By Carla Hall, October 17, 2013
Damien Newton, bicyclist, bicycle advocate, founder and editor of
Streetsblog LA — and owner of three bikes and one car — listens as I
tick off complaints from drivers about bicyclists on the roads of Los
Angeles: They blow through stop signs; they ride against traffic; they
ride on sidewalks.
He’s not surprised. Or sympathetic.
“Pretty much anyone who uses the road breaks the law on a regular
basis. But people excuse their own breaking of the law,” he says.
He turns from the cafe table
we’re sitting at in Mar Vista (his neighborhood) and points to a car
that just cruised through the bustling intersection. “No one was upset
that that car blew through the red light. But if a bike did that, they
would get upset — because they’re ‘the other.’ For a lot of people
driving cars, bicyclists are the others.”
FULL COVERAGE: Sharing the road in L.A.
He’s right, of course.
Despite the upbraiding that Streetsblog LA
can deliver to city officials or commentators defending drivers’ right
to road space (I’ve been on the receiving end of a tart rejoinder), its
founding editor is less enfant terrible than amused observer of
L.A. as it struggles to become a road-sharing city of drivers,
bicyclists, mass transit users and, oh, pedestrians.
He doesn’t care if you’re on a bike; he cares that you stop thinking
of bicyclists as an odd nuisance — and stop framing the debate as
“drivers vs. bicyclists”:
“The subtext is ‘We need to get along with these weirdos, because they’re out there.’ ”
It helps his message that he’s not particularly weird himself. He’s
36, married to an engineer and a father of two small children. He cheers
the new state law requiring drivers to stay three feet away from
bicyclists, but he’s not going to be the purist with a yardstick
attached to his bike to make sure motorists are observing the law.
“It would wreck my balance,” he says. I laugh. But I think he means it.
“I’m not a bike bike guy. I couldn’t take a broken bike and
fix it.” He momentarily worries someone might get the wrong impression
and leans into my tape recorder. “I can totally fix my own tire,” he
“I’m a policy guy. A planner. A wonk.”
Newton had been the New Jersey coordinator for a New York
transportation reform group — “unlike anything we have here in L.A.” —
that advocated for more funding for bike lanes and mass transit. When he
moved here in 2008, he quickly figured out the local politics. “A lot
of bicycle advocates went to the city’s bicycle advisory committee and
pushed them to do more. But — they’re volunteers! And it’s an advisory
committee. I never thought that was the place to be yelling and
screaming. At the same time, you’d go to City Council transportation
committee meetings and they’d be empty.”
So he started going to those transportation committee meetings for Streetsblog. He would lobby Councilwoman Wendy Greuel as she walked to the meetings from her office. He would stalk Councilman Bill Rosendahl at the local Whole Foods. Rosendahl became a champion of bicyclists’ causes.
Newton has witnessed the change in L.A. from a city with little
understanding of bicyclists to a city with a bicycle plan and more
lanes, paths, sharrows and bicycle-friendly streets than ever before.
But it’s taken a while to get people to understand that bicyclists need
an infrastructure of bikeways, just like drivers need connecting roads.
“In 2011 the city [installed] 20 miles of shared bike lanes. They
were like, ‘Here’s 20 miles of stuff! Aren’t you happy?’ We were like,
‘Not really.’ It wasn’t part of a system. It was 20 miles of stuff.
Better than nothing, sure. But we would have preferred eight miles of
bike lanes that are part of a network.”
He’s had his moments as the angry bicyclist. “I was once biking up
Fairfax and a car hit my handlebars.” He wasn’t hurt. “But then at the
light, I tried to get the person’s attention — like, ‘Hey, you hit me
and drove away.’ And he looked at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’
I was so mad. I took my helmet off and hit the hood with it.” That was
five years ago. He’s mortified now.
“I’m really embarrassed I lost my cool. It’s not safe to be on the
road that angry. That person probably still doesn’t realize what
actually happened. He’s going to read this and say, ‘Oh — random angry
dude on a bike. Now I shouldn’t be so angry! I hit him with my car