WESTWOOD — When he would ride his bike from his Westwood home to the beach in Santa Monica, David Eisenberg, a professor of biological chemistry at UCLA, used to avoid some traffic-congested stretches by taking a shortcut that led him through the Los Angeles National Cemetery.

But since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the cemetery has been closed off to bike traffic, he said, forcing riders to take longer, more dangerous routes to travel between Santa Monica and Westwood Village.

Without the shortcut, bike riders have to brave the major streets, which Eisenberg said can be a “death defying experience” because of car traffic around the I-405 on Sunset and Wilshire boulevards.

He said a pathway through land owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs adjacent to the cemetery also is often closed to bikes, which further forces riders onto roads that are unfriendly to bicyclists.

“It’s a major discouragement to bicycle commuters, and heaven knows we need more people to ride their bikes,” he said.

Eisenberg is among a group of Westside bicyclists that supports restoring bike access to the cemetery but has met with opposition from the VA.

Mary Jones, the VA’s cemetery representative in Los Angeles, said bikes are barred from entering the cemetery because regulations prohibit using the grounds for recreational activities.

“The issue was not 9/11, the issue is the fact that it’s a national cemetery and not a park,” she said.

“I think it’s a common sense issue. We have burials, we have families here that are in mourning,” she said, and riding a bike through the graveyard is “just simply disrespectful.”

UCLA Bicycle Academy founder Michael Cahn, a bicycle activist who is leading the charge to re-open the cemetery, denies there’s anything offensive about allowing bike traffic to cross the cemetery grounds.

“I think it would be disrespectful to have recreational and sports activities in a cemetery,” he said, but allowing commuters to take a safer route to reach their homes or jobs shouldn’t be confused with permitting recreational use.

Cahn, a Santa Monica resident who lectures in the history department at UCLA, this month organized a meeting with a staff member from Rep. Henry Waxman’s office (D-Beverly Hills), to press his case. Cahn said about 20 bicyclists attended the meeting, which was held at UCLA.

Ted Rogers, a board member of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, is helping promote Cahn’s effort. He said it’s “absurd” to think bicyclists would denigrate the cemetery.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people who would use that route would use it for transportation rather than recreation,” he said.

While riding his bike past the cemetery Rogers said he’s noticed funeral proceedings taking place and stopped to pay his silent respects — something he said people driving cars aren’t likely to do.

Convincing the VA to change its stance, though, is sure to be a difficult task.

Waxman will review Cahn’s research but will not take a position on the issue because of its sensitivity, said Karen Lightfoot, a spokeswoman for the congressman. She said previous efforts to increase access to the cemetery riled some veterans groups, who wanted to preserve the sanctity of the environment.

For his part, Cahn countered that allowing bicyclists access to the cemetery could even improve its tranquility by reducing vehicle traffic in the area, thereby reducing noise and pollution. He said he’s drafting a letter he hopes to present to the secretary of the VA arguing his case.

In Los Angeles, at least one military veteran who is also a bicycle enthusiast isn’t convinced by Cahn’s claims.

Michael Lindley, the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the group Veterans for Peace and an avid bike rider, said he favors keeping the cemetery off limits to bicyclists.

“It’s a place of honor and it’s a place of rest and it should stay that way, I really think,” he said.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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