To Live and Ride in LA

Los Angeles is known as a city of millions of cars. Things are just too far apart, and public transportation just too slow and sparse, to make it easy *not* to own one. Houston, apparently, has the most cars per household in the country, but we’ve got the worst traffic-related congestion and pollution. Debates are ongoing about how best to solve these problems, but one simple way to help is to ride a bike when you can instead of driving.

Heliotrope Mural

Partly out of a desire to cut down on congestion and partly out of a desire to save money, Jen and I went down to one car about a year ago (yes, most couples who can swing it financially own two). We live in Hollywood and Jen works in Santa Monica, so she takes the car most days. I work mostly at home, but still need transportation to run errands and get to my part-time job(s), so I got a bike at a yard sale last December — nothing fancy, just something that works and is sturdy enough to take the punishment of riding in the city.

Riding a bike in LA, while I love it, is dangerous. I lived in San Francisco for a little while and rode a bike there, too, so this isn’t the only city riding I’ve done, but it’s much different down here. In SF, it seemed to me that drivers and conditions were more conducive to bike riders.

Because things are closer together on the tiny peninsula of “the city” (yes, that’s what San Franciscans call it), and freeways are generally more segregated from surface streets, drivers usually don’t feel the need or desire to drive, say, 50 mph on a city street, like they do in LA. Having a much stronger “green” culture than LA does, SF also has many more bike lanes, providing crucial space between car traffic and the curb.

When I first got on a bike in LA, I noticed that there are some streets that are pretty much impossible to ride on without occasionally (or even exclusively) using the sidewalk as a de facto bike lane.

Melrose & Normandie

For instance, here’s some very bad paving on Melrose at Normandie, right where you’d expect to be able to ride a bike.

Melrose & Normandie - Bus 2

Add passing traffic, like this bus, and you can see that there’s nowhere to go but onto the sidewalk.

Melrose - Garbage Truck

Physically, there’s enough space to squeeze between this garbage truck and the curb, but I’ve learned to take things more slowly when I’m on my bike. There’s just no need to go bombing around and taking risks.

Sidewalks can help out in situations like these, especially because in many areas of LA they’re like seldom-used decorations between the street and people’s yards. All the same, sidewalks hold their own set of dangers. Particularly, you have to watch out for shoppers and delivery people coming out of store fronts. They’re not expecting a bike to be zipping along, so they won’t hesitate and look both ways before stepping out.

Clusterfuck

Here’s a real-life scenario that looks like a set-up in a slapstick movie. You can’t ride on the street because the bus is too close to the curb. Riding on the sidewalk would entail slaloming left around the pickup truck (and hoping that he looks back to his left before he pulls out into traffic), back right to avoid the street sign, and then quickly left to miss the guy on the ladder painting the pillar. Make sure you don’t over correct and go out into the street. Add two guys with a plate glass window and the picture would be complete.

Sometimes you find a sort of ad hoc bike lane with situations like this one.

Potential Bike Lane

There’s not quite enough room for two lanes of auto traffic here, so all the cars should use the left lane, leaving the half lane open for bikes. Often, though, you’ll find drivers who will just straddle the lanes to miss the parked cars, so you can’t relax completely and just ride along.

Then there are the regular hazards of riding a bike on any street anywhere.

Larchmont

Which one of these cars will back out first? Will the driver be looking over his or her shoulder for bicyclists? Also, mind the pregnant jaywalker and her friend, but try not to swerve out into traffic to avoid them.

Parked Cars

Watch for people getting out of their cars. Any one of these doors could open up and knock you off your bike at any time.

As cautious and aware as I am, a few weeks ago I got doored by a car. Luckily I was rolling along at a very slow pace just when the woman who hit me opened her door. I was going just fast enough, though, that I couldn’t stop or get out of the way. I was knocked down and into the street. Fortunately, there was no car following right behind me.

Bruise

I *did* get the prettiest bruise I’ve ever had. It was like a slowly-changing abstract expressionist painting. I wanted to get a tattoo just like it, but I know that needle and ink could never reproduce its subtleties.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, really. There’s nothing quite as liberating as finding your groove and just flying along on a bike, perfectly in control and under your own power. At some magical moments, I leave columns and columns of stopped car traffic behind, the recipient of jealous glances from drivers stuck behind the wheel.

Also, such dangerous conditions help to inspire a real camaraderie among cyclists in LA. There are great organizations that offer support, and a small, but growing, bicycle community.

Near where we live there’s a non-profit educational space called The Bicycle Kitchen that helps teach people how to fix their bikes and sells parts that have been donated. It’s been going, it seems, for a couple of years, and has become the anchor for a thriving business area on a short stretch of Heliotrope Drive near LA City College.

The clientele at Scoops, one of the best ice cream joints in LA, is probably 75% cyclists who volunteer or fix their bikes at The Bicycle Kitchen or work at Orange 20, the for-profit bike shop that started up across the street.

Scoops

Try the Black Sesame & Ginger. If you’re lucky, they may have Chocolate & Wasabe or Sea Salt & Lavender. Every day the flavors are different.

Orange

Orange 20 sells high-end parts and builds custom bikes.

Heliotrope Sign

Someone has even given the corner a new name.

Any time of day you can find people hanging out here, rare for LA. There’s a coffee shop next to Scoops. Now there’s even a vegan restaurant, started by one of the cycling community organizers. Try the jackfruit tacos. So good. They’ve got one of the best beer selections in LA, too. It’s no Fresh Salt yet, but I’m well on my way to making it my new hang. Come to LA; we’ll go for a ride and get a beer.

Outside the Bicycle Kitchen

57 responses to “To Live and Ride in LA”

  1. Dave says:

    Riding a bike in New York can be scary, but LA looks much worse. Which sucks, because you’d think the climate would make for great bike riding. I guess cars don’t appreciate it when you take a whole lane — as the law allows — when you don’t want to ride in the gutter?

  2. Josh says:

    Back when I lived in LA the bicycle was my primary mode of transportation. You’re right, the climate is almost perfect (excepting the smog). The problem there, as with other big cities I’ve biked through, is that many car commuters seem to take the odd cyclist personally. Hey, it’s not my fault that I’m faster on a bicycle in inter-urban areas than the guy driving the super-charged gas guzzler.
    On the plus side, cyclists seem to enjoy a pirate-esque ethos that allows us to bond with one another. So, the car people get annoyed with us because we’re “getting something for free” and we get the smug satisfaction of being eco-friendly (and developing great calves in the process) and efficient commuters. Sounds like a good deal to me, except when some idiot opens his car door without looking.

  3. ya mutha says:

    Timmy, I don’t want you riding that bike of yours in the street, especially in that crazy neighborhood.

    Listen to your mother for once!

  4. Rogan says:

    I used to commute in LA on my bike, with son strapped into a trailing Burley dLite. Since my commutes got longer I traded in the pedal power for a motorcycle, and have since become a believer that for people who travel more than twenty miles a day in LA, the motorcycle is the best ticket. It interests me the similarities between motorcycle and and cycle culture — the defensive thinking, the sense of community, and in a town where the traffic sometimes barely moves, a feeling of getting away with murder when we split a lane.

  5. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    When I moved to LA from Berlin I swore I would live here as I did in Europe. So I took baths, read books and I lived without a car for my first year here. I built my bike at the Kitchen such great people there. I even joined a bike gang where we’d meet on Tues. and ride til 3 in the morning. My to gfriend started what is called the Burritto Project where bicyclist meet on wed everyone chips in $15 and they make burrittos. Then they all ride downtown and hand them out to the homeless.

  6. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    By the way Tim. I love your slapstick photo and the slight instructional video tone to this piece.

  7. Ruben Mancillas says:

    tim, these photos are great. the whole sizing up a situation in an instant makes you realize how much mentalwork driving in a difficult urban setting can be. i used to pride myself on being able to drive safely in my old highly volatile neighborhod but when i passed through their last month i realized how tired i was being forced to be so vigilant at every moment. and that was in the relative protection of a car, keep safe out in those mean streets my friend.

    and did anyone else read this and think of kevin bacon in quiksillver?

  8. Josh says:

    Ruben, how could anybody our age read about urban biking and not think of Quicksilver?

  9. Scotty says:

    I thought about Puck.

  10. Beth W says:

    Great post Tim! I love the photos. Oregon is very bike friendly. Portland is even called Bike City USA (a recent NY times article). A friend of a friend was part of the bike community there and when someone moved residences they would all bring their bicycles and help move everything, furniture included. The Portland bicycle community is also credited with the resurgence of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

  11. Dave says:

    Yeah, the countercultural feeling of riding a bike in the city is kind of fun. I ride a dorky folding bike, but wearing grotty-enough clothes I’ve had fun flirting-while-riding incidents with hot, skinny bike dudes. And then there’s the other mode of cycling in this town, the yuppie Gore-tex fancy style, which is fine as well if you’re into that kind of thing.

    What I’d really like to see, though, is a bike culture more like the one in Amsterdam, where bikes are just a common form of transportation, utilitarian and unremarkable. The bike-punk cult of Puck in the U.S. is ultimately unsustainable, however trendy it may be getting at the moment; most people are never going to ride fixies, just like most people are never going to dumpster-dive for computer parts (until the Revolution, of course). And most people aren’t going to use bikes for everyday transportation if they have to put up with bruises like that beauty. This is why I’m love things like bike lanes and paths and all kinds of little traffic-design decisions that make urban cycling as easy and as boring as possible. Then we can just ride for the eco-self-righteousness of it, the ultimate high.

  12. Rachel says:

    I can ride five miles to work, literally door to door, on bike paths. Perks like that make up for some of the inconveniences of living outside a big city (e.g., no terrific shoe stores or sushi).

    Still, I’ve done my share of city riding, gotten bruised and have broken bones, and been struck by hit-and-run drivers twice. That’s one hell of a bruise, Tim. Ow.

    Oh, and hipsters, remember to wear a helmet!

  13. Scotty says:

    The new Timo is Timow.

    (until the Revolution, of course)

    Thanks for throwing me a bone, Dave.

  14. LP says:

    So far (knock on wood) I’ve been able to navigate the streets of LA without getting doored. But an hour ago, my trusty folding bike, after having gotten a “tune-up” a couple of days ago, began folding up in transit for the second time in as many days. Ouch. I might better get it tuned back down.

    Tim, I agree with you re: sidewalk riding. It’s something I tried not to do in DC, but here I do it all the time. I have had one guy (another bicycler!) snap at me for doing it, but most people don’t seem to care.

  15. Tim Wager says:

    Dave, I agree completely: I wish riding a bike here didn’t necessitate living a life piratical. I’d be thrilled to have nice wide bike paths, preferably paved with that stuff they make injury-reduction outdoor basketball courts out of.

    Rachel, thanks for the reminder: you may look cool without a helmet, kids, but you won’t look so cool with a head injury. I was very glad to have my helmet on as I hit the pavement when I got doored.

    Julie, I didn’t know you’re in LA. Glad to know you’re out there rolling the streets. One of these days I have to do a midnight ride, if I can ever get it together and stay up that late.

    Rogan, I’m curious to know about your experiences towing the cart. Did you go all out and take up a lane? I think it would be hard to use the gutter with one of those.

    LP, what is it with you and malfunctioning forms of transportation in this town? Cuidado!

    And, Ma! I thought I never told you to come here looking for me. My friends are gonna think I’m a dork!

    P.S. Have to admit I’ve never seen Quicksilver, and hadn’t even heard of it until now. Can I score points in Ruben’s game from last week?

  16. Bryan says:

    I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Quicksilver either. But I can get to Kevin Bacon in two degrees of separation. Does that count for anything?

    Tim — I really do love the adrenaline rush of riding in the city, swerving around buses and doors, chiding pedestrians for stupid steps off curbs. It makes no sense, really, given that I’m more and more terrified of cars and planes as I get older.

    But one thing biking has not been good for: my anger management. Since I’ve been biking in the city, my episodes of yelling at cab and car drivers has gone up to the level it used to be when I actually owned and drove a car. It’s become like a reflex. When I pass a line of cars that’s backed up and blowing all their horns, I instinctively yell, “Shut up! You’re not going anywhere — get used to it!” And when a car honks at me from behind, I want to pull it over and explain that no matter how much time they think they’re losing by slowing for me, I’m ultimately going to get where I’m headed faster than they will.

  17. Jeremy says:

    I’ve been wanting to do that midnight ride for awhile too (it’s something that julie and our friend ted are both involved with), so maybe we should get a group together sometime and join in…

  18. lt says:

    woohoo, tim. what a bruise.

    love (the post and) that you gave scoops a shout out! did you ever go back in the day when scoops had late night rock concerts?

  19. Scotty says:

    #16: I rode a bike as my mode when I lived in SF, and I experienced the same kind of rage you discuss.

    It peaked one day when I pulled a Tiananmen Square on an 18 wheeler that wanted me to get out of its way so it could make a turn, and the same day I swerved in front of a speeding van to make it stop so I could scold the driver for cutting me off.

  20. Bryan says:

    my problem is that i’m afraid karma will catch up, and right when i yell at a bad driver and turn around to flip the bird, i’ll slam right into the plate glass window tim mentioned. it’s not so much that i fear injury as the idea of the car driver getting the last laugh.

  21. stephanie wells says:

    Did anyone else find this post totally stressful??? My anxiety level rose with every picture!!! (except the bruise one was actually somewhat calming, because it looked worse in person!) I truly love the concept of everyone being bikers instead of drivers, but these photos heightened my fears about people I love getting hit (never mind me–I’m too scared). Be careful, folks.

  22. Scotty says:

    Dude, you need to take drop a Lude before you ride.

  23. Bryan says:

    swells — that’s why the post actually ends with all those photos of hippies eating ice cream: to let you know that chances are you’ll get there safely and be able to peace out with likeminded folks.

  24. Tim Wager says:

    Bryan, I hope you don’t pull stunts like that with Molly on the handlebars. Also, maybe you need to drop by Scoops (or the NYC equivalent) and have some ice cream *before* you ride. It’ll help mellow you out.

    Swells, how do you think J Man feels?

  25. bryan says:

    well, molly always rides on the seat, so …

    plus, she’s a good superego, although i have been known to stop and curse out someone who almost ran me over while a kid was on the back of the bike. it mortifies my children to have me get in conflicts with drivers. they still remember my bad car habits in cambridge.

  26. Stella says:

    LP – all i remember of you biking in dc is riding on the sidewalks — something that i’m too pathetically rule-abiding to do. That and riding at night with no lights — crazy!

  27. Jen says:

    Yeah, I have to say that my stress and worry about Tim getting into an accident trumps my smugness about the fact that we only have one car and the whole bicycle commuting thing.

  28. Tim Wager says:

    I’m fiiine! Also, I have lights and a bright orange vest that I wear when I ride at night.

  29. LP says:

    Stella – I never rode on the sidewalks in DC unless I was biking with you, following your lead. Riding on my own, I was always on the street. I also had lights most of the time, though when they got stolen I didn’t replace them right away. Just to clarify.

  30. Rogan says:

    #15 Regarding towing a Burley d’Lite:

    Yes, for the most part I would go all out and take up a full lane. Risking one’s own life in the gutters is one thing; towing a child puts that risk into perspective. The d’Lite is nice, bright, wide and yellow, with a tall electric orange flag. Because of the high visibility and association with children, cars would give us a wide berth. We did this for about five miles every work day for one year.

  31. cynthia says:

    Biking is great fun and great excerise. It is great to see a couple like Jeremy and Julie doing it together. That is wonderful. More power to you. Also great post Tim, I loved all the pictures. BTW be careful riding out here, there are all kinds of crazy drivers out there.

  32. LHD says:

    It is great to see a couple like Jeremy and Julie doing it together.

    i’ll say. [growls.] is that video still circulating?

  33. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    ummm?

  34. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    jeremy … we need to talk.
    you swore you’d never release that video.
    and just before the holidays?
    i know how grinchy you get but that is just over the top.

  35. Josh says:

    11. Dave:While I hate to distract from a conversation as fascinating as that of J&J’s Collector’s Edition DVD (¬°with extra footage and comments from the cast and crew! Out in time for Christmas!!!), I have a few comments about which cities we should be emulating. Amsterdam is renowned for its bike friendly vibe. On that level, it is like no other place I’ve ever seen. The problem, however, is that it is an utterly unpractical place for any sort of motor vehicle. While this is not a problem for the average person, I shouldn’t like to imagine running any sort of business which requires the regular delivery of heavy objects. (Note to self: Don’t open a piano rental company in Amsterdam.) Also, the urban center of Amsterdam fits in a space roughly the size of a large backpack. Thus, even after the revolution, the model is probably not applicable to L.A.
    Perhaps the most practical incorporation I’ve witnessed of a biking lifestyle with that of “normal” vehicular use was in Ljubljana, Slovenia. There, bicycles, cars, and pedestrians are given equal priority, with individual lanes, traffic lights and rules for each. The system seemed to work well for all concerned. Since this exemplary urban planning comes at the price of (yet another) Balkan war and having to learn a language as impenetrable as Slovenian, I’m not sure that high quality bike lanes are worth the trouble, but perhaps there’s an easier way to do things in the States.

  36. cynthia says:

    not what I meant guys but vry funny indeed, I hope you guys get plenty of royalties off of it. is there a part 2 coming anytime soon

  37. Dave says:

    Sure, LA will never be Amsterdam. New York could be, though — it’s already horrific for motorized traffic, so why not make it nice for bikes? But seriously, of course big, sprawling, auto-centric American cities are not going to become bike-centric the way Amsterdam or even other European cities are. But there are a lot of things we could do. Portland is getting there. One huge frustration for me in New York is that even most bike lanes pretty much suck as bike lanes; they run alongside parked cars that can take you out by opening a driver’s side door; they get cut off at intersections, even switch sides of the street at major intersections. One thing we can learn from Europe is that physically separated bike lanes with no cars parked alongside are really what it takes to normalize cycling as a practical means of transportation for regular people.

  38. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    I vote that Berlin is a good example of a fairly vast city with a good system with separated bike lanes that even have stoplights and overall awareness of the 2 wheel creature.

  39. Dave says:

    Yeah, what’s nice in Berlin is that the bike lanes are separated and understood to be for bikes only. Even pedestrians get yelled at when they’re blocking the bike lanes.

  40. Rogan says:

    LA may never be Amsterdam, but it is the perfect city for motorcycles. I think the other West Coasters here should join me in forming a GreatWhatsIt motorcycle club.

  41. Grinchy Grinch says:

    Wow, it looks like I’ve missed out on quite a bit here… Sorry, but that bike-riding video was just too impressive. Didn’t want to deprive the public of such acrobatics.

  42. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    just give me half the revenue and lets call it a day.
    or talk to my lawyer zitter.

  43. Grinchy Grinch says:

    ok, ok already! but i did the, uhhh, legwork. 60-40?

  44. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    what a jerk.

  45. Grinchy Grinch says:

    What a coincidence! That’s the title of my next post: “What a jerk.” Ok already: 51-49.

  46. cynthia says:

    Love al the commentary about my comment that I enjoy te factthat couples are still doing it together, YOu must be a new couple. Jk, Anyway I hope you both enjoy the midnight rides and interludes

  47. i heard sisters were doin it for themselves.

  48. Dave says:

    ZOMG. Just ZOMG.

  49. oh. then i go read unfogged and see that you’re just crosspollinating comments — not paying compliments. cheap date.

  50. Dave says:

    It was a compliment, of the highest order, to this entire comment thread.

  51. oh. sorry then. i wasn’t quite sure how to read the Z.

  52. Dave says:

    It’s a voiced alveolar fricative.

  53. Scotty says:

    Dave, little mister Zitter and I are sitting here hoping for some clarification about the etymology of this compliment.

  54. Dave says:

    I couldn’t do it the justice Google does.

  55. LT says:

    *sloppily hitting shift key* ZOMG, i love dave.

  56. […] Interesting Topic Switch in the Comments Thread: “To live and ride in L.A.,” by Tim […]