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Remembering Alex Baum: Visionary Voice for L.A. Cycling

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It's only a name on a plaque, but for a growing population of cycling residents, Alex Baum was the man who made possible the beautiful paths before them.

"He was the number one driver of bicycling in the city, even prior to when the city had staff dedicated to bicycling," says Michelle Mowery, sometimes called Los Angeles's bike czar -- formally, the city's senior bicycling coordinator over at the Department of Transportation -- and Baum's longtime friend. "He was the voice [for cycling] when there wasn't a voice."

Last Sunday, surrounded by family, Baum, a champion of mobility in Los Angeles and beyond, passed away. He was 92.

Many would recognize his name because of a unique bridge that spans over Los Feliz Boulevard by the Los Angeles River and the 5 freeway, which ushers cyclists and pedestrians through two 24-foot diameter bicycle spoke and rim features, but those entrenched in cycling culture would know him to be more than that.

Born in Germany, raised in Vic-Sur-Seille, a commune Lorraine, the French Resistance fighter and Holocaust survivor, grew up a lover of an active life that is open to everyone. "He was European. He grew up in France," explains Mowery, "Cycling was in the fabric of his life."

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Raised by his maternal grandparents and three uncles, Baum was an early witness to Tour de France processions, where his family would host athletes of color such as a Jessie Owens who weren't able to find other lodgings, while competing near their home. Inclusive mobility and activity would be a theme that would come up throughout his life.

As a member of the 1984 Olympic organizing committee, he was responsible for adding the women's road race to the palette of Olympic games. A feat compared to a "small conspiracy wherein a needle was added to the haystack of bid paperwork to establish women's cycling in the modern Olympics." By going through all the paperwork required and having it signed by authorities, the small cabal circumvented the parties that had previously barred the sport.

Later on, he would also help develop cycling programs and recreational facilities for inner city kids in Los Angeles. He helped secure the 7-11 sponsorship, which funded the development and construction of Olympic Velodromes in Carson, California and at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He also helped build the velodromes in Dominguez Hills and Encino, as well as pioneered the Amgen Tour of California bike race, one of the four cycling stage races in the world.

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He was a prosperous caterer, but he was also an advisor to four Los Angeles mayors, helping them see Los Angeles not a city crisscrossed with freeways, but greenways that allowed residents to enjoy the beautiful California sunshine.

While serving under Mayor Tom Bradley, Baum helped form the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee (LABAC) in 1973 with Baum as the chairman for more than 25 years. Under his watch, bicycle lanes began to appear throughout the county and even along the coast of Santa Monica bay, enabled by former Councilman Marvin Braude. Even semi-retired and enshrined as a Chairman Emeritus, Baum continued to attend LABAC meetings.

With his guidance, LABAC was involved with the first ordinance requiring bicycling parking in new developments across the city. He initiated the 1996 and 2010 bicycle plans and was responsible for hiring the first bicycle coordinator for the city.

Perhaps the most beautiful legacy Baum leaves behind is Los Angeles' increasingly bike-able city, especially along the Los Angeles River. "These bikeways along the Los Angeles River, none of it would have happened without him," says Mowery. The Jewish Journal says this is one of Baum's most treasured projects. At the thought of a 50-something mile path alongside the river from San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, he said to the paper, "You can stop anywhere through the city, enjoy the Sunday or the weekend without using the car; [you can] even ride at night. We have lights and rest stops, parks and a restaurant."

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Councilmember Bill Rosendahl with Alex Baum after vote to approve LAbikeplan in 2011 | Photo: Umberto Brayj/Flickr/Creative Commons

While the Los Angeles River bikeway has yet to be completed, projects are underway to help plug the holes in the system. But the city has already been changed. The 2013 bicycle and pedestrian count showed that over two years (between 2011 and 2013), L.A. has seen a 7.5 percent increase in cycling and that adding bicycling infrastructure has helped more than double cyclists in the city. (Adding a bike lane increases ridership by 103 percent while sharrows up the count by 132 percent).

It was Baum's unique personality that helped bring all this about, Mowery says. "It was that thing that allowed him to build relationships and introduce cycling to the community." A number of other memorials to him since his passing show that he did bring a personal touch to his work. Ted Rogers of Biking in L.A. recalls a man frail with age, yet still extending an open hand to him on his first day attending an LABAC meeting. LABAC remembers him as a man "who took the long view in all things," who "put the personal up front," and "embraced mentoring as an art form." Mowery says, "Everyone that met him felt completely within his embrace. I have no other way of explaining it."

 

Alex Baum's memorial is planned for Wednesday, March 4th at 1:30 PM at the Santa Monica Synagogue, 1448 18th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Please RSVP to Danielle Gardner, Alex's daughter, at dgardnersm@aol.com.

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