Why 'nobody' bikes in L.A., yet...

© April Streeter

...and why that could change

Los Angeles is a sprawling and car-centric city of 3.7 million people (without the metro area). The last American Community Survey (from 2011, compiled by Darren Flusche of the League of American Bicyclists) showed that just 16,101 Angelenos are commuter cyclists. That number is almost what the city of Portland, six times smaller than L.A., has in bike commuters.

The reasons its hard to bike in L.A. are numerous: distances between city segments are great, main arterials streets are fast-moving, and traffic is incredibly dense and relentless.

Biking in L.A. is still for the birds.

Recently, however, Los Angeles has made some fairly big efforts to be kinder to cyclists. In 2010 the city passed a bike plan that called for 1,684 miles of planned bicycle lanes. Putting them down was going to require 40 years in total, and millions of dollars. In the two years since the plan was adopted, the LA Department of Transportation has installed 123 miles of new 'bikeways', and is working on adding 200 miles of additional bikeways every five years. LADOT also plans to add 'sharrow' bike icon markings to 22 miles of streets this year. It's fairly easy to put a bike on L.A. Metro buses, though the crankiness of the bus driver varies wildly from route to route.

In addition, the Department of Recreation and Parks hasn't been slouching on adding to L.A.'s off-road paths. One of the most famous starts in the Pacific Palisades and runs along the Pacific Ocean all the way through Santa Monica and Venice, continuing for more than a dozen miles south to Redondo Beach. The San Gabriel River Trail also runs for nearly 40 miles between L.A.'s Azusa foothills and Seal Beach.

And this month Los Angeles should also see the start of a very ambitious bike sharing program. Bike Nation's plan is to eventually have 4,000 bicycles at 400 different stations - if the plan comes to fruition L.A.'s bike share will be even larger than New York City's.

While the flurry of bike works is encouraging, there's no indication yet that it has significantly increased the city's bike commuters.

In spite of a very successful series of car-free city street Ciclavia events - the next one happens next weekend on April 21 - , LA just doesn't seem to have a critical mass of riders willing to brave the streets on regular days. Though there is plenty of bike traffic on the beach-front path, the new bike lanes seem sparsely used by cyclists when I visited at the end of March.

It also didn't feel like there's much of a community of cyclists quite yet. When you ride around the streets, other cyclists seem less like friendly allies than like other survivalists just trying to scurry quickly and safely from point A to B. And just as in New York City, in Los Angeles there are so many cars and so much traffic that the bike lanes that do exist end up being frequently used by drivers waiting to pick people up or waiting for parking.

While these downsides are discouraging, Los Angeles has some key features that make it possibly primed for a big time bike revolution. For one, the weather is pretty fantastic - nothing like the cold rain of the Pacific Northwest or the long winter slog cyclists in Minneapolis and other midwestern and East Coast cities face.

For another, with traffic so relentless, biking can be a pretty cheap way for Angelenos to reduce their stress and save some money by getting out of their cars, even if only occasionally. The effect on air quality would be pretty welcome, too.

Perhaps bike sharing can really help create that critical mass of cyclists the city really seems to need, and fast, to use the bike lanes instead of letting them become extra idling space for parking-seeking vehicles.

See also: Visiting New York City? Do a bike-tour of Brooklyn!

Why 'nobody' bikes in L.A., yet...
Well of course it's not true - L.A. has plenty of cyclists, lots of freshly painted bike lanes, and loads of bike-tivities. Still, where's the critical mass of cyclists?

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