The ‘freedom’ and hazards of commuting by bike in L.A.
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, March 16.
In a county where so much of life revolves around our cars, commuting by bicycle isn’t for the faint of heart.
Spend a few moments scrolling through Tom Morash’s social media feeds and you’ll see why.
The 41-year-old, known on social media as Entitled Cyclist, has been biking for about a decade and shares on Twitter a near-daily stream of photos and videos from his commutes. He recently branched out to Instagram and YouTube, plus a little TikTok — though the Gen Z-majority app gives him some anxiety.
“I forget that I’m actually in my 40s now and when I open TikTok, I’m reminded immediately that I’m in my 40s,” he told me this month.
Tom’s online moniker formed as he got more involved in Bike Twitter and noticed a widespread “attitude that drivers have towards cyclists as being entitled.” Then his penchant for sarcasm kicked in.
“I’m trying to turn the idea of entitled around to mean: ‘Yes, I’m entitled to be able to move around the streets without getting run over by you.’”
Tom works in film and TV production and started recording his commutes eight years ago, primarily to ensure he’d have video evidence if a driver hit him.
“You see all these stories that just show how quickly police and drivers are to blame whoever was hit if it’s not the person in the car,” he said.
He got a taste of that himself about six years ago, when he was struck by a driver who fled the scene. Tom was on his way home after a late night at work when someone driving a truck clipped him near the Ford Theatre. The impact broke his arm and knocked him to the street.
“When LAPD first arrived, their first question was: ‘Why are you out riding so late?’ so that was fun,” Tom said. “That was just what I wanted to hear with my broken arm.”
That driver was never identified or caught. He’s had some other close calls since, many of them captured on camera and shared online.
For him, incidents like that speak to “a society that’s built around this idea that if you’re in the car, you’re immune to everything and [it’s] easier to dehumanize everyone around you.”
“It’s hard to keep riding when that happens,” he said.
Tom’s current recording setup includes a 360-degree camera attached to his helmet, along with a small rear-view mirror, plus a radar device with a small display that gives him real-time data on how fast drivers are approaching him from behind.
Watching Tom’s videos can be a harrowing experience — and I’m viewing them safely from my office chair. The number of near-collisions he’s faced due to speeding, inattentive driving and sometimes deliberately aggressive drivers is all the more shocking as I remind myself that this is one person’s regular commute in a county with millions of people and tens of thousands of miles of roads.
On top of the multiple tons of speeding metal that Tom has to watch out for, his feed is full of parked vehicles and trash cans blocking designated bike lanes and sidewalks. He also regularly documents the conditions of bike lanes and other safety infrastructure as he navigates L.A. and neighboring cities.
He feels the region could be a heavenly bike haven, explaining:
We have great weather year round — last couple of months aside. With better bus and train infrastructure, if you can combine that with more sidewalks and bike paths ... it really could be a great city for getting around not in the car. But we’ve gone in the opposite direction and made it almost impossible to go from one place to another in the city if you’re not in a car. That’s the frustration that I’m dealing with as I’m riding around.
Of course, not everyone who uses a bike to get work is in Tom’s position, which he admits is “very privileged.” He owns an electric car and does use it for some trips, but overwhelmingly chooses to commute by e-bike.
“I totally recognize that that is not the case for everybody,” he told me.
U.S. census data show that nearly 9% of county households do not have access to a car and roughly a third have one vehicle available. So many L.A. residents rely on bikes, public transit and other non-car modes to get where they need to go.
And the neighborhoods where people drive less are often the most neglected when it comes to bike lanes and other infrastructure meant to make it safer to get around without a car.
Tom sees his posts as a form of advocacy to raise awareness and spurn action by local officials to make streets safer for people biking and walking. He’s encouraged by “a better attitude” toward redesigning streets in recent years, though he’s not always confident that meaningful improvements will come.
“I’m so pessimistic about things actually getting done, because I’ve seen them not get done,” he said.
Here’s more from my conversation with Tom (edited for clarity and brevity) about biking in L.A., his close calls and interactions with drivers and how people have responded to his form of safe streets activism online.
Ryan: Would you say your life has improved by relying on your bike more than your car?
Tom: Oh, absolutely. A lot of people talk about cars as being a freedom device, which I like to mock online as much as possible. I find the bike to actually be that. I can walk out my door on my bike and go comfortably 15, 20 miles away, and not have to worry about, well, if I leave at 8 a.m. I’m going to be stuck on the 405 or I’m going to be stuck on a hill. Even in a city with not great bike infrastructure — to put it kindly — I’m still able to ride in a shoulder past all the people that are sitting in the car going nowhere.
Even given all the different difficulties and limitations that L.A. city and county put on us as bike riders by not making routes convenient or safe, the good outweighs the bad by a wide margin for me.
You’re much more vulnerable [riding a bike than] in a car. Does that shift your perspective on commuting?
I’ve become a 10x better driver now than I was before I started riding, because I’m just so much more aware of everything that’s in the road. I really feel like you get a spidey sense when you’re riding a bike. There’s certain things I do on a bike now that I never would have done five years ago — like splitting traffic in ways that I never would have in the past — because you can just really feel when someone’s about to make a right without a signal in ways that you don’t really understand until you do it more.
And then when you get in the car, it makes you a safer driver, which I guess is one of my overall themes. If you can see the road from my perspective, or someone on the sidewalk’s perspective, maybe when you’re driving a car, you’ll think about that the next time you’re going to drive in a bike lane or make a right on red, where there’s a possibility that a kid on a bike’s coming.
Have you had altercations or any sort of response from drivers exhibiting dangerous behavior around you? Has there ever been an outcome that feels positive or like a teachable moment?
My first reaction is to scream and yell at them. Over time, I’ve tried to get better about that. But as I’m sure you’ll see, sometimes I’m just not. My hope is that an interaction like that will help that person to not act the same way next time. Some people are driving very indifferent to my safety and that’s just how they are. But a lot of people just weren’t thinking in that moment, and now hopefully going forward that person will.
Once in a while you can kind of feel like you’ve made a genuine adjustment to their driving behavior — at least that’s my hope. Sometimes there’s such violent or aggressive behavior that if this person is willing to threaten me with their car, I don’t know what else they’re willing to threaten me with. There’s a legitimate fear that you get the wrong person and this whole experiment is over.
What’s the response been like from your followers on social media and other people that see your videos?
I found that on Twitter I would get a lot of engagement — and mostly from people who [are] sort of sympathetic to what I’m doing. When I started moving into YouTube and Instagram, I started to find a lot more of those sort of darker, anti-cyclist comments that I’ve had to really inoculate myself again. But even then, I remind myself that a vast majority of the people that are watching the videos are responding positively.
I’ve been really encouraged by a lot of the followers that I have that seem to really engage in that way, where I’m sharing something they experience and they get to share it with their friends and family, which, again, hopefully, opens their friends’ and family’s eyes to what we’re seeing on the roads.
What advice do you have for other cyclists or people who may be considering commuting by bike?
The biggest advice that I would give at the beginning, is to ride in a way that’s safe for you. I know it’s hard, but try to find a protected bike route to get where you’re going. Or if not, ride on the sidewalk if you feel safe riding on the sidewalk — just always defer to the pedestrians and others who are on the sidewalk. Until you are inoculated against what you’re going to experience on the streets, do whatever is safest for you.
The worst thing in my mind is somebody starts riding their bike and they’re trying to follow all the bike lanes and all the laws, but it’s so unsafe that they never ride again.
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California’s 11th atmospheric river of the season battered communities across the state, sparking mandatory evacuations of thousands of residents near overflowing rivers and recent burn zones and knocking out power to more than 300,000 homes. At least 90 flood watches, warnings and advisories were issued statewide, along with avalanche warnings around Lake Tahoe and portions of Mono and Inyo counties. Los Angeles Times
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Today’s California landmark is from Rick Shaughnessy of Coronado: Point Loma, as viewed from his town.
Most people who visit the beach in Coronado look left to view the venerable Hotel del Coronado. I think the view to the right is more iconic. Point Loma is to Coronado what Diamond Head is to Waikiki — constant but always changing with the light, weather and seasons.
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