Becoming a Biker in L.A.: The Good and Bad News

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In Part 2 of becoming a biker in L.A., Caroline Chamberlain turns to a few colleagues who have extensive cycling experience in Los Angeles to get as much advice as possible before buying a bike. While she got very useful advice, some of it was less than reassuring.

bikes Venice beach
Courtesy of Omar Omar via Flickr(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A few weeks ago, I outlined the reasons I’ve decided to become a biker in L.A, despite some of my reservations. Among other reasons, I’m tired of getting angry about parking spaces, or calling impolite drivers “idiots,” “jerks,” or something else inappropriate. I’m sick of sitting in inexplicably horrible traffic, tempted to fiddle with my phone out of boredom during L.A.’s ever-expanding rush hour, only to watch bikes zip by effortlessly. The exercise would also be a plus.

Are you in the 1%?

Last week I attended a meeting in City Hall where the former Chicago and D.C. Department of Transportation Chief, Gabe Klein, spoke about his experience instituting bike share programs in both of those cities.

I’ll go into bike share programs in a later post. In the meantime what struck me was a statistic Klein cited from the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT); it found that 60% of people were “interested” in riding a bicycle, but had reservations. Klein said that “only 1%” felt completely comfortable with cycling in Chicago. I’m in the 60% and believe that so are many Angelenos, if not more.

Even though my commute is only two miles, (a distance Klein argued should almost never be driven), there are pockets of that route that are truly terrifying to bike through.

More Procrastination: Getting Advice from Cycling Colleagues

So before I commit to the purchase of a bike which would transform this experience from theory to reality, I procrastinated a bit more by doing some more research. I turned to a few colleagues who have extensive cycling experience in Los Angeles to get as much advice as possible and to help calm my nerves. While I got very useful advice, some of it was less than reassuring.

frances cycling

I spoke first to my colleague, DnA’s Frances Anderton, above, a lifelong commuter cyclist with experience in both London and Los Angeles. She warned me that while cyclists and cycling infrastructure have made great gains, L.A. is still a tricky place to bike.

“Despite the changes in the bicycle infrastructure thanks to some amazing activism by groups like the LA County Bicycle Coalition and CicLAvia, despite the green lanes that have appeared in certain places, despite the sharrows (shared lane markings), and despite the rising numbers of cyclists, L.A. frankly is still a very difficult place to cycle any great distance. And this is in part because of that distance, also because of the width of the roads, and because the bike lanes and sharrows don’t yet combine in a comprehensive regionwide system. Currently, the quiet residential streets feel safest.”

She also said that because cars still dominate, it is incumbent on cyclists to be as safe and careful and visible as possible, recalling that in England, “even as children if we wanted to go out on the road on our bikes we had to take something called a cycling proficiency test. We were schooled in how to make signals when we turned right and left and how to slalom around posts in the road, and all sorts of tricks of using the road which added up to the understanding that law and society was taking cyclists somewhat seriously, so then as a cyclist you took yourself somewhat seriously and hopefully then drivers would too.”

She objects to the notion held by some cyclists that bikes and cars should be in a state of “warfare,” saying: “Most drivers — and I am one — don’t actually want to kill cyclists, and I think some of the road rage towards bikes stems from fear of hitting them.”

Steve Herbert Bike
Steve Herbert KCRW’s Chief Engineer (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Steve Herbert, KCRW’s Chief Engineer, started to commute to work by bike (about a six-mile ride) about six years ago, inspired to do so because he is a triathlete. Now he adds an extra spurt to his ride when he wants it with an electric motor, but he agrees with Frances that it is essential to equip cyclists with proper safety knowledge before commuting in a city–especially one like Los Angeles.

He also pointed to the tension between drivers and cyclists as a safety issue and said, “it really comes down to both are people. It isn’t so much that one group is worse than the other, so much as you’ve got people that don’t follow the rules and do what they are supposed to do.”

Bump In The Road

Then I spoke with Bob Carlson, host of Unfictional, and was a little worried by his answer. He opened by explaining why he started biking.

“I started doing it for fun at first because I live fairly close to here, about four and a half, five miles. I just thought it’d be good exercise, I had recently refurbished my bike and so I would do it every now and then, and parking can be such a nightmare here at Santa Monica College.”

Bob Carlson, host of Unfictional

I couldn’t help but notice how similar his rationale was to mine, but as the conversation moved forward, I learned that he then started to use the bus when it rained, or was really hot or cold outside. This turned into a routine where he used the time on the bus to work, and he gave up cycling. Ultimately, safety became a major concern too.

“I never felt totally at ease on my bike,” he said. After a number of close calls, finding out about several friends and acquaintances having bike accidents, and getting settled with his bus alternative, he decided to take a break from cycling.

It turns out he was not alone. I heard from three others at the station who had given up cycling on the roads because they had an accident themselves or knew someone who had.

(I also heard a debate break out about bicyclists running stop signs. It seems views are very mixed on whether cyclists should obey the same rules of the road as cars, or abide by their own.)

If I was scared before, Bob’s story certainly didn’t help, especially because I identify with his reasoning to start cycling so much. But he assured me that his bus riding is temporary, and that he still loves riding his bike and that he wants to start again soon.

In that vein, I’m determined to be follow through on my commitment to move onto two wheels.  I’m going to head to a series of bike shops in L.A. to pick out my new ride. And hopefully, I’ll become a cyclist that even drivers can love.

More later.

For another take on biking in L.A., read Jack Skelley’s piece from the Huffington Post here.