On a recent Friday night in downtown Los Angeles, I took to the streets with more than 400 others in an attempt to save my soul, to remake in some small way the city I call home, and to lower my blood pressure.
With this existential trifecta in mind, I joined a mass of mostly young and well-intentioned individuals not to protest, but to party. On bicycles.
I rode with Midnight Ridazz, one of hundreds of bicycle groups across the country that hope to reclaim a small slice of our asphalt nation from the long-held hegemony of the automobile.
My trek with the Ridazz was a friendly, slow affair, with enough chatter, horn honking and whooping to keep the pulse above normal for the two-hour street slalom. The Ridazz have been taking to these mean streets since 2004, when eight pioneers set out on a Friday night to discover how Los Angeles looked without a metal and glass bubble obscuring the view. This igniting minority fed the imaginations of a multitude. From eight to 1,300, the midnight rides morphed into a movement, a celebration of what the aficionados call a whimsical “sensual alternative” to everyday drudgery. And the movement’s about more than cycling: One of its guiding principles is multiculturalism—a worthy dream for a city scarred by ongoing ethnic and racial animosities. Seven years on, there are now theme rides—a “10-bridge run,” for example, where the whole party stops at each bridge for a moonlight seminar on architectural history and cool engineering feats declaimed by ever-changing leaders. The party—pub crawls and beer cups on the handlebars—can sometimes trump the pedagogy, but in general the atmosphere is not boorish. If someone drops a piece of trash, comrades are instructed to “boo” the perpetrator; the collective shaming designed to leave no opening for criticism from nonriders or the police.
As a successful startup, Midnight Ridazz brought people from as far away as San Diego. Soon bicyclists in almost every city in Southern California began claiming their home turf, thinking regionally while riding locally. Riding at night also followed the lineaments of our cultural politics: women-led rides, rides as performance art (Bike Town Beta ride, anyone? Look it up) and ethnic rides of all flavors.
And if good fortune smiles on good ideas, the new subfield of “happiness studies” within the academy is supplying some needed intellectual heft for the Ridazz, and for the more policy-oriented bike activists who concentrate on lobbying the city for increased bicycle-friendly infrastructure. The latest news from the happiness-studies crew is bad news for those of us who drive. Or, to be more precise and personal about the matter: If I drive for more than 30 minutes to work and back, I am unhappy—almost by definition.
The Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer have found that when people choose where to live, they underestimate the agonies of the long commute. The house in the suburbs becomes bigger and more attractive the more one cogitates on that extra bathroom or the spare bedroom for Grandma’s visit.
It’s this kind of thinking that gets us in trouble. “A person with a one-hour commute,” argue Frey and Stutzer, “has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office.” The acclaimed political scientist Robert Putnam offers a simple rule of thumb: “Every 10 minutes of commuting results in 10 percent fewer social connections.” The worst thing about the commute is that no one ever gets used to it. “Driving in traffic,” says the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “is a different kind of hell every day.”
While the Ridazz haven’t exactly launched a commuter revolution in Los Angeles, at least the joyrides have awakened more Angelenos to the almost forgotten delights of getting out of the car. One of the group’s founders—a fellow who calls himself Roadblock—says that “bicycling is now officially so cool that even the hipsters have joined the nightly rides through the city.” On any given night, there might be a guy wearing a stovepipe hat riding to the left, and a women on the right with a bat cape and candy-cane socks. One veteran rider describes his own Ridazz revelation, which was echoed by almost everyone I spoke to: “I remember thinking that cycling was just for people who wore spandex and rode in neat little lines as fast as they could. I now realize how healthy, fun, adventurous, exciting and life-changing cycling around the streets of Los Angeles can really be.”
Meanwhile, peddling has become political. One bicycle activist told me that “the idea of cars first and cars only” is as outdated as big fins and hubcaps. Many riders see people in cars as lazy oafs who can’t get used to the idea that streets are a public space that should include the public. On the other side of the windshield, more than a few drivers think cyclists are louts who think stop signs are for everyone else. Occasionally these attitudes are played out in fisticuffs on the road.
Bicycle activists say the amicable solution to the problem of competing space is to build out more riding infrastructure. City leaders recently embraced a Los Angeles Department of Transportation plan to add 200 miles of bikeways throughout the city every five years, along with shared-lane markings, bike parking and educational outreach. The plan would be funded by a sliver of the proceeds from the Measure R transportation initiative, which was approved by two-thirds of Los Angeles County voters in 2008 and would pour a projected $40 billion into transportation infrastructure. The first allotment for bicycle and pedestrian amenities—$2.5 million for fiscal year 2010-11—was announced in March. Some cyclists are skeptical as to whether ambitious plans on paper will ever be realized. Longtime cycling activist Joe Linton says that in a period of budget-slashing, the number of bikeway miles will be half of what the plan describes.
“It’s a good plan,” says Damien Newton, who writes for the popular LA.Streetsblog. “But ultimately, it’s just that—a plan.” But the very existence of the plan—and the fact that, for the first year at least, there’s actual money behind it—is a sign that two-wheeled culture is being taken seriously. While infrastructure improvements are subject to the fiscal uncertainties ahead, civic enthusiasm among cyclists shows no signs of waning. One sign of the bicycle renaissance is CicLAvia, a festival that removes cars from miles of city streets several times a year, temporarily interrupting the dominion of the machine over the human: Cyclists, skaters, wheelchair users and walkers will next take over the city center streets on Oct. 9 (CicLAvia.org).
Alas, Los Angeles will never be a bicyclists’ paradise, or even an oasis. The vast majority of us—with children to ferry, groceries to haul, more hours to work and fewer to play—are not about to sell the car and start peddling like it’s 1899. Streets will remain stacked with cars, which will continue to knock bikes, and people, into the next world at regular intervals. The low-traffic dreams of cyclists and progressive city planners will not be redeemed in our time. But if Los Angeles never succumbs to the entreaties of “the sensual alternative,” the Midnight Ridazz and other prophets of the street will keep peddling alongside us, reminders of the pleasure of getting there on the power of grit and sinew.