I’d like to initiate this post with a simple “Hello!” I’m Alex, a fresh addition to the LADOT Bike Team, and will be contributing an article or two a week. I’m a recent grad of University of California Santa Barbara (Go Gauchos!) and received my degree in Environmental Studies. I plan on pursuing a graduate degree in Urban Design, but in the meantime I’ll be familiarizing myself with the L.A. bicycle network and helping the team with community outreach and various odds and ends. What inspired me to get involved with transportation planning was a seven-month stint in Copenhagen, where I studied urban planning at the renowned LIFE faculty. While post-abroad students always talk about “culture shock,” the transition from Los Angeles, a crown jewel of American modernism, to Copenhagen, one of the most sustainable cities in the world, was staggering to say the least. I went from one of the most auto-centric cities in the world to one of the least. Bicycle ridership in Copenhagen is nearly universal: the Danes bike 55% of all trips and 37% of all commutes (e.g., work and school). This high degree of bicycle use is unprecedented for Europe and unheard of in America. For a frame of reference, Eugene, Oregon, appears to have the highest bicycle ridership (commute trips) in America, amounting to 5.64% or around one sixth of Copenhagen’s ridership. The hometown of my alma mater, Goleta, CA, actually ranks fifth in the nation clocking in at 3.74%, but is still one tenth of Copenhagen’s. In Los Angeles, bicycle commuters amount to less than one percent of all work/school trips (.06%, though that number is expected to increase once 2010 data is in).
The differences between Los Angeles and Copenhagen are about as stark as the statistics suggest. For one, cars are actively discouraged by the government who taxes automobiles at 150% (e.g a $40,000 Mercedes would cost $100,000). That means the only people who can afford to drive are the affluent, who can also afford the astronomical gas prices and parking fees. This causes the great majority of people to either take the city’s excellent Metro system (which was named the “World’s Best Metro” at a Metrorail Conference in 2010) or to ride bicycles. The Metro came every six minutes, 24 hours a day, had no drivers, and had stations that looked like an Apple design (see above). I would use the Metro at times, but for a student it was extremely costly when compared to cycling: a one-way ticket cost nearly five dollars and the monthly pass cost around eighty
The bikeway system in Copenhagen is extremely robust; I don’t remember bicycling on a street that lacked facilities. In fact, it was rare to find a street with just painted lanes, most streets have a raised curb for bike lanes with a row of parked cars separating bicyclists from automobiles (see above). Bike parking was ample, and if you didn’t own a bicycle there was a user-friendly bike-share program. Bike signals, a infrastructure feature I had never seen before going to Copenhagen, were widespread throughout the city and even timed for bicycle users.
I quickly became one of the 37% of Copenhagen’ers, bicycling to school everyday in rain, snow, and preferably sunshine. During my seven month stay, I was in a car a total of two times, once after getting totally lost at night in an unfamiliar neighborhood (the cab had a bike rack!) and the other taking my grandmother to the airport (again in a cab). Not one of my Danish friends owned cars themselves, although many bought monthly Metro passes during the winter time to avoid the frigid bike trip to class. I stuck it out, and figured bicycling everywhere, everyday would make my $200 investment in a bike (for six months) more worth it.
By the end of my stay there, I had become an expert bicyclist, mastering the “no hands” technique and dropping fifteen pounds. Exploring on bike, I got to know 80% of the city within 6 months; I now happily call Copenhagen my second home. Returning to U.C.S.B, I was still in a relatively bike friendly place, but upon graduating and moving back home to Los Angeles reality really hit home. Being unemployed until relatively recently, I tried to use my car as little as possible but found myself spending a significant portion of my savings on gas (as much as $50 a week!). Bicycling feels uncomfortable, and I’m lucky if I have a bikeway to ride on. I’ve slowly been gaining back all the weight I lost, and have started going to the gym to compensate for all the latent exercise I lost while bike commuting in Copenhagen. Even on quieter streets, I have to navigate difficult intersections that lack bike signals. Upon starting my internship here at the Department of Transportation, I was shocked by the high cost of parking Downtown and wanted to “walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk” and ride my bicycle to work. This thought proved to be easier said than done. First, I couldn’t find a route that fit my needs. Second, I didn’t want to end up at work totally sweaty after a 30-minute bike ride in office attire. The plan really got nipped in the bud when I told my mother about it, who quickly forbade the idea because she was worried about my safety. She’s offered to drive me to the Red Line, but once the summer ends I’ll be biking and taking the Metro. That is unless we create a safer pathway!
So while I miss Copenhagen dearly, I realize that Los Angeles’ low bicycle ridership is caused by a variety of barriers. For one, there is a lack of facilities, and the bikeways that do exist often involve sharing the road with motorists going 35-50 miles per hour. Another problem is distance; Copenhagen has a combined advantage by being more dense, yet far less populated, cramming a million people in an area the size of Santa Monica. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has a far higher population in a much more decentralized urban form. I’m much more inclined to do a 15-20 minute bike commute than a 30-45 minute one. Perhaps the biggest factor is the local attitude towards bicycling; for the Danes it is seen as a necessity, much how we perceive our cars. Angelenos often see bicycling as a recreational activity, not as a viable form of urban transportation. However, as gas prices, congestion, maintenance costs, parking woes, and other inconveniences associated with automobiles increase bicycles seem more and more like a convenient, fun, and healthy alternative. If bike facilities were combined with a robust public transportation system, Los Angeles could follow Copenhagen’s sustainable example. While we are doing our best to educate citizens that bicycles could have a powerful role in the cities transportation scheme, we can’t do it alone! Use existing facilities to show your neighbors it isn’t so bad. Petition your city council members to increase bike infrastructure. If an area you frequent is lacking bike parking, request racks on our website. If we work together, we can make Los Angeles a more bicycle friendly place.