Do you not find this stressful?: A Vancouverite’s experience cycling in Los Angeles.
Yesterday, at my suggestion, my girlfriend and I rode our bikes from downtown to Koreatown for a friend’s birthday party. On our way home, as we dodged potholes in a hurried attempt to skirt a section of bike lane that had been closed by an adjacent construction project before the speeding cars in the lane behind us caught up, she turned to me and asked the question that explained the palpable tension in the air.
“Do you not find this stressful?”
Kristi isn’t a risk-taker like I am. I’ve always known that. But even so, the question caught me off-guard.
I’m deep in the world of Los Angeles cycling advocacy. I follow each and every baby step this city takes toward being a safe and practical place to ride a bicycle. I sign all the petitions, donate to all the efforts, and retweet all the tweets. And though there are quite a few battles that we cyclists haven’t come out on top of, we’ve also had a lot of wins, and I feel strongly that we’ve made real progress over the last couple years.
When I suggested that we take our bikes to Koreatown, I fully expected a bit of friction. But I also expected that once I got her out there, she’d be pleasantly surprised by what a difference our little wins here and there have made, and would soon relax and enjoy the night-time ride.
That was a delusion.
Our ride was exasperating. I reserve the use of my bell for avoiding potentially dangerous situations, and even still, I was ringing it the entire ride. We had a near-miss with a driver pulling out of a curbside parking space before checking for cyclists, and shortly after we were aggressively honked at by a young woman in a sedan who was simultaneously sharing an apparently hilarious story with her passenger. (That’s right, she somehow found a way to turn honking at cyclists into enough of a second-nature habit that she could do it without even interrupting her genuine laughter from an entirely unrelated conversation. That’s a hop skip and a step away from sociopathic.) We felt like anxiety-ridden children hiding under a blanket to keep monsters away. Except the monsters were real, deadly, and everywhere.
We rode in silence for a while before I became curious and asked her if she remembered the first time she rode a bike in Los Angeles. She moved here from Vancouver not too long ago, so it wasn’t an unreasonable question. Without hesitation, she told me, “Yes. Distinctly.”
It was her first week in the city after her move, and she was staying with a long-time friend in the Miracle Mile neighborhood. They were making dinner, and realized that they’d forgotten something they needed from the store. She didn’t have a car, but she’d just gotten a brand new bike which she couldn’t wait to try out, so she offered to run out and get it. Her hosts gave her a strange look which confused her, but she dismissed it and headed out. Her journey: 3 blocks down Olympic Blvd.
If she could use a single word to describe the experience, it’d be “terrible.”
She said the biggest shock was when she rolled out onto the street and realized she had no idea where she was supposed to ride. Coming from a place like Vancouver, where bike lanes are clearly marked and are available on almost every road, that’s not surprising. She spent the entire journey teetering on the edge of the road, trying hard to find a balance between interfering with the rapid flow of traffic and scraping her bike wheels on the curb. But the best part was that when she got to the store, there was nowhere to put her bike. Nowhere at all. Talk about rubbing salt in her wounds. Needless to say, she said if she could use a single word to describe the experience, it’d be “terrible.”
She then went on to tell me what it was like biking in the other cities she’d lived in. She told me about a street in Toronto known as Queen St West that the locals consider an extremely dangerous one to ride a bike on. It has no bike lanes, and the street car runs down the middle which, between its hazardous tracks and enormous size, is doubly threatening toward cyclists. She said she used to feel like a real badass cruising down Queen St, coffee in hand. Then she told me that despite its reputation for danger, she felt safer riding on Queen St. than she does on Spring St. here in downtown LA, a street which has a dedicated, green-striped, buffered bike lane. I was shocked. Spring Street is an LA cyclist’s pride and joy, and yet it is failing exactly the people it was designed to cater to: the casual cyclists.
Cycling infrastructure isn’t about people like me. I’m a diehard. I get a kick out of cycling in the road with the cars. I get a sick pleasure out of blazing past gridlocked Audis and Mercedes on the streets of downtown. I love keeping up with the commuters along the length of Wilshire Blvd, giving them a passenger-side nod as we reunite at every single red light. I’m going to be on my bike whether or not there’s a dedicated lane there for me. But for Kristi, and for the vast majority of everyone else in this city, that’s not the case. She’s not the kind of person that would “identify” herself as a “cyclist”. She’s just someone who went from relying on a bicycle for transportation in a city where cycling is such an inherent and obvious part of daily life that it hardly counts as a decision, to being forced off her bike and into a car by one where cycling is such a laughable option that choosing to ride three blocks on two wheels makes your friends question your mental health. Those are the people we’re building bike infrastructure for. And as far as I’m concerned, until they’re making the decision to get out on the streets of their own accord, we’ve failed.