More Thoughts on the Bicycle

I took a long ride today - not a spandex-and-jersey ride, but a ride to run errands. I was trying to figure out whether it was possible or not to be a functional person in the city without a car. To be sure, this isn't the first time I've been on a bike to run errands, but this was the first time I really set out to run a series of errands in relatively far-flung sections of the Westside (or as far-flung as anything can be on the Westside). And clearly, it was a succesful ride. The only real negative moment - aside from the consistent wind in my face as I rode towards the ocean - was a young guy in a new-ish Honda Civic who didn't take so well to my passing of his car on the right at a red light, in the narrow lane between stopped traffic and parked cars. At the next light, he angled the front of his car into the already narrow space, making sure there was no way for me to get by. It would have been one thing had he been readying himself to make a right turn; as it was, when the light turned green, he straightened out and continued driving east on Pico. I turned right on Barrington and never looked back. But by and large, I've been pleasantly surprised with the behavior of cars. While I ride as much as possible on secondary streets (one of the benefits of Los Angeles' system of arterial streets, the same system that then led into the freeway system), every so often I'll roll down Lincoln or Washington. The streets don't have bike lanes (as opposed to a street like Venice, which has a dedicated bike lane for most of its length), but cars have been fairly generous in treating me like another vehicle on the road.

A couple of other bike-related items have come up in the past couple of days. The other day, Thomas Friedman wrote another op-ed as part of a continuing series on energy use. The general tenor of the series is admiration for the ways in which particular locales - Greenland and Denmark - have made themselves extremely energy efficient. In this particular piece, Friedman marveled at the fact that the Danes are an energy independent country. Part of that independence, it seems, comes from the fact that so many Danes commute by bicycle, leading Friedman to declare, "If I lived in a city with dedicated bike lanes everywhere, including one to the airport, I'd go to work that way too."

I want to agree with Friedman, but I can't bring myself to full endorse him. My reluctance comes out of a conversation with my friend Nick (he of the articulate but slightly dusty blog), who's been riding a bike around LA ever since he started grad school here. His feeling, I think, is that while dedicated bike lanes are nice, they tend to remove bicycles from the attention of drivers. Bicycles have a right to the road in the same way that automobiles do, and to confine bikers to bike lanes is to cede, implicitly or explicitly, the right of way to cars on every street that doesn't have a bike lane. Besides, the way that Friedman structures his sentence - the conditional nature of it - is a cop-out. Because Friedman's city doesn't have dedicated bike lanes, he doesn't feel that bicycling is a feasible option.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal took a similar position. Writing about what it saw as the growing numbers of people commuting by bike in Los Angeles, the article noted the frustrations and dangers of the bicycle commute. Yet the occasion of the article - the very fact that people are choosing to commute by bike in LA - suggests that it is possible. As the manager of the MTA's bike program noted, "When we're used to seeing more cyclists, we will treat them better."

The issue of sight brings to mind something perhaps a bit further afield. A recent post at BLDGBLOG meandered through the possibilities of extreme signage. All in all, perhaps not too pertinent, except for the way in which signage's utility depends upon its legibility. That, in turn, calls to mind Kevin Lynch's seminal work The Image of the City, with its consistent interest in explaining how cities can be understood as legible. The BLDGBLOG post was also interesting for its choice of illustrations, using a couple of shots from David Maisel's Oblivion. That book is a collection of aerial shots of Los Angeles, taken either from above or from a high oblique angle. For me, that perspective, that way of seeing the city, is essential to understanding Los Angeles. Both on a functional level (knowing, for example, how to travel from Long Beach to Thousand Oaks) and a on metaphorical one(Los Angeles as a car culture, Reyner Banham's Autopia), seeing the freeways as legible seems key to being in LA.

All that said, this is a post about biking the city. In an earlier spot, I wrote about two competing senses of the word landscape, wondering a little bit about the ways in which we plan, look for, prospect, and otherwise imagine bicycling in Los Angeles. From a practical perspective, it seems that there are two things that need to happen. First, bicycles need to be seen as a part of the landscape of roads in Los Angeles; and while that might doom Banham's fourth ecology, it might make for a safer and cheaper alternative than planning for miles and miles of bike lanes that might never be built. Second, it's worth thinking about how to make this city both legible and functional to cyclists. Biking is such a markedly different medium for movement than driving and while the city is mostly legible to drivers, there's much work to be done in terms of making this city legible to cyclists. And yet in spite of that, what you do see from a bike is so different than what you see from a car. It is, to take something from Robert Pirsig, to be in the scene of the city, and not just watching it.


Nick said…
Nice thoughts again...and congrats on the errand running! I think the most practical piece of advice for cyclists is to behave like a car. Let drivers know that you are serious about what you're doing, and that you play by the rules. Stop at every red light and stop sign, don't weave in and out of sidewalks, wear a helmet, use lights, the whole nine yards. Drivers recognize when you look like a "professional" or experienced commuting cyclist, and will give you more respect. This is the first step, I believe, in making streets more comfortable for cyclists, which can only lead to better solutions, like universal bike lanes, bicycle boulevards, etc.
Jordan M said…
If only I had the time to look it up, I found a great page when doing research on my possible cross-country bike trip that discussed all of this, especially the bike lane debate. I agree (and some scientifical statisticals show) that bike lanes can cause drivers to not notice bikers as much as if they were on a normal ride as another vehicle.

Now I guess I can move to LA without worry. How's biking in K'town?

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