths. Several bike riders stuck to those walkways.
Many more people were walking, jogging, or pushing strollers, stopping occasionally to take in the scenery of downtown in the distance and the L.A. River below.
The view was picturesque enough that one driver stopped his car in the road to get out and snap a few photos. Drivers behind him who had to brake sharply were quick to offer a rebuke with their horns.
I winced as a woman sprinted across the four-lane roadway, cutting it way too close with drivers speeding toward her.
Later, just after sunset, I drove across the bridge and noticed several drivers had blocked the entrance to the westbound bike lane with their cars to mingle with friends and snap some photos. Other drivers slowed down to get photos and videos of the skyline and its dusk-lit backdrop. Further along the bridge, a group of motorcycles were parked in the bike lane, effectively blocking it.
Maybe those discourtesies will fizzle once the novelty of the bridge wears off. But the well-documented ways people in cars, trucks and other vehicles treat bike lanes doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Still, Kaufman said his coalition of cyclists hope the city will stay vigilant for safety issues on the viaduct and “do the right thing by connecting this bridge to better infrastructure that's safer and more accessible to all kinds of riders.”
“We're hopeful that this is just the beginning of better things to come,” he said, “and that the bridge infrastructure itself is continuing to be refined and improved to make sure that we're counting for and taking care of the lives that use it.”