On July 15, 2011, Los Angeles began "carmageddon": the closure of the 405. Although the inconveniences will surely be mammoth, I hope Angelenos take pride and full advantage of their superb alternative transportation systems. Below, I profile my surprisingly positive experience using only the LA Metro, Metrolink, and my bicycle to get around.
IntroductionOn 10/10/10, Los Angeles banned cars from 7.5 miles of roadway through the center of Los Angeles for CicLAvia. The LA Times piece covers the details of the day.
This post is about my experience flying in for the event with nothing but a bicycle. The trip shattered my outdated perception of LA as purely a car mecca. Riding nothing but public transportation throughout both urban and suburban LA was surprisingly pleasant and efficient. It also brought me closer to the people of this city in ways I didn't expect.
What's it to me?
Oaklavia". Why did I care so much about this one?
Perhaps it was because, 25 years earlier, I tried and failed to use only a bike in LA while attending school. Black soot in my lungs and overt contempt from motorists quickly ended that. For this and other reasons, I transferred to UC Berkeley soon after and left town. So the prospect of cycling into the open arms of a city that had sent me and my bike packing 25 years earlier was definitely compelling.
Possible Sea Change
Personal redemption or historic sea change, I had to see this for myself. I signed up to volunteer at the event and padded the trip with a few extra days to try out some of the other new alternative transportation infrastructure and events.
|Train route from Burbank to Union Station|
Inter-city Trains (Amtrak) Still Lacking
The train from the bay area to LA takes all day, literally. Doing this would require taking 2 extra days off work. On top of that, a terrorist alert had heightened train security which meant increased delays.
Planes, Trains, But No Automobiles
Given all this, I decided to fly down with the bike. I'd congest the airways getting down there but not the freeways getting around town. This seemed right to me. It's all about right-sizing your ride for the journey not using bike or train at all costs. I'm not a bike ascetic.
Bob Hope Airport
Generally though, it leaves the airport for downtown every hour during commute hours. As I found out later, weekends are a different story: there's no service on the Burbank line and other lines are severely scaled back. Nevertheless, on this particular Friday I was on a train heading to downtown in less than 10 minutes.
The only unfortunate part of the ride was realizing that this clean, nice, fast train to downtown was virtually empty at 8:45am on a Friday. I suddenly worried that perhaps this great train service would wilt before Angelenos adopted it. But it was early yet.
Regardless, I got from Burbank Airport to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles in 40 minutes. That isn't faster than a car in good traffic but it is in bad traffic. In any case, it is much cheaper and cleaner. Best of all, I could write this or read the paper while I commuted.
Originally, the point of flying in early was to have some time on the bike scouting the CicLAvia course on a regular work day. However, my bike was still semi-dismantled in a bike box from the flight. When I started to reassemble it at the hotel, I discovered I had left the mounting screws for my rear derailleur back at home. Without those the bike is useless. Ugh!!
Metro Gold Line: Pasadena to the Rescue
C.I.C.L.E ArtNight Ride
I was back at my hotel and had the bike assembled in plenty of time to scout a bit and then attend the "ArtNight Ride" hosted by C.I.C.L.E. The ArtNight Ride was another pleasant surprise to my outdated perception of Los Angeles as car-focused. Approximately 50-100 riders gathered in Pasadena's Central Park on a Friday night to bike between a series of art exhibits and performances. It was a beautiful night with great people, exhibits, and a heartpounding taiko drum performance.
SF Critical Mass is self-serve. Although I'm comfortable with the self-serve approach it is nice to know there's an easier intro for the new. Group rides are one of the most nourishing and fun experiences in cycling. The folks at C.I.C.L.E. are very gracious ambassadors to that. After the ride, I returned to downtown on the Orange Line about midnight with no problems.
Metro Brown Line: Pomona
Returning from Pomona around 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday, I did run into a 2 hour dead zone where there was no train until after 1 p.m. I then went on a bit of a wild goose chase looking for the bus station which ran hourly. In the end, I took the train after 1 p.m. The return soaked up more of my day than I liked but it wasn't devastating. I still had time to pedal to the beach.
Pedaling to the Ocean: Union Station to Santa Monica
Like any other tourist, I made a bee-line for the 3rd Street Promenade. Then, I hung out to watch the sunset. It had been a while since I saw the sun boil into an ocean's horizon. Very cool. Although after that I found myself standing in the dark with at least 16 miles of central LA between me and my hotel. Pedaling around Pomona and out to the beach had left me too wiped out to want to dodge cars in the dark; not to mention, any criminal activity. I decided to take the 794 Metro Rapid bus which left right from 3rd Street Promenade and went straight to Union Station.
Existential Bus Ride
The bus ride turned out to be anything but rapid. It was a classic, sweaty, overcrowded milk run. Nevertheless, it produced some precious moments that reminded me of all the intangible reasons to bike, bus, and train.
Amongst the chaos of the bag ladies, the French and Japanese tourists, the goateed art student hitting on the scantily clad UCLA coeds, an elderly man mentioned to the bus driver that he had to get off at "Western". The bus was so crowded that he couldn't see when we arrived there so he asked the bus driver to remind him. The driver had too many other people competing for his attention to notice. I didn't realize I had until 45 minutes later.
Public transport can breed empathy. It can breed animosity as well but that night it produced empathy in me that I didn't know existed.
I am hardly a bleeding heart. I can be bit of a loner, especially when I am feeling vulnerable on a strange city bus. Even so, while focusing on my own place to ditch the bus, I saw the old man's street approaching fast: Western! I looked back at him. Not only was he unaware, he was asleep. Now, I couldn't just tell him. I had to wake him. This took some doing. He was really out. It was comical but sweet to watch his eyes blink slowly as he came online. "Western?", he said. "Yah", I said. He got all flustered and lobbied for the bus driver to stop. He did so just in time.
The old man didn't thank me or anything but I felt really good from the experience. "Empathy", I thought. Public transport can breed empathy. It can breed animosity as well but that night it produced empathy in me that I didn't know existed. Any psychologist will tell you empathy is the key to healthy relationships. I am grateful for the reminder that there's more at stake in the transit debate than things like efficiency and air quality. Public transport is a way to keep us all from isolating ourselves to sociopathic degrees. It's hard to live in an apathetic bubble when people can reach out and touch you with their hands or their needs.
|North Hollywood metro station|
|Velo Polo players after a match|
What's more, the people of LA have altered their culture towards alternative transport with a gusto and bravado that only they can. The way they decorate their train stations (North Hollywood), their bikes, and themselves, makes the whole thing more cool. The cyclist image desperately needs all the cool it can get (see this Slate article for more on that). Having the residents of an icon of cars and coolness getting on board trains, bikes, and the whole alternative transport scene is a vote of confidence that will breed a lot of global adoption.
Los Angeles is no longer just a car mecca. Los Angeles has a first class public transportation system that rivals many U.S. cities and compares favorably to many around the world. Most importantly, the people are using this system in droves and the city's transportation culture is embracing alternative transport in a big way. I don't recognize it anymore but I love LA.