Nobody bikes in L.A.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Nov. 23 2005 5:25 PM

Nobody Bikes in L.A.

But they'd be a lot happier if they did.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

My way ... 
Click on image to enlarge.
My way ...

A few months ago, I decided to try the absurd: I would start commuting the four miles to my office on a bike. In Los Angeles! I'd like to say it was environmental awareness or the high price of gas or even the desperate need to get more exercise that coaxed me onto Raymond Chandler's mean streets without my protective steel cocoon. I suppose each of those played a small role. But what really pushed me over the line and onto the bike was an August dispatch from Amsterdam written by my Slate colleague Seth Stevenson.

Andy Bowers Andy Bowers

Andy Bowers is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

Seth described watching a crowd of Dutch theatergoers in their 50s and 60s leaving a play, hopping onto their bikes, and riding off into the night. I couldn't help picturing that lovely scene through an Angeleno's eyes: Wow, I thought, an event without valet parking! Seth went on to quote a friend: "There's something about riding a bike that makes you feel like you're 5 years old." Since that's a feeling I wouldn't mind more of in my life, I decided to get out of my Honda and onto the bike.

Advertisement

I am a fourth-generation Southern Californian. I was weaned on exhaust fumes and the eye-searing smog of the 1970s. I grew up in a hilly area of the city where it was impossible to ride my bike to school or a store without risking real harm. For my entire childhood I never went anywhere without being chauffeured by my parents. My 16th birthday was Liberation Day. My first driver's license picture, taken on my birthday, shows me looking completely bleary-eyed—I had slept in the used VW Beetle my parents bought me for the occasion and presented myself at the DMV an hour before it opened. Driving in L.A. feels as natural to me as walking in Manhattan.

Although I had actually been a bike commuter in other cities (most notably during three years in London), it never occurred to me to try it when I returned to L.A. (this despite the fact that there may be no major city in the world with a climate as perfect for bike commuting as ours—warm winters; moderate, dry summers; alarmingly little rain). Since cycling to work is such an aberration here, I found the idea both exhilarating and pleasingly subversive.

... or the highway 
Click on image to enlarge.
... or the highway

Instead of the major thoroughfares I use when driving, I cycled quiet back streets—the kind that infuriate me in a car because of all the stop signs and the impossibility of crossing major streets without a signal. I found my commute so easy that I soon started looking for other short trips I could make on the bike—picking up a few groceries, going to the gym, returning library books—then longer ones. I plotted new stealth routes no driver would ever take. (Tip: The satellite photos on Google Earth are much better for doing this than a road map, because you can see exactly what the streets look like.)

One day, I found myself biking down an empty little access road next to the notorious 405 freeway during the evening commute. The freeway, as usual, was paralyzed, and I noticed I was actually moving faster than the cars. That's when the revelation hit: Over the past few months, I had discovered a different Los Angeles.

It's very easy for an L.A. driver to think that our city is as choked with humanity as Manhattan. From the driver's point of view, that's increasingly true—there are more and more evenings when every major street is stopped dead, and going a few miles can take hours. At work the next day, people grimly shake their heads and lament what's becoming of the city.

Not only has riding my bike enabled me to glide past all this gridlock (in fact, I'm often not even aware it's happening), but it has made me realize that it's an illusion. The city itself is not gridlocked—merely the narrow asphalt ribbons onto which we squeeze all our single-occupant cars. On the back streets I now take, everything is quiet and serene. The main roads may mimic Times Square on New Year's Eve, but the areas between L.A.'s clogged arteries comprise mile after square mile of low-density, low-stress residential bliss (the same is true, I suspect, of most American cities).

Even if I do need to use a major road for any portion of my ride, I can always veer onto L.A.'s famously empty sidewalks to bypass the seething queues of road-rage incubators. (Before you write in to protest, L.A.'s municipal code allows bikers on the sidewalk as long as they yield to pedestrians.)

Don't get me wrong—Los Angeles is an almost pathologically bike-unfriendly city. It has pathetically few marked bike lanes, and those it has often peter out for no reason and at the worst possible place. Its drivers go ballistic when a cyclist slows them down, even for a few seconds. And of course, it's so sprawling that some commutes would simply be impossible by bike (although I suspect more than we realize would actually be faster on two thin wheels).

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.