Commentary: The bicycle: man’s best (inanimate) friend

A few months ago, I wrote a commentary for the News-Press on the topic of traffic congestion in Glendale and got an overwhelming response, with most readers agreeing with my depiction of the traffic and safety situation. One reader, however, struck a note with me. He wrote that if I am commuting from west Glendale to south Glendale for work, and then complaining about traffic and congestion, then I am part of the problem.

He got me thinking — he is absolutely right. If I’m going to talk the talk, I’d better walk the walk. When I can use alternate means to get around town, I should. Now, even with all the various light rail construction projects underway and the recent Expo and Gold lines offering service, most of us still cannot use the light rail or commuter train like Metrolink to get to our destinations without considerable delay, or by using some combination of driving and walking.

For most of us in the Southland there is but one tried and true alternate means of transportation that doesn’t involve a car, and it can get you places relatively quickly. That is the bicycle.

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I am an avid mountain biker and frequently also ride a road bike along river paths, both mostly for recreation. After the letter I received, I started taking the bicycle to work at least once a week, particularly when I’ll be at the office all day. Not only does it take about the same amount of time as driving, riding a bike is fun, gives me exercise and gets my energy level up by the time I arrive to start my workday. Moreover, when you’re on a bicycle you feel interconnected with your surroundings, whereas in our cars we are generally cocooned from the world.

My speculation is that when most Angelenos think of bicycling, they mostly think recreation — taking the kids to the beach, river paths on weekends, the afternoon ride around the block, or savoring mountain biking heaven in the Santa Monica Mountains. But how many of us consider bicycling as a viable way to commute? Blame the car culture of Southern California, the teasing remarks by family and co-workers. Or blame the fact that, although bicycles are legal on most city streets, motorized vehicle drivers don’t always look out for cyclists.

Those of us who are lucky to have traveled widely know many other cities have implemented dedicated bike paths and lanes for commuters, with whole streets open to bicyclists and pedestrians only. Many of those cities are right here in North America: Denver, Boston, Seattle, Portland. Many of the best are in Europe: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Prague. Some of the best city biking I have done was in Montreal, which is not known for public works improvements and infrastructure, but nevertheless has maintained dedicated bike paths throughout the city for over a decade. Most of these cities suffer through six months of cold, wet and snowy conditions, yet people still use their bikes for commuting year-round. Here in the Southland we have the world’s most conducive weather for year-round biking, but can’t we get most people to leave their cars at home.

We need a radical change in our thinking here in Southern California. Small improvements, or adding one lane to freeways, are not going to do it. Driverless cars and ride-sharing practices are improvements but still involve having vehicles on the road. Light rail projects are great in the long run — for those who can use them without going out of their way. The bicycle, this grand old invention, is small, mobile, fast, has zero emissions, involves exercise and promotes a healthy lifestyle. With around-the-clock traffic congestion swallowing ever wider swaths of Los Angeles, the bicycle is quickly becoming the only way to actually get around town efficiently. In the same vehicle lane that can transport 10 cars over a given time, a hundred bicycles can pass through at the same speed.

How about using the entire underutilized Los Angeles County Flood Control infrastructure as a vast interconnected regional bicycle transportation network, not just for recreation but for commuters? After doing some research I was pleased to see that many such efforts are underway at the local level, including for the Verdugo Wash. How about converting underused vehicle lanes on secondary streets to dedicated bicycle commuter lanes?

Let’s push our policy makers and candidates for elected positions to think long and hard about transportation solutions.

SHANT MINAS can be reached at