Risking Life and Limb, Riding a Bike to Work in L.A.



Risking Life and Limb, Riding a Bike to Work in L.A.

Cyclists, Banned on Freeways and Reviled
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.

Defensive Biking

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 rhonda.rundle@wsj.com


  • Aug 4, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Yeah, there are a lot a activists who want to turn bicycling into a profit center. Not impressed. Tired of all those vehiclular cycling mythologies.

    It's all so simple. A BIKE is not a VEHICLE. A bike is like something you wear, more like sneakers, to walk faster. But you can't walk that fast on sidewalks, so you share the public right of way you paid to pave with taxes you've paid. You cannot be denied access to streets. It's the motorists OBLIGATION not to run you over. Motoring is a regulated privilege. By cowering from motorists, you only make it worse for people who actually ride all the time with traffic. No, bicycles are not vehicles, they are conveyances, and all those ridiculous laws designed to control MOTORIZED momentum shouldn't apply, although they've forced them upon you, the entire motor code and more, in a lame attempt to get you off the street altogether.

    So, you disobey. What are they going to do to you? Take your license away? You don't need a license to ride a bike or run in sneakers. Any ticket can be successfully fought in court, but it's inconvenient.

    Don't blame the caffeine. Motoring itself turns people into impatient psychos. The car is the problem. But biking is statistically the safest form of transportation, safer than walking. You become a small, flexible target. But watch you back, for sure… wear a helmet and rear view mirrors.

    I've been an advocate of changing the motoring code to require bicycling before a learner's permit can be issued. It would teach balance, patience and poise, and knowledge of traffic controls and why they exist. When you're trailed for 10 blocks by some idiot using the bike lane to pass a line of traffic someday, you'll understand where I coming from. It's just at those times I decide it's time to stop and retie my shoes.

  • Barry
    Aug 5, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    I take the headline and the emphasis of the LA Times story with a grain of salt, newspapers like to incite controversy,and in a huge metro area one can usually find any kind of incident. But having lived in California, I think a bicycle culture there is fairly well established and most motorists know that.

    This time I'm not too sure what point Alan Barta's post above was trying to make. If it was for more imaginative signs, I can agree, and that can probably be relatively easily accomplished in the future once we get started signing for bicycles. If he intended to say that bicyclists should just ride in the roads and not be cowed by cars or traffic rules, that may work for him but is not good enough to expand the role of bicycling. More use of bicycles is a way to get better motorist behavior, a point made in the current issue of Bicycling magazine about accidents in Sonoma County, California. Indeed, I've been noticing how polite almost all motorists are to bikers where the East Bay bike path crosses roads in Bristol, Warren, Barrington,I suppose because they are used to bikes, and perhaps are bicylists themselves. I don't see the same courtesy as much in North Providence where I live.

    The above article referenced about Sonoma biking did have a lot about the campaign there to have police and courts take more seriously accidents where motorists strike bicyclists, which perhaps pertains to the Charlestown RI accident.

    Also good news for safety, I sometimes take an informal survey of helmet use on the East Bay path while I am riding. For the first time, a substantial majority of bicyvclsits today were wearing helmets!

  • Dennis
    Aug 6, 2008 at 4:36 am


    Motorists and bikers need to be better educated on the role of bicycles in transportation. The East Bay Bike Path community seems to get it's education from raw experience and everyone benefits. How will the rest of Rhode Island learn about responsible cycling?

    My prediction is that as more untrained cyclists take to the road without understanding their rights and responsibilities… one will die. "But she was wearing her helmet", will be the sad refrain. Then there might be some coverage on TV or the ProJo, then the state might run ads to educate the public.

    How else can we possibly educate the public?

  • Aug 6, 2008 at 4:56 am

    Until recently there was a huge billboard on RT 10 warning motorists of the presence of motorcyclists. It's unfortunate message hinted at bicyclists but fell short of identifying any of the 35,000 or so estimated Rhode Islanders who like bikes. Nationwide, there's 1 bicycle in use for every registered motor vehicle. Underserved and under represented are understatements.

  • Aug 6, 2008 at 4:58 am

    Let's try this again. Dropouts.

    … Nationwide, there’s 1 bicycle in use for every 3 registered motor vehicles.

  • Aug 6, 2008 at 6:23 am

    With the recent increases in gas prices, I've definitely seen more people around on bicycles. I've reveled in this resurgence of the bike, but have had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, that we would also see an increase in the number of articles siting bicycle injuries and even deaths.

    Dennis said:

    My prediction is that as more untrained cyclists take to the road without understanding their rights and responsibilities… one will die.

    and I think he is spot on. Unfortunately, I think there will be an increase in cycling injuries and deaths before state DOTs will take cycling seriously. Providence and RI aren't alone in this battle, states and cities around the country and going to be facing the same issues. Years of neglect of bicycle infrastructure is going to become painfully apparent as fuel prices continue to rise.

  • Barry
    Aug 12, 2008 at 9:24 am

    FYI: For what it is worth, a letter to the editor from an LA bicyclist did appear in the Saturday August 9 Wall St Journal which (just I thought and had posted above) basically debunked the story about how bad LA is for biking, claiming it is actually pretty good there but the reporter looking for a story took one incident way out of proportion. The Journal also printed a more generic pro-bike letter and a letter with the (all too familiar) theme that basically says since some bicyclists disregard trsffic laws it is OK to show disresoect for all bicyclists.

    I hate to disagree with Mark, but I think he is being too negative above. While more bicyclists on the road may lead to more accidents, from what I have read, the accident RATE (per biker) tends to drop with increasing bike use as more drivers have the experience of seeing bicycles on the road, and perhaps more of them are bike users themselves. And the DOT does take biking reasonably seriously, some of the RIDOT engineers bike themselves, the dept is willing to meet with bike advocacy groups, and has spent relatively big money (despite some high-level opposition at times) on our bike path network while supporting small scale on-road efforts such as the Providence signing, bike-to-work day promotions, bike parking, bike racks on the buses, and bike links on their web-site. Can they do more? Of course, but they have big funding limitations too for all their programs.

  • Aug 22, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    I hate to disagree with Mark, but I think he is being too negative above.

    I'm always happy to have someone disagree with me, I just ask that we remain civil at all times 😉

    While more bicyclists on the road may lead to more accidents, from what I have read, the accident RATE (per biker) tends to drop with increasing bike use as more drivers have the experience of seeing bicycles on the road, and perhaps more of them are bike users themselves.

    I actually agree with you. As more bikes get on the road, I think the overall rate of incidents will go down. However, I think there will be a brief increase of bicycle accidents prior to a decrease. I guess the point I was trying to make was that accident rate data doesn't typically come out until well after the actual accidents occur. The average person will just read about an increasing number of bicycle accidents and may be scared away from bicycle commuting.

    As for RIDOT, my main complaint is I think they tend to have a very narrow focus on transportation. Their primary focus is on cars, whereas I think they should adopt a transportation first policy. Focus on moving people, not cars! While I'd love to see RIDOT pump significant money into bicycling programs, I'd honestly prefer they pump money into alternative transportation; a more effective mass transit system. The more single occupancy cars we get off the roads, the better the cycling conditions will become. As more people use mass transit, less money will need to be spent on maintaining roads and more funds will be available for alternate transportation.

    Let's make mass transit more attractive. As a start, RIDOT could mark HOV lanes on the highways heading into Providence. Make it possible for someone to ride the bus and get to work faster than if they were to drive their own car. This has the side benefit of helping the buses stay on schedule. I know, crazy idea…