Cycling: Fight Back or Give Up
November 14, 2014 • Los Angeles
People get defensive when their root assumptions are challenged, as evidenced by writer Stephen Corwin taking flak for not having a car in Los Angeles. Corwin attracted some attention recently when he wrote an extensive piece about living without a car, suggesting that drivers could be car-shamed the way we shame smokers and drunk drivers. He advocates for cycling, despite his girlfriend’s stress levels cycling on city streets. I’m with her.
I lived without a car in LA for many years and didn’t find it especially difficult. I was never confronted with defensiveness from car owners, but I was often pitied for being somehow hobbled. Using Metro does require a bit of advance planning, but it isn’t limiting. The only time I had to get help from a car owner was to make an Ikea run, which most people don’t have to do very often anyway. Often Metro was just as fast as driving, once hunting for parking was factored in to an evening out, and riding the rails any time between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., especially anywhere near Hollywood, was much faster than driving.
Like Corwin my main mode of transportation was cycling. I commuted by bicycle in Hollywood and West Hollywood for a couple of years, but after the third or fourth near-death experience, I gave it up, except for very short neighborhood trips. Part of quitting is getting older and more risk-averse, but it’s also a reaction to a lot of stress. I can understand completely why the Wolf Pack and other committed cyclists are so militant and aggressive on the streets; constantly feeling threatened and endangered produces that reaction—or alternately my reaction, which was to stop doing it. The last street trip I made in West Hollywood was the day I was making a (completely legal) left turn from Fountain, and a teenager driving a convertible decided I shouldn’t be doing that. She pulled up alongside me, aiming her pepper spray at my face. Luckily I escaped before any of it got in my eyes. At that point it was either get militant and fight back, or give up; I decided to give it up.
Metro is very bicycle-friendly, and to a lesser extent so is Metrolink. After I quit street riding, depending on what neighborhood I was living in, I would use buses and trains to get to recreational cycling routes like the LA River path around Griffith Park or the Rio Hondo path near El Monte. Recently having moved to a less dense neighborhood, I decided to try street cycling once again. It had been a few years since I’d ridden on city streets, but even with more people out cycling and bicycle lanes striped on the streets, a few near-death experiences convinced me to quit. On a bicycle it only takes one angry or distracted motorist to end your life, and there are so many of those around.
These days I load my bicycle onto my car and drive 30 minutes out to the “countryside” of Whittier Narrows or the San Gabriel River to cycle on stress-free, car-free paths. It seems so obtuse to drive so that I can cycle, but that’s the way it works. Our previous mayor was a cyclist, so one of the legacies of his tenure is the restriping of streets to include bicycle lanes, a project that is still ongoing. It’s still not safe enough, in my experience, and none of the new bike lanes are protected by curbs like they are in more bicycle-oriented cities like New York and Montreal. With such amazing weather, I’m certain a lot more people would commute by bicycle if it were safe, but there isn’t even adequate city financial planning to trim our trees and fix our sidewalks, so we’re probably about 150 years from seeing protected bike lanes in this town.
Predicting the future is impossible, so maybe I’m wrong about that—after all, it only took 52 years from conceptualization to the start of work on the Purple Line subway to Santa Monica. The ceremonial shovels were out last week in a ceremony on the Miracle Mile. It was galling to see several historically transit-obstructionist politicians sitting up there on the podium looking like the cat that ate the canary, but the electorate has a short memory, and perhaps by definition in politics it’s effective to reverse your position by 180 degrees and smile about it. More likely it was just too tempting a photo op to pass up, regardless of the politics. The best part about that groundbreaking ground-breaking event? Senator Feinstein wore purple, coordinating masterfully with the Purple Line.