Biking In L.A.: Accentuate The Negative

A front page feature in today’s Wall Street Journal does a pretty good job perpetuating that tired old stance of Los Angeles as a cyclist’s endless hell. I’m not saying its heaven on wheels out there, but it’s not covered wall-to-wall in broken glass with psycho ando/or drunk drivers lurking around every corner as the writer would have us believe. From the sensationalized headline, “Risking Life and Limb, Riding a Bike to Work in LA,” and pretty much via sources quoted throughout the entire piece, writer Rhonda Rundle goes that same exhausted route of showcasing how bad and ugly things are out there on the streets for people who opt to travel them on two wheels.

“Drivers scream at me to get off the road,” said one. “”It’s nerve-rackingly crowded, and people give me dirty looks,” says another, adding, “Everyone I know who has biked has met with some kind of injury.” A former pro bike racer reveals “people seem to like to get their aggression out on cyclists.”

On top of that it’s got a couple errors and erroneous statements, as follows (emphasis mine):

• In describing her first source’s commute home in the San Fernando Valley, Rundle writes:”On Friday evenings, as the sun sets, she feels menaced by drunk drivers. Such threats compel her to sometimes swing onto the sidewalk, even though that could get her a ticket.

Reality: If the cyclist lives in an incorporated municipality in the valley where it’s illegal to ride on sidewalks, Rhundle should have stated that because most of the valley is Los Angeles and it is not against the law to ride your bike on the sidewalks in the city of Los Angeles.

• Ms. [Lynne] Goldsmith [manager of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s bike program] says the city has 1,200 miles of bikeways

Reality: 1,200 miles sounds pretty good in my book — and it would be nice if it were true. But the term “bikeway” is all-encompassing and very vague, That 1,200 miles that Goldsmith cites may be taking into account the entirety of L.A. County, because from a city perspective it’s an exaggeration when you check out how bike paths break down into three classes:

  • Class I: Completely separate from traffic.
  • Class II: A lane set aside on city streets for the exclusive use of bicycles.
  • Class III: A city street that is purportedly safe. Unmarked beyond basic signage.

Taken together, I just don’t see how all three classes of bike paths can total to 1,200 miles within the city of Los Angeles. In fact, there are only 320 miles of Class II bike lanes existing inside the city limits. And Class I paths total out to 133 miles. That would mean the remaining 750 miles is made up of virtually meaningless Class III “Bike Routes,” and I highly doubt it.

It’s a shame Rundle couldn’t find someone who’d say get the fuck out to her and drop the knowledge that it’s really not all that bad out there. But I guess calls she may have placed to me went unanswered.

So of course I wrote her a letter:

While it’s great to see the topic of urban cycling being explored with greater consistency (and in the WSJ to boot!), I’m disappointed that in your story (“Risking Life and Limb, Riding a Bike to Work in L.A.”) you mainly managed to accentuate the negative and present Los Angeles as a city whose cyclists and motorists are at war — and don’t get me started on the ridiculously inflamatory headline.

I’ve commuted by bike to varying degrees throughout most of my life, and presently ride 30-miles roundtrip every workday in L.A. and have logged 4,000 miles across the city since the beginning of the year. No doubt I’ve encountered the occasional close-call or irate/inconsiderate motorist, but I choose this alternate method of commuting ultimately because I enjoy it thanks to the vast majority of the miles I’ve pedaled being entirely uneventful, like this 13 seconds of this morning’s ride in to work:

That may not make for good copy, but its far closer to the reality than the limb-risking picture you’ve helped perpetuate.

Will Campbell
Los Angeles

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Will Campbell arrived in town via the maternity ward at Good Sam Hospital way back in OneNineSixFour and has never stopped calling Los Angeles home. Presently he lives in Silver Lake with his wife Susan, their cat Rocky, dogs Terra and Hazel, and a red-eared slider turtle named Mater. Blogging since 2001, Will's web endeavors extend back to 1995 with, a comprehensive theater site that was well received but ever-short on capital (or a business model). The pinnacle of his online success (which speaks volumes) arrived in 1997, when much to his surprise, a hobby site he'd built called VisuaL.A. was named "best website" in Los Angeles magazine's annual "Best of L.A." issue. He enjoys experiencing (and writing about) pretty much anything creative, explorational and/or adventurous, loves his ebike, is a better tennis player than he is horr golfer, and a lover of all creatures great and small -- emphasis on "all."