mayor on bikeThe mayor, pre-crashAntonio Villariagosa via FlickrTalk about a way to focus a city’s attention on bicycle safety:

After taking heat for lack of bike-infrastructure support — what mayor doesn’t get flack for this? — Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa climbed on a bike for the first time in years last Saturday for a ride to the beach. Within 30 minutes a taxi driver pulled out in front of him on Venice Boulevard, knocking the mayor to the pavement. He hit his head — he was wearing a helmet — and broke his right elbow.

The security officer trailing him in a car took the mayor to a hospital, where the broken elbow required surgery. He greeted the press Monday morning with his arm in a sling (photos here) and joked about signing legislation left handed and taking two hours to shave in the morning.

“Welcome to our world,” wrote the blogger behind Biking in L.A. “You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s spent much time riding the streets of this city who doesn’t have a similar tale to tell. Except drivers usually don’t stop for cyclists who don’t ride with a security detail.”

If that sounds unsympathetic, L.A. cyclists (or at least the ones with blogs) were furious with Villaraigosa’s response.

First, the mayor put the onus on bikers to take responsibility for their own safety: “I want to say to all the people who ride bikes: Wear a helmet, because I went head first, and then I hit my elbow,” he said.

Then he let the taxi driver off by declining to press charges: “He was very concerned when he realized it was me,” the mayor said. “He was careless, but that’s not illegal. He certainly didn’t do this on purpose.”

Biking in L.A. responds:

That’s where the mayor is wrong — and where he’s done a huge disservice to everyone else on the roads, especially his new friends in the cycling community.

Because what the driver did was illegal. He pulled away from the curb without making sure the bike lane he was parked next to was clear. And as a result, caused a cyclist to be injured.

It’s called failure to yield. And it is against the law.

I’m with the nags on this one. Villaraigosa had a prime teachable moment to deflate the myth that collisions between military-sized vehicles and cyclists are no big deal. Instead, he reinforced the notion that public streets are for autos — and anyone else enters at their own risk. He can redeem himself by improving the flawed bike master plan the city is rewriting.

Side note: Villaraigosa ‘s doing great work to try to get L.A.’s ambitious new light-rail plan built in 10 years instead of 30. It’s a wonderful goal. But he can start changing Angelenos’ attitudes toward bikers even quicker.