Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Riding Around Southern California

Riding around Southern California (SoCal) is really not as easy as one might think it would be.  Sure, we have the sun, beaches, movie stars, and lots, and lots of roads, but being the so-called “Car Capital of the World” is a unique, double-edged sword.  Why?  Well, if for one second you think the minds of said car culture are going to magically change to accommodate cyclists, well, you would just be flat out wrong.  It is, in fact, very dangerous to ride a bicycle in the greater Los Angeles area.  And, that is not just because of the awful, ill-maintained street surfaces we have to ride upon.  It is a bit more than that.  To paraphrase a TV commercial I saw when I was a child, “It’s the People.” 

In the modern world which we live, many are unfortunately ingrained with a massive ME complex.  Thus, anyone else around is no longer viewed as a human being, but as an object to be pushed aside so one can get to where they are going, to do what they think they must do, for whatever reason they feel the need to do it.  Yes, even we mild-mannered cyclists are some of those “Objects” which are to be pushed aside for convenience, sake.  And, the chaos is not getting any better.  Old, young, licensed, non-licensed, insured, non-insured, American, non-American, English language competent, non-English language competent, intelligent, stupid, and everything in between, in SoCal, we have got them all.  Put all of this mish-mash together in one place, and it is not IF a cyclist will be hit by a motor vehicle, but unfortunately, it is a WHEN type of situation.

Being born and raised in SoCal, I have learned where to ride, and where not to ride, plus when to do it, and when not to do it.  There are ways, however, one can ride in the greater Los Angeles area and actually enjoy doing it.  And riders should enjoy the experience, as we have some pretty darn good attractions here.  The roads suck ass, but we have good scenery, and for the most part, decent weather.  The keys to enjoying the offerings of SoCal on two wheels are common sense and a good map in electronic or paper form.  The map will show you how to get where you want to go (in addition to showing routes of interest), and good common sense will aid in telling where you want to be, and don’t want to be, traffic-wise. 

The City of Los Angeles: A giant, concrete jungle.

Downtown L.A. Post Office, Main, corner of Alameda & Cesar Chavez Blvd. Out of frame to the right is Union Station and Olvera Street.  Out of frame to the left is the World Famous Philippe's.

Take the actual City of Los Angeles, please.

The City of Los Angeles (L.A.) is an expanse which takes up a lot of real estate in SoCal, without a lot of overall benefits to its population.  It is over-crowded, the roads are complete crap from a design and maintenance standpoint, and the automobile absolutely rules, no matter what any bicycle group, club, or coalition makes claims to, otherwise.  I have ridden in the city many-a-times, including the Downtown areas.  If you want bent wheels to go along with being run-over by a motor vehicle (repeatedly), then by all means, ride in the heart of the city.  The pothole situation is so bad, they even have a “Pothole Hotline,” whereby citizens are urged to call in to report these gargantuan sized problems, to only then be completely ignored by city officials.  Neat. 

Famous Green Street in the City of Pasadena.  Bumpy surface, no bike lanes, and vehicles make for a very exciting ride.
While the City of Covina provided a very nice bike lane, the car door arc into said lane, combined with 50 MPH traffic,  is not for the faint of heart.

Not to only pick on L.A. as the only place to be avoided when one is on two-wheels (including motorcycles), as there are also plenty of other municipalities in the Southern California area which take no mind of the conditions of their roads, too.  I don’t know how it is in your communities, but here in SoCal, sensibly laid out roads, with decent surfaces, are not on most cities civic radars.  

Typical riverbed trail in Los Angeles County.  This is the San Gabriel River Trail. Amazingly, it has actually had a recent repave.

The Los Angeles River Trail. The northern portion is not too bad, and has one running right next to both Highway 5 and 134 at times.  To the right, out of frame, is Griffith Park.

The Santa Ana River Trail is a prime example of a bike path done right. From the City of San Bernardino, to the City of Huntington Beach, it is very well taken care of.
While we are beginning to see more bicycle dedicated lanes and paths, most are simple after-thoughts trying to address a current problem via outdated methods.  This describes our river paths to a tee.  They are part of a State and County flood control system, and therefore, don’t really lead anywhere people want to go.  They run mostly through industrial areas and neighborhoods you would dare not be caught in at night, and are sketchy during the day due to gang activity and the homeless (true story, folks).  The only benefit of the river trails are they give us a place to ride free of the dreaded automobile.  And, some are better maintained than others.  Most river trails began life as a service road for Flood Control vehicles, and were nothing but a piece of bumpy asphalt or concrete with a yellow stripe down the middle.  Over the past decade many have been paved, with added paint striping and adequate signage.  However, as good as the effort to make them palatable to cyclists, one can tell they are still after-thoughts on the minds of Civic Leaders.

One trail of note: The Santa Ana River Trail.  Los Angeles County could take a few pointers from the Governments responsible for that trail.  It is the nicest, well kept, smooth, and scenic trail SoCal has.

A recently completed portion of the Pacific Electric Trail in Alta Loma. 

A former railroad bridge on the Whittier Greenbelt Trail.

A new phenomenon on the scene are old railroad right-of-ways.  These are strips of land where a railroad track used to exist and has since been converted into a pathway for cyclists, walkers, runners, and a host of other activities.  While they are a nice addition to the recreational scene and tend to possess the newest pavement, landscaping, lighting and signage, they are not without their unique problems.  First, being they are in fact old railroad right-of-ways, they run through the under-belly of the landscape, so do not expect too much in the realm of scenery.  Second, they are extremely truncated by a plethora of grade crossings.  Two, local examples are the Pacific Electric Trail and the Whittier Greenbelt Trails.  While both are extremely nice paths, they suffer from far too many road traffic interruptions ruining what would otherwise be excellent, top-notch trails.

Glendora Mountain Road is similar to all of the mountain roads in SoCal: Very narrow.  Don't try this on a weekend.

A portion of Highway 150 west of Ojai.  Again, not much room for both vehicles and bicycles.

Our local mountains are a nice place to ride, however, we again find the same problem of attempting to accommodate bicycles on a road network designed for motor vehicles only.  Sure, they can plant “Bike Route” signs, and even paint anemic, useless to motorists “Bike Lane” markings, but the roads are so narrow, that the chance of contact from a vehicle are almost guaranteed.  Not only are the Tourists up there, but so are the Racers on both two and four wheels, all out to test their skills, and more often not, their luck.  I only ride the mountains on weekdays, as the amount of vehicle traffic on the weekends makes riding at those times an extremely dangerous activity.

A portion of a beach trail through Huntington Beach.  While sand on the trail is generally not too bad on city boardwalk's, the pedestrians are.

Here is a portion of beach trail just north of Ventura.  It is unique, as there is water, rocks, a wall, the bike path, and semi-trucks buzzing your shoulder at 70 MPH.  Yes, that is Highway 1.

And, don’t forget our beaches!  Beach paths possess their own, unique mix of scenery and monotony.  While they are generally smooth and visually interesting, the amount of sand kicked up on them from pedestrians makes them often a sketchy ride, at best.  And, as for the aforementioned pedestrians, they absolutely hog the beach trails, and rarely move for cyclists - They treat it as their own, personal walking, jogging, and skating path.  Once you have had the beach ride experience, you will be glad you did, because then you can say you did it, and will vow to never do it again. 

Instant Bike Lane. Add a stripe, and municipalities think it is sufficient for vehicles and bicycles to safely co-exist.  Hah!  The City of Rancho Cucamonga thinks it is just peachy.

And in the City of Riverside, they do Bike Lanes correctly.

As for my local rides in the San Gabriel Valley, I avoid main arteries like the plague.  Most have no provisions for bikes, and if they do, it is the single, white-stripe, barely-two-foot-wide variety, far too narrow to be of any use to cyclists (that is also where most of the debris are conveniently deposited, courtesy of our motor vehicle brothers and sisters).  And, if there is room for a decent bike lane, it is the kind not wide enough for a parked car and bikes, plus the arc of a car door opens right into the bike lane.  Smart.  I, therefore, stick to residential roads as often as I can to actually have a chance of returning home alive.

Another case in point was a ride some friends and I planned from the San Gabriel Valley to Knott’s Berry Farm.  The round trip would be an easy fifty-miles (50), include a photo-op in front of the entrance, plus some of their awesome berry pie and coffee.  Sounds pretty easy, right?  Well, yes, and no.  First, a route had to be selected which would not only include varied terrain and scenery, but most importantly, not include heavily traveled, high-speed (in excess of 40 miles per hour) roads.  See, the truly sad part was having to keep caution in mind when doing the trip – It was not a simple point and shoot.  That is how bad traffic and drivers are here in SoCal. 

In short, we did the ride, the route was fun and challenging, the pie and coffee were great, the company enjoyable, even though we almost got plowed into by inattentive drivers on numerous occasions.  And, each and everytime we were almost hit by a motor vehicle, we were firmly (and legally) ensconced in a marked Bike Lane.  Blinking lights, bright clothing, hand signals, and obeying all of the traffic laws by cyclists are completely meaningless to most motor vehicle drivers here.

If done correctly, you too can cycle SoCal and enjoy the attractions.

So, is it really all that bad? 

Yes, and no.  See, while this may read like an apocalyptic, sell your bike, and hide in the basement piece, it is really a call to awareness if you plan to cycle in Southern California and expect to live long and prosper while doing it.  There is a lot to see here, and though we are basically one, huge metropolis, the terrain and scenery are varied enough to keep a rider very well entertained.  Basically, just be aware that others are not aware of you, and if by some miracle they are, they flat-out don’t care if they run you off the road.  Just be vigilant and stay out of their way as much as possible.

To put it all into perspective, while you may want to experience our mountains, beaches, bike paths, and everything in between, what you don’t want to see is the inside of an ambulance, or visit one of our fine, over-crowded emergency rooms.

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