The Santa Monica Cycle Path: L.A.'s First Bike Lane

The Santa Monica Cycle Path at Washington and Third Ave. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Call it L.A.'s first bike lane. Completed in 1900, the 18-mile Santa Monica Cycle Path paralleled rutted wagon roads, traversed bucolic fields and meadows, and gave Los Angeles cyclists their first reliable route to the sea.

In the 1890s, Southern California was hot with bicycle fever. By the end of the decade, more than 35,000 cyclists called Los Angeles home, many of them organized into clubs that sponsored races and joyrides. Cycling's promoters touted it as a healthful form of recreation, one especially suited to perpetually sunny Southern California. And the bicycle democratized transportation; Angelenos no longer needed a horse and carriage to escape the city and tour the sprawling countryside.

The only problem: the sorry state of the region's roads. Most of the country highways leading out of Los Angeles were classed as wagon roads -- relatively unimproved dirt pathways prone to rutting and generally unsuitable for cycling. Improved carriage roads, by contrast, were relatively rare. Routes like Wilshire, Venice, and Santa Monica boulevards did not yet exist. A ride through the countryside, then, called for riders who paid keen attention to road conditions and didn't mind an occasional tumble.

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Enter the good roads movement. Launched by a group of cyclists calling themselves the League of American Wheelmen, the movement agitated for smoother country roads. It scored its first major victory in 1891 when it persuaded New Jersey to form the nation's first state highway department. Where legislatures were not as flexible, the league urged local chapters to build bicycle paths as way to demonstrate the insufficiency of existing highways. Place a smooth, oiled cycleway next to a dusty, rutted wagon road, the league reasoned, and teamsters, farmers, and carriage drivers would soon join in the call for better roads.

So the Santa Monica Cycle Path -- a six-foot-wide gravel road that paralleled existing highways but was closed to all but pedalers and pedestrians -- became a sort of demonstration model for the good roads movement as well as a practical solution to the region's poor road conditions. (Pasadena's elevated California Cycleway, built around the same time, suggested other possibilities for roads.) Even the fundraising drive for the cycle path doubled as a publicity campaign for the movement; boosters purchased "good roads" buttons that they could later wear on their coats in lieu of paying a toll.

When it opened on June 24, 1900, the Santa Monica Cycle Path cut travel time between Los Angeles and the coast in half. Santa Monica had already been a popular cycling destination -- saloons and restaurants in the town provided bicycle racks as early as 1895 -- but cyclists had been forced onto roads plagued with wagon ruts and potholes. Now, they enjoyed a smooth ride over disintegrated granite gravel, shaded much of the way by newly planted pepper trees. And the scenery was varied; though much of the cycleway traversed pretty farmland and grassy meadows, riders also passed by the Hauser slaughterhouse and through the tiny town of The Palms. (Though urban development surrounds the cycle path's former route today, in 1900 most of the land was open countryside.)

The Los Angeles Herald devoted nearly an entire page to the cycle path's opening. "It has been completed," the Herald proclaimed, "and now affords comfortable riding to scores of cyclers who fain would mingle the brine of the toilsome brow with that of the noisy surf."

The Santa Monica Cycle Path at Washington and Western, circa 1900. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society.

Clubs like the Los Angeles Wheelmen, shown here, joined the good roads movement in lobbying for cycle paths. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Though it's hard to discern, the Santa Monica Cycle Path appears on this map as a bold black line between Santa Monica and Los Angeles. 1900 map of Los Angeles County by A.L. George. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. 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.

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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