Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Carless in Los Angeles: alternative paths to CicLAvia and beyond

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.

On 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 The trip shattered my outdated perception of LA as purely a car mecca.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?
When I first learned about LA's CicLAvia, it struck me in a very deep way. I felt like I had to be there. "Why?", I thought. Oakland, my home town, had just had "Oaklavia".  Why did I care so much about this one?

Personal Redemption
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
But this felt bigger than that. The city has had a formidable subway system for many years now. Locals still told me nobody rode it but how could that be true? All the supporters of CicLAvia are likely to be earnest supporters/patrons of public transportation. Also, the web revealed lots of new cycling activity happening all over the region. All this hinted at a dramatic shift in the city's transportation culture.

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.

Getting There
Train route from Burbank to Union Station
I started planning the trip down there with myopic purity. I would take my bike on the Amtrak train from the San Francisco Bay Area: maximizing fuel- and space-efficiency. Unfortunately, the need for time-efficiency inevitably altered this plan.

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
Since I would be toting a huge bicycle box from the plane ride,  I wanted to avoid clogging the narrow aisle on most buses when riding from the airport. This was a job for a train. LAX only has bus service so I landed at the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank which has a train station right across the street. Google maps will tell you it's a half mile away but it is actually much closer depending on how you walk. Regardless, there's a free shuttle to it if need be.

The train you catch at Burbank airport is part of Metrolink. This is full sized rail used for commuting: like the bay area's CalTrain. This Ventura County line is one of several outer legs of LA's surprisingly comprehensive rail system that stretches to every major suburb. This line had an asymetrical schedule with departure times that seemed to vary.

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 train was astoundingly nice and fast. It had a clean bathroom, clean seats, and elegantly designed bike racks. It even had a few power sockets for laptops. This was much better than CalTrain. I thought I was in Germany or Switzerland. It was that good.

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.

Union Station
25 years ago, my friends and I used to hang out in Union Station like people might hang out at a museum or an old warehouse. The beauty of the place has been featured in numerous movies including Chinatown. The grounds have a number of great courtyards in which to wait for trains. However, the interior is what attracted us most. It has row after row of big leather chairs with wide wooden armrests. The lighting of the grand hall containing these is something to behold. Nevertheless, back then there was a sadness to the place because it wasn't being used much. It felt like this beautiful monument to a bygone era of train travel in LA.

Not anymore. Union Station is now the hub for both the Metro (the inner city subway system) and MetroLink. Consequently, the place is bustling with commuters of all types. There are world tourists, professionals traveling to LAX, bag ladies, students, you name it. What a pleasant contrast to the last time I saw it. The grand hall now has at least 2 restaurants/cafes enjoyed by many from the look of it.  It was genuinely moving to see such a beautiful place revived for such a beautiful purpose.

A short walk inside Union Station got me from my MetroLink train to the LA Metro Red Line. Less than 20 minutes later, I was in my hotel on 7th street. So far so good. I was in LA without a car and at my first destination within an hour.

Bike Emergency

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
No worries. This was a great test for the Metro. Googling with my smart phone revealed a bike shop in Pasadena, 30 miles away, that was right by a Metro station. Forty minutes later I had the screws. Woohoo! I felt so good I hung out for great fish tacos at Pasadena's Seafood Grill: unpretentious, inexpensive, delicious.

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.

I thought I'd stay for an hour but I stayed for three. C.I.C.L.E. has been sponsoring such rides for a number of years. They go to great pains to make everyone safe and welcome. Volunteers "take the lane" before the riders move onto a street. By contrast, lane-taking with 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
Saturday, I took the San Bernadino Metrolink line to Pomona to have breakfast with my dad who was also in town. Pomona is way out from downtown LA so this was the biggest test yet for Metrolink. This line did have service on the weekend but the intervals were more sparse and, again, irregular. Nevertheless, I had the same positive experience I had coming into to town. I found myself texting on my smart phone with impunity while the train literally whizzed past cars on the freeway. I got from my hotel downtown to Pomona in an hour. Not too shabby with no car!

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
Once I got back from Pomona to Union Station, I was done with trains for the day. It was time to ride. I decided to score all the touristy points I could. On a bike, I didn't have to worry so much about traffic, even on a Saturday. I pedaled over to the Disney Concert Hall at Civic Center: a stunning piece of architecture at the top of a surprisingly steep hill in downtown LA.

From the concert hall, I pedaled up to Hollywood Boulevard to Mann's Chinese Theatre. This was an absolute madhouse traffic-wise but it was a piece of cake on a bike. Getting from here to Sunset was a bit hairy. Cramped lanes, fast cars, and lousy pavement on the west end of Hollywood Boulevard.

From Hollywood Boulevard, I pedaled down to Sunset and past the Beverly Hills Hotel. This is a very nice stretch of road that's palatable for cycling. However, it lacks a bike lane. At a stop light, a Ford Cobra roared up next to me.  Inside were a couple fondling each other.  Given their level of distraction, I was really missing a dedicated bike path. To minimize my exposure to cars, I veered off Sunset through the quieter side streets of Beverly Hills and then down to Santa Monica Boulevard.

As I crested the hill to Century City, I saw my first bike lane of the day and took my first breath of sea air. The bike lanes stopped at the 405 freeway for some reason but the sea air kept getting stronger as I approached Santa Monica and the beach so I was still feeling good. West of the 405, Santa Monica Boulevard has no bike lane but, on Saturday afternoon at least, traffic was mellow and the street was wide so the riding was pretty good anyway.

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.

After an interminable number of stops, I was fed up with this bus ride and ready to just bike home. However, the neighborhoods we were moving through were not the more affluent ones I had pedaled through earlier. They looked considerably meaner to someone as ignorant as I was about neighborhood, especially at night. Consequently, I decided to shorten my bus trip by getting off at the first Metro station. The Metro is pretty well staffed with security and it would be faster than bus or bike. I was now poised like a hawk near the front windshield scouring the darkness for my stop.

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.

I finally got to the tip of the Metro Red Line which whisked me to the hotel. By then I had missed the group ride I hoped to attend. About 11 p.m., I saw what must have been that group taking all the lanes of the street in front of my hotel. It looked like there were hundreds of cyclists. They filled the whole block. I was so bummed I missed it but so heartened again to see such activity from a city I thought was so hostile to anything but the car. It boded well for CicLAvia the next day.

I showed up at the volunteer station too early. None of my team was even there. I decided to use the time to tour the course and get some food. I made it all the way to the west end of the course and found Cafecito Organico was serving up a delicious baked egg on a bed of potato, chard, and spinach. Fabulous! I washed that down with their electrifying cappuccino and made my way back to Macarthur Park.

Along the way, still an hour before the start, I could already see very touching scenes in the streets that beautifully illustrated the point of CicLAvia. Children played, elderly strolled, young people drew pictures, and I rode in the middle of streets that would kill us on any other day.
Some volunteers I spoke with later talked about how studies have shown people stay on sidewalks even when they know a street is closed. That figures. If a certain move can get you killed in one context, you tend to avoid it for all.  It's like pulling the trigger of an unloaded gun. Who wants to find out the hard way it was actually loaded?
That visceral reaction to streets, powerful as it is, does slowly fade during an event like CicLAvia. The result, for me, is a feeling of indescribable relaxation and peace. The LA Times piece talks about the silence at CicLAvia. That plays a big part as well.

People who've grown up in urban settings have never known a time, and perhaps a moment, without the din or roar of the combustion engine in the background. They've been starved of silence. If silence is a key ingredient to peace then you do the math. If we won't change our transportation culture to address obesity, air quality, and congestion, what about doing it for social cohesion and peace? They are arguably just as important to a prosperous future.

Perception Updated
North Hollywood metro station
Velo Polo players after a match
Before my trip, I thought CicLAvia would mark the beginning of major changes to LAs car focus.  After 3 days and 300 miles of travel on nothing but LAs alternative transport, I see that CicLAvia marks change that is already well underway.

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.