Opinion

How I learned to bike to work in Los Angeles without getting maimed

If someone had told me six months ago I would be bicycling in the street past Staples Center at the peak of a weekday morning commute, I wouldn’t have believed it. Like many Los Angeles residents, I’m terrified by the idea of being surrounded by cars in city traffic without the protection of a ton or so of steel around me.

But a few weeks ago, I found myself cruising down Figueroa in the middle of rush-hour traffic on a 14.1-mile bike ride from Marina del Rey to downtown L.A. And I survived.

It was an "aha" moment for me. In August, the L.A. City Council approved Mobility Plan 2035, a 20-year strategy that aims to rethink the ways Angelenos get around. Instead of bigger, faster, wider roads, per usual, the plan is centered upon getting Angelenos out of their cars and onto buses, trains and bikes.

This all sounds great in theory. But if L.A.’s new transportation shift is going to work, it’s up to people like me to make some serious lifestyle changes. I am young, healthy and able-bodied — yet I drive to work. And I’m definitely not the only one. Just 1% of L.A. residents commute to work by bike. For all the pride Angelenos have in our ability to outsmart Los Angeles traffic, our knowledge of bike paths and non-freeway routes is pretty pathetic.

Most of the time, it seems, we don’t even know there are bike paths in our own neighborhoods. When I told friends that I was thinking about biking to downtown L.A. for work, I watched their faces curl as they tried to wrap their minds around how I would even get downtown by bike. “How? Along the 405?” a few people asked me, stunned. The truth was I didn’t have enough of a mental map to give them an answer.

This ignorance of L.A.’s basic structure doesn’t bode well for our future. As the city’s rail network spreads outward into various neighborhoods, it’s becoming more practical than ever to use public transportation. But without first-mile and last-mile connections to get us to and from those Metro stations, ridership numbers will stagnate. More cyclists are key to keeping the system running.

For L.A. to realize its sustainable future, my demographic has to get on board with new transportation options. Instead of complaining about traffic and pollution in this car-centric city, we need to do something about it.

Of course, there are reasons we haven’t been.

California leads the nation in bicycle deaths, with 338 cyclists killed in motor vehicle collisions between 2010 and 2012. L.A.’s reputation for cycling danger is arguably the worst in the state. In 2012 alone, the city had 2,043 reported bicycle accidents. Compare that to 307 reported crashes in San Francisco in 2012 and 2013, or 1,284 in Seattle in the three-year span between 2010 and 2012. Just two months ago, a car struck a cyclist at the front gates of my quiet Westchester college campus.

If you can’t even bike on a college campus safely, where can you?

Troubling statistics and anecdotes like these were enough to make me want to swear off biking in this city forever. But then I heard about L.A. Bike Trains, a volunteer-run organization that coordinates group bike commutes throughout the city. Hesitant bikers can join groups led by trained “conductors” who know safe, efficient routes across town.

So I signed up. And I quickly realized that my fears and general lack of knowledge about biking in L.A. were not unique — even among seasoned cyclists.

L.A. Bike Trains founder Nona Varnado started the organization, she told me in an interview, because she didn’t feel safe on the road. She described L.A.’s streets as a “roller derby.” Even though she’s lived and biked in megacities all over the world, “I stopped leaving the house” when she moved to L.A, she said.

It wasn’t until a co-worker took her under his wing, showing her navigation and safety tips for biking on L.A. streets, that Varnado regained her confidence. “I figured if I needed that help, then every normal person did,” she said.

Maybe a little hand-holding was what I needed to get comfortable on L.A. roads.

When I met with my conductor, Aaron Furlong, a lanky Santa Monica resident with a cycling saddle bag for a briefcase, I was shaky and nervous. Thankfully, as our ride got underway, he immediately became a steadying presence. Riding a few yards ahead of me the entire way, he pointed out potholes, car doors and shattered glass — things I hadn’t yet learned to spot. He weaved us through congested traffic and communicated with drivers on the road to ensure our safety. Most importantly, he showed me that L.A. was connected in ways foreign to me.

We rode along a bike path next to the Expo Line (one I had no idea existed) so I had a bailout option if I got tired or stressed out. As we kept riding, though, I found myself declining Furlong’s offers to grab a train. By the time we reached USC after about 10 miles, I was exhilarated; I knew I could make it the whole way.

Beyond the endorphins, and the obvious environmental benefits, biking to work turned out to offer a host of other perks. It didn’t add much time to my driving commute in rush-hour traffic. It built a workout into my daily routine. Best yet, it didn’t cost a dime.

Obviously, biking 14 miles to work isn’t for everybody. It’s daunting to get out on the streets when people behind windshields don’t want you there. It’s hard to figure out how to get from one place to another without hitting a traffic-strewn surface highway. And, though more options exist than most of us know about, L.A. still lacks the infrastructure to make biking to work convenient.

But even though Metro’s arms are reaching farther and farther out into L.A.’s neighborhoods, they will never cover the entire city. Biking is a crucial and convenient first-mile, last-mile option to access public transit.

We don’t all have to become expert city navigators overnight, though. We can learn from trained professionals. We can trust someone else to help us get to work safely. We just need to set our wheels in motion.

To make a change in this city — a change in traffic, a change in emissions waste, a change in lifestyle — we’ll need a little hand-holding. And that’s OK.

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