Michael Schneider is the founder of Streets For All, a group aiming to transform transportation in famously car-centric Los Angeles, making streets better for motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and all users regardless of their preferred mode of transportation. Schneider talked to us about the challenges and potential of Los Angeles for cycling, as well as recent developments to move away from car dominance.
Interview by James Lynch | Images by Kjeld Gogosha-Clark & William Tracy
Around on Bikes: Working in cycling space in Los Angeles, a very car dominated city, what got you thinking about reimagining transportation in the city?
Michael Schneider: Well I have to say I was born and raised here and I was a huge car guy for most of my life. I was that person who would get in my car, drive a few blocks to the supermarket, complain that there wasn’t enough parking, then drive home. What changed for me was the financial crisis in ‘09, ‘10. It ultimately led to me rethinking my life and giving up my expensive lease, dusting off an old bicycle, and really challenging my state of mind that no one bikes in LA; you have to own a car; and cycling in Los Angeles is just crazy and impossible.
Once I realized it wasn’t impossible, and maybe it was still a little crazy, I started to fall in love with the lifestyle of feeling great physically and mentally; getting to wherever I needed to go; never being late because of rush hour; and never having to look for parking. Even getting free VIP parking right up front wherever I went.
Those were the positive things, but as my wife and I started to have kids and as I started to take my young children on my bike with me, when a car passes you with 3 inches to spare instead of 3 feet, or honks at you, when you have your kids on your bike, it’s a totally different level of frustration and anger at the state of cycling in Los Angeles. I resent that I need to risk my life just to get around town outside of a car.
What got me on the path to Streets For All was a couple years ago I was trying to understand the landscape, why does Los Angeles have such poor cycling infrastructure? We have probably the best weather in the world of any major city, we have a relatively flat city, the majority of trips in LA county are under 3 miles, and we have a mayor who touts LA as a leader for the Green New Deal. All of these things didn’t add up. Why do we have all the politicians saying one thing but we are still wanting to widen freeways and not reallocate space for protected bike lanes? I started to get involved and Streets For All was the culmination of those efforts.
Streets For All is really out there to do two important things: one, we want to change culture. We want to inspire people. We want to let them know about projects where they could get involved, show up at a meeting, these days virtually, make their voices heard and try to change the city for the better. But we are also a political organization and we want to help elect progressive people to city council so we can actually get a majority on city council of people who are not just going to say I care about climate change, but are actually going to make the on-the-ground hard decisions to help people who want to get out of their cars and into a greener form of transportation that is good for everyone.
AOB: Do you feel like you are swimming against the tide in LA?
MS: The loud minority in Los Angeles who complain, maybe they want to go back to the 1950s where there were way fewer cars and you could get in your car, park for free wherever you wanted to go in, go in, and go home. That isn’t possible anymore. I don’t hear a solution from people who say you can’t take my vehicle traffic lane away and give it to a cyclist.
Change can happen really, really quickly when political leaders talk to people and say “I get that you don’t necessarily love this but we are going to try this and see because our city is not sustainable the way this is going.”
We need to get to the next maybe 5 percent of people who might be interested if you spoke to them in the right way. They may be willing to try it if they had access to bike lanes, if they had someone help them plan a route. I’m convinced there’s a silent majority in Los Angeles that would love this, especially younger people. This is being held back by a very loud, mostly older, minority that doesn’t want to change at all.
AOB: When you think about making major infrastructure changes, what do they look like?
MS: I think we need curb level protected bike lanes, European style. That means someone 8 to 80 years old feels safe. If you can’t do that, or it’s too expensive to pour the concrete then I would love to see parking-protected bike lanes, or bollards. Either one of those if you did a network of them the 1 percent of people who bike could go up to 4, 5, 6 percent pretty quickly given our weather.
I think that the most politically feasible option is probably a reduction of vehicle traffic lanes as opposed to parking. Parking seems to be the third rail in this town. So that’s probably the most realistic. I also love the idea of wider sidewalks in general, the average sidewalk width in the city of Los Angeles is 4.5 feet.
AOB: What have been the effective ways to motivate political pushes?
MS: To inform people and turn out the silent majority. The first step is just even knowing it’s happening. Most people don’t think about the fact that their built environment can change.
When you start telling people, “Hey you live in this part of town this project is being considered, but it’s not a sure thing. You have to show up and make your voice heard,” that sort of activates people.
So I want to build one of the largest lists of people who care about this of any big city and then I want to inform people so they can decide what they care about and potentially show up and make their voices heard. Those things really matter.
AOB: Can cycling make LA a more equitable and accessible place?
MS: With cycling, it’s absolutely an equity issue. There are a lot of people that can’t afford a car. A lot of the jobs that people need to get to are more west of downtown Los Angeles, and as you get more west you get into more politically conservative territories that don’t necessarily want to make cycling easier or take space away from cars. So people who can’t afford cars are riding on the sidewalks or riding on the street but they don’t feel comfortable risking their lives just to get to work.
Also there was an incident last night in LA that is fresh in my mind. A man was cycling, a black man in south Los Angeles, a sheriff started pursuing him, I don’t know the details but the article said code violation related to biking, maybe he ran a stop sign, who knows, but this man wound up dead. It’s unbelievably tragic.
So when you talk about the mobility justice aspect of this, you have got to think if people, minorities, don’t feel comfortable even if there is a bike lane because they are being policed by armed men and women, that is a whole other aspect that needs to change.
I don’t understand why as a city we spend the resources to send anyone armed with a gun chasing after somebody on a bicycle for running a stop sign or running a red light, it doesn’t make any sense to me. It feels like the enforcement mechanisms for cycling also need to change, especially to protect minorities. Yesterday’s incident was just so tragic.
AOB: Is there an opportunity on a bicycle to re-humanize some of these things that have been dehumanized as we separate into cars?
MS: I absolutely think we can. When I bike my daughters to school or to a park, whatever, they notice things they would never notice in a car. They notice the color of a flower or a butterfly. They ask me questions, and moving at a more human pace, human-scaled pace, you really do see the city differently.
I think that it is much more difficult to ignore problems in the community if you really feel them because you are going through the community at a slower pace. It’s easier to ignore them from a steel box; you feel insulated.
I absolutely believe between the connection to nature and seeing your community at a different scale and pace can help. It can also help with relationships. I like seeing police on bicycles. It’s much more approachable rather than these real scary cars or Hummers or whatever. I think the bicycle can definitely connect you a lot more to both nature and your community.
AOB: When you look at all these things do your have hope for cycling in LA?
MS: I am eternally optimistic so I’ll always have hope. I joke with my wife I should just move to Boulder or Minneapolis. I’d probably live a lot longer; I’d have the city they way I want, but that would be cheating. I want to change it here. This city deserves change. We owe it to our children. This city has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. We all smoke cigarettes every week just by breathing. There are serious consequences to having a car being the king of the road, so I always have hope.
Covid actually, while I wish of course it never happened, one of the silver linings, there are two, one is one that Streets For All led the charge to get Los Angeles to implement Slow Streets. We have signage throughout the city, it’s an official department of transportation program that asks drivers to slow down and essentially makes streets less interesting to cut through because they have to dodge these signs. It’s safer for people walking, running, biking, scooting, etc. That’s been really interesting. If you’d asked me if LA would have done that six months ago I would have said no way, because it inconveniences drivers.
We also have something called LA Al Fresco, which is LA’s outdoor dining program to help restaurants survive. Restaurants are now allowed to use parking space, sidewalk space, and, starting very soon, street space. The city is buying these huge concrete barriers and actually putting them and essentially cordoning off a parking lane and becomes part of the restaurant’s patio. And so again, if you asked me six months ago, “Would LA ever inconvenience drivers and repurpose parking for dining?” I would say no way, and now they are doing it. And there are movements in city council to try to make both of those things permanent which is also really interesting.
But once people realize that things can change then all of a sudden the fun part starts in terms of how. People have all sorts of ideas. Usually it’s a combination of: a bike lane would be great; I’d like the bus to be easier; I’d like crossing the street to not be hazardous to my life, just the basics. But once people realize that things can change then all of sudden the fun part starts in terms of how.