A lane of one’s own

July 16, 2012 3 comments

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.

Whither safety, whither progress

June 5, 2012 1 comment

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?

Categories: Uncategorized

Absurdist Shrubbery

May 15, 2012 3 comments

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.

Categories: Lanes, Los Angeles, Parking


November 10, 2011 Leave a comment

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…

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Parisian Interlude

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Travel

Cycling is for everyone, but are we really that different?

June 2, 2011 6 comments

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.

Seoul Bicycle Lane

Taipei Bicycle Path

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.

Categories: Culture, Los Angeles, Policy

The weirdness of it.

May 10, 2011 2 comments

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.

Categories: Culture

CicLAvia Celebrating

It was a beautiful fall Sunday six months ago exactly, on 10/10/10, when I crossed from Germany into the Netherlands. The wind was at my back, the sun in my face, and the roads were full of cyclists. A young couple held hands, headed into town on a date, an older couple chatted amiably, children and parents — all of Holland, it seemed — were out enjoying the day. It was also the day, as it happened, that Los Angeles’ first CicLAvia went down. I was sorry to miss it, but if 10/10/10 looked anything like the streets of Los Angeles looked today, on 04/10/11, you might say that a little bit of Holland has arrived.

Oakwood Street

Of course, CicLAvia has its roots in Columbia, not Holland, where every Sunday (and holidays) the streets are given over to human-powered traffic. The first one was held there in 1976, and if I may be a little snarky, I’d have to ask — why did it take THIRTY-FOUR years to make its way north?

CicLAvia is wonderful! It’s a celebration without purpose, a party without cause. And all you have to do is shut down some streets to automobiles and tell people, “Enjoy yourself.” How many times today did I stop in the middle of some five-lane expressway just to admire a bit of Angeleno architecture, or photograph a mural? How many times did other people wave and say hello? How many families spent quality time together, soaking in the joy of simple things? How many children, that rarest of cyclist on our streets, did I see?

I had to snicker at the typically curmudgeonly comments posted below a Times story on the event. This “complete waste of time” and “laughable” celebration of life somehow drew thousands of people, maybe tens of thousands, all with a synchronicity of purpose, to enjoy their city. Prose can’t do it justice, even poetry may miss the mark. It’s only in the experience itself that one can understand. And if rumor has it correct — that the mayor wants to increase the number to one per month by next year — we’re going to have plenty of opportunities. I can’t wait!

Bicycle lane “reality check”

March 12, 2011 6 comments

In her March 11 opinion piece for CityWatchLA (h/t BikingInLA), CSUN economics professor Shirley V. Svorny says that bicycle lane supporters (like Stephen Box) need a “reality check” because these lanes will increase road congestion. She says that “road diets” and “traffic calming” are phrases people use when they really want “fewer cars on the road,” but that such solutions increase congestion by removing traffic lanes. She argues that a carbon tax would accomplish the goal better without increasing congestion.

I’m not sure how she arrives at her conclusions. She hedges them with mother-knows-best phrases like “it is unlikely”, “that just can’t be,” and “none of this can be safe.” She quotes no sources for her observations. She makes the assumption that reducing lanes means increased congestion elsewhere, as if traffic were like water pressure, rather than having its own unpredictable and counter-intuitive patterns. (I would strongly recommend Tom Vanderbilt‘s book “Traffic” to bring her up to speed.)

Did Svorny miss a few things?

Svorny may have never heard of the Braess Paradox, from a paper written in 1968 by the mathematician Dietrich Braess. Braess showed that adding a road to a transportation system may slow down traffic overall for everyone, and that conversely, removing a road can speed up traffic. The phrase “road diet” isn’t spin used by “car haters” to get cars off the road. Road diets, instead, are real and proven ways of maximizing traffic throughput.

Svorny may have never studied traffic death statistics. One wonders whether her off-hand statment that “speed limits on roads have already been set to trade off safety and movement” could survive even a cursory inspection. When nearly 100 people daily are killed on our roads, and when cars are now the leading cause of death among our young, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve really made any kind of safety considerations at all in speed limits. (This confession of a traffic engineer is a heartbreaking look at how traffic engineers prioritize autos over humans.) The phrase “traffic calming” is not spin created by propagandists in a “war on cars”; it is, instead, a real and effective way of reducing death on our streets. Frankly, her statement that slowing traffic “is unlikely … an improvement” makes no sense at all. Speed kills. Slowing traffic is the whole point.

Svorny may never have examined how roads are paid for in this country. If she had, one would think that she’d reconsider her statement that bicycle lanes are “a huge loss of a capital investment.” That fact is that roads themselves represent a huge loss, full stop. It doesn’t matter whether we use them for cars, bicycles, or tiddlywinks, our roads are money losers. Repurposing the roads for bicycles doesn’t change that equation. What it does, instead, is open up the roads for more users, and importantly, more efficient use.

Svorny does present the rather intriguing idea of creating a carbon tax to reduce road usage. I would be for such a provision, but I’m not sure at all how the City of Los Angeles would go about creating it. From what I know, carbon taxes are usually the province of the State and Federal governments. I’ve yet to hear of any city that levied a carbon tax; I’d be interested to find out more if so. It would be especially interesting to discover what transportation mechanisms these cities put in place for those persons priced out of driving. Did they, perhaps, install bicycle lanes?

Svorny also presents the issue of very few cyclists on our streets. That is, alas, completely true. Los Angeles has a low bicycle mode share. As she says, the “reality” is that we don’t all ride bicycles. So I would issue a friendly invitation: come join us, Shirley! Come ride a bicycle on the roads with us. Give it a few weeks. Perhaps you might make it into an investigation of unnecessary bicycle lanes. Ride all the lanes you can find. At the end of your experiment, let us know your findings. If you find lanes that need to be removed, let us know which ones. If you find that we need to add more lanes, and safer lanes, we’re all ears, too.

Categories: Lanes, Los Angeles, Policy

Enjoying a Beautiful Sunday

March 7, 2011 2 comments

Shall I let you in on a little secret?

Despite what you may think from reading my musings, I really don’t cycle all that much, and certainly not on a daily basis. I walk to work, so that takes out a big reason to ride, and the one regular drive I take weekly is too cumbersome to go by bicycle. I am probably best grouped into the class of “weekend warriors.” I take my bicycle to the streets of Los Angeles in off hours and do my best, like the rest of weekend warriors, to maintain a shred of whatever conditioning I may have had in my twenties.

This kind of riding must be far and away the dominant mode in Los Angeles. The L.A. Times pointed out last week that only 9,000 people in this city of millions regularly cycle to work. (The Times says an additional “50% of L.A. adults ride a bicycle ‘sometimes,'” whatever that means.) If I somehow have to square that number with the widely given “one-percent” mode share, which would mean at the very least 30,000 total riders, the remaining 21,000 cyclists must be pursuing goals other than commuting. I’d like to think those other riders are doing grocery runs, but I can say with some certainty that they’re not. I almost never see any other cyclists when I wheel my Bullitt to the market, even to the Trader Joe’s near UCLA, where you’d think there would be tons of cyclists. So what to think? I have to assume that the balance is made up of “recreationalists,” those riders who soak up the sun and warmth of Southern California with little other purpose. In other words, people who mostly ride bicycles just about like me.

Of course, the city council’s approval of the bike plan last week may help change that. Or maybe not. I recognize the vote as a “victory for cyclists,” but I have to be skeptical of its unanimous passage. If the plan actually did anything, there would have been a real fight, with vitriol and venom, the likes of which NY City is having right now. I’ll believe the effectiveness of the plan on the day we convert street parking or travel lanes to protected bicycle lanes, when we start having protests on, say, San Vicente or Wilshire Boulevard.

Whatever the case, I wanted to post a little video I made yesterday about one of my favorite rides, a seventy-mile loop that took me from West L.A. to Latigo Canyon Road in Malibu and back again. We had perfect outdoor weather, some of the best of the season so far, and it was a great day to go into the mountains:

If you’re curious, here’s a map of the route.