Riding a bike is a great way to see a city from a fresh perspective. In Southern California we spend our driving days zipping past cities on freeways, with the occasional foray into a city center. Try taking the same route on a bicycle though, and it’s an entirely different drive—even if you’ve mastered the commute by car hundreds of times.
Southern California is full of world -class tourist destinations, and since I live within 40 miles of Los Angeles, I put my little theory of new perspectives to the test. A few weeks ago I strapped a few bikes to the back of the Mazda, and drove in to West Hollywood with my little brother. We parked on a side street, unloaded bikes and backpacks, then charted a 25 mile triangle into Downtown LA and back.
Not Nice to Bikes
Downtown LA is decidedly unfriendly to cyclists. We spent an hour marauding through the downtown streets, and only once did we encounter a bike lane. Most of the time, our best play was to simply take up a section of road and behave exactly like an automobile. Metered parking on the right and heavy traffic on the left made cycling on the shoulder impossible. Technically a cyclist could jump up on the sidewalk, but then you risk colliding with a pedestrian.
Our worst moment happened upon entering downtown. We crossed the 110 Freeway on Third Street, zooming down the overpass on the shoulder. Unfortunately, our lanes merged with two coming from the south, and our little shoulder of safety spewed us directly in the middle of four lanes of one-way traffic. We made a dash to the left side of the road, made the safety of the sidewalk, and plotted the rest of our journey.
We were just south of the public library and financial district, and from there we headed south to LA Live and Staples Center, back up to the center of the city, south through the fashion and jewelry districts, and then back north to Pershing Square, the financial district, and finally finishing at the gardens atop the performing arts center.
Downtown Los Angeles is far from a pedalers paradise. In fact, it’s more like Hell on Wheels. The roads are packed, bike lanes are scarce, and you only get as much room on the road as you are willing to take. It doesn’t make for the most relaxing of experiences. Our frenetic entry into the city sent my heart into my throat, and it never went back.
An LA Rookie’s Recommendation
Anxiety aside, our little adventure was well-worth it. Culture, poverty and affluence, and order and chaos all converge in downtown Los Angeles. There are few if any places in the world that match the diversity, hope, and despair of downtown. If you’re up for taking two wheels into hostile territory (for bikes at least), here are a few recommendations based on my two trips to the City of Angels.
Find a place to park outside of the city.
There are relatively safe neighborhoods within several miles of the city center. Just be sure to check them out ahead of time, either online or in person. I’ve parked in a neighborhood north of Korea Town, and this last time in West Hollywood. West Hollywood was way too far, and the journey back to the car was a fairly unsightly commute along Melrose. Get close, but not too close.
Take Your Piece of the Road
Since there are very few bike lanes, if you want some of the road you need to take it. I learned this my first time following one of the messenger bikes as it tore a path through the downtown streets. These guys are crazy, but they maintain a presence on the road. They are obvious to other vehicles, and they take up as much of the road as a normal vehicle.
Wear visible clothing, take a piece of the road, and make your intentions clear to other drivers.
Take Time for Pit Stops and Sight Seeing
The beauty of the bicycle is that parking is relatively easy. Find a place to chain up the bike, and walk wherever you need to go. I have a major curiosity problem as I’m riding; I want to turn and look at every piece of architecture, and every insignificant landmark. It’s safer to take your time and make a pit stop.
Here’s our sightseeing list:
- LA Live/Staples Center–It’s relatively new, everyone talks about it, it’s on the news, etc. At least take a quick peak and see what it’s like up close.
- Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing (FIDM)–I have friends who have attended, and there’s an interesting park out front.
- Pershing Square–Talk about a literal and figurative borderland. Vagrants, dogwalkers, tourists, and burnouts muttering to themselves all share this chunk of concrete, greenery, and water. This was our midway break spot.
- The Public Library and Bunker Hill–Both of these are smack center in the financial district. The skyscrapers make for some good photo opportunities, there is some interesting history on the trolley that used to take people to the top of the hill, and of course you can explore the enormous public library. We stopped at the Starbucks across from the library and watched the suits get their shoes shined.
- Walt Disney Performing Arts–The architecture of this building is worth a few photos, and the garden at the top of 3 flights of stairs offers respite from the city streets, along with some fantastic views. This is the north end of the city, so head west on First street from here, and you’re in the clear, depending on where you parked.
It’s a sketchy journey, but I’m looking forward to heading back. The city is packed with curiosities: the architecture, the people, the landmarks, the flashy boulevards of opulence and the shady alleys retreating below the skyscrapers. They may be mean streets when it comes to bikes, but I still say it’s worth a visit.