Sunday, January 11, 2009

En Vélo - Au Royaume De L'Automobile

"To travel by bicycle in Los Angeles is to choose a parallel world" writes Nicolas Bérubé for Montreal's La Presse, demonstrating, once again, that what happens in Los Angeles resonates throughout the world.

I don't speak French but I know Katie and she was gracious enough to translate the article for us.

by Nicolas Bérubé

To travel by bicycle in Los Angeles is to choose a parallel world in which many cyclists don't leave unscathed. For Stephen and Enci Box, cycling has become a way of life.
PHOTO CAPTION: Stephen and Enci Box only travel by bicycle. As an added safety measure, they always call each other each time they arrive at their destination.

The last time he left in his Volkswagen Westfali, two years ago, Stephen M. Box sensed that the motor would not last for long.

That night, he parked his car in the garage of his apartment building, in Hollywood. He left his accumulated personal belongings which had gathered there over a number of years. And he made a surprising and even heroic decision for Los Angeles: He decided not to buy another car.

"The Westfalia is sitll there," says Mr. Box. "We go to visit it from time to time. It's like a little museum for us. A souvenir of a time when one needed to buy gas in order to get around."

Stephen Box and his wife Enci travel through the city by bicycle now. In Los Angeles. A city as large as some small countries. A city where driving is so popular that it's not uncommon to find oneself in a traffic jam in the middle of the night. A city where people who travel on foot are suspect.

"The other day, a driver lowered his window to shout at me, "Hey, you aren't in Europe, you know!" recounts Mr. Box. "I didn't respond. You get used to it."


According to the weather charts of the region, Los Angeles should promote cycling. The city counts 329 years of sunshine annually on average. Certain neighborhoods are located on monumental hills (Hollywood, Silverlake, Echo Park). But in general, the city is flat as a coin and as easy to pedal through as the Netherlands.

In theory, at least. In practice, it's rotten. The bikable streets are hard to find. They don't take you to the busiest parts of the city. Drivers are always speeding and, until the law was changed this past summer, always on the phone. Paying attention to cyclists on the roads around them doesn't factor in to their priorities.

The result: Even as the rising price of gas pushes more people to travel by bicycle more often, cycling remains a marginal activity in the second-largest city in the United States.

"People don't have a great tradition of respect for cyclists," explains Bill Rosendahl, Los Angeles City Councilmember. "Now, with the energy crisis, more and more citizens are choosing to travel by bike. This is why we have to work together to learn to share the road."


With more than 10,000 kilometers of roads in Los Angeles County, less than 700 are given bike routes, of which a quarter are outside the limits of the most highly trafficked areas of the city.

The lack of bike routes is so pronounced that the City allows cyclists to ride on the sidewalks, often deserted, provided that cyclists don't ride too quickly or put the safety of pedestrians at risk.

For Mr. Box, who maintains a blog about biking (, even these disappointing statistics are misleading. "Strangely, it's the streets with bike lanes that are the worst. You have parked cars, buses, cars leaving parking spaces ... It's almost impossible to ride in the lane for more than two minutes without somebody or something getting in your way."

He settles the matter: He rides in the street, in the center of the lane, as if he were driving a car. "Los Angeles is the city of 'me,'" he says. "People don't understand that a cyclist can ride in the street, in front of them, in front of their car. They look at you with their arms raised, their eyes large. They just refuse to see it."

In his community work, Mr. Box must travel to all four corners of the city, often in the same day. He says he easily rides 50 kilometers every day, often more. He goes to each Municiple City Council meeting and fights for each bicycle issue to be put on the agenda. As a measure of security, his wife and he began to call each other each time they reached their destination. "That way, we each know the other has arrived safely. If she doesn't call me, I know go out on the road to make sure everything's okay with her."

Mr. Box is insulted, several times a week, by drivers on the road. "Get a car!" is a common one lately. Other drivers cry out, "Get on the sidewalk!" "They don't know that I have the right to be on the road," he concludes.

by Nicolas Bérubé

Last summer, an incident occurred that propelled cycling into the forefront of the news.

On July 4th, a retired doctor drove down a steep hill in his SUV, passed two cyclists in the road in front of him, and slammed on his brakes without warning. One cyclist went through his rear windshield and suffered serious injuries to the face and head.

The driver, Christopher Thompson, 59, was reported as saying that he slowed down as he did in order to "give them a lesson." He claims that the cyclists -- two athletes in their forties -- refused to ride single file, even after he honked his horn. According to the police, it was a case of road rage. The driver was arrested and will soon appear in court.

The accident took place on Mandeville Canyon Road in the fashionable Brentwood neighborhood, home to several celebrities as well as California State Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Stephen Box was one of the first people to comment on the incident, a story that continues to be followed by the LA Times and which all cyclists in Los Angeles recount as a tale of terror.

According to him, it's the ignorance and impatience of the driver, unused to sharing the road with cyclists, that was the cause of this debacle.

"We have a lot of educating to do. Unfortunately, the generations before us didn't demand bike lanes and equal rights for cyclists. We have a long way to go. It's difficult. But we have to start somewhere."

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