A Brief History of Bicycles in the Los Angeles Area

Members of the L.A. Times Bicycle Club ride north on Western Avenue toward Hollywood, 1894. Courtesy of Braun Research Library Collections, Autry National Center: LS.14502

Earlier this month, advocates of alternative transportation cheered as the City of Los Angeles approved a long-awaited bicycle master plan. With more than 1,600 miles of proposed bikeways, the plan envisions a future in which the bicycle is an integral part of urban transportation.

It also represents an embrace of the city's past and an era when bicycle paths rather than freeways or rail lines connected the Southland's communities. That era, as well as the succeeding years when cycling has competed with other modes of transportation, comes alive through archived images from Southern California's libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions.

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Cyclists crossing Cahuenga Pass (present-day site of the Hollywood Freeway) in 1897. Courtesy of USC Digital Library - California Historical Society Collection.

In the late nineteenth century, the introduction of the modern bicycle sparked a nation-wide bicycle craze. Fervor for the two-wheeled vehicle especially resonated in Southern California, a region that prided itself on ideal year-round conditions for healthy outdoor activity.

Enthusiasts organized group rides across the Southland, formed local bicycle clubs, and lobbied for the construction of bicycle roads.

Perhaps the most famous bicycle route was the California Cycleway, an elevated bikeway whose plans called for it to extend from the historic Los Angeles Plaza to Pasadena's Hotel Green. Made of Oregon pine, the causeway featured easy grades, sparing cyclists from the hilly terrain between the two cities.

A one-and-a-quarter-mile stretch of the privately financed cycleway, pictured below in photographs from the Pasadena Museum of History, opened in 1897 between the Hotel Green and South Pasadena's Raymond Hotel, but by the first decade of the twentieth century it had fallen into disuse. Its full route to Los Angeles was never completed. Today, the Arroyo Seco Parkway uses much of the California Cycleway's original right-of-way.

California Cycleway in 1900, as seen from the Hotel Green in Pasadena. Courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of History - Main Photo Collection

California Cycleway crossing railroad tracks in 1900. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History - Main Photo Collection

Handwritten caption: "In the days of bicycling". Ed Braley's Bike Emporium located at 33 South Raymond Ave., Pasadena, circa 1905. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (C15-6f)
Another popular cycling corridor lay between Los Angeles and the town of Hollywood. The Los Angeles Times Bicycle Club organized runs along the route, whose unpaved roads eventually became our modern-day, traffic-choked boulevards. The colorized photograph at the top of this post, courtesy of the Braun Research Library, shows cyclists pedaling north to Hollywood along a dusty and rural Western Avenue.

Cycling Path from Santa Monica to Los Angeles, 1896. Courtesy of USC Digital Library - California Historical Society Collection.

Cycling caught on in Santa Monica, too. Seeking to capitalize on popular interest in the sport, the Southern Pacific Railroad built a bicycle track and spectator stand in the beach community. The Santa Monica Cycle Path was later built between Los Angeles and the seaside town. The beginning of the path is seen above in an 1896 photograph from the USC Digital Library's California Historical Society Collection.

The bicycle craze also spread southward to Orange County. In the 1911 photograph below from the Orange County Archives, the county's first Boy Scout troop prepares for an overnight bicycle trip at Hewes Park in the City of Orange.

Courtesy of Orange County Archives

With the advent of automobiles and the Pacific Electric interurban railway, the bicycle craze fizzled in the first decade of the twentieth century, but bicycles would remain a part of Southern California recreation and transportation. In a typical mid-century college scene, pictured below in a photograph from Honnold Mudd Library Special Collections, students sit on their bicycles at Pomona College.

Courtesy of Honnold Mudd Library Special Collections - Claremont Colleges Photo Archive
1974 Advertisement. Courtesy of Mission Viejo City Library - Mission Viejo Heritage Committee Planned Community Collection.Later in the century, many suburban communities, including much of South Orange County, were master-planned with bicycles in mind. This 1974 advertisement for the planned community of Mission Viejo, courtesy of the Mission Viejo City Library, highlighted the area's amenability to bicycle riding:

Bet you haven't done that in years...a warm spring evening, the kids staying with some friends, nice night to take in a movie. Even better when you don't have to fight traffic, pay for parking, then walk six blocks. When we planned Mission Viejo, we had a feeling people liked things 'kind of close by', so that a bike would put you right in the heart of town.

Cycling was also a part of the two biggest sporting events in Southern California history: the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympic Games.

In 1932, a velodrome was installed inside Pasadena's Rose Bowl, the site of the track cycling events. In preparation for the 1984 Olympics, a new facility was built in Carson. The Olympic Velodrome, demolished in 2003 to make way for the Home Depot Center, is depicted in this photograph from the California State University, Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections:

Courtesy of California State University Dominguez Hills Photograph Collection
Road racing also changed venues between 1932 and 1984. During L.A.'s first Olympics, cyclists raced from Moorpark in Ventura County to Oxnard, then down the Roosevelt Highway (Pacific Coast Highway) to Santa Monica. In 1984, hilly Mission Viejo in suburban Orange County hosted the road cycling events. The photograph below shows cyclists nearing the end of a lap in the 1984 men's road race.

1984 Olympic Road Cycling Race. Courtesy of Mission Viejo City Library - Mission Viejo Heritage Committee Planned Community Collection
In the years since freeways replaced elevated bike paths, Southern California has discovered a newfound enthusiasm for cycling, spawning a passionate biking culture without whose efforts a master bike plan might never have been adopted. The website I Am Los Angeles, an L.A. as Subject member institution dedicated to chronicling life in L.A. through the experiences of individual Angelenos, recently featured one of those enthusiasts, fixed-gear cyclist Sean Martin, and his thoughts on "Taking over L.A. on Two Wheels":

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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I like the photos especially those of the raised cycleway between Pasadena and LA.

The I am Los Angeles video of fellow riding the fixed gear bicycle at high speed without brakes and without a helmet is NOT a model of safe bicycle commuting that I would want to promote to the masses.

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yojamey, the fellow riding the bike "without brakes" (HINT: the drive train is the brake) and without a helmet has done more to promote cycling in Los Angeles than 99% of the people you will meet in your lifetime. Safe bicycle commuting is not "Wear your helmet". Safe bicycle commuting is made possible by safe streets to ride on, not foam hats with dubious claims to safety. Helmets measurably deter people from cycling.

But let's not make this about frickin' helmets for christs sake. What is next? A complaint about "stop sign running scofflaw cyclists" and "bike riders don't pay for the road/license and register all bikes"?

Can we have one god damned debate about cycling without these moronic tropes being dragged out from under the bed?

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ubrayj02:
To say that a helmet is a deterrent to cycling is merely to state that YOU don't like it. fair enough, but, please - it's as much a red herring as the opposite side.
I wear one - for the simple reason (at least originally) that I'm accustomed to it - that i feel naked without it. I took to it, over 25 years ago, when my daughter, then a child of 7 or so, started riding. My wife wanted her to use one - and they were new - at least inexpensive models. My thinking was that example was a far more potent teacher than simple precept ("Do it, 'cuz I say so!"), and so it proved.
I agree that cycling is a safe pursuit - as long as, in and around traffic (and I cannot see us affording full "separate but equal" facilities for cyclists) we remember that we, ourselves, are also traffic - and must conform to the normal rules of traffic behaviour. Certainly, as slower stuff, on uncrowded streets, we move to the right - like any other slower vehicle. But if that street is full to the crawl stage, then we can - and should - move out from the curb, assume our position in the lane, and play the game. This means we can make the same sort of turns as any other driver - from the same places. We get to move at the pace of the crowd ("Get your hunk of polluting junk out of my way!"), and so forth. Being a driver, though, only when it's in my favour, does not count - at least with other traffic. To make the point, one must act like a driver precisely when it does NOT work in your favour - when it means you sit and fume, like the others, in that endless queue - because you do not have a clear lane of your own - and it has to be a marked one - to scoot up to the head of the line. Life is tough - to "win", we must be tougher - not bigger, nastier or stronger, just tougher.

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This documentary effort reminds me of the film, Taken for a Ride, which chronicles the systematic destruction of the urban streetcar system in the US via a coordinated strategy led by General Motors, and the steel, glass, and rubber corps, etc. A key element of the film is the demise of the SoCal Red Line--in a parallel to the loss of the bikeways of the past.

Regarding helmets, they have saved my brain from serious damage on both bikes and motorcycles. There is no rational reason why the young fixie crowd eschews them. These bike hipsters are, from what I am observing in Fresno, having an influence on others who are taking up the sport. Its ironic that he complains about the risks from cars and rides with the minimal braking force of the rear wheel. Sooner or later, we all go down and God help you if you don't have a high-tech helmet.

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Great, let's keep this STUPID, COUNTERPRODUCTIVE, argument about helmets going.

Do you know the only place that helmets have been proven, in a peer reviewed, scientific test to protect users? When on the heads of people driving cars.

If they make us safer when we're driving our cars then why don't we see every car ad, every Car & Driver article, littered with "friendly advice" about using a helmet?

Because helmet use makes car driving suck, and you won't get people driving everywhere if they have to wear foam hats.

The same is true for bicycling.

Trot out all the inane anecdotal evidence you want, I've got my own anecdotes.

Or better yet, STFU about helmets and listen to what the man in the video says, what he does, and continues to do to grow the cycling movement.

If all you can add is "WEAR A HELMET, hipster", then you know what? Your comment isn't adding anything to the debate. You aren't helping anyone out. You aren't saving lives. You aren't getting more people on bikes. Save it. Or better yet, shove it.

Cripes.

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Have to say I was a little turned off by the automatic attitude above. (what is it about bicycle activists? I guess being in constant danger from motorists makes you a little aggro -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3nMnr8ZirI)

Aggro or not, tho, there is a point here: Overemphasis on helmets distracts from a real discussion of bike safety. Here is a good discussion of the issue: http://bicyclesafe.com/helmets.html

By turning this into a hipster bitch session we are all missing a chance to move things forward. For what it is worth, though, I wear a helmet and ride everyday. I am too old to take any additional risks...

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A fine article. Thanks, KCET. Bike safety encompasses many things: Community involvement & funding, rider and car driver education, bicycle priority zones, road signs and sharrows, reasonable bicycle maintenance, obeying traffic laws, on and on. Helmets have always been a big controversy. My personal experience of spearing a car door when a car ran a stop sign hugely reinforced my belief in helmets. I'm aware of 3 other friend's accidents where helmets broke or cracked instead of the rider's head. Many won't believe in them until an event becomes up close and personal. Their importance as a safeguard is indisputable. Any discussion of any aspect of bicycling is a positive move ahead in raising the consciousness and getting cycling the attention it deserves.

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a shame what oil and the automobile did to the city of angels...

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I learned how to ride a bike last year (oh, the shame), but from the start people have differed in opinion when it comes to helmets. I guess as a newbie, I'm more interested in discovering safe bike paths(ei. away from cars). Other than the Orange Line, does anyone know of other routes ideal for beginning riders like myself?