Lately, everyone seems to be talking about cycling in Santa Monica. A good thing, I’d say. I love bikes. On someone else.
Here’s the holiday wish (not mine) that ignited it all a couple of weeks ago, courtesy of fellow Daily Press columnist Bill Bauer: “I wish we had more traffic enforcement such as motorcycle officers to cite bicyclists who ride on the sidewalks, run stops signs and signal lights, cut off pedestrians and ride at night wearing dark clothing on bikes without lights or reflectors.”
Yeah, those terrible, criminal cyclists, a threat to our safety. Let’s bust ‘em, get them off the streets — uh, I mean the sidewalks.
Some have lined up with a “hear, hear!” Many others took issue. I’m taking issue.
I’m not a cyclist, but my wife and both my grown kids are avid bikers. I’ve tried it and it’s not my cup of tea. Place me somewhere between “Interested but Cautious” and “No Way, No How.”
Quite honestly, I’m chicken. Because I’m neither a good nor experienced cyclist. Competing for road space with distracted drivers of hurtling 3,000-pound missiles on wheels is not my notion of recreating, nor the wisest choice, for me, for getting from A to B. I’ll take my serious exercise on the basketball courts, thank you.
But for those more ecologically minded, braver, and more proficient than I, I’m with you all the way. I’m in favor of anything a city can do to get more people out of their cars and onto bikes.
Our attitudes about bikes are positively American. You’ve seen shots of people of all ages and social standing riding through Paris or Oslo or the Dutch countryside. They have bike lanes and entire bike highways. Bikes have equal rights on the roads. Drivers know they have to look for cyclists and pedestrians as well as other cars when they make turns. So can’t we too make it easy and safe for those who ride? Let’s do everything we can to increase their ranks, because we all benefit.
But I’m not always in my car. I walk. I walk a lot. I was within three walks of completing my goal to walk every street in Santa Monica last October when a little open heart surgery messed with my timetable. I’ve since checked off one of them and will hit the last two soon.
But I’ll tell you this: in all that walking, all those miles and all those many hours, I can swear I never encountered a cyclist riding on the sidewalk. Never. Or cutting off pedestrians. Not once.
Ride at night wearing dark clothing on bikes without lights or reflectors? I’ve seen it. I would guess that some people start out earlier in the day and don’t pick out all whites because they didn’t know they’d still be riding past dark. No lights or reflectors? Not very often. But there’s no excuse for that. If you’re not lit or reflecting, don’t ride. Those people should be cited. But the rest of those accusations are non-issues.
Except running stop signs and signal lights. Yeah, I’ve seen that. But never witnessed that it caused a safety issue for either the cyclist or motorists. I can’t defend breaking a traffic law, but I understand it. Coming to a full stop (how many drivers actually do?) and accelerating again in a car is a matter of tapping your foot. On a bike, you’ve got to push to get your momentum started all over, at every red light and stop sign. I understand the temptation.
Talk to anyone who regularly cycles on city streets and if they’re honest they’ll all, every one, admit to doing it. And will quickly add that they only do it when they can clearly see a good distance in all directions, and when there are no cars whose trajectories they will interfere with. Cyclists know who wins the fight between an SUV and their 12-ounce titanium baby.
I can’t recall ever seeing a near-miss because a cyclist ran a stop sign. I see a near-miss between cars almost every day. Well, not in Santa Monica itself, because our traffic is going too slowly for that.
To get a better idea about these issues, and biking in Santa Monica, I spoke with two devoted cyclists, Nicole and William, both students at Santa Monica College who ride their bikes to school every day, rain or shine, sick or healthy. One rides from northeast of campus and the other from the west.
Nicole started cycling just last spring, but quickly became hooked and now rides to Malibu, downtown L.A., even up to Angeles Crest (from Santa Monica!). William started pedaling his senior year in high school, and also rides everywhere. Neither have a driver’s license (both are 20), a common thing now.
Nicole’s ride to campus and back is shorter and without many options. There are several steep hills you just can’t get around, and she avoids the busiest streets. She does take Pico to 11th Street to reach the arts campus, a good route. William favors Idaho/Colorado avenues from West L.A. because “it’s downhill and fast and there aren’t so many stop signs and lights. It doesn’t have bike lanes but it has lots of space.”
Both agree that Broadway, and Santa Monica (better now with the bike lanes) and Ocean Park boulevards (they love the new wide bike lanes west of Lincoln Boulevard) are good, and Pearl Street is great. (But William noted more bad experiences on Broadway than anywhere else, particularly getting “doored.”) Colorado, and Pico, Olympic and Wilshire boulevards — not so good. Ocean Avenue — really bad. Terrifying. Downtown is a mess, they said, always crowded with pedestrians and cars. Tourists rubberneck and ignore signals. Fourth Street is really bad — very narrow, one lane, no bike lane south of Pico.
They praise bus drivers for being courteous. She is cautious of their right turns, but he appreciates the shelter they offer from cars, when they’re going slow. His greatest pet peeve is cars that pass too closely, and observed (emphatically) that people in luxury cars are more aggressive and more disdainful of cyclists. He also complains of cars that sit in the bike lane, to park. They said it’s a hassle when people stop where they shouldn’t in a misguided attempt to be helpful.
Nicole added, “cyclists can be jerks, too. I’ve made mistakes,” but “if everyone sharing the roads were more accepting, and forgiving” it could be a beautiful thing.
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 28 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org