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7 L.A. cyclists share how to go car-free, ride safely and have fun

A teenager pops a wheelie on Avalon Boulevard in Wilmington during CicLAvia in August 2021.
A group ride like CicLAvia — seen above during its August 2021 event in Wilmington — can be a great way to experience cycling in L.A., regular riders say.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

At its best, biking in L.A. is a cost-effective, climate-friendly means of transportation, leisure and exercise. Yet at its worst, biking in L.A. remains a dangerous errand of twisting through an incomplete network of fading white paint, miles of unprotected bike lanes that vanish into thoroughfares where cyclists compete with cars moving at high speeds.

“The concern is very simple,” bike activist Michael Schneider said. “People feel like they’re gonna die if they bike in L.A.”

Over the past five years, 96 cyclists have been killed on Los Angeles roads, an average of 18 a year, according to LAPD data. So far this year, six have died, including Andrew Jelmert, a 77-year-old real estate agent struck by a driver in Griffith Park in April, and days later, Leonidas Accip Serech who was killed in a hit-and-run crash in Koreatown. That same week, a third cyclist, John Hermoso, was killed while riding near Santa Clarita, outside Los Angeles city limits.

And yet a hardy 3% of L.A. residents, about 120,000 people, through wit, will, joy or necessity, carve out their daily commutes and other trips on two wheels.

Michael Runnels, an assistant professor of business law at Cal State L.A., speeds down Griffith Park hills, catching glimpses of the sun rising over the city. Lena Williams, a community organizer, slows down to take in the murals of South L.A. that reflect their experience as a Black queer person. Through thin rubber tires, cyclists feel the city’s inequality, gliding between neighborhoods with smooth pavement and those whose roads are riddled with potholes.

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Their “appreciation for the natural world,” as Pauletta Pierce says, binds cyclists together, many of whom advocate for a city with a safer and more connected transportation infrastructure.

Traffic deaths climbed again in Los Angeles in 2021, raising doubts about Mayor Eric Garcetti’s program to end such fatalities by 2025.

Runnels wants the city to simply “follow its own plan,” referring to the mobility plan that promised 3,137 miles of bike, bus and pedestrian infrastructure by 2035. (The city has built 95 miles of those improvements since the plan’s adoption in 2015.) And such improvements, several regular cyclists said, must work for the people who need them the most — low-income people of color — not at their expense, as when improved transit infrastructure has fueled gentrification and displacement.

For the record:

4:53 p.m. May 18, 2022A previous version of this story implied that L.A.’s Mobility Plan 2035 was adopted in 2016. It was first adopted by the City Council in 2015.

As these cyclists continue to make do with the system they have, we decided to ask a few of them why they bike in Los Angeles, a city where progress on infrastructure and safety seems to crawl, and how to have fun despite the drawbacks.

Michael Runnels, assistant professor

Michael Runnels biking down a hill in Griffith Park
Michael Runnels on one of his favorite rides in Griffith Park.
(Brian Hashimoto)

Typical ride: Downtown to work at Cal State L.A.

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

Since I moved to L.A. in August of 2020. I actually sold my car before moving to L.A. I did research on the top 10 things and the bottom 10 things about L.A. Every problem was the L.A. traffic. And then I did some research on the commute of a cyclist versus the commute of a driver from downtown to where I work at Cal State L.A. It appeared that the cyclists get there either on time or a few minutes quicker. So I was thinking, “I’m gonna move to this beautiful city with all this gorgeous weather. Let me see if I can turn the number one frown upside down, and turn it into my actual exercise.” So I landed in L.A. with the intention to be a cyclist, and it is working magnificently.

What’s the most fun you can have on a bike in L.A.?

Descending down a hill from Griffith Park. Los Angeles is an unfurling gorgeous flower that has no center — continuous gorgeous petals. And the only way that I began to see how this beautiful city is tied together is on the saddle of a bike. I mean you could see, in a poor neighborhood, you’ll tend to go slower because the roads are maintained less effectively. If you bike to Beverly Hills, the pavement turns smooth. You can see the theory of a city: where the money goes, where the money does not go. The views of the city that’s nestled in the mountains right next to the ocean — it’s stunning. So riding your bikes with friends, in this staggering natural beauty, you’re earning this beauty. You’re getting exercise, you have a zeroed out carbon footprint, and you’re making bonds with your community in ways you could never do with a car.

Favorite ride: Downtown to Griffith Park

Pauletta Pierce, substance abuse counselor

Pauletta Pierce with her bike in Chinatown.
Pauletta Pierce turns to cycling to process emotions — even if just for a short ride through her Chinatown neighborhood.
(Pauletta Pierce)

Typical rides: Around Chinatown; from Chinatown to Echo Park for self-care

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

I was introduced to biking by the downtown bike messengers back in the ‘90s. They were the ones, before the internet, transporting court documents to law firms, into courthouses. And I worked downtown at a coffee bar, and we were all just blue-collar workers that all hung out. They just encouraged me to bike ride. And this was before L.A. had any bike lanes. And they said to me, just as long as you are in the gutter, you know, or on the road, you can be there; you have every right to be there.

I started to change to bike riding, because I used to have to take the bus in the morning, and there was a man that always used to harass me. He’d see me in the morning, and he was taking note of the time I came home, and he followed me home. So at that point I made a decision to just start riding my bike to work and home. And that’s how I felt safe. Because if people don’t get close to you, they can’t get you.

What’s the most fun you can have on a bike in L.A.?

Group rides. That’s when personally I feel connected to my tribe, because cyclists have a deep appreciation for the natural world. So I love to be around those types of people. It just it makes me feel like family and being in my community, especially on group rides.

And back in 2020, when the civil unrest was happening and Juneteenth came around, a lot of people of color, we were all kind of feeling the same — we were going through it. It was a needed ride. We needed to be together and grieve and just heal our loss as a community. We got to express our frustration and our anger in a productive way. We just rode it out — we literally rode out our anger together and grieved together.

Favorite ride: Chinatown to Echo Park Lake

Lavanya Sunder, tech and mobility entrepreneur

Lavanya Sunder riding her electric bike around Los Angeles.
Lavanya Sunder uses an electric bike to get around L.A. for work, grocery shopping, visiting loved ones and weekend beach rides.
(Lavanya Sunder)

Typical ride: Mid-Wilshire to co-working space in West Hollywood

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

Well, I moved to L.A. in August. And I’ve never lived in L.A. with a car. A lot of people were wondering if I was going to get a car, but I really didn’t want to. And I tried it out, and you know, it’s working for me.

I think L.A. gets a bad rap for being a sprawling city, but I actually think it’s quite dense. I’m a two-mile radius from four or five grocery stores, countless nail salons, hair salons, CVS, the list goes on. So in terms of access, I feel for my daily or weekly or monthly needs, it’s not even at all a concern. And with an electric bike, I feel like I have access to a big chunk of the city just as quickly as my friends with cars. Below five miles, I know, without fail, I will either get there five minutes faster or five minutes slower. After five miles, I’ll take rideshare or carpool, or maybe take Metro, but that just doesn’t happen that frequently. And if it does, it’s totally fine. I guess I feel like I have just as much access and much more freedom not having a car.

What’s the most fun you can have on a bike in L.A.?

I feel like the most fun I’ve had biking in L.A. has probably been biking on the Santa Monica beach path. I feel like the most fun you can have on a bike is in a car-free path. And it’s just stunning. I think it was a Saturday, it was beautiful day, and just kind of biking around in the Venice boardwalk area, just seeing so many people on bikes and walking and, you know, getting a glimpse of what L.A. could be like — that was really awesome.

Favorite ride: Mid-Wilshire to beach bike path

Jimmy Lizama, bike activist and former bike messenger

Jimmy Lizama of Koreatown with one of his recycled cargo bikes.
Jimmy Lizama, an L.A. native who has always been car-free, runs the Re:Ciclos project, which recycles bicycles into cargo bikes.
(Jessica Brown)

Typical ride: Koreatown to Silver Lake to drop off his child at school

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

I never owned a car in my life, and I’m an Angeleno born and raised. When I was about 24 years old, and I was living in Atwater Village, I had to get to my job out in Hollywood, and I was running late. Being someone who took the bus, I knew that that was not going to be the most viable option. And so the only option that I had for me to get to work on time was to take a bicycle that was too small for me. So I jumped on that bicycle and just took off at 10 or something in the morning. [After passing three buses on his bike, Lizama arrived early for work.] And I thought, “Oh, my God, this is different. Why isn’t everybody doing this?”

What’s the most fun you can have on a bike in L.A.?

The Bicycle Kitchen, when we started that in 2000, there were like 30 people who were bicycling for transportation. Within two years of starting, we had had bicycle rides at night with thematic costumes where it was like 2,000, 3,000 people deep in L.A., and this is 20 years ago, and that was unheard of. People on bicycles going out to have fun in the middle of the night in L.A., it just wasn’t happening. So it was kind of revolutionary. And that meant going to cumbia shows, going to punk shows, tacos, drunken rides, parties.

Favorite ride: 4th Street from Koreatown to Hancock Park

A change in the state law last year gave local officials some leeway, allowing Los Angeles to lower speed limits on major corridors for the first time in decades.

Lena Williams, bike safety educator and community organizer

Lena Williams on their bike in Leimert Park in September 2020
Lena Williams told The Times in 2020 about being stopped by police while riding to a doctor’s appointment.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Typical ride: Around Leimert Park

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

Beginning Jan. 1, 2017. Coming to L.A., it was just a way for me to learn and figure out the geography. My favorite way to take in the city and community is by bike. You miss too many things by car, so I started riding my bike so that I could see a little bit more. There are some very brilliant murals throughout the city, but particularly folks who’ve done things here in South L.A., like Enkone, or Noni [Olabisi] who just recently passed away a couple months ago. [Williams’ organization, People for Mobility Justice, curated this self-guided East L.A. mural ride.]

What’s the most fun you can have on a bike in L.A.?

The question is a little bit interesting to me because of the way I view biking. So the act itself is fun. Adding to the biking experience, you know, are things that I like riding to, like to Bruce’s Beach or local small businesses in the area. But the biking itself, for me, is a moving meditation that is very much tied to my spiritual practice. Meditation is something that I use to center myself. Anything that I’m trying to suppress, emotions, things like that, I can’t hide them from my bike. And so my bike is my mirror — it keeps me honest.

Favorite ride: Leimert Park to Bruce’s Beach

Raymund Florida, classroom monitor, freelance illustrator and food delivery worker

Raymund Florida riding along a bridge above the Arroyo Seco.
Raymund Florida says he can’t afford a car, but he also rides for leisure, enjoying the occasional rides on bridges over the Arroyo Seco.
(LiAnn Ishizuka)

Typical ride: From home in Pasadena’s Olive Heights to Old Pasadena for work

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

About 10 years now, since I moved here in 2013. I don’t have access to a car, so it’s just how I get around. Cycling is what makes the most sense financially. I’m low-income at the moment, so in hopes of getting a better paying job, maybe a car is feasible. But also on top of paying rent, cycling is just the most cost-effective way. And part time, I do food delivery. It also helps out to have a bicycle — it’s easier to park.

What’s the most fun you can have on a bike in L.A.?

Just like plain exploring. Since L.A. is sprawling, there’s so much access to even the mountains. I’ve been commuting for 10 years but only recently I’ve been going into the mountains more. There’s still cars there, but not as much. It’s quieter and it’s just amazing views. Mostly around Mt. Wilson. Also the Angeles Crest Highway and like around Mt. Baldy, those have been really accessible for me.

There’s a saying around cyclists: “All bodies on bikes.” Any body type can ride. Have fun, explore your neighborhood and wear a helmet!

Favorite Ride: To Mt. Baldy Village from Glendora

The L.A. Department of Transportation is trying out universal basic mobility — a program giving South L.A. residents cheaper, cleaner options for getting around.

Michael Schneider, founder of Streets For All

Michael Schneider dressed up for a Halloween party with his children on his bike.
Michael Schneider dressed as a UPS delivery worker to take his costumed children to a Halloween party.
(Michael Schneider)

Typical ride: From Mid-City to Hollywood, then Hancock Park to drop off his children at their schools

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

I’m born and raised here in L.A. I grew up in West L.A. I loved biking and kind of forgot about it for about 20 years. And I would say about nine years ago, I gave up my car and just started biking around everywhere.

Initially, it was financial. I had a big, expensive lease and the economy was tanking. And I had a number of startups, and I couldn’t afford the lease anymore. And so I borrowed my grandfather’s car, which ultimately spent more time in the shop than it did working. And I just started to get really frustrated. And you know, at one point, I was so frustrated that I dusted off an old bicycle and at first just decided to see if I could get to and from my gym in the morning without using my car. And that’s how it started. And I just kept pulling that thread more and more until about four years ago, I was biking to and from LAX and anything else in between.

What’s the most fun you can have on a bike in L.A.?

I bike my three kids to school every day. And on the bike, we have so much fun. It’s pure joy to be with them. I put a little bluetooth speaker on the bike. So I’m sort of their DJ and they fight over what music they want. And you know, while others are stressed out because they’re stuck in traffic and their kid’s gonna be late, we’re having a great time. I go to two different schools. We have a consistent biking time within a minute or two just based on what lights we hit. And it’s joyful.

Favorite ride: The Hollywood Hills along Mulholland Drive

About The Times Utility Journalism Team

This article is from The Times’ Utility Journalism Team. Our mission is to be essential to the lives of Southern Californians by publishing information that solves problems, answers questions and helps with decision making. We serve audiences in and around Los Angeles — including current Times subscribers and diverse communities that haven’t historically had their needs met by our coverage.

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