The Vision of the Backbone Bikeway Network

The Backbone Bikeway Network (Central, Valley, Harbor maps) is the result of the work of many cyclists who came together spending many hours working with the LA Bike Working Group on their vision for LA’s Best Bike Plan.

Coming from all corners of Los Angeles, these cyclists attended several Bike Working Group meetings that Stephen Box and Alex Thompson coordinated and they also participated in the meetings held by the Department of Transportation as part of the two year development of the still unreleased “infeasible” Bike Plan. (The Bike Plan that attracted little attention, lots of criticism, and much dismay from the cycling community!)

Backbone roads that I'm familiar with are part of the streets that I've ridden (in orange).

Backbone roads that I'm familiar with are part of the streets that I've ridden (in orange).

The Backbone maps were a team effort of those who ride all over Los Angeles, who ride large streets and small streets, bike lanes and bike paths, who dress up in sports gear to ride and those who dress up in heels to ride.

The Backbone Bikeway Network has gotten some great press since its release (LA Times blog 1 & blog 2, KPCC, NBC Los Angeles, Fast Company, Good Is, LA Streetsblog 1 & LA Streetsblog 2, LA Curbed, LAist 1 & LAist 2, Flying Pigeon LA, Structure Hub, At Cost, etc. and there has been much discussion about who created it, how the streets were selected and what the maps mean.

There have also been some misquotes in the press (from the large media only Jonathan Lloyd from NBC got it completely right with his “PeopleWay” terminology) and even some confusion from those who ride or drive about what these maps mean. Some grapple with the idea of a freeway model for bikes which I would like to clarify, just because I do believe that words matter. The Backbone Bikeway Network is not suggesting a freeway for bikes. Why not?

Think about what a freeway is and how it resonates in cities around the world.

A freeway is:

  • a broad highway designed for high-speed traffic.
  • a type of road designed for safer high-speed operation of motor vehicles through the elimination of at-grade intersections. This is accomplished by preventing access to and from adjacent properties and eliminating all cross traffic through the use of grade separations and interchanges; railroad crossings are also removed. Such highways are usually divided with at least two lanes in each direction. Because traffic never crosses at-grade, there are generally no traffic lights or stop signs. (English dictionary)

In the United States, a “freeway” is defined by the federal government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices as a divided highway with full control of access. This means two things. First, adjoining property owners do not have a legal right of access, meaning that they cannot connect their lands to the highway by constructing driveways, although frontage roads provide access to properties adjacent to a freeway in many places. When an existing road is converted into a freeway, all existing driveways must be removed and access to adjacent private lands must be blocked with fences or walls.

Second, traffic on a freeway is “free-flowing”. All cross-traffic (and left-turning traffic) is relegated to overpasses or underpasses, so that there are no traffic conflicts on the main line of the highway which must be regulated by traffic lights, stop signs, or other traffic control devices. Achieving such free flow requires the construction of many overpasses, underpasses, and ramp systems. The advantage of grade-separated interchanges is that freeway drivers can almost always maintain their speed at junctions since they do not need to yield to vehicles crossing perpendicular to mainline traffic. (

In short, a freeway segregates from city life with walls and fences. A freeway is meant to move cars quickly without stopping from one end of the city to another. It separates and divides communities, neighborhoods and individuals from eyes and ears when in need of help. A freeway is in general void of the human element and it has no amenities such as lights, parking, quick stops, and signs. A freeway has very few crossings and it is structured for speed and it’s controlled by the state and federal government.

Freeways are a big controversy with environmental groups, health organizations, homeowners, businesses and community activists.

Backbone roads that I'm familiar with are part of the streets that I've ridden (in orange).

Backbone roads that I'm familiar with are part of the streets that I've ridden (in orange).

The Backbone Bikeway Network is the opposite of what a freeway represents. The arterials of the Backbone bring money into the community, they help our local economy growth and they connect city departments that no other plan so far has done.

What is the Backbone Bikeway Network?

The Backbone Bikeway Network sets priorities for the city departments, without extra funding, without asking for anything new. The Backbone is safe and efficient to ride because the roads get priority maintenance from the various departments, be it Street Maintenance, LAPD enforcement and Public Works resurfacing.

The Backbone is a Lifeline through our already alive communities, connecting people of all modes (foot, public transit, bikes and cars) to the heart (city centers, shopping destinations) and brains (schools, universities, libraries, studios, jobs) of the city.

These Arterials have amenities like bike parking, traffic lights that recognize a bicycle, way-finding and signage, bike shops, quick stops, etc. The opportunities are endless.

The Backbone is a network of Complete Streets with people that benefit the economy and the communities by providing an efficient way to get across town without obstacles and by providing easy and safe access to all. It integrates with the community, it opens up the streets to people and creates a harmony between the users instead of conflict and anger.

The Bone sets a vision and a service standard for our streets that we all use, to keep these streets well lit, well maintained, prioritize enforcement, etc.

Cyclists go where motorists go. Cyclists go where the Metro connects. Cyclists are people who have the same destination as motorists, they just choose two wheels instead of four.

The Backbone Bikeway Network was chosen by cyclists without bias to the current street conditions and without influence from the DOT as to what is feasible or infeasible. The cyclists, who created this network set their standards to the highest not the minimum. The cyclists, who created this network asked each other what they would like to see in our city, without setting any limitation from the DOT, the Bikeways Department or Michelle Mowery, who likes to say “No” and “Infeasible” to anything that would mean progress on our streets for cyclists. The cyclists in the LA Bike Working group dared to dream big and they created a visionary map that has brought a glint of hope to not only for cyclists but also motorists, who would like to bike across town, as well as some City Departments who find themselves without any visionary leadership.

Why is the Backbone on big streets and not on smaller quieter streets like 4th Street or Moorpark?

The Backbone Bikeway Network does not belong on residential streets because the Backbone is not meant to cut through people’s backyard. Smaller streets don’t connect to main destinations, shopping centers, or job centers. Small streets only almost get us where we need to go. Streets off the Backbone belong to the neighboring residents and LA’s Best Bike Plan is a plan that will involve the various communities to participate in creating their own plan, which can help them get money for their projects via Safe Routes to School Funding, Metro funding, and this plan would enable residents to find their vision of their own community and customize it to the history of those people. (Please read Jeremy’s wonderful writeup on the Wayfinding & Signage on the Backbone Bikeway Network)

Hope is what this plan creates and a vision that can be refined by many community activists in the near future. The Backbone Bikeway Network is not only a dream and a wish, but it is something that can get many people’s support and many departments cooperation, and it is a plan that can stimulate our economy without extra funding and without extra paint on the streets.

As Stephen said so eloquently in one of his posts, “The change we want will take place because we ride, not because we want to ride or because we think about riding or because we plan to ride, it will take place because our actions will change the character of Los Angeles, and the development of that “human infrastructure” is of greater value than all of the cement and paint in the world.”

2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Steve #

    the development of that “human infrastructure” is of greater value than all of the cement and paint in the world.”

    This is such a clear statement of cycling reality in LA! This is what the past few years have felt like, struggle, hope, solutions. Thanx to all of the people who has given so much time & energy to move all of us forward.

    Power to the Pedal….

  2. 2

    the backbone bikeway network is a wonderful idea. but, in the context of LA’s historical approach towards bicycling, it isn’t very different from the existing 96/02 plan. they both share visionary ideas for a city-wide network on arterials, and both of them fail to realistically confront the implementation barriers. there aren’t enough people, especially politicians, who would support removal of the associated travel lanes, parking lanes, or peak-hour parking restrictions, within this network to make it hospitable in the true sense of complete streets.

    i’m not saying we shouldn’t reach for the backbone network, but we should be smart and strategic about what we ask for. and if i’ve learned one thing from planning in LA, it’s that things like this have to happen incrementally. at this point, a network on non-arterial collector streets is not only easier to implement, it’s also fairly comprehensive in getting people around, and more non-bicyclists will be likely to try riding on it (and become regular bicyclists). that means down the line, our community will grow and be stronger. we’ll be in a better position to encourage decision-makers to grow a backbone.

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