Another run at biking in L.A.

Five years ago today, thousands of bicycle riders and pedestrians converged at the entrance to the Pasadena Freeway at Glenarm Street and Arroyo Parkway for an extraordinary event: ArroyoFest. Although it seemed improbable, the freeway would be off limits to trucks, autos and motorcycles for four hours so the crowd could ride and walk on the road.

In one sense, the bikers were reclaiming what was once theirs. At the turn of the century, Los Angeles was considered the bicycle capital of the nation, and portions of the route taken by the Pasadena Freeway had been a bikeway. For many bikers, the experience that day was revelatory: Riding a bike not only provided pleasure but it also represented a viable form of transportation. Several bikers who traveled the entire 8.5-mile stretch of the freeway between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles reported that they completed the trip in less time than it had taken them by car during the previous week's rush hour.

With traffic congestion worsening and gasoline prices continuing to rise, it's no longer necessary to stage an event to show that the bicycle is a serious transit option. Dozens of newspaper articles and blogs report that an increasing number of commuters across the country are leaving their cars in the garage and using other forms of transportation, especially bicycles, to get to the store, school, bus or rail stop, even to work. Members of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, for instance, say they are getting dozens of inquiries requesting information on the best bike routes to various locations across town.

Meanwhile, several dozen new bike groups have formed in Los Angeles to increase biking opportunities for commuting purposes as well as recreational. These groups see the bicycle as an especially efficient transportation option for trips of less than a mile. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Caltrans and the city of Los Angeles' Department of Transportation all have bike coordinators, and a new bike master plan for the city, the first in more than a decade, is near completion.

And bike riding is becoming more visible in the urban landscape. Midnight rides, many organized spontaneously and sometimes willing to be disruptive to lay claim to the streets, have become a monthly occurrence in some neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles. In addition to providing route information, organizations such as Bike Oven and the Bike Kitchen fix bicycles and offer places to store them.

Unfortunately, the increased interest in the bicycle as a commuting option exceeds the city's capacity to handle it. L.A.'s bike-riding infrastructure -- bike lanes and dedicated bike boulevards -- is abysmal and compares poorly with those in cities such as Portland, according to a recent Urban and Environmental Policy Institute study, a research and advocacy organization based at Occidental College. For instance, about 6% of Portland's 3,949 miles of street lanes are for bikes, compared with just 0.6% of L.A.'s 28,000 miles of street lanes.

For a bicycle to become a viable mode of travel in L.A., we need to do a number of things. First, we need to build more bikeways, create more bike lanes on surface streets and install more bike racks near transit stops. Transportation planners need to more fully integrate biking with public transit. Land-use decisions should aim to encourage biking as an option. To explore these and other issues, a bike summit organized by bike groups, researchers and policy experts is in the works in Los Angeles.

If bike riding can reassert its place in Los Angeles -- as it briefly did five years ago -- we can begin to reduce our dependence on the car. Imagine a city in which Griffith Park would be car-free, in which the Los Angeles River had a bikeway stretching its length, in which there were dedicated bike boulevards connecting Pasadena or Santa Monica to downtown. We could call the bike ride the "pleasure ride," as the car ride on the Pasadena Freeway, the first freeway in the West, was once touted.

Robert Gottlieb's latest book is "Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City."

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