What are you afraid of?
Is it safe to ride a bike in a city? Most people’s biggest fear of riding a bike in LA is “Getting in an accident.” I did some research (and some math) — and you might be surprised to learn — that well, it’s about the same as something else you do almost every day.
Growing up in a small town had some big perks, like riding your bike around the neighborhood with no cars, no bike locks, and no fear. For a nine-year-old — this was total freedom. And freedom encouraged some other things… No handle bars plowing into the church parking lot; not watching — plowing into the parked car in front of me.
When we’re kids — we don’t really think of the consequences of things that result in pain. We’re really focused on things like “fun” and “excitement”. After we grow up, we get the consequences pounded into our brain. Some of that comes from experience like the accidents that we got into, or just from witnessing or hearing about other people getting into accidents.
These “bad memories” have a way of outweighing the “good memories” — and that can put us in a position of not really wanting to do much at all. I remember — when I got to LA I told people I was going to bike from my apartment to school — and most people would respond with things like “On your bike?!?” — “That’s so far!!” Or — “Aren’t you afraid of getting in an accident?!” In reality, it was few miles — not quite so far at all.
Having now been on my bike in LA as a commuter, a cyclist, and a joy rider — I can say — yes, it is quite a complicated place to ride a bike. I won’t forget the colleague I met at party who worked downtown and broke both his legs from riding into work. Or the image of bike accident at an intersection downtown LA. And I won’t forget getting clipped by a door or literally turned into by a car. But as I think more carefully about it — my bike encounters are roughly equal to no-fault car fender benders in the last 10 years, which add up to 2 or 3.
But outside of all the “Danger” of biking in LA — is an experience I can only describe as magical. I discovered “CicLAvia about 5 years ago — a day when they shut all the roads down to make LA feel like a small town. From what I understand — it was adapted from Central and South America as a day without cars — to ease pollution and give communities the chance to get out of their cars and onto their bikes.
And it works. People come out of the woodwork. I remember thinking that I’d never seen some of the people in LA until CicLAvia because people were actually outside of their cars. It’s the equivalent to getting on the NYC metro and seeing everyone for the first time — like, “Woah — these are the people who all live together in the same city that I do.”
There’s an important theme here about riding. When you ride a bike in the gym, you’re pounding. You’re probably stuck in your own head — and thinking about the minutes or the heart rate on the screen in front of you. But when you’re riding out in the real world, you’re participating in the world. Which is both fun, and dangerous.
You encounter people and things that you might not know how to deal with. Last weekend I was on a back trail in San Diego, and I ran into a dog wondering around. My first thought: this dog is totally lost. My second thought, I should stop and help this dog. So I slowed down and got ready to take care of him — just when some other people rounded the corner, and I’m sure thought — is this guy going to steal our dog? The dog was fine — just off his leash. I apologized to the owners and kept riding.
On my way back from CicLAvia I saw a swarm of bikes parked outside of the convenience store at my apartment. It immediately reminded me of all the Friday night rides I used to do in LA where I ended up meeting some really cool people who ride all the time in the city. I think it was that mentality of “It’s Ok to ride in the city” that helped me feel more comfortable doing it.
I know with a lot of people I talk to — their biggest fear in the city is getting hit. Getting hurt. Getting a flat. Being stranded. Or just plain old having their bike stolen. So I wanted to know if being on a bike in the city can be more dangerous than other modes of transportation? So I started to do some research.
First — let’s classify an accident as leading to an injury or fatality.
There are 2,043 bike accidents in LA every year (2016). If there are about 471,000 workers who commute and each day and 0.06 of them are cyclists, that means that about 2,826 people cycle to work each day. This means there are about 1,031,490 commuting bike rides each year.
So there are 5.5 commuter bike ride accidents each day out of the 1M annual rides. The chances of getting in a bicycle commuter getting in a bike accident is about .1%.
However — if you are a driver, that means that there are 171,915,000 car commutes each day. And if there are 37,546 car accidents each year, that means your chance of getting in a car accident is about .02%.
So all in all your chance of of getting in a bike accident over a car accident is about 1.3 times as likely. So — the safety factor of being on a bike in LA is not completely different from getting in your car every day. And while of course you’re more vulnerable on a bike (especially without a helmet) — the good news is, you can’t really very often exceed 20MPH unless you’re racing down a hill. And reduced speeds, are just, well — safer.
I was surprised to learn that the road that I used to commute on had the most number of accidents per year — 72. I remember that Olympic Blvd was the fastest way home for me because it was the most direct route — so that’s why I took it. Speed. Surprisingly — it took me just about as long (45 minutes) to get home on my bike than it did in my car. And I was surprisingly less stressed out when I got home riding by my bike than by taking my car, because — well, I would just be tired instead.
When I started commuting to Burbank — I was able to take the LA River Bikeway most of the way. It was a dream — riding on a quiet road that I had all to myself. What if all of LA could be like this?
Following 2011, LA committed to building 1680 miles of bike lanes at a rate of about 100 miles / year.
On my bike ride back from Venice from CicLAvia — I discovered the Expo bike route — and took it back to downtown LA. I followed the signs — and it was car free for about a mile, and then turned into a regular old bike lane along the side of Jefferson Blvd. So the bike path project is in progress and working.
I’m lucky to be able to use the Metro Bike Commute to and from work now in the downtown area — but that doesn’t make the road any less dangerous or mean that I’m any less cautious. What I’ve learned is to exaggerate my moves for cars to see me if I need to be with cars. If I’m going to turn left make it REALLY OBVIOUS that I’m turning left. If I can avoid cars — then I take a side road less traveled.
As a part of my training journey — because of course I’m more than a little afraid of riding 545 miles from SF to LA for AIDS Life Cycle this year, I ask people what their biggest life challenges have been, and how they have gotten over them.
I met Karen (on the right) during CicLAvia — and asked her what her biggest challenge has been in life — she shared something unexpected. “My self-esteem.” — It comes and goes, she shared. I think by her taking the initiative to get on her bike and ride during CicLAvia — is a tremendous vote of confidence in her ability to take control of the situation and embrace who she is and how she moves through the world — on her bike!
I realized that when I was in first grade — I learned what “self-esteem” meant — and it seemed hard to understand at the time. That we should feel good about ourselves, and really know it. Not to let other people tell us how to feel.
Isn’t it interesting — that when we are kids, we are fearless. We are confident. But at the same time — we are helpless. Constantly out of control of our lives. And as adults, the more “in control” that we get — the more fear we have about the world. The less confident we are about our decisions. The more we second guess and hold back.
I hope we can take the fearlessness of being a kid and combine it with the rationality of being an adult — and that spirit of independence can empower us to do great things. To make choices that keep us safe, and help others stay safe too. That it is in fact our responsibility to help each other, and to protect each other.
As I ride from SF to LA this year for AIDS Life Cycle — if you want to be a part of my journey, I invite you to visit my page and learn more about my personal story here.