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Economics, environment, and health all make for pretty good cases to ride, but in Los Angeles, what can trump the temptation of a commute sans the traffic?
Here, the standard unit of measurement is time. How long will it take to get there? That all depends on what time of the day you plan to travel. The average commute time in Los Angeles County is just a few minutes above the national average, at 29.4 minutes, according to the most recent available Census data. But I know from personal experience that many Angelenos have much longer commutes, and this average is likely skewed by those who are lucky to live skipping distance from work, and those who telecommute.
Los Angeles sprawl creates unique commuting conditions; we know our freeway interchanges better than our Sunday school psalms, and an hour-long commute is par for. But those freeways will be there when El Nino comes back; there's not reason not to bike to work today, or any other day, especially with all the Metro bus routes and train lines available to bridge the gaps. It certainly is doable, as indicated by the 7.5 percent increase in ridership in the city between 2011 and 2013, according to the latest L.A. Bike and Ped Count released by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition this week.
When I lived in North Hollywood and worked in Beverly Hills, for example, I could choose to drive through Coldwater Canyon and end up just north of my Wilshire office; or I could take a 10-minute ride to the Red Line, spend exactly eight minutes on the train going two stops, and from there I would have a 25-minute ride through Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica into Beverly Hills. The canyon drive would take 45 minutes no matter what, 40 if it was a government holiday, up to two hours when construction and accidents created an impasse between the sides of town. Of course the average was a solid hour. The bike ride: 45 minutes, always.
On one hand, biking to work offers more predictability than the unexpected nature of day to day traffic. Accidents, road construction, broke down Metro buses, and random weird debris vary from one arterial road to the next, but all those things aren't clutch-burning obstacles when you and your bicycle can roll past every driver sweating over the minutes, belting out a top 40, or picking their nose while you pedal gingerly through the intersection into calmer waters. Car commuting times can vary, so can public transportation, but as long as your bike is in running order, there isn't much that can hold up a cyclist.
Right now, 19 percent of all trips in Los Angeles County happen by foot or by bike; raising that portion to a full quarter of all trips doesn't seem that far off. Commuting to work was my gateway into a whole range of cycling, from social rides like Spoke 'N' Art to the Wolfpack Hustle races, and into bike polo, bike touring and cyclocross. It all started because I was tired of sitting in traffic and feeling gross about it.
Ironically, while offering the benefit of a more standardized commute time, commuting by bike actually presents many new opportunities -- from the coffee shops and stops that you become aware of, which become easier to get to (parking? no big deal), exploring new routes and finding great shortcuts (you always will), to riding alongside other commuter cyclists and being able to meet up with friends on the way home because you won't have to worry about beating traffic. Riding home gave me an excuse to meet friends in Hollywood, and check out the bars and restaurants that caught my eye, or head downtown for Artwalk or ramen in Little Tokyo. In the spirit of meeting friends at the bar for a end-of-the-day drink, LACBC is hosting Handlebar Happy Hour at five bars around the city for Bike to Work Day.
Maybe it's simply planning for the bike commute that holds people up -- I mean, how will you carry your coffee mug, and who wants chain grease on their slacks? Just go ahead and roll your pant leg up, it's OK. No one's going to laugh, cycling is chic now.
But how will you get there? A typical L.A. commute involves at least one, if not four freeways. For the past two years I have been commuting to Long Beach a few days out of the week. By bike, from my Northeast L.A. neighborhood, I could ride to downtown, catch the Blue Line, and then get off in Long Beach and ride to my destination. The whole trip took almost two hours, but the first thing I would do at the start of a long day was ride my bike.
Some of my favorite commuting routes across town have been the York-Eagle Rock-Avenue 36/Fletcher route that can get me to Glendale, Silver Lake, and Hollywood; and the Los Angeles River path that heads into Burbank, a key link to the San Fernando Valley. Figueroa to Broadway or Daly lead into Chinatown, Lincoln Heights and Downtown, where Echo Park, and all lines out to the West Side (Expo), Long Beach (Blue) and all points north (Red) are accessible. Living in Silver Lake, Beverly was always a choice route East to West. Streets like Sunset, Figueroa, and Santa Monica cut through much of the city, and feature good stretches of bike lane. L.A. Bike Trains offer eight conductor-led routes across town, which is great for getting your feet wet or adding some new friends to the same old commute.
Less than a third of Americans get enough healthy physical activity, by the Center for Disease Control's minimum standards. Especially in Los Angeles, everyone is trying to get the most out of life, and somehow spend the most time possible on the Internet talking about it too. We're body-conscious, but there's always Photoshop. Getting in shape is certainly a great benefit to biking, but the simple act of moving can have strong positive impact on mood too. Sometimes it's surprising how good it feels to be biking after barely scraping together the will to get out of bed. Biking has been found to lower blood pressure, and physical activity in general is linked to lower rates of obesity, diabetes and depression.
Biking can make us feel better, and save us from the stresspool known as traffic, and save us all the money we don't put into the gas tank. These are all great reasons to ride, and things that motivated me when I decided to bike to work -- but it wasn't those things that made me want to keep doing it. It was the relationship that grew between me and the city as I came to know it. It was the places in between, and the adventure of exploring a new route, and thrilling of smelling every change of season on the wind, and meeting people on my commute and noticing new things each trip. If there were just one reason to bike to work, it would be to enjoy Los Angeles. Every street corner has its own personality. Every day is a different kind of sunny. Biking to work can make all the difference in your day. The easiest way to ensure a smooth ride? Remember to pump up your tires.
Photos: Krista Carlson