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Cruising L.A.'s Burgeoning Bike Scene, Traffic Be Darned

By Amanda Abrams
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 17, 2009

I stood at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Fountain Avenue and craned my neck, searching for the cute enclave of cafes and shops I'd been told I'd find there. No dice: Directly to the south was a strip mall; ahead of me a road wound up and out of sight, though I'd been assured that this part of the city was pancake flat.

That's when I determined rule No. 1: When traveling around Los Angeles on a bicycle, take drivers' instructions with a grain of salt. Because while they're traversing the same city, their experience of it is radically different -- and doesn't always translate.

I should've been warned by the reaction of my sister, a 12-year L.A. resident and non-cyclist, when I told her I was planning to spend a few days riding around the city while visiting her. "No way," she had said incredulously. "The cars here are insane. You have no idea."

Ah, but I did have some ideas. In spite of its reputation as the country's car mecca, I'd heard that L.A. was home to a burgeoning bike scene. And as a dedicated bicycle commuter in Washington, I figured "if they can do it, I can do it."

Despite all the talk of L.A. being a sprawl of neighborhoods connected by freeways, and Angelenos' perverse pride in living in a place where "no one walks," it is, in fact, a genuine city. Close inspection of my road map showed an endless grid of quiet residential streets leading to bigger arterial roads, some of which, according to a Los Angeles Department of Transportation bike map, had bike lanes. Bingo. From there, it was no sweat to outline a variety of routes that could get me around the city without harm to life or limb.

Fast-forward to L.A.'s mean streets on one of the hottest days of the year, a day when fires were raging to the northeast and virtually no one was foolish enough to be out and about. No one but a misplaced Washingtonian who was furiously pedaling a one-speed bicycle down Washington Boulevard toward a distant beach, wondering whether she'd made a giant mistake. Despite some trepidation about the first major road I encountered, safety, it turned out, wasn't a big issue: Drivers were nowhere near as aggressive as I'd feared. And even the heat could be waited out for an hour or two.

No, the problem was an aesthetic one. Like so many of the city's main roads, Washington Boulevard isn't a pretty route. Wide and low, it's dotted with nondescript car repair services, doughnut shops and the dusty strip malls that are ubiquitous in the city. Many of L.A.'s other main roads are livelier, with shops crowded together and bright signs advertising nail salons, check-cashing services and sushi joints, but it wouldn't be right to call them attractive, either.

That's not just me being an East Coast snob. Because Los Angeles is built for cars, everything's on a big scale. Roads and parking lots loom large, while businesses aren't designed to appeal to pedestrian traffic and are easy to miss. In a community where getting from here to there is a priority, the areas in between don't have much value.

With time, though, I began to notice small details as I pedaled. Such as the murals -- of Michael Jackson, the L.A. Lakers, colorful produce bearing the words "California's Best" -- that brighten walls all over town. The many cheap taco joints with walk-up counters and outdoor seating. And the Latino guys pushing small ice cream carts, bells jingling, who were often the only pedestrians for blocks.

From time to time I'd pass a cyclist and wave. Not everyone waved back, but now and then young professionals and hipsters would glide by, and we'd smile at each other like members of a select club.

It's a club that's quickly growing. One afternoon I stopped by the Bicycle Kitchen,, a space in eastern Hollywood run by a nonprofit educational organization where cyclists can come to work on their bikes. I wanted to hear more about what's being described as a cycling explosion. The place was packed and humming, intent bicycle owners wheeling their vehicles in for a consultation or reaching for tools to do some tinkering themselves.

When it started in 2003, the Kitchen was one of the only places catering to low-maintenance commuter cyclists. "There was very little infrastructure for bikes here then. People felt like they were on their own," Emily Ramsey, vice chairman of the Kitchen's board, told me. "This helped sprout enthusiasm for biking. Now it's just blown up." Also contributing to that enthusiasm were the evening rides that Kitchen volunteers initiated five years ago. They wound up taking on a life of their own; nowadays, riders can be found just about every night rolling en masse somewhere in the city, often hundreds strong.

With the impatience typical of recent converts, new riders are demanding that the city improve its cycling infrastructure. But Michelle Mowery, LADOT's bicycle coordinator, said it's not so simple. "If we want another bike lane, we need 10 more feet of roadway," she explained. "Something has to go: a travel lane or on-street parking." With the vast majority of residents driving full-time, neither of those two options is going anywhere. Instead, the department has drafted a bicycling master plan, due to be released at the end of the year, laying out a network of bicycle-friendly routes on neighborhood streets.

It turns out that Los Angeles has some excellent non-street bike routes, too, such as the one I discovered that first day as an alternative to the faceless boulevards. Ballona Creek runs from central L.A. to the Pacific Ocean, and though it's not the prettiest waterway in the world -- picture a creek bed sealed in concrete -- it's paired with a dedicated bikeway that ducks under main roads. As I approached the sea, bird life along the creek picked up, with scores of gulls, pelicans and graceful white egrets socializing in the water.

That route eventually took me to Venice Beach and another off-road path running lazily along the city's coastline. Venice is a dangerous place for a cyclist, though: My head was constantly swiveling to take in the circus performers, break dancers and guys balancing surfboards on their bikes. With mountains peeking out of the haze to the north and palm trees fringing a sparkling sea, it's a beautiful ride.

But for a tourist visiting L.A. on a bike, the best place, in my opinion, is downtown. After finally finding those trendy shops on Sunset Boulevard, I took Sunset's winding bike lane in the direction of a handful of tall buildings. Turns out the skyscrapers aren't what distinguishes downtown. In fact, the city had a height restriction until the late 1950s, and many of the area's municipal buildings -- City Hall, the library, Union Station -- are art deco beauties erected during that era. Nearby, on Broadway, is a collection of theaters from the 1920s and '30s: the Roxie, the Palace, the Cameo and the ornate United Artists, each adorned with a cheery but faded vertical sign spelling its name.

Suddenly, Los Angeles was a real city, at least the way I define cities. There were sidewalks packed with single-minded pedestrians, an expansive wholesale district that shuttered by midafternoon and warehouses enjoying new lives as artists' lofts. There was history, a sense of place, a range of neighborhoods accessible within a few minutes: It was what I'd been looking for.

Finally satisfied, I mounted my bike and headed west, eschewing the small streets for busy Wilshire Boulevard. The cars were close and mean, but it was a great place to go fast -- and I did, gliding smoothly through a gleaming Los Angeles evening.

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer and biker in Washington.

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