At high noon on Trousdale Parkway, the walkway is choked by the ritual lunch rush. Among the maze of legs slides a pair of wheels belonging to an intrepid student cyclist. Desperate to reach class on time, the biker darts and weaves like a slalom skier through fleshy gates. There’s a carefree confidence in his eyes.
But confidence is not always an indication of skill, and the cyclist slams into another foolhardy rider with a shuddering crash. For a few moments, human limbs and metal frames lie in a heap before the two embarrassed bikers apologize and continue on their way.
This scenario sounds like the making of a blockbuster YouTube video, but for the many organizations on campus concerned with student health and safety, such an everyday accident is nothing to joke about.
“It is a serious health concern,” said Natasha Mmeje, a health educator for Health Promotion and Prevention Services. “I have witnessed numerous accidents and I think because they’re so commonplace people just laugh them off, but it’s pretty dangerous. It’s dangerous for the bikers and it’s dangerous to be a pedestrian.”
Saying that the bicycle situation is “out of control,” Mmeje cited a spring 2009 study conducted by the Student Health Center, which found that there were between 10,000 to 15,000 bicycles on campus at any time. And trends suggest that number is climbing.
“I came to this campus in 2004 as a grad student, and just since that time five years ago I’ve noticed a huge change, not just in the sheer number of bikes, but the lack of courtesy as it relates to biking,” Mmeje said. “There are bikes everywhere, and it’s not just the bikes; it’s the carts, other traffic that is just inundating the campus.”
Health Promotion and Prevention Services is just one member of the Traffic Safety Task Force, a recently formed university-wide group devoted to addressing the dangers of a campus constricted by vehicle traffic. The organization held its second meeting last Friday.
One member of the task force is Ed Becker, USC’s director of environmental health and safety, who said the group is looking at numerous solutions to the difficult problem. Proposed physical solutions to the bike problem range from a large permanent bike-parking facility, advocated specifically by the Undergraduate Student Government, to the addition of thruways or lanes dedicated to bikers.
While the task force is not considering a campus-wide bicycle ban — a solution raised by the Department of Public Safety last semester — Becker believes that some restricted access for bicycles lies in the future.
“The campus can only accommodate so many bicycles, so in the end one of the ideas that we’ve come up with is having landing spots where you park your bike somewhere and then walk to wherever you’re going,” Becker explained.
Becker also said that simple solutions to dangerous situations, which could be bicycles cluttering no parking zones in front of handicap entrances, could be implemented quickly and enforced easily.
In a sentiment echoed by numerous members, Becker explained that the variety of voices represented on the task force and the necessity of research and planning made it difficult for more long-term changes to be implemented.
“If you’re going to have a large design or redesign, if there’s a proposal for an in-depth study of bicycle use on campus or traffic patterns, that’s something that could take a little longer,” Becker said. “The ideal time line is that by April we could have the formal recommendations submitted, and by the end of the school year, we could have a plan in action.”
Beyond the long-term physical solutions to the problem, the task force also sees better bike safety and etiquette education as an essential piece of the solution. Helen Moser, director of campus affairs for USG, said her office is recommending new ways of reaching out to students about the dangers of biking.
“We see education being a part of the process for incoming freshmen because we want to make it a part of the culture at USC to know how to operate your bike,” Moser said. “We also want voluntary classes for upperclassmen where you can go and learn about bike safety.”
Wyman Thomas, a crime prevention specialist for DPS, also discussed the importance of education to changing the bike culture on campus. According to Thomas, DPS distributes pamphlets and flyers both with bike registration and whenever the Los Angeles Police Department cites students en masse at intersections near campus.
Eric Bruins, an officer for the USC cycling team and a self-professed bike safety hobbyist, echoed common student complaints that bicycle citations seem arbitrary, suggesting that education about the rules is necessary for both students and police.
“They target certain things that may or may not be against the rules, and they don’t target other things that are against the rules and it’s not even very clear what the rules are,” said Bruins, a senior majoring in public policy, planning and management.
In past years, one of the major deterrents against riding through the rush hour-strangled center of campus between Trousdale Parkway and Childs Way were the bike bans, which were enforced from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every weekday. Thomas said that the bans have not disappeared, but that campus construction has forced DPS to turn its focus away from the center of campus.
“We have dedicated an officer to 34th and McClintock and that intersection alone is just overpopulated and so we have to dedicate an officer there regardless. So if we have to choose between 34th and McClintock and center campus, we’re going to choose 34th and McClintock,” Thomas explained.
Thomas said that the restrictions — along with an officer to enforce them — would return once DPS had reduced crime in other parts of the University Park area.
While the proposed solutions to the bicycle safety problem are myriad, each clattering, painful lunchtime collision is a reminder of the urgency of the situation to those concerned. In spite of a campus culture that might take such collisions as an everyday hazard, Moser cited a survey conducted by USG that found that around 90 percent of students said they had been hit or almost hit by vehicles on campus, a number that belies the real danger of the situation.
“I’ve been hit numerous times — and that’s not to say that I’m perfect — but I do think it’s dangerous,” Moser said. “I think people are afraid to walk on campus, people are afraid to bike on campus and there’s definitely something that needs to be done about it.”