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May 9, 2012 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Getting around LA via bicycle?

I'm moving to LA in a few weeks, and I'm wondering how realistic my plans of getting around via bicycle (mostly) are....

Currently I live in Philly, where I not only don't have a car but actually feel better off without one (thanks, PhillyCarShare, for filling in the gaps!). I ride my bike pretty much everywhere I need to go, and I take SEPTA only when absolutely necessary (given how mild this winter was, practically never, and I have no problems biking in the rain). My trusty road bike is outfitted with a medium-duty rear rack, and between that and some heavy-duty panniers, I have no problems transporting groceries or doing shopping.

I have visited friends in LA and I remember thinking that contrary to the conventional wisdom, it seemed surprisingly bikeable, at least within a given neighborhood. It even seemed like it wouldn't be that hard to get around longer distances in the city if one took the bigger avenues and boulevards and stayed off the freeways. However, I didn't see anybody doing this really, which makes me wonder if there are complications I'm not considering.

For what it's worth, I feel like a pretty seasoned urban biker; Philly has a lot of bike commuters and bike lanes now, but ten years ago it didn't and the average cyclist had to contend with an extraordinary amount of hostility from cars, not to mention the belligerent recklessness of the bus drivers. Even now I do occasionally get flipped off, cut off, or even once deliberately hit by people driving cars (well, taxis) but it's much less common than it used to be. While those incidents are alarming and sometimes scary, it hasn't put me off riding my bike in the least.

While I will have a car, eventually, I would be greatly heartened to know that I won't be completely dependent on driving to get around. I realize that the answer will depend greatly on where my work is in relation to my residence, but since I don't have a job lined up yet, all I know for certain is that I will be living in Echo Park. Will I still be able to get to other places in the city from there on my bike, and will shopping/errands be bikable as well? I'm willing to put up with a lot of adverse conditions in order to keep riding, but if it's downright impossible or egregiously unsafe, I'd like to know ahead of time.
posted by Aubergine to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I lived in suburban LA, where I had a bicycle and thought I could use it to get around. After twenty minutes down the bike path (which was next to a 4-lane highway) my lungs felt like they were going to burst. Seriously, a 40-minute long round trip around there left me feeling physically ill for a few hours. Maybe it was the proximity to the highway. I know it wasn't me because a year or so later (and absolutely no more or less fit) I went on vacation to Europe where the only way to really get around was to be on a bike. Discounting my experiences in LA, I hadn't bicycled in at least a decade prior. I had no issues and was on and off the bike all day, every day for a good week.
posted by griphus at 1:11 PM on May 9, 2012

The complication you're not thinking of is the immense, sprawling size and the likelihood that your workplace will be nowhere near your home. If you can live and work in the same neighborhood and do not desire to go anyplace else, yes, it's bikeable. But this depends entirely on the nature of your work.

Let's say you live in Burbank and work in Santa Monica. Both of these locations are considered to be "in" Los Angeles, and people are often expected to commute from one to the other. Happens every day.

On a bike, according to Google, that's 18 miles, with a set of mountains between the two.

But if you can live AND work in Santa Monica? Great! Hope you can afford it, though. ;-)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:12 PM on May 9, 2012

...if I wasn't clear, feeling horrible was due to the large amount of (clearly visible) air pollution.
posted by griphus at 1:12 PM on May 9, 2012

It's possible, but not easy, just because Los Angeles is so spread out that distance and time could become an issue in a way that you wouldn't have in...say...New York or San Francisco.

Living in Echo Park, you'll definitely be able to do shopping and errands by bicycle, and you'll be able to get to Silver Lake and downtown, though Hollywood would probably be really pushing it. Whether or not you can ride your bike to work will entirely depend on where you end up working, but one and two-hour commutes by car are not unusual in southern California.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:14 PM on May 9, 2012

It really just depends on your commitment level. Yes, you can definitely live here and just bike everywhere. If you're willing to add on subway & bus, that makes it a bunch easier. Note that we don't have anything like Zip Car here yet, so you can't fall back on that.

But generally speaking: There's a lot of traffic, pretty much everywhere you go, pretty much all the time. So this is most likely going to be very, very urban biking, with all the attendant issues, from rude drivers on down. The weather will be generally nicer than Philly, however.

I'm just going to assume you're not going to take a job that will require you to, say, run errands, or pick up items across town. 'Cause I once worked with a production assistant who only biked and we eventually had to fire him because we couldn't wait hours for pickups to happen across town.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:22 PM on May 9, 2012

I live in LA, and I haven't biked much lately, but it's definitely possible to get around via bike if you live and work in parts of town that are conducive to bike commuting or bike+public transportation commuting.

For example, I used to live in the Mid-Wilshire area. I'd bike three-ish miles to the purple line, take the purple line to the red line, and then bike from the Universal City stop to my job. I live in Echo Park, and I work in Burbank, and in theory that's pretty bike-able (just take the LA river path) but in practice I work ridiculously long hours and I don't want to deal with biking home in the dark after working a fourteen-hour day. And sometimes I need to run errands for my boss that require a car. But it's doable. And Echo Park to downtown is really doable. I just biked downtown to go to a bookstore, because parking downtown in a pain in the ass.

IMO, Hollywood is not pushing it from Echo Park. It's five relatively easy miles from my apartment to the Hollywood and Vine. I'm not much of a cyclist, and I've done it.

Re: Air Quality - I have asthma and allergies, and I run and bike outside. Some days it's dry and oppressively smoggy, but my experience has been nothing like Griphus'. The only thing that really sucks is if you're biking in the valley in the summer, and it's over a hundred degrees, and you start to feel lightheaded. So . . . don't do that.

The big issue that I have with biking in LA is that the drivers are truly the jerkiest in the world when it comes to bikers. I have been in two bike accidents here, and the driver did not even stop either time. Granted, I wasn't badly hurt, but they had no way of knowing that in light of the fact that they drove off immediately after hitting a person on a bike. In my humble opinion, West Hollywood is the worst place to ride a bike in LA.

And I would also say that it's easier to enjoy all that LA has to offer if you have a car. It's good to get around by bike a lot of the time, but if you want to go the beach, or you have something you have to do in Century City, or you just want to go somewhere on a whim, it's a lot easier if you have access to a car.

And for the love of god, please wear a helmet.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 1:29 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's very sprawling and very not flat. Serious hills, mountains, canyons, etc. Though my brother did pretty well on his bike for a long time, he became a very hardcore rider. And still had to drive plenty.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 1:30 PM on May 9, 2012

Note that we don't have anything like Zip Car here yet, so you can't fall back on that.

We have Zip Car in Los Angeles.

I have colleagues who commute 15 or so miles in L.A. most days. But they're super hardcore cyclists and they have memberships at a gym a block or so from the office so that they can shower when they arrive. And they own cars, because living L.A. is better if you have a car and can, therefore, go to the other side of town or to other neighborhoods when you want to.

L.A. is a wonderful city, and it has several neighborhoods that are fairly self-contained, livable, and walkable. But to really learn to love L.A., I think it's necessary to be able to really explore all of its diversity. And you really can't do that without a car, because L.A. is giant and has mountains running through the middle of it.
posted by The World Famous at 1:35 PM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

zipcar offers service in los angeles, and laxcarshare is another car-sharing alternative. as everyone says, how bikeable you will find los angeles depends a lot on where you live and where you'll be going regularly.
posted by jimw at 1:37 PM on May 9, 2012

This is by no means meant to discourage you, but Echo Park has had some serious bike theft issues in recent years. You may want to take an extra measure of care in locking 'er up and keeping 'er in sight.

Air quality has been improving for decades; you'll be fine in that area of town. Bus fumes will be your biggest suck-it to deal with, air-wise.

L.A. has a very vibrant biking community, particularly in the area you'll be living. Lots of organized group rides, strong bike activist community, lots of cool DIY bike repair places. You'll have a blast!

Come out, see what shakes down, don't sweat the car till you get here and get a feel for your new life. Yep, people here do live car-free!
posted by quivering_fantods at 2:16 PM on May 9, 2012

A couple of resources:

LA Bike Coalition

posted by gingerbeer at 2:21 PM on May 9, 2012

The air pollution thing might have been the power of suggestion. As ugly as smog cover can be, I can't remember it ever affecting me in any way physically. And it's not nearly as bad these days as when I was a kid in the 70s.

I've found L.A. generally pretty bike friendly despite the areas lacking infrastructure. I suspect drivers are simply accustomed to seeing bicycles on the road. Pedestrians, too, since in L.A. proper, it's actually legal to ride on the sidewalk as long as you're not being a jerk about it.

The biggest potential problem with L.A. is that it's very spread out. Geographical features make the San Fernando Valley/L.A. basin transitions often impractical on bicycle. The areas around Echo Park can get hilly.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:09 PM on May 9, 2012

The areas around Echo Park can get hilly.

Indeed. Echo Park is home to some of the steepest streets in the United States.
posted by The World Famous at 3:38 PM on May 9, 2012

That really depends on what you mean by "other places in the city." As others have noted, LA is really big, and really spread out. I have a car and I'm not willing to venture much outside of my Westside comfort zone without very good reason and advance planning, just because it's such a pain in the ass to deal with traffic to get across town. In your case, say a friend wants to meet you in Santa Monica or even in West LA near UCLA. That would not really be doable by bike in moderate traffic. There are a lot of parts of the city you'll look at on GoogleMaps, calculate the time/distance to reach, and realize getting there in any kind of reasonable time is just not gonna happen.

I'd say figure out what your comfort zone in LA is going to be given where you're living, and more or less limit yourself to those areas until you get a car. When you get here and figure out you job situation and get a feel for which neighborhoods you think you'll be spending most of your time in, then you can decide on whether you absolutely need the car or not.
posted by yasaman at 3:40 PM on May 9, 2012

Also, despite Mayor Tony's promises, LA streets are so full of pot holes as to look like a war zone. You can bike, but be prepared for very aggressive drivers, people who open their car doors without looking for a bike, and a host of other related menaces. Bad air days don't look like the smog of the 60s, but the air is still hard to breathe. And it's hot in the summer, so don't expect to look all fresh and perky when you get where you're going. I think biking in LA is nice enough, but as your only means of transport--it's going to get old.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:03 PM on May 9, 2012

IMO, Hollywood is not pushing it from Echo Park.

Totally my bad; I somehow mixed up "Hollywood" and "North Hollywood" in my head.
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:20 PM on May 9, 2012

Reconsider moving to LA. It's a dreadful city, completely designed around transport by automobile.

Nonsense. It's about 25 awesome small cities, completely designed around never visiting the neighboring small cities unless you like sitting in traffic.

I sort of kid - my commute to Downtown is about 15 miles and takes me 15-20 minutes most of the time. But I don't live on the West Side. Living on the West Side is only a good idea if you're OK with the idea of never leaving the West Side. And LA is not a dreadful city. Once you give it a chance and dig in, it's one of the great cities of the world.
posted by The World Famous at 4:26 PM on May 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Thanks for all the answers so far. I happen to have really liked LA when I visited, among many reasons maybe because I honest-to-god like driving. Of course, that doesn't mean I like being stuck in traffic or having a long commute, but fundamentally the fact that LA is a car-based city doesn't bother me. I'm not asking about the bike thing because I want LA to be someplace it's not, but rather because I also enjoy biking, and it has the additional advantages of being both free and healthy. So this is helping me get a sense of how much my life is necessarily going to change, and what habits I can keep (ie, biking for short errands or within my neigborhood).
posted by Aubergine at 4:29 PM on May 9, 2012

As others have already said, the feasibility of loving without a car depends totally how far your workplace is from your home. Some communities are easier to navigate without a car (Santa Monica for example), others are not. I work in Santa Monica and our office is overflowing with bikes from all the people who cycle to work.

I have friends who lived here without a car for a few years (before zipcar existed) and she cycled from West LA to Burbank for work, or took the bus (both methods took about the same journey time!). The bus service is pretty good, but can get slow when going long distances across LA. The subway system is improving. There is a vibrant cycling community in LA, and more and more cycle lanes are opening up all the time.
posted by Joh at 4:50 PM on May 9, 2012

Yeah, I see fairly few cyclists here so visibility / reaction from drivers may be an issue. I know it scares me from biking here, but then again I love to drive so my motivation is low.

LA streets are so full of pot holes as to look like a war zone

This is true. La Brea, for example, has a few teeth-jarring ones I hit every couple days. I would not want to hit those in a bike, so you will have to watch for them all the time (which I do in my car too, but sometimes can't swerve around them given traffic).

Living on the West Side is only a good idea if you're OK with the idea of never leaving the West Side

This is a cultural thing mostly though, I feel. I commute from Hollywood to the Westside (Venice), and it's really not that bad _if_ you don't go during peak hours. I go in late and leave late (11-8 or so) and its like 30-40 min each way, not long by LA standards. And if you were talking less often than a commute, its even more do-able.

Echo Park is fairly central which is nice, your driving range will be pretty good and you can bike around Silverlake / EP / Hollywood / etc fairly easily I would think, minus the above comments about drivers and road conditions.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:19 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

LA mornings are always (relatively) chilly, even in the summer. So you might need an extra layer for the morning commute that you'll have to shed and store for the afternoon commute.
posted by hwyengr at 6:39 PM on May 9, 2012

After going to school in Pittsburgh and biking everywhere, I moved to San Diego (which isn't LA). I had a hilly 10 mile commute that I biked. I bought a car after four months. I was perfectly able to accomplish the tasks of everyday life on my bicycle, but I lived in a neighborhood for rich old people (La Jolla) and it was impractical to get out of it in a reasonable amount of time without a car. I still commuted by bike because I liked it.

I took the train up to LA a couple times with my bike and always had a good time.

Dunno what kind of job you're looking for, but professional jobs are pretty widely dispersed in office parks and the like in Southern California, as opposed to mostly being in the central city like out east, so you will be limiting what jobs you can get to.
posted by akgerber at 8:55 PM on May 9, 2012

There's a big growing bicycle scene in Los Angeles. The Mayor is an advocate. The city just passed a master plan for bicycle transportation. I see way more people on bikes than ever before. You should turn on the bicycle option in Google maps and look at the results to see how many bike lanes and bike routes there are around town. Echo Park is great and many of the most interesting areas are a 15-30 minute ride away - Hollywood, Koreatown, Mid-City, Silverlake, Los Feliz. That's all you need. However it is always true in Los Angeles that the closer you live to your place of employment the happier you will be so try not to live too far away. If you work in the Valley, live there. If you work in Santa Monica, live on the westside. Commuting across town is a nightmare.
posted by conrad53 at 10:12 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since Mandyman didn't show up — and she actually walks the walk — I'll be another voice of saying that, yeah, especially on the east side you can pretty much do without a car for your day-to-day life. There are jerk drivers, but not any more than I had in Ann Arbor, per capita. East-west is pretty easy and flat nearly always; north-south can get hilly. It's not Amsterdam (or even Long Beach), but LA is moderately bike friendly and getting better.
posted by klangklangston at 1:54 AM on May 10, 2012

But I don't live on the West Side. Living on the West Side is only a good idea if you're OK with the idea of never leaving the West Side.

I'm pretty tired of this myth. Between the new blue Expo Line and the 33/733, you can zip from Venice/Santa Monica to downtown in an under an hour, which during rush hour is probably faster than a car.

I live on the west side and bike/bus it everywhere. It is occasionally a pain in the ass and it does kill some opportunities, but when you see the 405 looking like a parking lot and you get to zip along some quiet side streets on your way home, its hard to call it a bad idea.
posted by GilloD at 9:46 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks again everybody! These answers are a lot more encouraging than I was expecting, and I'm glad to hear my dream of still using my bike on a daily (or almost daily) basis aren't completely unrealistic. I appreciate the cautions about which areas are relatively inaccessible to each other- that will help me prioritize my job search to areas that are bikable (so, the east side, it sounds like).

For what it's worth, I by no means insist on only riding in designated bike lanes or bike routes- those aren't THAT common even where I am now, but there are always some (non-bike-lane) streets that are nevertheless better than others for riding, and some that I straight up avoid for a variety of issues (potholes is sometimes one of them, bus routes- and the attendant danger that comes with riding in the same lane as the buses- is another, that kind of thing).
posted by Aubergine at 10:08 AM on May 10, 2012

I happen to have really liked LA when I visited, among many reasons maybe because I honest-to-god like driving.

Oh god, you are going to love living here then. No sarcasm whatsoever -- I've found it to be a super fun city to drive in, once you adopt a rally mentality. Surface streets AFU? No problem, hit the alleys.

If you do get a car, you'll open up vast domains of fantastic driving/cycling -- the local mountains are a friggin' blast. Throw the bike in the car, head up PCH to the (recently repaved!) roads in the Santa Monica mountains, and you will be grinning like a fool.

You can of course still access them solely via pedal-power, but there is something about zipping around those roads in a car, stereo blasting, ocean view...ahhh.

L.A. rules.
posted by quivering_fantods at 5:27 PM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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