L.A.'s Bike Lane Blues

After two coats of paint, a new bike lane in Los Angeles is struggling to take hold

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Nate Berg

The city of Los Angeles recently followed the lead of cities like San Francisco and New York by altering two of its streets and adding new bike lanes, part of a pilot program that included painting the entire width of the lanes bright green. These new lanes have been welcomed by the bicycle community and by ribbon-cutting local politicians as a bold green sign of the city’s efforts to become a safer and friendlier place to bike. Riding down one of these new lanes, a 1.5-mile section of Spring Street downtown, it’s easy to feel the difference from other streets in the car-dominated city, with the neon green lane practically impossible to miss. But after a few blocks of riding, that bright green starts to dim, with sometimes huge splotches chipped off and eaten away, revealing the black pavement and gray concrete beneath. And that’s after a second coat of paint had been added. In a month.

“By the first rainstorm they were compromised,” says Tim Fremaux, a traffic engineer and bikeways project manager at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

And that first rainstorm came early. Despite a fairly clear forecast, rains drizzled shortly after crews laid down paint the weekend of November 19. According to Bruce Gillman, LADOT’s public information officer, the $15,000 coat of paint couldn’t properly set because of the moisture. In addition, passing buses, cars, bikes and pedestrians further affected the paint’s ability to dry properly. “Cones weren’t left in place long enough to control the traffic,” says Gillman.

Within days, much of the paint on a long stretch of the new bike lane looked like it had gone through years of service. So two weeks later, they tried again.

“We re-applied with a different paint, but recent rainstorms compromised that coat as well,” says Fremaux, of rains that fell earlier this week. The second coat of paint, which included an epoxy base to help it stick to the ground, cost another $15,000.

But again, the bike lane is now fading away on about half of its 11-block stretch, with chipped paint drifting into gutters and down the street. The bulk of the paint remains, but the visible decay is at the very least troubling for a project with only a few weeks under its belt and already two faulty coats of paint.

“Whatever paint they’re using, it’s not working,” says Alexis Lantz, planning and policy director at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. She points to success in cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and New York, which have installed similar painted bike lanes in recent years. “I don’t believe they’ve seen these kinds of issues with the paint peeling up.”

Being a pilot program, it’s understandable for the bike lanes to hit a few hurdles, says Lantz, but she also argues that hitting the same hurdle twice doesn’t help projects like these sit well with a public increasingly skeptical about even meager investments of public money in projects that, for example, take away a lane from car traffic.

“It can put a nasty taste in people’s mouths,” she says. “It’s kind of a bummer.”

Despite this early stumble, the project is seen as a big step among those in the bicycle community, according to Lantz.

“We’re really excited that the city of Los Angeles is trying something,” Lantz says. “It’s been a huge benefit, even with trying it and not having it be 100 percent successful.”

Gillman argues that 100 percent success wasn’t necessarily the main objective. The Spring Street bike lane was intended to serve as a test of how future lanes could be implemented, he says. The problems with the paint have proven to be effective lessons of what not to do. The other test in this pilot – on certain high traffic areas like intersections on 1st Street – used a higher-grade and more expensive thermoplastic paint similar to what’s used to line streets. No problems have been reported on this street. But at about double the cost of the Spring Street paint, Gillman says this option isn’t widely viable in the current economic climate.

For now, the chipping paint represents maybe 10 to 20 percent of the stretch of lane in question, but it hints at a rapid deterioration that could decrease the attention-gathering safety these lanes are intended to provide. Gillman says LADOT will be sending a crew out to evaluate the latest damage and determine whether yet another coat of paint is needed.

Fremaux says the city’s not likely to keep covering up the problem without finding a more permanent solution.

“We don’t want to go out there and keep applying the same thing if it’s not working,” Fremaux says. “We need to do more research and continue to develop options before we proceed.”

One option would seem to be waiting for drier weather to allow the paint to set in more properly. But waiting also means a delay, and in some ways getting an imperfect project now is better than a perfect one later.

“Could we have waited until June to paint these lanes? We probably could have,” says Gillman. “Would the bicycling community and the downtown partners we worked with to make this happen want to wait that long? Doubtful.”

Photo credit: Nate Berg

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.