The Global Mail has ceased operations.
<p>Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu</p>

Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu

To Live And Ride In LA

On two wheels in the most car-obsessed city in America, cyclists are taking it to the streets.

At 3am Sunday March 18, the streets of Los Angeles are empty, dark and coldly gleaming. On the descent of the old Route 66 into Eagle Rock, the rushing air has an old and familiar tang: a stand of eucalypts lines this stretch of Colorado Boulevard.

It might be the only time of day when you can ever find a taxi in this city. They appear suddenly off side streets, or roll slowly down Glendale Boulevard, drivers hidden behind tinted glass.

Otherwise, it's quiet. The whir of the knobby mountain bike tyres, the rustle and occasional flap of the windproof jacket, the sniff of the perpetually runny nose as the external cold and the internal furnace converge in the sinuses.

After 45 minutes of solitude, the first rider appears, on Fountain Ave. He nods. Then, movement by the side of the road, as bikes are set up alongside parked cars. "Wolf Pack Hustle! Yeah!"

American enthusiasm can be larger and louder than life, and at times irresistibly contagious, with an embrace and sharing of passions that is the opposite of cool.

You find yourself sometimes longing for the Australian sense of humour; the deadpan aside, the pungent interruption, the shared, secret knowledge of what is truly funny. Against that is this headlong plunge into life's experiences; the willingness to try anything, to be anything, including a nighttime ride on a closed streetscape, from the heart of downtown Los Angeles to the sea, at Santa Monica.

“Midnight Ridazz gets you to realise that riding to the store isn’t a problem ... Wolf Pack Hustle teaches you that riding to the other side of the city isn’t a problem.”

America, and more especially Los Angeles, is the great place of re-invention, of name, identity and even destiny. What is happening now in LA is a change of even greater magnitude. The car capital of the world, the place that invented driving culture, cannibalising its public transport system as it did so, is learning to embrace the humble bicycle.

In all its forms.

Here, at the exit to the spacious, undulating grounds of the Veterans Administration Rehab Centre in Westwood, is a guy on a double-decker bike, perched precariously but immovably, two metres off the ground.

Here, on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, and there, hurtling down the steep La Cienega hill, and again, on fast-forward through Burton Way in Beverly Hills, is a woman in her mid-20s with short, blonde, wavy hair, dressed for a night out in an aqua-green cardigan, black mini, tights and calf-high boots, riding a fixed-wheel bike (a fixie) with much more speed than apparent effort.

Here, a bike with built-in sound system, its eruptions audible for a block in any direction. Approaching what was once the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood (Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January), it's booming the chorus of Foreigner's Rock You Like a Hurricane. (Yeah, yeah. It's LA. At least he wasn't playing the Eagles.) In the same bunch, a guy rides no-hands playing air drums, his unbuttoned shirt flapping behind him.

Here, rolling downhill on Rodeo Drive, a young, black guy is freewheeling on a kids BMX bike, the Louis Vuitton display window as a backdrop. Later, on Wilshire Boulevard, his riding technique reveals itself: standing in the saddle for six or seven furious revolutions of the pedals, sitting back down briefly, to coast, before standing again to resume the manic propulsion.

The event was the Marathon Crash Race, a 4am ride along the closed streets that marked the course of the LA Marathon, from Dodger Stadium through the middle of the city and then west to Santa Monica.

All this was the brainchild of Don Ward. Ward is tall and ageless — "I don't like to talk about my age. I'm kind of a big kid. You can say late 30s."

His official title is president of Wolf Pack Hustle Inc., a group of like-minded, off-the-grid road cyclists who like to race, the difference being their contests take place at night, on LA's streets. Other items on his CV include bicycle rights activist and founding member of the Midnight Ridazz, this more of a nocturnal riding than racing outing.

Both groups have spawned offshoots, with, for instance, seven different after-hours rides across the LA metropolitan area for the first week of April.

"Midnight Ridazz gets you to realise that riding to the store isn't a problem," Ward says. "Wolf Pack Hustle teaches you that riding to the other side of the city isn't a problem."

On its face, this should be a simple proposition. With approximately 2,700 people per square kilometre, Los Angeles has the most densely populated metropolitan area in the United States, according to the 2010 census. Although bordered and divided by steep hills and mountains, most of the city exists in a massive bowl, bisected at every angle by broad, straight roads.

Moreover, the Southern California climate, invariably dry, mild and warm, is ideal for cycling. But, being a place of virtually non-existent public transport, and with a populace therefore utterly dependent on the car (and, before long, the ever-expanding Sport Utility Vehicles), it was a far from ideal place for cyclists.

JJ Hoffman has lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, long enough to remember when the appearance of a fellow bike rider was always cause for an enthusiastic greeting: "Oh, look! Another one!"

Otherwise, the sightings were restricted to bike messengers, tourists on the Venice-Santa Monica beach bike paths, "and the occasional rogue environmentalist".

<p>Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu</p>

Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu

A development director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, Hoffman measures the progression of cycling into everyday life by increments:

— the formation in 1998 of the coalition from scattered environmental groups, recreational and commuting cyclists.

— the establishment in 2000 of regular rides along the Los Angeles River (yes, there is a river, yes, it has water, also skateboards, car chases, shopping carts and graffiti, although less than it used to), which meant a place for a cycling community to coalesce

— Ward and others starting the Midnight Ridazz in 2004

— the opening of bike lanes in perpetually groovy Silver Lake in 2007

— the return, in December, 2009, of a fired-up LA mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, from the Copenhagen Climate Conference, determined to lead his city along the alternate energy path, and the collision, seven months later with a taxi turning across the bike lane he was riding along, causing a fall that broke his elbow in eight places.

The LA metropolitan area is run by both city and county governments. Each has made recent and massive commitments to bicycle transport.

The city council and its newly-interested mayor have agreed to funding for an additional 2,700 kilometres of bike paths. A 20-year plan recently agreed to by the its Board of Supervisors adds 1,340km to the existing 230km of bike paths within LA county.

Metrolink, the train service that connects the city to its more distant suburbs, has joined the party as well, re-purposing 10 passenger carriages specifically for bike use. Each carriage has space for 18 bikes, rather than the usual two.

Self-contained entities such as the city of Santa Monica have spent USD8 million on cycling infrastructure in the past two years, with a commitment to USD38 million over the next 10.

“The reality of LA is I arrive at the same time as anyone in a car…. That would also be true of Sydney or Melbourne, because the traffic doesn’t move, or moves slowly, whereas a bike moves steadily.”

One of the architects of this scheme is Richard McKinnon, who provides strategic marketing services to corporations and governments and has been a resident of Santa Monica since the late 90s.

The lesson for there, from here: "Change is hard" — with the opposition coming from drivers, who believe that taking up road space for bikes is an infringement upon their rights — but also essential.

"The roads in LA and all over the world are so jammed for such long periods you can't fit any more cars in," McKinnon says. "We see that in Santa Monica over weekends. You can't keep building more roads or parking. So you build more infrastructure for walking and riding."

McKinnon rides everywhere, in his capacity as a planning commissioner for the city. "The reality of LA is I arrive at the same time as anyone in a car," he says. "That would also be true of Sydney or Melbourne, because the traffic doesn't move, or moves slowly, whereas a bike moves steadily."

Denis Cagna watched a gradual increase in the numbers of cyclists riding past his home in Silver Lake.

"It's almost like they say, when you build a road, people will move there," he says. "Once you have the infrastructure, people feel safer."

Cagna was approaching his 50th birthday when he climbed aboard. Since then he has ridden 93km on a beach cruiser in Hawaii, and in this instance, found himself a little out of his element, as dawn began to break to the east of Santa Monica at the end of the Marathon Crash Race.

"It's really interesting to see the city from the perspective of going 10 to 15 miles per hour, rather than walking, or in a car," he says.

Unlike many of the other participants — racers, hipsters, the odd MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra) — Cagna wore civvies for the ride; jeans, a jacket and a pair of running shoes. Like its owner, the bike tended toward the sturdy and middle-aged.

Cagna gestured around him. "The vast majority of these people, I could be their father."

<p>Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu</p>

Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu

Just then, a cheer erupted from the throng.

Cagna continued: "All of these kids are really excited. And me, I'm thinking they're waking the neighbours."

The party, which was what it was becoming, moved off the street to an adjoining beach side park.

The gathering illustrated two points about cycling in Los Angeles. One is that the demographic generally skews younger, although McKinnon notes that it is also being embraced by baby boomers, rejoicing in its health, environmental and practical transportation benefits.

But it appears to be the "Millennial" generation of 20-somethings who exercise the largest influence over the increase in cycling numbers, not through a specific headcount, but by extrapolation from other statistics.

Research quoted by The New York Times suggests there had been a roughly 30 per cent decrease in the number of eligible drivers aged 16-19 who had obtained a drivers license in 2008, compared to 1998.

Likewise, half of those aged 18-24 said in a separate survey that they would choose internet access over car ownership, while mileage covered by the 20-29 demographic in 2009 was down by 12 per cent from 1995.

The cost of car purchase, maintenance and insurance, combined with increasing debt from university tuition and credit cards, and the preference for living in an urban environment appears to be driving, as it were, this generation to either public transport, or bike-riding.

The other aspect of LA riding is that in a far-flung metropolis with a population of 12 million, there is a real yearning for the shared beliefs, interests, and sense of gathering and celebration that mark any community.

Author Richard Risemberg noticed it in a piece he wrote for Momentum magazine, referencing "… the emptiness of suburban sprawl (for which Los Angeles was the model) leaving us hungry for community: a perfect synchronicity of both positive and negative factors working to re-animate urban cycling in the very city that once scorned it most".

“All of these kids are really excited. And me, I’m thinking they’re waking the neighbours.”

Don Ward, the Crash Race organiser and Midnight Ridazz co-founder, recognised the same phenomenon.

"The city is hungry for community," he says. "I grew up here and the bike riding, the way that Midnight Ridazz was born, there was always the attitude of no matter who you are, or what you believe in, if you have a bike and are respectful, then you're welcome.

"If you're 20 miles out and they're also in a vulnerable situation, it almost forces you to be a community, no matter who you are. You now have this challenge in front of you to get back home. It's amazing what kind of bonds that can create amongst people."

Ward is a child of the Hollywood Hills, a skateboarder and cyclist from the time he could stay upright. To the extent it can be said of anyone, he comes by his activism honestly.

He was riding on a broad, busy street one evening when he was struck from behind by a drunk driver in 2009, and hospitalized.

"Lotta bruises, that sort of thing," he recalls. "I'm a big guy. The car was a Jag. I'm used to falling on pavement from 20 years of skateboard, and I remember crushing the hood (after impact) and thinking, 'That wasn't so bad.'"

Then the driver braked, and Ward was thrown onto the road. He managed to get the car's number plate before it drove off.

The whodunnit was solved when a fellow member of Wolf Pack Hustle, a lawyer, was given the owner's details from a friend who worked with the California Highway Patrol.

The owner was found, his car was filmed at a panel beater's, undergoing repair work to the bonnet. The driver was eventually fined USD500.

"It was really pathetic," Ward says. "It was the city being apathetic to bike riders. And that kind of kicked my ass about becoming more political, because I saw, 'Wow, they don't give a damn about me.'"

“The scars on my face remind me of the pain and trauma I went through because Dr. Thompson didn’t like cyclists riding on his road.”

It wasn't as if Ward was unaware of the dangers of riding, then or since. He had just passed the place where a group of cyclists held a "die-in", for another victim of a drunk driver, two months earlier.

Five hundred people showed up, Ward says, lying down in the middle of six-lane Glendale Boulevard to get their point across.

The story of Rob Peterson should be some consolation for Ward, if only because of the ending, rather than the events that led to it.

Peterson is 43 now, an advanced-level cycling coach whose clients include Mark Cavendish, the world road cycling champion, from the UK.

Peterson was riding downhill in the toney suburb of Brentwood with a friend, Christian Stoehr, on a steep and narrow street in July, 2008 when a car behind them blew its horn, then passed dangerously close as they moved to single file.

As he pulled in front of them, the driver, Christian Thompson, 60, braked hard, "to teach them a lesson", as he told police later. Peterson was flung face-first into the rear window of Thompson's car, breaking his teeth, almost severing his nose, and cutting his face. Stoehr dislocated his shoulder when he slammed into the footpath.

Thompson was convicted of four charges, including assault with a deadly weapon — his car. His sentencing was considered a bellwether for cyclists, an indication of just how seriously the law and the justice system took their safety. The judge answered in the affirmative, sentencing Thompson to five years' imprisonment.

Road cycling is a contact sport. Peterson, who had coached cycling teams at both of LA's leading universities, UCLA and the University of Southern California, acknowledged that when he made his victim impact statement to the court.

"I'm an active guy; I have plenty of scars," Peterson says. "Scars on my arms, scars on my legs. These are active scars, a kind of proof that I have lived my life and enjoyed doing so. They are almost badges of honor.

"The scars on my face are not that kind of scar. The scars on my face remind me of the pain and trauma I went through because Dr. Thompson didn't like cyclists riding on his road."

Peterson still rides, although it took almost two years to get his regimen up to five days a week, still handles bike fittings at a Santa Monica bike shop called Bike Effect, still relishes the effort of climbing the Angeles Crest Highway and the adrenalin rush of descending, although not in the way he once did.

"I don't enjoy it as much as I used to," he says. "It's the understanding of what the ramifications are of what can go wrong. Once you go through that, you don't have quite the same attitude."

He thinks attitudes to cyclists are getting better; there are more of them, and, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy, the more bike riders there are, the more likely an otherwise disinterested driver is to know one, in his circle of friends, neighbourhood or workplace.

He tells his clients to think of themselves as invisible and drivers as idiots. Only 10 per cent are, Peterson says, but it only takes one to prove the point.

And perhaps he doesn't tell them this, but he knows it for a fact: it's a numbers game. "For most people I know, something has happened to them, at one time or another."

But they go on living anyway. He thinks of the 13km descent on Glendora Mountain Road, "pushing yourself, and pushing the envelope on the limits of your skills", passing a group of skateboarders on the way down. "You look at them, and both of you understand you're having fun. There are ramifications for making a mistake, but it's exhilarating."

In April, as many as 100,000 Angelenos will find that out for themselves, in a gentler, almost slow-motion kind of way. Twenty kilometers of city streets, spanning downtown LA from east to west and north to south, will be closed, becoming the brief but exclusive property of cyclists, skateboarders, strollers and pedestrians.

The event is called Ciclavia, named for an event that began in the Colombian city of Bogota as a reaction to the crowding and pollution of the city's streets 30 years ago.

This version is busy and festive, a re-connection with both the city and a new-old type of transport.

In effect, it's like a momentary wish fulfillment, when LA becomes what it would perhaps like to be, rather than what it is.

2 comments on this story
by Clare

Would absolutely agree that better infrastructure is necessary to really encourage people to hop on a bike on a regular basis. So many cycle paths end abruptly or then there are the dodgy bike "lanes" on the side of roads which constantly force cyclist back into the traffic when they encounter a parked car. I've recently started riding my kids to preschool and it is really hard to find a route where I am not in traffic - there are very few cycle paths around our suburb.Pedestrians resent me on the footpath (I walk, I can understand that) and being slower in traffic (carting 35 kilos behind me) is frustrating for drivers and frankly I just can't trust that someone behind a wheel who isn't concentrating or wants to teach me a lesson isn't going to do something stupid and jeopardise mine or my kids safety. My kids love riding and I get a real buzz from getting there under my own steam but planning a safe route and then negotiating car traffic confidently and safely is tricky. I would love not to be on the road! Great article.

April 1, 2012 @ 4:32pm
by John

Infrastructure is certainly important, but culture perhaps more so. By that I mean the place of cars and motor vehicles generally relative to 'lesser' users of public space. Pedestrians and cyclists are treated as those who 'get in the way' of cars, and that attitude is rife in both the police service and magistracy in Australia. Cycling will never become as it is in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and so on, until this culture is changed. As seen in the long, slow, change in attitude to drink driving, it is possible. The law must come first. Two fundamental changes in the law are prerequisites: first, strict liability of the car driver in any incident involving a pedestrian or cyclist. The motorist has to prove the guilt of the other party as a law breaker causing the incident. This is normal in many European countries. The second is lowering the default speed limit on urban local roads from 50 (or 60) to 30, a speed at which fatal collisions become a rare event and even children can use the streets, footpaths especially, without worry that a stray car will bullet into them. Just think about the change to Australian mindsets needed to make these changes. The Amy Gillett Foundation has a lot of work to do!

April 3, 2012 @ 5:52pm
Type a keyword to search for a story or journalist