A few months ago, I decided to try the absurd: I would start commuting the four miles to my office on a bike. In Los Angeles! I’d like to say it was environmental awareness or the high price of gas or even the desperate need to get more exercise that coaxed me onto Raymond Chandler’s mean streets without my protective steel cocoon. I suppose each of those played a small role. But what really pushed me over the line and onto the bike was an August dispatch from Amsterdam written by my Slate colleague Seth Stevenson.
Seth described watching a crowd of Dutch theatergoers in their 50s and 60s leaving a play, hopping onto their bikes, and riding off into the night. I couldn’t help picturing that lovely scene through an Angeleno’s eyes: Wow, I thought, an event without valet parking! Seth went on to quote a friend: “There’s something about riding a bike that makes you feel like you’re 5 years old.” Since that’s a feeling I wouldn’t mind more of in my life, I decided to get out of my Honda and onto the bike.
I am a fourth-generation Southern Californian. I was weaned on exhaust fumes and the eye-searing smog of the 1970s. I grew up in a hilly area of the city where it was impossible to ride my bike to school or a store without risking real harm. For my entire childhood I never went anywhere without being chauffeured by my parents. My 16th birthday was Liberation Day. My first driver’s license picture, taken on my birthday, shows me looking completely bleary-eyed—I had slept in the used VW Beetle my parents bought me for the occasion and presented myself at the DMV an hour before it opened. Driving in L.A. feels as natural to me as walking in Manhattan.
Although I had actually been a bike commuter in other cities (most notably during three years in London), it never occurred to me to try it when I returned to L.A. (this despite the fact that there may be no major city in the world with a climate as perfect for bike commuting as ours—warm winters; moderate, dry summers; alarmingly little rain). Since cycling to work is such an aberration here, I found the idea both exhilarating and pleasingly subversive.
Instead of the major thoroughfares I use when driving, I cycled quiet back streets—the kind that infuriate me in a car because of all the stop signs and the impossibility of crossing major streets without a signal. I found my commute so easy that I soon started looking for other short trips I could make on the bike—picking up a few groceries, going to the gym, returning library books—then longer ones. I plotted new stealth routes no driver would ever take. (Tip: The satellite photos on Google Earth are much better for doing this than a road map, because you can see exactly what the streets look like.)
One day, I found myself biking down an empty little access road next to the notorious 405 freeway during the evening commute. The freeway, as usual, was paralyzed, and I noticed I was actually moving faster than the cars. That’s when the revelation hit: Over the past few months, I had discovered a different Los Angeles.
It’s very easy for an L.A. driver to think that our city is as choked with humanity as Manhattan. From the driver’s point of view, that’s increasingly true—there are more and more evenings when every major street is stopped dead, and going a few miles can take hours. At work the next day, people grimly shake their heads and lament what’s becoming of the city.
Not only has riding my bike enabled me to glide past all this gridlock (in fact, I’m often not even aware it’s happening), but it has made me realize that it’s an illusion. The city itself is not gridlocked—merely the narrow asphalt ribbons onto which we squeeze all our single-occupant cars. On the back streets I now take, everything is quiet and serene. The main roads may mimic Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but the areas between L.A.’s clogged arteries comprise mile after square mile of low-density, low-stress residential bliss (the same is true, I suspect, of most American cities).
Even if I do need to use a major road for any portion of my ride, I can always veer onto L.A.’s famously empty sidewalks to bypass the seething queues of road-rage incubators. (Before you write in to protest, L.A.’s municipal code allows bikers on the sidewalk as long as they yield to pedestrians.)
Don’t get me wrong—Los Angeles is an almost pathologically bike-unfriendly city. It has pathetically few marked bike lanes, and those it has often peter out for no reason and at the worst possible place. Its drivers go ballistic when a cyclist slows them down, even for a few seconds. And of course, it’s so sprawling that some commutes would simply be impossible by bike (although I suspect more than we realize would actually be faster on two thin wheels).
So, for now I’ll just enjoy my secret Los Angeles secretly, feeling my blood pressure fall as I sail past all the six-cylinder, leather-upholstered pressure cookers around me. My bigger concern is what would happen to L.A. if all the people who currently define themselves by their cars were to turn their sights on bicycles instead. Imagine Beijing-like throngs of wealthy Angelenos careening down Wilshire Boulevard, yakking obliviously on cell phones, demanding valet bike racks, and competing over whose Italian or French import is more expensive. Frankly, if that happens, I might just buy a surplus Hummer.