How FilmLA Blocks Bike Lanes

Film crew blocking Spring St. Bike lane. Via @ColinBogart.

What good is a bike lane if it’s always blocked by cars and trucks? As anyone who uses what passes for the meager bike infrastructure here in Los Angeles, pretty much only early on Sunday morning will you find your path unimpeded by an assortment of Uber drivers, beer delivery trucks and FedEx employees. But the most annoying bike lane blocking is courtesy of the film and television industry.

In order to close a bike lane for filming you have to get a film permit from FilmLA, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit public benefit organization that issues film permits in the City of Los Angeles and many other local municipalities as well as promoting filming in Southern California. That dual mission is, of course, a conflict of interest. If the choice is between the safety of bike commuters or making production companies happy, you can guess that FilmLA’s likely to opt for the latter.

Previous attempts to address unsafe closures of bike lanes by myself and other bike activists have gone nowhere. Call FilmLA to complain and you’ll be greeted with either indifference or outright hostility. Call the police to complain and they’ll direct you to parking enforcement. Call parking enforcement and they’ll direct you to the police. Only if the production company lacks the proper permits will the city take any action.

To find out more about this problem I decided to call FilmLA, posing as a producer to find out how I could get a film permit that would allow me to block the Spring Street protected bike lane. To set the scene here, so to speak, I’ll note that the Spring Street bike lane is rare in Los Angeles in that it is a fully protected lane (recently made two-way), and separate from traffic. The bike lane is in the gutter and next to it is a set of flimsy plastic markers that separate it from the parking lane. Next to that are three one way travel lanes.

After a few minutes on hold I was connected to a “planning production coordinator” I’ll call Steve. I told Steve that I was planning on doing a shoot on Spring street at 6th street. I told him there is a bike lane and asked if I needed to do anything special to use the bike lane for parking. Steve told me that the permit would be, “treated as a lane closure just like any other closure.” What Steve was alluding to here is that in order close a lane you are supposed to put up lane closure signage and hire off duty police officers (not just a security guard) to sit around and monitor the closure.

Continuing, Steve added that, “Bikes are vehicles.” He noted that there is parking next to the bike lane and that if I wanted to use that parking he thought that I would need to close the bike lane.

When I asked Steve if I had to do anything special to close a bike lane he seemed a bit confused. He said that I would need a barricade. He was unsure if I would need to do a detour (I’ll note that in years of riding past film locations here in Los Angeles I have never seen a proper detour for cyclists). Steve told me that my permit to close the lane would cost $312. I asked if I had to get off duty cops. He said he needed to check on that and put me on hold. He returned to the call a few moments later and told me, “yeah you have to get a closure and two off duty officers.”

I could tell from the call when Steve noted that “Bikes are vehicles,” that FilmLA must have fielded some complaints. I also confirmed, what I suspected, that shoots that close a bike lane are supposed to hire off-duty or retired police officers. Curiously, most of these unformed and armed “police officers” no longer have peace officer status. It’s a cushy job for a retired cop who just sits around on top of a motorcycle all day with the occasional break to visit the craft services tent.

In practice, a lot of film shoots skirt the rules Steve outlined for me. Many don’t have the required retired “officers” on hand and just have a security guard sitting in a folding chair looking at their phone. And a lot of production companies make use of parking without the required lane closure permit, which seems to me cheap at $312. And as I said before, I have never seen a detour for a bike lane, no doubt, because that would take away lane space from cars and result in complaints. Without the detour you’re forced to veer into traffic, a maneuver that can be a potentially fatal, real life version of Frogger.

In my childhood and up through the early aughts, this stretch of Spring Street was a ghost town, it’s collection of handsome 1920s office buildings making it a convenient stand-in for New York. Now people live, work, shop and eat there and, increasingly, travel by foot, bike and scooters. The constant filming has, long since, become a nuisance. At the same time states and municipalities around the country compete to offer race-to-the-bottom incentives and tax breaks to lure film companies away from expensive cities like Los Angeles and New York. Many friends and neighbors work in the film business and depend on local jobs to make a living so I appreciate the need to facilitate film permits.

Scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend.

But we are also staring down the barrel of a climate catastrophe and need to do everything we can to make riding a bike or taking public transit safe and reliable. And Los Angeles’ notorious congestion no longer makes car travel practical except in off hours. The first, easy first step our local pseudo-woke politicians could make to address climate change and congestion would simply be to solve this problem by keeping what few bike lanes we have open and safe. Put up a detour for cyclists if you have to close a bike lane. What’s the big deal about that?

Complaints about blocked bike lanes have fallen on deaf ears for too long, and thanks to the fact that the film industry wields enormous influence on local politicians through campaign contributions and seats on the boards of predominant charities and non-profit institutions, I’m pessimistic that this small issue will ever be addressed. Until I see un-blocked bike lanes I’m going to start calling our local elected officials and the film industry bosses what they are: climate change deniers.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Honestly, I wonder if the retired police officers are there to protect the various blocking mechanisms from cyclist vengeance (something I’ve contemplated when biking past a car blocking the bike lane), rather than to monitor for cyclist/pedestrian safety.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.