MAKE YOUR OWN SPEED LIMIT SIGNS
David E. Davis, Jr.
Car and Driver Magazine, June 1968
The bridge is calm as Sunday morning dawns. At either end of the span, the freeway ramps are idle. Below, a few shorebirds peck at the marshy floor of the river. This is an out-of-character moment: During the week, thousands of cars pass through here, coming from the north, south and east, pinching into four lanes as they make their way toward the commercial centers of downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and the city beyond at 20 mph, 20 mph below the posted speed.
But on this day, I blasted across at 90 mph in my Porsche 911, obeying the new speed limit signs I had put up the night before.
Imagine the out roar if such an article appeared in a national automotive enthusiast magazine. Manufacturers would face demands to pull their advertising dollars. Environmental and safety organizations would be calling for a boycott. Attorney generals across the nation would be contemplating legal action against Ziff-Davis (the publisher). But it's just a parody.
Now, consider this:
PAINT YOUR LANE
by Dan Koeppel
Bicycling Magazine, July 2009, pp. 70-75, 96
The bridge is calm as Sunday morning dawns. At either end of the span, the freeway ramps are idle. Below, a few shorebirds peck at the marshy floor of the river. This is an out-of-character moment: During the week, thousands of cars pass through here, coming from the north, south and east, pinching into four lanes as they make their way toward the commercial centers of downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and the city beyond.
But at first light on this July 19th, the only vehicles here on Fletcher Drive are three bikes, and those have been stashed in the brush. The cyclists who left them there are setting out traffic cones on the road. When the right-hand lane has been blocked off, the cyclists walk back to the shoulder to retrieve the object that, over the past few weeks, they have come to refer to as The Machine. The $99 Rust-Oleum 2395000 looks like a tiny, four-wheeled wagon with low ground clearance and a handle that angles backward and up from the bed. The cargo area, so low it sits between the wheels rather than above them, is equipped with a mount for spray-paint cans; in the unused space, you can store five or six extra cans upright, ready to swap in when one runs dry. The 2395000 is most commonly used to create parking-lot stripes.
Starting at the southern end of the roadway, the three cyclists form a work crew. One holds the handle and pushes while another guides from the front, trying to make sure they walk a straight line. The third keeps watch for oncoming cars. (He's also pushing a broom.) The cyclist holding the handle squeezes the bicycle brake lever mounted there -- an unplanned talisman of righteousness? -- and the attached cable actuates a nozzle on the bottom of The Machine. A blast of paint settles onto the asphalt below. From practice, the crew knows they have to be careful not to leave footprints in the wet band of color that feeds out behind them as they walk down the road.
When the stripe stretches the bridge's length, the painters stash the machine in the brush, check their surroundings, adjust the orange safety vests they bought just for this occasion, and return back to the west side of the still-quiet span with some new equipment. One of them lays a stencil on the blacktop. Another swipes a paint-sopped roller over the surface. The paint, this time from a one-gallon can, spreads out thick and a little sloppy, and the image of a cyclist looks ragged. Meanwhile, the third cyclist is climbing the bridge's railing. He ratchets two signs onto lampposts there, a hundred feet apart.
The Fletcher Drive bridge suddenly has a bike lane -- a homemade bike lane, and an illegal one. The project is the result of weeks of planning and years of frustration. Not including freeways, there are 12 bridges that cross the Los Angeles River, and the three rogue bike-lane makers are among the hundreds of cyclists who cross those bridges every day. For more than a decade, an official document has existed that would create bike facilities on four of those bridges. But to the region's longtime riders, that proposal, like the entire municipal blueprint for two-wheeled access along 6,400 miles of the city's roadways, is less a plan than a catalog of unfulfilled promises. Hundreds of miles of bike lanes, routes and paths have been okayed, but never built. The bridges-high -- speed thoroughfares that are the only way to enter downtown Los Angeles from the east -- are where those wayward vows turn most deadly, the painters say. Not a single span within city limits has a real bike lane.
The bridge is more visible and more traveled throughout the day, so the painters decided to do the job at 3 a.m. The planning took weeks. There were rehearsals with the paint machine in abandoned parking lots and sessions to practice quickly ratcheting the metal placards onto telephone poles. But it was only a tiny bit of luck, not planning, that kept the painters out of jail.
I was the first to arrive at the bridge. The night was misty, and nerves had set my stomach churning. I didn't want to wait on the bridge alone, so I rode back into the adjacent industrial neighborhood of junkyards and warehouses, then ducked into a side street where I leaned my bike against a corrugated fence, took deep breaths and regretted the two cups of coffee I drank half an hour earlier.
When I returned, two of the painters were waiting. The east end of the Main Street bridge is abbreviated by train tracks, which would make our lane short, but more complicated to create. We discussed the tracks, and I noticed a locomotive idling less than a hundred yards away. I could see the silhouette of an engineer moving in the train's rear car. It looked like he was watching us.
By five past three, all the painters had appeared except those bringing the equipment. They'd had the longest ride, dragging the machines, stencils, signs and supplies in trailers. Someone called them. No answer. Ten more minutes passed.
A car rolled by. It was a thick, muscled Dodge Challenger, jet black, windows tinted, with shining rims. The Challenger crossed the bridge, continued for a block, then turned around. As it came back toward us, lights flared from behind its windshield. Blue and red. It picked up speed then abruptly angled to a stop. A window rolled down. A badge was flashed.
"What's going on?"
Just a group of riders, we clumsily explained, standing on a bridge before dawn on Sunday. Identification was requested. Each of us was thinking the same thing: the trailers. Don't show up now. I could almost read the officer's thoughts: What are these people up to?
A few minutes passed. Then: "You guys shouldn't be hanging around on the bridge." The officer rolled up his window, drove away.
If we'd been caught in the act of painting, we probably would have been charged with vandalism, which is treated legally in a way similar to painting graffiti. Any act that causes more than $400 worth of damage, an amount we realistically could have exceeded, can be considered a felony, with punishments that include jail time, fines as much as $5,000 and restitution. There were other issues to worry about. Bike riders hadn't had good relations with the police in the past year; they'd been arrested on Critical Mass rides and had recently been stopped and checked for "bike licenses" by an officer enforcing a decades-old law that nobody, not even city or state officials, could even remember. The painters' goal for the night was to make a statement, not start a conflict.
One of our group made a quick call to the missing riders, who, it turned out, were about to roll onto Main Street. They were told to ride away, and the project was scuttled.
The lane stretched 450 feet. All but the last 20 looked perfect. In the final moments, a police car came by in the opposite lane and, although the painters remained calm, there was a little veering, then a correction. The eastern end of the stripe looked like a squiggle squeezed from a toothpaste tube-but the out-in-the-open, "we belong" strategy worked. The black-and-white drove past without incident.
After all the paint and signage was applied, the painters rearranged the traffic cones around the stencil to protect it while it dried. Then they gathered their equipment and pedaled to a local coffee shop to celebrate and wonder what would happen next.
Dan Koeppel is the author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (Plume), now available in paperback.
Parody? Nah. It's just bicycles. They aren't real vehicles. People don't get killed. Cafe-cyclists know best. Transportation engineers are just puppets of the SUV-centric road system.
I realize some readers of this blog might think this is cool. Truth is, vigilante traffic engineering isn't cool, it's deadly.