Radical media, politics and culture.

Dan Koeppel, "Paint Your Lane! DIY Bike Lanes"

Paint Your Lane! DIY Bike Lanes Dan Koeppel From Bicycling

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 renegade bike-lane crew knows that their project will be more symbolic than practical—and definitely temporary. They expect the lane to be noticed and erased within days. But they hope that within that time it will create a controversy that lives on well after the stripe is removed.

The stenciling is done. The signs are up. They're the most professional-looking part of the project. A standard silhouette of a bike is emblazoned on reflective metal. Beneath that outline, three nonstandard letters are printed. They're meant to communicate the reason for the predawn incursion into public works—that cyclists believe someone has to do the job the city won't. The three letters are: DIY.

A few months before Fletcher got its stripe, I met with one of the painters for a tour of the city's bridges.

It was May, and there hadn't been a hotter day so far in 2008—the temperature was close to 100 degrees. We were already suffering as we rode to the city's southern boundary, 7 miles south of Fletcher.

The Los Angeles River is not what most folks would consider a riparian paradise: It is a huge, concrete spillway, paved over during the 1950s as part of a flood-control effort, that juts at angles as it stretches from the foothills north of town toward the Pacific Ocean. Our plan was to ride over each bridge during a peak traffic period on a weekday. We'd crossed one span already and were now approaching the Olympic Boulevard bridge, which would be our southernmost and longest traverse, almost a full mile. From there, we'd work our way north toward Fletcher, the second-to-last crossing. Olympic was the one my riding companion used nearly every day to get to work. "It scares the shit out of me," he said.

If you want a quick look at the structure, which is typical of the concrete-and-steel traverses we rode that day, rent the 1974 Oscar-winning movie Chinatown. In the film, it is called the Hollenbeck Bridge, and is noted as a great place from which to dump corpses.

Our real-time crossing felt just a bit less hard-boiled. Los Angeles has nothing like a Brooklyn Bridge or a Golden Gate. Our bridges are basically extensions of ordinary streets laid on propped-up roadbeds. The problem is that in some of the most important ways they aren't actually streets. Without traffic lights or intersections to naturally slow traffic, vehicles quickly reach freeway speeds. The bridges have no shoulders to offer safe refuge for bikes, just high curbs. As we rode, we found ourselves constantly sandwiched between palisades of concrete on one side and scores of speeding cars and trucks on the other. Some vehicles gave us leeway. Some honked. Many—far too many—passed within terrifying inches. There are more than 50 traffic lanes on the 12 bridges, but not a single accommodation for bikes.

The spans across the waterway form a lifeline between the teeming neighborhoods to the east—which hold more than 1 million people—and downtown Los Angeles, on the opposite shore. Buses cross the bridges, but their front-mounted racks hold only a pair of bikes, and it isn't uncommon, especially during peak hours, to have to wait repeatedly for an open space. Without safe bike access, those who rely on bikes are cut off from every basic service provided by city, state and federal governments. The courthouses, police headquarters, the central library, the jails and Union Station—where the city's primary mass transit lines and Amtrak originate—are all downtown. Major civic institutions such as Dodger Stadium, the University of California, the city's two largest parks and the central cathedral for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles are also all on the wrong side of the river for many cyclists.

The underground lane-painting project, wasn't the only time in 2008 that cyclists in Los Angeles had entered directly into conflict with the city's established transportation infrastructure.

"The Los Angeles Department of Transportation is the most difficult agency I've ever come up against," says Joe Linton, cofounder of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Many of the city's proposed bike lanes, including one on the Fletcher bridge, date back as far as 1984, when a flurry of bike fever hit Southern California during the preparations for the Olympic Games. "But those plans just haven't moved forward," says Linton, an activist responsible for one of the biggest triumphs in the annals of Los Angeles bike advocacy, the creation of a pathway on the banks of the Los Angeles River. Though city officials claim to support cycling, he says, their actions are often in counterpoint. Last year, when a one-half-cent sales-tax increase for mass transit and highway improvements was proposed, the measure passed, but the board of the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority specifically denied a petition that bike and pedestrian facilities receive 1 percent of that revenue.

The city's top-ranked biking official seems pushed to her limits. Michelle Mowery has been at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation for 15 years. Things have gotten better, she says: There's now an understanding that bikes have a role and that plans can't live on paper alone. But frustration rises in her voice when she talks about the fundamental issue of finding room for two-wheeled access when other forms of transportation are not only seen as a bigger part of the culture but also legitimately move more people. "People keep offering to buy me buckets of paint," she says. "What I need is roadway. Right now, all I can do is try to find places to squeeze bikes in."

But squeezing in the cyclists—who unlike motorists are unprotected by steel and glass—can result in disaster. On Independence Day 2008, a pair of local riders participating in a group event were accosted by a motorist who cursed, then pulled in front of them and stopped short. A nationally ranked racer named Ron Peterson went through the car's rear window. His nose was partially severed; his facial wounds required 90 stitches to repair. The second rider was less severely injured. The driver was arrested and charged with assault. (The case is still pending.) Letters and comments in the local media leaned toward the opinion of "the guy on the bike deserved it," citing increasing numbers of cyclists on city streets as a general provocation.

There are more cyclists in L.A. now, which might account for why more of them are speaking up about the inadequacy of the city's biking infrastructure. In early 2008, a document called "The Cyclist's Bill of Rights" was submitted to city agencies and neighborhood councils as both a blueprint for future planning and an alternative way of thinking about the traditional role bikes play in Los Angeles. It demanded equal treatment at all levels of government, full integration with traffic flow and that the voices of cyclists be weighed equally by public agencies alongside other transit interests. Fundamentally, the document was a repudiation of the city's entire, decades-long approach to bikes. "Thinking about bikes in an entirely new way," says Stephen Box, one of the authors of the document, "would mean that so much of the money devoted to coming up with plans that won't be implemented and bike lanes that won't work could be devoted to teaching people how to coexist with each other on the roads—and actually maintaining the roads so that they're safer for everyone."

Last April, 15 riders pedaled onto the Santa Monica freeway during rush hour, then posted a helmet-camera video of the experience online. The clip was viewed more than 70,000 times in a week, generating equal parts celebration, controversy and surprise: The riders covered four exits faster than cars stuck in crawling traffic. What wasn't seen on the tape, according to a rider who participated in both the freeway ride and the DIY lane-painting project, was that in several instances drivers of cars stopped in traffic tried to open their doors in front of passing cyclists.

There were even predecessors to the DIY lane. In 2007, a group of cyclists turned an east-west route in the town's mid-Wilshire district into a demonstrator "bicycle boulevard," a design that gives priority to bikes on an entire street, modifying signage, curbs and traffic signals so riders can move uninterrupted over long stretches. The effort was planned and executed by Ingrid Peterson, a 30-year-old rider known for her relentless positive thinking and her habit of wearing a safety vest to public meetings. A 5-mile stretch of the avenue was marked off with temporary signs, stencils and stickers. The placards ranged from the functional—"To the beach"—to the philosophical: "Live the dream." It grew from a minor coup to an event with real impact when Peterson managed to get a city councilman to pedal along with her at the inauguration—perhaps one reason that, later in the year, a proposal to create a genuine version was listed as a key goal in the draft of the city's new bike plan.

Fletcher was not the dream choice for the lane painters. The original attempt, which was bolder and, in retrospect, more foolish, ended with an unmarked patrol car, sirens and panic.

Eight people made up the crew, with two painting machines. And the location was high stakes. Though the Main Street bridge is shorter than the one on Fletcher, it enters the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Freight-train tracks run across it. Morning and evening commuters use it as a shortcut around the clogged freeways that head into the central city. Bike riders like it because it is relatively short.

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.

In a flurry of e-mails that followed the DIY group agreed that the Main Street bridge, the late hour and the skulking-about approach had been bad ideas. One of the painters suggested going public, as would befit the overall philosophy of the project: "Do it at six in the morning," he said. "Act like you belong there."

That, I discovered, was the way it was done. There was a precedent: a group called Urban Repair.

In 2005 in Toronto, a new bike lane suddenly sprang up on Bloor Street, one of the city's major commercial thoroughfares. A note left at the scene said, "Our agents inform us that your city is too busy patting self on backside about 2001 bike plan that they don't bother to make any bike lanes. We come to make roads safe for citizens of Toronto. We hear city is broke. We fix. No charge."

The full name of the group that painted the lane is the Official Urban Repair Squad, or O.U.R.S. As in Los Angeles, the initial project was born out of frustration. "There were lots of promises and never any delivery. Enough was enough," says Alvin, a Toronto rider who participated in the operation. (Alvin is a nom de guerre; members of the group began using aliases as the operation publicly added an element of theater. Following a recent striping project, the squad issued a fake city press release and held a grand opening to thank officials for their largesse. The organization was named "Best Toronto Activist Group" by the Now Toronto alternative city paper in 2007.)

O.U.R.S. created an online repository that acts as a training center and a knowledge base for prospective lane painters. Photographs and descriptions of more than 20 lane-painting projects from 10 countries are included. In a downloadable manual, the group recommends the "hide in plain sight" approach. "Real street workers always carry coffee mugs," it suggests.

For Fletcher, the crew was smaller, and it looked like an Urban Repair Squad: three painters in safety vests. They'd forgone the commuter coffee cups, but one of the painters pushed a broom, sweeping the bridge for authenticity. (The lane actually needed it; the gutter was filled with glass.)

By the time I watched them begin to spray the stripe, the painters had spent a lot of time researching exactly how lanes are segmented. The most expensive method involves striping with heat-treated plastic filled with reflective beads. Those look great and practically glow in the dark, but were beyond the means of the painting crew. Instead, they'd treated the project like any weekend fix-it person might: They asked at Home Depot. A helpful clerk pointed them to the Rust-Oleum machine and the six available colors of paint. The group chose white (though Alvin, the Toronto specialist, had tempted them with a story of his group's creation of a pink lane—a bit of feminist street theater that garnered huge publicity and goodwill.) The stencils were made with banner material garbage-picked from a local Kinko's. The official-looking signs were created at a local design shop.

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.

It took less than a day. On July 21, a local cyclist named Sean Bonner posted photos of the lane—taken with his mobile phone—on his blog. His headline: "New Bike Lanes Spotted Around L.A." Soon, several other websites, some bike related, others covering transit and general city news, had picked up the story.

A debate followed. I'd expected a vicious back-and-forth between those who thought the painters were hurting the cause and those who supported the idea. But the criticisms were few. The consensus was that the lanes were needed.

What rebukes there were related more to the cost of removing the lane: "A lot of money," one poster wrote. To which another responded: "So don't remove it. Problem solved."

On July 23, the lane was back in the news: One of the signs had vanished. By the next day, the other was also gone. The stripe and stencil were still intact, and the painters weren't sure whether the disappearance of the signs was an indication of official notice or simply souvenir hunting. I had to leave town the day after the second sign was removed, but I asked a friend who commuted over the bridge to keep watch. He e-mailed me the next day: "All gone," his simple message said. (The photo, by then, had also taken its place on the Urban Repair Squad's international listing.)

An influential transit site, L.A. Streetsblog, summed up the lane's 100-hour life span: "The DIY lanes lasted less than half a week as the DOT saw to their quick removal. Apparently, in Los Angeles, it takes well over a decade to construct the projects in a Bike Master Plan, but a couple of days to remove vigilante bike lanes."

The Department of Transportation, of course, had to remove the lane. When I returned home, I visited the DOT's bike expert, Mowery, in her office, and she told me that the project was more than just exasperating: "It cost money to replace. It lost goodwill. And it put riders in danger," she said, "with a lane that was too narrow and that emptied out right onto a freeway ramp."

In a hallway outside her office, I noticed one of the DIY signs the painters had put up on the bridge.

All of Mowery's points were echoed by cyclists who posted comments online. But there also seemed to be a recognition, even if unofficially, that self-painted lanes—as well as activist projects such as riding on freeways, creating temporary bike-friendly sectors, penning manifestos and whatever might be happening in the future—grow not just out of frustration, but also out of a need to do something. Joe Linton, who worked with the city for years as part of the Los Angeles bike coalition, says that, in the face of years of government inertia, community action feels inevitable. "The 'better to ask for forgiveness than permission' model actually organizes the community better," he says, "and the more I understand that model, the more I like it."

I wasn't sure what to think; it was hard to step back and gain objectivity on something that happened a few blocks from my house. I called Noah Budnick, a New York Citybased bike advocate who has one of the longest, most impressive resumes in the history of the game. He's senior policy advisor of Transportation Alternatives, one of the oldest and most effective transit advocacy groups in the country; he's also the chair of the board of the Thunderhead Alliance, a group that helps knit together smaller advocacy groups across the United States; and he's currently a Revson Fellow at Columbia University, working to improve local financing of transportation-oriented projects. It turned out that Budnick was planning a trip to L.A. for the Los Angeles Bike Summit in March 2009 and was excited when he heard about the lane. When I explained it to him, he didn't exactly put it in a broader context as much as see it as a beginning. "This is a local group providing a public benefit," he says. "The question is, which ones can they and which can't they? It isn't black-and-white. There's a continuum. But when there's a new service, government will always be skeptical about it. It often takes the community group trying to furnish that service, even when it isn't completely equipped to do it—even when it fails—to push the government into doing something."

The Fletcher lane, Budnick continued, was something the city probably had to paint over for many inflexible reasons, not the least of which was liability. But even so, Budnick says, official L.A. could still benefit, if it chooses to: "The community is showing where its needs are and providing a tool for getting them met."

As for the bike lane itself, something strange happened in the weeks, then months, after it was painted. The painters hadn't given themselves a name or organized as a formal group and made their only public statement in the three letters affixed to the sign. By taking no other credit, they hoped not to be drawn into personal infighting or conflict: "It could have been anyone—or everyone," said one of the painters. It was Bonner, the blogger who shot the first photographs of the project, who gave the group a name: The Department of DIY.

When I pedaled onto the Fletcher bridge more than eight weeks after the painting, I expected the crossing to be as treacherous as it had been before. What I saw shocked me. The lane wasn't gone. I'd assumed that the erasure had been accomplished by scraping the paint off. Instead, more paint had been applied. A new stripe, black and twice as wide as the Department of DIY's, had been laid down on top of the old one. The contrast between the new band and the asphalt below it was striking. I got off my bike and watched traffic for a while. Car after car passed. Six bikes did, as well. Not a single automotive vehicle strayed over the black line. Not a single rider wobbled to the left. Dark or light, a stripe is a stripe. And people tend to obey it.

One of the painters had noticed this, too. It was seeing this, he told me, that made him realize that the name Bonner bestowed actually meant something. What had been a one-time project could turn into something more. There had been problems with the Fletcher lane: Better routing around the east freeway ramp (one of Mowery's criticisms) should have been part of the initial stripe. But the lane could be regarded as a beginning for the Department of DIY.

The painter confessed that the continued life of the lane had him thinking about sharrows (painted symbols that indicate places where cars and bikes share the road, as in "SHARe arROWS"). There's been a lot of debate over whether the concept would work in Los Angeles. To the three riders who painted the Fletcher lane, the answer lies not in years of debate but in real-world testing on a few select streets. The city, of course, has a plan to implement such tests. But none has actually begun. Said the cyclist from the Department of DIY: "We'd like to help with that."