An Inadvertent Biking Blog?

My friend Jim sent me an email this morning congratulating me on becoming an inadvertent biking blog. BikinginLA was recently kind enough to put me (there I am, down at the bottom!) among the company of other bikers and writers, though I'm still not entirely convinced how much I am or am not a biker (much less a writer).

All hand-wringing aside, however, I do ride when I can and I do write. So thanks again to BikinginLA for the nod, and welcome to anyone who makes it here by way of there.

To stay roughly within that biking state of mind, a couple of thoughts about being in the city on a bike. Alex Thompson at Westside BikeSIDE wrote a recent post about a run-in with the Culver City Police Department. To make his story a sentence long, one of Culver City's finest decided to insist on yelling, "CHILDREN!" in Alex's direction. In that post, he goes on to write about the sometimes condescending attitude that law enforcement officers take towards cyclists, noting that almost every conversation with an officer began with the question, "How old are you?" The implication being, I suppose, that Alex's age had some direct bearing on his ability to make a cogent points about the relationship between cyclists and the police. There's a sense, I suppose, that biking is kind of a juvenile activity that one should really grow out of.

Reading back through some of the earlier posts (today's, on dealing with drivers) at Biking in LA, one of the things that jumped out was this sense of invisibility. Cars and pedestrians both tend to not have cyclists within their frame of vision. And when bicycles do enter that frame of vision, conflicts occur, sometimes with disastrous results.

Broadly stated, the question seems to be one of visibility, both in the literal sense and in the political sense. In the literal sense, I mean simply being seen on the road: wearing bright colors, but also cars actively looking. In the political sense, I guess I'm trying to suggest something along the lines of the Critical Mass rides - though I've never actually ridden on one, my sense is that one of the things the group is trying to do is to make cyclists - as a community, as a group - visible to the larger public.

So if bicycling advocacy and safety in Los Angeles really hinges on this issue of visibility, but cyclists are sometimes seen as little more than overgrown children, what then? Thinking about my own experience riding a bike, there was a long period that began in about high school and didn't end until a year or two out of college where I didn't really ride a bike. It wasn't that I thought they were juvenile or dangerous or anything like that; if anything, watching the serious riders head out for rides in Chapel Hill, I felt like road biking was just inaccessible to me. Coupled with a gnarly little crash in high school, I just didn't feel like biking was the thing for me.

But I started riding to work one day - not so much because I wanted to as because I had to. I'd moved to a new place a couple of miles from work, I didn't have a car, and there wasn't good bus service. Getting back on the bike then was an experience I didn't fully understand. My first couple of rides were terrifying, but absolutely exhilarating. One of the great struggles of moving back out to Los Angeles from Chapel Hill was giving up that bike ride. Fast forward to the present moment, where I've been riding again and thinking a lot more about what it means to be on a bike in Los Angeles.

Aside from the physical pleasure of the ride, there's something strangely social and socializing about riding a bike in the city. It makes the city visible in a whole new way - sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes terrifying, but always emphasizing this experience of being in the city. When it comes to driving, though, there's a different way of seeing the city. Others have written well about the relationship between the television screen and the windshield of the car, so I won't go into that here. Suffice to say that I think there's a strong argument to be made for the passivity of driving. To be sure, there's the occasional activity of other bad drivers, but driving in LA, you learn to accept other cars as the price you pay. Bicycles, though, are a jarring sight.

If the sight of a bicycle is more likely to call to mind images of children, and if the sight of a person in traffic without the protective steel shell of a car is more likely to call to mind a pedestrian, then there's something extremely unsettling about the image of the bicycle on the street. If Los Angeles can lay claim to being one of the first cities really built to serve the automobile, what does it say when people here have reached the stage of ditching their cars to move around the city by bicycle? What does that suggest about possibly new ways of seeing the city?

There's been a lot written about both utopian and dystopic futures for Los Angeles, and I'm not really keen to go into that right now, but I wonder if you can link new ways of seeing bicyclists in Los Angeles - new modes of being made visible - to new kinds of sociabilities, new ways of interacting with people in urban space. And if biking really does bring back a kind of childhood, maybe that's something a lot of Angelenos could need.

Maybe what we all need is another chance to take childhood seriously.


Anonymous said…
I have no idea what kind of biker you are. But as one who writes for a living, take my word for it — you are a writer. I'll look forward to reading more.
Alex Thompson said…
Our new chant at rides is going to be variations on CHILDREN. Biking is childlike, in a positive sense. I think you'll find that you have distinctly different insights into LA's geography as you travel by bike, as opposed to your colleagues.

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