Bikes, sweat and tears: Getting to work on 2 wheels in LA

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The number of people who bike to work in the city of Los Angeles has grown by nearly 70 percent in the last 15 years - but it's still a pretty small number: just 1 percent of the total population.

The city has 350 miles of bike lanes but L.A.'s cyclists must still contend with a car-entrenched culture, fast-moving traffic and frequently long distances between home and work.

By contrast, in cities like Portland and Minneapolis, between 6 and 4 percent of people commute by bike. But now a growing contingent of activists and public officials hope to make L.A. streets friendlier for cyclists of all abilities.

A grassroots group called L.A. Bike Trains leads guided bike commutes on ten routes throughout the city.

"By being in a group we have both safety in numbers and the experience of somebody who's done this route several times," said Charles Dandino, who leads a bike train from Silver Lake to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He's called a "bike train conductor."

Conductors encourage beginning bikers by providing route planning, safety instruction and even help fixing a flat tire along the way if necessary.

"It can be a little nerve racking at first" said Dandino, who has even been known to pick up fearful cyclists from home and escort them to the route starting point.

                  A map of Charles Dandino's bike ride to JPL. See the full information at Strava

Programs like this are part of a larger movement of "bike culture," according to Michelle Mowery, who has worked on bike issues with L.A.'s Department of Transportation for two decades.

"About eight years ago you saw a resurgence of folks wanting to bike for transportation and it really caught the city by surprise" she said.

The non-profit Bicycle Kitchen opened to help people work on their bikes, shops began to market to urban riders rather than sports recreation, selling things like panniers, baskets and vintage-looking leather saddles, and cyclists began showing up at public meetings and forcefully advocating for their community.

In 2011 L.A. adopted an official Bike Plan that directed the city to add dozens of miles of bike lanes every year and add features to some streets like speed bumps or curb bulb outs that slow down car traffic and make it safer for people on bikes and pedestrians.

"We’ve got a lot of good stuff going but we want to do more," said Mowery. "Our ultimate goal is to get people from 8 to 80 riding."

In service of that, the city is crafting a plan for the next 20 years that will serve as a blueprint for policy decisions - the Mobility Plan 2035.

At its heart is a concept known as "complete streets," an effort to make streets as safe and efficient as possible for everyone that might want to use them - including bikes and pedestrians - not just cars.

The Mobility Plan proposes a network of streets that would be prioritized for different modes - so some arteries would be designed to keep car traffic flowing, while others might prioritize transit or bikes with dedicated bus-only lanes or bike lanes that take over a lane of traffic and are protected with a physical barrier.

The proposal was passed by the L.A. City Planning Commission in May and is expected to go before the L.A. City Council for a vote in September, but whether the plan becomes reality remains to be seen.

"Finance leads planning," said Herbie Huff, a research associate at the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies. "Nothing happens without money and political will."

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