Can cars and bikes coexist on the streets of Los Angeles? [Commentary]

Los Angeles cyclist Todd Munson rides with Lance Armstrong
Los Angeles cyclist Todd Munson rides with Lance Armstrong Todd Munson

Can cars and bikes coexist on the streets of Los Angeles? That kind of depends on how you define the word "coexist."

Currently bikes and cars do coexist on the streets of L.A., but it’s pretty much the same coexistence that seals and great white sharks have in the waters off the coast of South Africa.

As someone who’s spent the last decade commuting both by bike and car, I won’t hesitate to say that bikes and cars can definitely get along a lot better. My current bike commute is a thrice weekly jaunt from Hancock Park to the South Bay. It’s 40 miles round trip and for all of about five miles of it, I have to ride with the same heightened sense of awareness a seal needs if he wants to go for a dip and make it back to his namesake island in one piece.

While getting to live out Shark Week at 7 a.m. can be an exciting way to start the morning, it does get a little old. The good news is that for bikes and cars to coexist in something resembling harmony, there’s really only one major change that needs to happen, and it won't even cost a single penny.

All that needs to happen, and this is going to be a stretch considering we’re talking about Los Angeles, is both cyclists and motorists need to take a step back, grow a sense of personal responsibility and think about how their actions affect others.

In other words, folks on both sides of the issue need to start using a little more common sense.

When you break it down, the vast majority of car versus bike incidents occur because one or more parties failed to use both halves of their brain.

Here’s a glimpse of the motorist-enabled joy I experienced this recently while pedaling through Los Angeles.

Because I do my best to be a polite and courteous cyclist, when stopped at a red light I always check behind to see if anyone wants to make a right on red, and if so, I’ll gladly move aside. As I’m waiting to cross Highland, a lady in a Range Rover Sport comes to a stop a couple inches off my rear wheel. There’s no turn signal being used and I can’t make eye contact with her because she’s locked into a staredown with her mobile device. I check again and she still hasn’t looked up from her device.

A moment later she’s laying on the horn, calling me unprintable names and yelling at me to get out of her way. As I move aside, I inform her that turn signals are standard equipment on cars for a reason and maybe she should try using them. She responds with a middle finger and peels away. I’ve been out of the house for less than 10 minutes and this is a great way to start the morning.

Sorry Prius drivers, don’t start feeling smug that the woman happened to be driving a Land Rover. Y’all are right up there when it comes to obnoxious behavior. Case in point last Thursday: I was making a left as a light was turning red, and much to my surprise, I hear the unpleasant blare of a car horn. It was such a shock I nearly crashed. I turn around and see a see a man in a Prius shaking his fists at me.

This struck me as more odd than frustrating because one of the few unbreakable rules that keeps Los Angeles from collapsing into a state of total anarchy is that when a light turns red, two cars can make a left. Going through the intersection I was joined at the hip to car number two. Now I know Prius drivers can roll solo in the carpool lane, but last time I checked nothing was added to the books giving them special “third car” privileges.

Then again, maybe this guy was a special case, because not only did he fail to grasp the irony of his actions, he failed to realize that harassing someone without having clean getaway maybe isn’t the best idea, as we got to exchange pleasantries for the next three stoplights.

However, I can sympathize with the frustrations motorists have with cyclists.

As much as I ride I am behind the wheel quite often and all that’s kept me from hitting a cyclist has been the fact that I obey the speed limit and believe in coming to a complete stop at stop signs. (For as much as those darn cyclists run stop signs, it was motorists who got the phrase “California Stop” into the lexicon, FYI.)

Additionally, and this is the unfortunate truth, I just approach with caution and assume every cyclist I see is an idiot until proven otherwise. Being a cyclist, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s who on a bike. Generally if someone’s riding in the street and wearing a helmet, they tend to know what they’re doing. The riders to look out for are anyone riding on the sidewalk (believe it or not, they’re most likely to get hit by a car) and anyone pedaling a fixed gear which have been all the rage for far too long.

The fixie rider is typically the cyclist squeezed into jeans from the “tween” section of the Gap and wearing a bag big enough to hold a mini-fridge. When you mix no brakes with someone trying in vain to be a social renegade, the only thing you’ll get is a recipe for disaster, so it’s best to give them a wide, wide berth. I too long for the day a new fad comes along so they’ll all go way.

Granted, there’s a better chance of bacon falling from the sky than a common sense virus breaking out in Los Angeles, but if everyone could pledge just five IQ points towards being team players on the city streets, we’d be living in a much better place.

We’ve gotta start somewhere, right?

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