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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
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.

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

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
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
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":

Taking Over LA On Two Wheels, by I Am Los Angeles
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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.