When I wheeled the Bullit last Saturday into Charles Picture Framing to pick up some packages, Charles was understandably confused, and maybe a little startled. “Can I help you?” he asked. I was (admittedly) pushing the notion of “rock star parking” to the bleeding edge. You can’t get any closer than in the shop, but it sure made sense to me to get the bike as near as possible to the goods. When I told him I was picking up some frames, Charles recovered quickly, got my packages, and helped me load. He said he couldn’t remember any pick-ups by cyclists his thirty years there. I guess that wouldn’t be too far out of character for our town.
I love running errands by bicycle. It’s great to be out in the sun, hearing the wind whistling in my ears, and seeing the bustle of the city from the unique perspective available only to cyclists. I use the word “unique” advisedly: you won’t find me or any pedestrian standing squarely in the middle of the Sepulveda and Santa Monica intersection, two feet on the ground, waiting to make a left turn, with four lanes of cars whizzing by on either side — but put a bicycle between my legs, and there I am.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that I also find cycling in Los Angeles to be an act of quiet desperation, an activity almost always accompanied by low level terror? When I was headed home with all those picture frames, “driving” north on Overland Avenue and listening keenly for the sound of overtaking cars, I found myself overcome with a sudden rush of jealousy at the sight of a father on the sidewalk, out for a walk with his child, enjoying the afternoon unconcernedly, unhurriedly, with no care for traffic. The contrast made we wonder at my sanity: I must have a screw loose to “enjoy” the death riding on my left. I have a car. I can afford gasoline. Shouldn’t I be driving?
Last May, one of the more astonishing crash statistics came from the League of American Bicyclists. In a funding appeal letter, the LAB mentioned that “more than one in four of crashes we’ve documented involve cyclists getting hit from behind.” I’ve heard almost nothing about this number since, but it might be one of the more compelling data points that cycling has seen in years. If anything, this statistic should jump off the page to any vehicular cyclist who’s used to hearing that fewer than ten percent of crashes involve hits from behind. The ten percent number has been used to justify any amount of “proper” cycling behavior, from avoiding sidewalks, to taking the lane, to advocating against separate bicycle paths – because, the line goes, we’re “safer” in traffic than elsewhere. That such behavior often goes completely against common sense has never counted for much, in part because it’s hard to argue against a statistic without something comparable. But that low-level terror I feel when riding comes in large part because of the many, daily near-misses I face riding exactly where the “vehiculars” say I should be. Now, maybe, finally, we have statistics that correspond to the terror. At the very least, we have cause to reconsider a set of forty-year-old studies that may have no basis in current reality. The broader implications are tremendous: these are numbers that can change policy, that go far to show the need for separate lanes and real infrastructure.
Tom Vanderbilt — he of that famous book on traffic — tweeted this nugget the other day: “My general feeling on painted bike lanes and sharrows is: Would pedestrians feel comfortable on sidewalks that were made of icons & paint?” When I was looking over at that lucky father walking with his child on the sidewalk, I had to ask myself what the hell I was doing in the middle of Overland Avenue, creeping along at ten miles-per-hour, cars rushing and squeezing by me with inches to spare, and trying my best to keep those six picture frames from getting banged up. What the hell indeed? I was jealous because he had a lane of his own, and I did not. I was a supplicant in a land of brazen and selfish giants, the dog begging for scraps at the table; he was the master of his space. I want a lane of my own, a lane of one’s own.
My parents gave me a grocery bag full of photographic negatives last April. They had them jumbled in their closet, stored away in the odd chance that someone, someday might want to make a print. No one ever did, of course. Family photograph negatives usually are left to rot.
I’ve been scanning them. It’s a labor of love, a glimpse back at my childhood. Most of the photos I don’t remember. Many of them are surprising, and some of them reveal a time and place that no longer exists.
Here I am, around six months old, going for my first motorcycle ride. The driver is a friend of my parents. The year is about 1968. Do you think a parent would allow this today?
Here’s my dad and me. I’m no more than three years-old. We’ve just returned from the post office, where we picked up the mail. I’m sitting on a makeshift bench/cushion, and my feet are resting on a wooden bar bolted to the bicycle’s frame. Do you think a parent would take a child for a ride like this today (even if legal)?
Here I am about seven years old, riding one of the many banana-seat bicycles I had (some were stolen, some I ruined). What parent would allow a child to ride sans helmet today?
I grew up in a time when safety standards and parental concerns were rapidly evolving. The Chowchilla, California bus kidnapping happened about the time I was riding in the last photo. It freaked out the nation. My normally permissive parents started keeping us closer to home. Video games made their debut, and soon zombie-eyed kids were playing non-stop Pong at home. Helmet awareness crept into the national consciousness, and by the 1980s children under age five had to have helmets on a bicycle. Now, California’s children up to age eighteen can’t use bicycles, scooters, skateboards, or inline skates without a helmet.
Our memories sometimes have a way of making the past seem rosier than it was. Still, I can’t help but notice that childhood cycling seems rare today. I see few kids riding to school, including Beverly Hill High School, which I pass frequently on my way to work. I see few kids in general on bicycles, with the exception of the teen-aged “hipsters,” who seem to ride in packs looking for urban infrastructure against which to try stunts.
It seems likely that the steady rise in the number of cars has crowded out child cyclists. Parents these days are probably justified in keeping their kids off the streets. Helmet laws might have helped with some injuries, but they also might have helped some parents see cycling as dangerous. Perception has much to do with it: back in the 1970s, my mother didn’t want my brother and me on skateboards because they were “too dangerous” (I think she heard someone fell and broke an arm — we skated anyway); today, she might not want us riding bicycles for similar reasons.
What do you think? Have we lost something since the 1960s? Has the rise in safety-mindedness, and the laws that accompanied it, made our children worse off than they were before? Where do we go from here?
From what I can see, the engineers and planners at LADOT’s Bicycle Program are hard at work installing bicycle-specific infrastructure around the city. Sharrows keep popping up on the routes I ride, and I read about lanes being striped here and there. It’s great to know the city is thinking about us.
But permit me a moment to grouse. Almost all of the recent build-out has been “paint job infrastructure.” If you’ve ever ridden down one of those numerous sharrow-marked streets — say, Fountain Avenue — you know that there’s really no difference in “feel” between the road with or without them. Sharrows, of course, are supposed to make streets safer by indicating the proper riding position to cyclists and drivers alike. They change nothing else about the street. That leaves cyclists still mixing it up with traffic. I figure that sharrows are going to do as much to encourage cyclists to ride as the “Bike Route” signs the city did in the 1970s. Eventually the paint will wear away, and no one will notice. That was a bicycle route?
Still, I sort of get the problem that LADOT faces, especially on a street like Fountain. There’s not much room, and we the populace don’t want to remove parking (that is, stop subsidizing it), so the quickest, cheapest, politically easiest nod to cyclists is painting some chevrons. Great. Whatever. Maybe someday sharrows will help some poor cyclist resolve an injury lawsuit in his or her favor. But as my dad used to tell me when teaching me how to cross the street: you may dead right, but you’re both dead and right.
So, sharrows, schmarrows. What really gets my goat is the half-attention paid to cyclists even when the space is available for great infrastructure. At the risk of opening old wounds, consider the Santa Monica Boulevard bike lanes, between Century City and the 405 Freeway. They’re some of the nicest on the Westside, with no parked cars to door riders, and smooth pavement. But they’re still just paint. Meanwhile, take a look at what lies just beyond them for much of the boulevard: a beautifully manicured median strip, with lovely drought-resistant plants, and a tranquil business parking zone. I am grateful for the lanes, but every time I use them I feel as if the city is more concerned about road beautification and parked cars than the safety of cyclists.
But, again, I might give the LADOT the benefit of the doubt. The Santa Monica lanes were striped back in the lean times (for cyclists) of the early 2000s, before the explosion of interest in Dutch cycling, separated paths, and back when gas prices were still pretty low. In our “modern times” we’re supposed to know that you can’t keep a lot of cyclists on the streets unless you make them feel safe. Which makes me wonder what to make of the new, the brand new, Expo Line bike infrastructure. Sunday past, I took a spin over to the La Cienega stop, riding from the beach up the Ballona Creek bike path, to the connector path. I was terribly excited by the initial bit, a beautiful (if bumpy) stretch of Class I pavement leading up to the stop. I was also tickled to see the extra pedestrian signal call switches installed on posts for cyclists (although they don’t seem to work now). But after a hundred yards or so, I found myself riding down Jefferson Boulevard on yet another bike lane, with yet another line of beautifully manicured shrubbery to my right. Shrubbery! Exactly where the Class I path should be! It’s an absurdity right out of a Monty Python sketch.
It’s said that in the old days Tour de France racers topped up on wine (and cocaine and ether and strychnine, etc.) to endure their grueling days. One wonders whether this little number might not have helped.
Made in Montreal for the discriminating rider…
It has been the sort of trip that my European friends mock me for, a quick dash across the Atlantic for a day or two, and a quick dash back. Still, when the wedding invitation arrived in my inbox just three short weeks ago, I knew I had to make it work. It’s not every day that someone in one’s French “family” gets married, and certainly not everyday they do so in one of the most beautiful spots in Paris. And so I scrambled, got a plane ticket and hotel reservation, and voilà, j’y suis!
Of course, the wedding was beautiful, the bride radiant and the groom beaming, and I’ve not seen more big hats on women since I don’t know when. Some five hundred guests crowded into the nineteenth century chapel, in the shadow of the Tour Eiffel, more guests than seats. The groom warned me to arrive early or risk not getting one. I took his advice.
I found it rather odd to take the subway to a wedding — that was a first — but I gather that it’s more normal here. I mentioned this tidbit to another American guest; she told me she and her French husband took the bus. Why bother with difficult traffic and difficult parking when it’s just as easy to use public transport? Yes, they have taxis, but the subway is always cheaper, and often faster. A couple of guests were carrying motorcycle helmets; they had ridden scooters.
And where were the bicycles? Alas, I don’t know that that anyone in the wedding retinue came au vélo, but I must report my utter surprise at the cycling transformation this city has otherwise undergone since my last visit in 2007. There are bicycles everywhere now, with the young and old alike taking to them, in every part of the city. They are mostly and obviously transportation cyclists, dressed for a destination other than exercise, with a shopping bag or two thrown in a front basket. Almost none of them wears a helmet.
The biggest change, though, has not been the numbers of cyclists. It has been, instead, the marked and visible increase in bicycle lanes, cycle tracks, “sharrow” markings, shared cycle and pedestrian streets, shared bus-bicycle lanes, etc. in just the past four years. Where does it all come from? My (non-wedding) friend E. told me at brunch today, with a little irony, that the “gay, socialist mayor of Paris” wants everyone on bicycles.
If you’ve kept up with the city at all, you’re sure to have heard about Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s Vélib system, that bike rental service pioneered in La Rochelle in the 1970s, perfected in Lyon, and installed with great success in Paris in 2007. Vélib gets a lot of press, and the model has been copied with various results in other places. However, the all-important increase in infrastructure has so far been excluded in most discussions of Paris that I’ve seen. If Delanoë is behind it, I would say it’ll be his most important and lasting legacy.
Paris is a city from which Los Angeles could take some lessons. It’s closer in size, density, and car-centric attitude than many other bicycle-friendly capital cities. (E. drove me a few miles today along the “Périphérique,” right into an L.A.-style traffic jam, complete with stand-still traffic. Somehow I felt right at home.) Cycling on Paris’ streets probably feels as dangerous as cycling in Los Angeles. They are often narrower and covered in cobblestones. The northern European weather works against riders. What’s more, its conversion to a more bicycle friendly place has come relatively recently. Studying how that happened — and especially the politics (does it take a socialist mayor?) — could be instructive. The quick transformation here is startling and inspiring.
Yesterday, L.A. StreetsBlog ran a piece by Adrian Leung and Allison Mannos about the “missing story” of immigrant cycling in Los Angeles. If I understand the article accurately, it leveled three major criticisms at current cycling advocacy efforts:
► They have ignored the influence of recent “immigrants of color,” for whom riding is a “cultural norm of inexpensive transportation that provides means for survival.”
► They have discounted the “numerous lessons” found in South American and Asian regions, particularly with respect to infrastructure standards and best practices, for which they instead largely look to northern European countries.
► They have failed to focus on poor, non-white communities — who cycle in larger numbers — and instead made “misplaced” efforts to encourage “affluent” drivers “to commute by bicycle.”
Cycling among all income levels and skin colors is desirable, and input from the constituents of all cycling communities is valuable. However, it’s not clear to me that any of these criticisms make sense overall, either absolutely or as guidance to shaping future advocacy. (Actually, I couldn’t locate anything in the article that would show up a specific difference in the concerns between poor and rich cyclists. I’m hoping someone could point a few out.) As I see it now, poor and rich, immigrants and natives, and persons of all hues ride the streets arm-in-arm, and their viewpoints are all shaped by the same external factors — cars, street conditions, and laws.
For that matter, cycling has long been a great leveler. H.G. Wells said cycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” in the nineteenth century. Its relatively low entry cost also helped break down class barriers, and gave access to first rate transportation options to people who couldn’t otherwise afford a horse. Similar undercurrents continue into modern times, with the poor and rich alike participating on equal terms. I’ve ridden in many weekend outings of local bicycle clubs in which the only distinction that mattered was performance.
In particular, I would make these observations:
■ Cycling may help the poor, but consciously associating cycling with poverty is a sure means of ruining it for other income levels. This is a lesson that any marketer – or Tom Sawyer – could give you. If you want to sell something, make it look fun and inviting, and get attractive and successful people to promote it. If you want to kill cycling, promote it as an activity that the poor are stuck doing because they can’t afford a car.
■ In my experience, infrastructural best practices have no cultural boundary, as they are rooted in basic aspects of human-ness: concerns for safety, reaction times, etc. I’ve been to some four dozen countries, each of which have similar (auto) road provisions, despite the color, culture, or creed of the populace. The non-European countries with cycling infrastructure (that I’ve seen) construct facilities remarkably similar to those I’ve seen in Europe.
Too, an increasing number of planners worldwide have looked to the policies of the Netherlands and Denmark for inspiration. These countries have a proven recipe for success. Even Guangzhou, a city with historically high cycling rates, has hired a Danish consultant to work on at least one bicycle project.
■ Cycling advocacy is targeted at the “affluent” (middle class?) precisely because they don’t ride. The poor do. If we want cycling among all income levels, we need to make sure that it’s socially acceptable at every social stratum. If we focus our efforts largely on the poor, we will lose them when they become the middle class. That’s not a recipe for long-term success.
On Sunday, I packed up a cake and a camera on the Bullitt and rode over to enjoy Mother’s Day with friends. It was just a couple of miles ride, from Beverly Hills to the Fairfax District, and the day was spectacular: sunny, not too warm, a gentle breeze. I was keen to show the bike to Paris, my nine year-old “nephew,” as his dad has been trying to interest him in riding, and I thought he’d like to see a different take on it. His response? “You certainly live a weird life,” he said. Ha. Game. Set. Match.
The “alternativeness” of the bicycle is ingrained, at such an early age, in this country, and especially in this city. My dad, born and raised (in part) in Los Angeles, thought I was a bit bonkers when I took to cycling in my teens. He told me that in his youth, you either walked or drove. Riding a bicycle meant that you were too poor to have a car, and you didn’t want to be caught dead on one. That view may have changed somewhat since then, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it, not to those who get around on two wheels.
A German study that came out a few months ago emphasized the importance of peer influence in establishing cycling as a normal mode of transit. In effect, the more riders we have on the streets, the more other people will start riding. The behavior stops being “weird” and starts being, well, normal.
The trick is figuring out how to make that happen. I’m not the first to advocate for better infrastructure, and not the first to realize the “chicken-and-egg” nature of it. It’s difficult, politically, to ask for better infrastructure without riders, but it’s hard to get riders without better infrastructure.
But maybe, somehow — if we continue to soldier on, if we keep riding cakes over to Mother’s Day brunches, if we keep asking for a better cycling city — we’ll finally get there.