Cyclist heaven or biker hell? Or something in between?

Let’s talk about my most recent ride for a moment.

At one point, I was riding in a bike lane along a relatively quiet street, when a driver made a left turn from a side street onto the street I was riding on. Only problem was, her car was pointed directly at me, and crossed into the plane of the bike lane before she straightened out and moved back into the right lane. I made a quick swing to the right to avoid her, then moved back into the bike lane once she moved out.

Then, as I rode along side her, she kept looking to her left as if searching for an address. And as she did, kept drifting further and further to the right — towards me — until I finally got her attention by yelling a warning. Throughout it all, I don’t think she ever saw me or knew I was there until I yelled.

Several miles later, a couple of pedestrians stepped off from the curb — directly into my path — without ever looking in my direction. Again, I yelled a warning, and made a panic stop just feet in front of them.

Later still, I was riding in an area heavily traveled by cyclists, when a rider ahead of me made a long, looping turn to his left, circling back to something he’d passed on his right. Problem was, he never looked anywhere but where his front wheel was pointed. And he was on a path that would soon collide with mine. So again, I yelled a warning, he finally saw me, and we both went safely on our way.

That may seem like a lot of close calls, but I suppose three minor incidents over the course of a 43 mile ride isn’t that bad in a city like this.

But the more interesting thing is, the problem wasn’t just with drivers. It was with a motorist, pedestrians and another cyclist. And it had nothing to do with road rage, aggressiveness, rudeness or any refusal to share the road.

It was just plain, old-fashioned carelessness.

I bring this up because Will Campbell — yet another member of the Bike Writers Collective — recently took the Wall Street Journal to task for last Friday’s article about the problems and perils of riding in L.A. And he’s right; as a rule, I find riding in Los Angeles a relatively safe and pleasant experience.

As an expert rider — after three decades of riding I certainly put myself in that category — I know where to ride, and where not to. I also know how to ride safely, avoiding the perils that pop up with regularity in any urban environment.

The problem is, most riders aren’t experts. I frequently see cyclists with limited skills plodding along crowded, high speed streets I would be very reluctant to put a wheel on, and I see them attempting moves I would never try. Or advanced moves I can get away with, but that they don’t have the skill to pull off successfully.

And that inevitably leads to collisions, and confrontations with angry motorists.

So the WSJ article was right, as well. With a few notable exceptions, Los Angeles streets were not designed for cycling. And many cyclists and drivers here are painfully unaware of the rights and responsibilities of cyclists, as well as how to safely share the road.

The point is, riding in L.A. can and should be much safer than it is. You shouldn’t need expert riding skills to safely traverse the city on two wheels, or to enjoy a pleasant weekend jaunt to the park and back.

We need to educate both drivers and cyclists alike, and keep pressure on the city to take at least some of the same steps that other cities, like Denver and Portland, took decades ago to make the streets safer for everyone. Including us.

And we need to pay attention out there. Because, as my experience shows, many — if not most — of the problems here are caused by plain old carelessness.

 

A cancer expert says the real danger from cell phones isn’t disease, but using them when you walk, drive or cycle. Well, duh. We got Manny from Boston, now maybe we can adopt their new bike-friendly attitude. A Detroit protest against heavy-handed police turns into a celebration of cycling, while an Ann Arbor writer suggests simple changes that could help us share the road.

3 comments

  1. Will Campbell says:

    Very well put!

  2. Luke says:

    This will sound rhetorical, but bear with me. Does a zebra safely share the same stomping ground as a lion in the wild? No. Zebras are never safe when there are lions around looking for their next meal. Same goes for bicyclists on busy roads, especially in big cities. There are too many variables in a city like Los Angeles that could cause a very unpleasant riding experience for a bicyclist. Los Angeles is unique in one major regard. This city has perhaps the most diverse and numerous pool of drivers, comprised of adult immigrants from all over the world. And guess what, many of our immigrants have brought “their” way of driving from “their” countries and do not easily adapt to our own ways of driving, despite passing the driving tests.
    This fact apparently is not included in people’s awareness of unique situation that LA Roads represent; which is why I bring it up.

    That said, how do I manage the best possible bike ride possible when I hit the streets? First of all, I treat motor vehicles like lion’s, because they are the kings of our urban jungle; whether you want to admit it or not. I won’t get into the politics or economics of it, but basically motor vehicles rule our cities. For anyone that wants to dismiss this fact, I sincerely suggest that you move out of the city into a more quiet and peaceful residence in a town not on the map. But for those ciclists who are going to ride in this urban jungle, my best advice is to respect the lion (the motor vehicle). This is such a crucial point that I often sense bicyclists in cities such as ours are unwilling to acknowledge. When acknowledged, you will inevitably find yourself being a thousand times more alert and you will also avoid putting yourself in unnecessary harm’s way.

    As a former bicycle messenger in Los Angeles, I can honestly say that blindly resting your faith on the premise that bicyclists are special, energy conscious commuters and therefore deserve to be carefully treated by all other commuters (whether cars, pedestrians, other bicyclists, etc.) is not only self-righteous but also foolish and it’s this type of thinking that if carried out with one on their bicycle, is most likely to get you injured, or worse.

  3. Gary K. says:

    I agree that although I do encounter the occasional truly aggressive driver, most near misses are the result of simple carelessness. Lack of education for cyclists, and inadequate education for drivers is definitely something that has to be over come.

    Regarding Luke’s comments I disagree that a lion is the right metaphor. A lion uses cunning, calculation, and the element of surprise to intentionally attack it’s prey. Cars are potentially deadly, and should be given fear and respect when on the road, but it’s rare that they are intentionally out to get cyclists, more likely to hurt someone while talking on the phone then any malicious intent.

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