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A $10,000 bus stop update causes uproar in Los Angeles – Urbanist Update

How Brussels took their car-centric city and changed for the better, loud bike trails, and how to find bikeable neighborhoods in cities unfriendly to cycling and walking.

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Welcome to the Urbanist Update. My job here might be as tech editor, but I’ve also spent tons of time studying transportation, city planning, and engineering. Here are some of the things I’ve found interesting over the past week related to biking in cities, cycling infrastructure, and urbanism.

What is urbanism? In short, it is the study of how the inhabitants of an urban area interact with their towns and cities. If you care about building sustainable communities that let you live a happy and healthy life, then this is the spot for you. See previous Updates here.

(Image: Los Angeles Department of Transportation)

The explainer for why everyone on Twitter is angry about a bus stop in LA called ‘La Sombrita’ 

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) recently released a design for new bus shelters in the city that they’re calling a La Sombrita, according to Spectrum News

Let’s back up a bit and talk about how LADOT arrived at this conclusion. LADOT is working through their gender equity action plan, the goals of which are to address gender gaps in policymaking, pilot programs, and rider access by ensuring that women have critical roles as shareholders in decisions. In short, how can transportation — typically a boy’s club of sorts — incorporate accommodation for women and their needs?

Next, the Los Angeles Metro system — responsible for trains, subways, and bus systems — published their findings from polling current Metro riders for their needs, the results of which you can find in their 191-page study. Key results here are that only a third as many women as men felt safe waiting for transit after dark, and that 90 percent of women ranked a waiting area with seating, lights, and shade as their first or second priority in waiting for transit. 

And so we arrive at La Sombrita. This design came courtesy of LADOT and design firm KDI, the latter of which shared their design process in an Instagram infographic. According to KDI, the bus stop design is the result of traveling to the likes of Quito, London, and Hamburg. The stop system also includes lighting at each stop.

Nighttime lighting — as meager as it might be in actuality — is better than nothing in making transit more comfortable to use for everyone. But in many ways, this project is an example of what I think is a more serious problem in modern-day planning: having to meet compliance standards for something the planning team didn’t implement when the solution is an expensive compromise that is based on “equity.”

If you’re looking for a more nuanced take than my off-the-cuff response, I’ll let the Streetsblog LA Communities Editor Sahra Sulaiman take it from here. If you love diving deep into bus stop architecture (and who doesn’t?), their thread is an excellent choice. 

(Photo: Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Protected bike lanes increase safety, save money and protect the planet, new report finds

This may come as intuitive knowledge to some, but a study developed by the Institute for Transportation and Development puts some numbers behind what many of us already felt to be the case.

The study focused on the estimated impacts of protected bike lane networks in “two low-and-middle-income countries that have built extensive networks of protected bicycle lanes.” Any benefits derived from the study came from increases in cycling since new bicycle infrastructure has been implemented

The two cities settled on were Bogotá, Colombia and Guangzhou, China. Here are the key number takeaways from these two networks: an estimated equivalent of planting 300,000 to 400,000 new trees every year, and a combined 350 prevented premature deaths all from developing a bike lane network. 

Perhaps most interestingly the study estimates that bike lanes lead to a 10-fold emissions reduction per dollar spent on infrastructure compared to developing metro rail. Much is made about how much protected bike lanes will cost, and while more should likely be made about the cost of upkeep, that bike lanes can cost so much less than metro rail is something really important to point to. 

Yes, this is coming from a cycling-centric website. Yes, effective public transit is essential to cities being more equitable for folks to find work and quality of life opportunities. But I like bike lanes and this is a good example of the power they have. Hopefully you like them just a little more too!

(Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Bikeable neighborhoods (in not-so-bike-friendly cities)

If you’re not familiar, there is something called a ‘bike score,’ and it is a way to quantify how good an area is to bike in. This score is similar to a walk score (something all the Zillow lurkers out there are likely looking at when window shopping homes) that aims to offer an easy way to evaluate how bikeable a location is. The 0 to 100 scale accounts for density of bike lanes, hills, road connectivity, and the amount of bike commuting already occurring. 

As it turns out, there are a number of cities that as a whole aren’t bikeable but have small pockets that are much more bike-friendly. This story from Good Good Good compiled a list of the least bikeable cities with bikeable neighborhoods, with a few trends I found for good measure. 

Average out the walk scores from each of these neighborhoods and you get 77.7, which is considered “very walkable,” meaning walking is likely convenient for most trips. My expectation for these neighborhoods is that they are high-income neighborhoods, but that didn’t seem to be the case; neighborhoods like Downtown Indianapolis shared average and median household income within 5 percent of the city averages as a whole, but neighborhoods like Gaslamp actually had 10 percent lower median and average incomes.

Don’t call a bike score an end all be all to blindly finding a place to live. But cities with poor bike-ability likely don’t have to look far for inspiration as to how to make their cities safer for people biking.

(Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

A Belgian Lesson in Taming the Automobile

Brussels, Belgium was once described in 2014 in The Guardian as a “spider web of highways that is impossible to evade,” becoming one of the two most congested cities in Europe and North America. 75 percent of trips made in 2014 in Brussels were done by car. However, thanks to a number of critical reforms, just 50 percent of trips were made by car in 2021.

CityLab has the breakdown of what Brussels has done over the last few years

Belgium’s streets weren’t too different from what one might find in North America. Compared to the rest of Europe, Belgium put in considerable work to widen streets, add parking lots, and generally make their cities function similarly to those in North America. 

Perhaps most important was that there was political will to make serious changes. Brussels’s Good Move plan outlined not just goals but specific measures to make the city’s roads better for people walking and biking. This was a multi-pronged effort, with substantial money going into transit to boost capacity, physical bicycle infrastructure, and open up more public space for people to walk and look around. 

The other bit I thought was particularly interesting was the idea of “preaching abundance rather than restriction.” Adding bicycle infrastructure to an established street is frequently seen as taking away from the car, but their messaging highlighted building spaces for children to play sports, open space for people to have a drink, and generally give them more places to be. 

Will that kind of messaging work in North America? I think so, but urban planners I’ve previously worked with have called me “enthusiastic,” “excited,” or “the opposite of jaded” at one point or another. Hopefully I’ll find the chance.

First ride: Northern Virginia opens new “66-Parallel” bike and walking trail

New bike paths, hooray! Too bad someone on Reddit said the new trail is worthy of being called an urban hell.

A story from DCist reports on a DC-area bike trail has a new 18-mile extension that follows the I-66 highway almost to a tee, placing the trail right next to the highway with just a concrete barrier between cyclists and a 70 mph (112 kmh) speed limit for about 3 miles. The rest of the trail places the route meanders away from the highways but stays largely close enough to remain efficient.

Why do I bring this trail up? In many ways, this new trail system is emblematic of a number of new bike trails found today. Building connected neighborhoods is essential, so a bike path makes sense. Cyclists don’t want to meander and loop around places when they can follow a straight line and arrive at their destination more quickly. They also appreciate being physically separated from cars, particularly ones traveling at highway speeds.

So why was this trail so frustrating? Think of the increased exposure to road debris and exhaust fumes that one might experience on this trail. And of course, there’s the general noise pollution; while it may not be loud enough to give someone a case of tinnitus it sure is uncomfortable, and surely disconcerting for folks newer to cycling.

Any bit of infrastructure — roads, bridges, parks — should be approached as if it will be a permanent part of the landscape. I don’t think routing cyclists near a highway is a great solution, but it is better than nothing. Just make sure that people are okay with building a trail near their backyard and you’ll be less likely to see something like this happen.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.