Commuting by Bike in L.A. Can Be Harder than It Seems

Bicycling_Biking_in_Los_Angeles_Umberto_BraSouthern California seems like an ideal place to live if you’re into cycling. L.A.’s warm temps and seemingly incessant sunshine are the perfect ingredients for a love affair with the outdoors. Yet the League of American Bicyclists reported in its last survey (2010) that only 16,011 or 0.9 percent of Los Angeles’ sprawling population of almost 4 million actually commute by bike. By comparison, Seattle, Bellingham and Portland, known for their rainy weather and less-than inviting riding climes all had triple (or greater) the percentage of riders.

Why is this? Clearly, L.A.’s sheer size may be a deterrent to commuters, since a jaunt to work in So Cal’s biggest city can be as much as 20 to 30 miles, and often requires at least one brief trip on a freeway. But the city that essentially grew up around the interstate can still be a tough place to live if you prefer to commute by bicycle and happen to live in an area that doesn’t feature bike-friendly streets.

Bicycling_in_Los_Angeles_Umberto_BrayjCycling events, like the city’s hugely successful Ciclavia have helped to bring attention to this fact, and the need for more bike paths and amenities. Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation (LADOT) has taken up some of the lead with a goal of implementing 200 miles of bikeways to the city streets per year, and ensuring bike paths are marked clearly.

But a map of the Greater Los Angeles Area’s bike paths shows that there is still much to do. LADOT’s ambitious efforts don’t address the fact that there are multiple cities in the metropolitan area, some which have been able to address needs faster than others. Pasadena, for example, which shares the metropolitan area with L.A. and is intersected by several interstates, has quadruple the percentage (4.1) of bicycle commuters than L.A. It also has three different kinds of designated bike routes and incentive programs for bicycle commuters.

Reducing Southern California’s dependency on freeways and automobiles is also difficult in an area that has almost always been dependent upon its freeway system as a mode of transport. While Angelenos may argue that it is easier to get to a destination by freeway than say, in Vancouver, British Columbia Canada, where cross-town freeways generally don’t exist (but cycling routes are plentiful), traveling from Santa Monica to East L.A. by back streets can be cumbersome and time-consuming.

But hopefully with new services like Bike Nation’s bike kiosks, which are supposed to take off this spring, and LADOT’s increasing amenities for bicyclists, cycling will become easier for work-time commutes as well as those famously sunny days of weekend play.

Photos courtesy of  Umberto Brayj.

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

13 responses

  1. Glad to see things getting better in LA. In theory, LA is an ideal city for walking, biking, and transit – despite its size it’s actually a very dense city. The two principal problem are that bike infrastructure is virtually non-existant and most importantly the culture at large remains downright hostile to biking (get that guy out of my way!), except as a recreational activity – and even then it can be hostile as recent road-rage incidents have sadly demonstrated…

    LA is the origin of American car culture and that legacy remains very strong. The density of the city, and therefore the car traffic, makes adding any bike lanes or paths a political quagmire and thus the problem perpetuates…

    Slowly but surely, it’ll get better and I applaud folks who are working to make it so.

  2. Thanks for your comment Nick. Yes – L.A. is a turning point, a place where changes in mindset truly become evident. It’s great to see the city of L.A. working on this. Places like Pasadena (which is admittedly better laid out for cycling) are leading the way, and it’s great to see that transformation starting.

  3. LA did not “grow up around the interstate system”. This is false. It’s a myth. It’s a lie. The first true freeway was built nearly 20 years after the city had already reached 1 million people (a very large city). The City of LA (especially the central districts) along with an innumerable number of inner ring suburbs like Highland Park grew up around the STREETCAR. LA isn’t an auto city like Phoenix or even Houston which had limited streetcar use, it is a streetcar town with infrastructure all over the city to prove it. (Detroit was the original cartopia). Wide boulevards with grassy medians, walkable central business districts in practically every neighborhood within the central core and public stairs all over the hilly areas of the city like in Silver Lake, Echo Park and surrounding areas reveals a space in time that was not at all insignificant in the formative years of the city. The city was literally raped by the auto, rubber and oil industries that took advantage of the struggling light rail system and replaced many of the lines with auto bus. Because of its low density at the time and plethora of single family homes, the conversion from streetcar to car seemingly went unnoticed. But note, the streetcar served this type of land use pattern well for nearly 70 years prior. If the city “grew up with” freeways then why would freeways need to clear out entirely intact neighborhoods in order to be constructed? Unlike the Antelope Valley and other far flung suburbs of Los Angeles, the city was already built up by the ascension of the mid century freeway era. Huge maladjustments had to be made within the city to accomodate these new right of ways. The longer we continue to believe that LA was originally conceived as an auto city, the longer it will take for us to demand our city back and that it return to its walkable, bikeable, transit friendly while leaving some space for accommodation self.

    1. Calm down a little … you are, however completely correct. As I mentioned below, LA is a very dense city that is theoretically ideal for walking, transit and biking. Then it was massively retrofitted for cars and the rest is history.

    2. Thanks for your comment. First, yes, you are right that the street car was there first. And, in the 1930s and 40s many of the outlying areas in the county that are now part of the metropolitan “LA” area were still separate semi-rural communities (as my father and grandparents described numerous times). And while there is a finite point in which we can call the interstate an integral part of its growth, California DOT notes that “California had already developed limited access highways to full freeway standards as far back as 1939, following the passing of the State’s Freeway Law(” So while other parts of the country had to wait until funding came about with the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, California already had freeways, like the Arroyo Seco Parkway (Highway 110, NE LA area), up to “full freeway standards” by the early 1940s.

      My point as well was that like with Houston, the freeways became a defining part of its identity. In other words, traveling from say, Pasadena to Santa
      Monica (which already was connected to Chicago by Route 66 in the late 1920s) by back streets wouldn’t have been considered if the highway could take you much more quickly. One of my first memories as a kid in the 1960s was being proudly shuttled along the L.A. highway system by my grandfather.

      While you’re right: very early L.A. predates the freeway (most of our cities do in some form or another), our collective consciousness as it relates to history these days seems to go back to about the 1940s to 1950s, at which time L.A.’s highway system was already well into existence.
      Hope that clarifies my approach.

      1. Indeed. You raise another important point. Although it’s true that car and tire companies did lobby to get rid of streetcars, at the end of the day the majority of people (all over the country) fell in love with the idea of the car and very enthusiastically built a car culture… it really wasn’t a conspiracy.

        The problem, of course, is now our hands are tied, especially somewhere like LA, and it’ll take both policy action and major cultural shift to start re-building other options.

        1. Great point. I’m really interested in seeing that transformation, which I believe is truly possible. But you’re right: it will take a change in mindset. Since LA has lived with significant smog problems as long as it has, I wonder what will be the catalyst. Outside pressure from satellite cities? Health? Should be interesting to see.

  4. LA is also a birthplace of bicycle transportation. A hundred years ago there were elevated bikeways that led across town and to the beaches. Alas, the trolley companies drove them out of business with political clout, and then the auto industry did the same to mass transit.

    Sadly, instead of making things happen, we sheeple wonder “what happened?”. As Mooney Star alluded, the auto and associated industries worked together (conspired, as it were) to decide for us, their sheeple. What if we conspired just as hard? But that might take us away from watching sports and other popular television that we cannot miss. Going back to Rome, sports (entertainments) were promoted to keep people (sheeple) out of politics.

    1. Wow. I never knew about the elevated bikeways. The Wikipedia page Nick found (below) is amazing. So I guess there is hope for us – that is, as you say, if we’re willing to act instead of watch. :-) Pretty cool.

  5. Interesting discussion…Based on the Freakonomics LA data below there are great opportunities to expand biking in LA. But it is much more difficult to connect the 8-10 dense urban areas making up Greater LA due to the distances between them and lacking one dense area such as in NY (Manhattan) (only about 1% commute by bike), Chicago (DT), SF and Boston…

    LA Bike Plan Map

    LA FYI…
    Walk Score also ranks the 40 largest cities and provides neat walkability maps of them. Here are the 10 most pedestrian-oriented:
    1. San Francisco ~1M
    2. New York 8M
    3. Boston ~1M
    4. Chicago 4M
    5. Philadelphia ~1M
    6. Seattle ~1M
    7. Washington, D.C. ~1M
    8. Long Beach, Calif. ~1M
    9. Los Angeles 5M
    10. Portland ~1M

    Out of the top 10 most walkable cities NY, Chicago & LA are by far the most populous – it is more difficult to efficiently and safely expand commuter biking in these cities versus smaller more compact cities such as Portland, SF, LB and Boston.

    As of the 2000 census, the Los Angeles region’s urbanized area had the highest population density in the nation. Yes, that was the word “highest,” not a smudge on your monitor. At 7,068 people per square mile, Los Angeles is considerably denser than New York-Newark, which ranks fourth at 5,309 people per square mile (behind San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose as well as Los Angeles). How could this be?

    It is also correct that Los Angeles boasts an extensive freeway system. Counting Interstates and other expressways, the area ranks second in the nation in lane mileage, after New York. But taking into account the area’s vast size, the network is one of the most underdeveloped in the U.S. According to the Federal Highway Administration, of the 36 largest metro areas, Los Angeles ranks dead last in terms of freeway lane miles per resident. (Chicago is second to last, and New York is near the bottom as well. The most freeway-heavy big city by this measure is Kansas City.)

    1. The article uses example of a trip from Santa Monica to East LA and says using back roads can be difficult. Yet there is a bike lane on Venice Blvd. that runs from SM to downtown LA.

      1. Actually to get to Venice BLvd from SM you have to go south first, but not that far south. Another option would south to Ballona Creek bike path and then when it ends in Culver City you can continue east to downtown on Exposition Blvd or take bike onto the new Exposition line metro train to downtown. The author apparently is nonlocal and the article lacks discussion of any specificity of bike routes around town.

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