Risking Life and Limb, Riding a Bike to Work in L.A.
By Drivers, Save a Buck and Make a Point
August 1, 2008; Page A1
LOS ANGELES — Paula Rodriguez, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, got so disgusted with soaring fuel prices last spring that she stopped driving, sold her SUV and bought a bike.
But pedaling the 15 miles home from her job, the 30-year-old Ms. Rodriquez has encountered something more frightening than $4.50-a-gallon gasoline: the mean streets of L.A., home of the nation’s most entrenched car culture.
“Drivers scream at me to get off the road,” says the medical-billing clerk. The main commuting route near her home is so terrifying, she says, that she usually takes an alternative route that adds four miles to her trip.
Even then, it’s not an easy ride. On one stretch, splintered glass in the street could puncture her tires, she says. On Wednesdays, she has to dodge garbage cans blocking the bike lane. On Friday evenings, as the sun sets, she feels menaced by drunk drivers. Such threats compel her to sometimes swing onto the sidewalk, even though that could get her a ticket. “I go slow, ring my little bell and stop sometimes to say ‘hi’ to pedestrians,” she says.
Commuters across the U.S. are responding to high gasoline prices by finding alternatives to driving. But in Los Angeles, it takes a special kind of road warrior to hop on a bike in the name of saving the planet and a little money.
The city is notoriously short on bike lanes, bike paths and bike racks. Bicycles are illegal on the freeways, and city streets are packed with motorists who seem increasingly cranky about the swelling ranks of cyclists. Every cyclist seems to know somebody who has been injured or who has survived a near-death experience. In 2006, 28 people in Los Angeles County were killed on bikes, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety. Geography makes things difficult, too, as the distance from home to work in this sprawling metropolis can be immense and necessitate adding public transportation to the journey.
Tensions between cyclists and motorists here have become dangerously combative. Los Angeles police are investigating an apparent July 4 road-rage incident that sent two cyclists to the hospital with serious injuries. The cyclists crashed into a car after its driver allegedly slammed on his brakes in front of them on Mandeville Canyon Road, a winding street through a hilly neighborhood.
“Cyclists have equal rights, but in fact a lot of motorists think they should get off the road,” says Lynne Goldsmith, manager of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority’s bike program. Nearly everyone has a bike sitting in the garage, but people are starting to actually use their bicycles for transportation, ranging from short hops to the market to long-distance commuting, she says. “When we’re used to seeing more cyclists, we will treat them better.”
An Exercise in Frustration
For now, commuting by bike here is most often an exercise in frustration. Michelle Weinstein’s 75-minute commute to work begins at 6:50 a.m., when she dodges rush-hour traffic on a busy boulevard in the city’s Silver Lake neighborhood on her way to a subway station. She hauls the bike onto the train, then takes it off in North Hollywood, about seven miles to the north.
The next leg is an express-bus ride. But when the bus pulls up with a full bike rack, she must wait for the next bus. When she finally arrives in Van Nuys, she gets off the bus and back on the bike for a game of chicken with motorists.
“It’s nerve-rackingly crowded, and people give me dirty looks,” says Ms. Weinstein, a 33-year-old personal assistant at a music-production company. “Everyone I know who has biked has met with some kind of injury,” Ms. Weinstein says.
Ms. Goldsmith says the city has 1,200 miles of bikeways, but many of those are along busy thoroughfares on which cars and bikes compete for space. In West Hollywood, an enclave of 40,000 residents, debate is raging over the proper role of sidewalks. The issue has divided elderly pedestrians; environmentalists who ride bikes to work; and parents who worry about the safety of their children, whether in baby carriages or on bicycles.
Biking advocates are offering classes to teach novices how to be defensive riders. “Our classes are starting to sell out quickly,” says Liz Elliott, a founder of the grass-roots organization Cyclists Inciting Change Thru Live Exchange. She says the group has so far instructed about 100 people. Many bike lanes are “too narrow and you don’t want to be hugging the door zone,” she advises — referring to the space in which a parked car can swing its door open suddenly. Unfortunately, much of the local bike infrastructure was designed by engineers who don’t ride bikes, she says.
Veteran riders say that obnoxious motorists are the biggest problem. Michael Marckx, a 44-year-old vice president of Globe International Ltd., a skateboard company in El Segundo, recently started commuting three or four days a week by bike, encountering what he calls “caffeine-infused psychotics” in their cars who yell at him to get off the road. “There’s something about being in the car that is kind of anonymous. It’s a veil to hide behind, and people seem to like to get their aggression out on cyclists,” says the former professional bike racer.
Some cyclists are striking back. Stephen Box, a cycling activist who claims to have broken the Mandeville Canyon story on his blog, carries a camera and snaps pictures of bike-tripping potholes and confusing traffic signs. He sends the snapshots to the city. The community organizer says he and about a dozen bloggers drafted a Cyclists Bill of Rights in January that he is presenting for a vote at neighborhood council meetings around the region. But Lenore Solis, a council member in Atwater Village, says she voted against it because the assertion of a right to “full access” on “all mass transit with no limitations” is too broad, and could be interpreted as a legal right to bike lanes on freeways.
Indeed, the freeways have been invaded repeatedly by renegade cyclists calling themselves Crimanimal Mass, an offshoot of Critical Mass, a national cycling enthusiasts’ group. About 30 cyclists performed the illegal stunt in rush-hour traffic on a recent Friday to demonstrate how much faster commuters can zip through gridlock on a bicycle than in a car stuck in traffic.
Despite the problems, L.A. cyclists keep trying. Kim Jensen Marren broke her ankle when she collided with a truck that pulled in front of her bicycle five years ago. But now the 30-year-old graphic designer is newly married and wants to save money to open her own wedding-productions business. So she recently got back on her bike and started riding to work again, figuring that she is saving about $220 a month.
Write to Rhonda L. Rundle at firstname.lastname@example.org