It didn’t take long for me to notice the stares: Curious, amused, confused, and in one man’s case, mildly annoyed.
“The city paid for those bikes? They’re too damn nice,” the gray-haired man, leaning up against the side of a Historic Core lightpost, muttered in a gravel-laced drawl.
One minor correction: It’s the county, not the city, that paid. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $11 million bike share pilot program, with 65 kiosks and 1,000 bikes in Downtown Los Angeles, launched on Thursday, July 7. For the first time, visitors and residents alike can borrow a bicycle from a public station, get around the Central City, and dock it at another kiosk to complete the process.
I’ve been riding a lightweight, skinny-tired road bike as of late, and wondered whether Downtown would be easy to navigate from behind the chunky handlebar of a heavy-duty shared bike. On a blazing-hot Tuesday afternoon, I met Metro staff at Union Station to get an early taste of the system.
The sleek kiosks and bikes look, and feel, the part of a groundbreaking new entree in the region’s menu of transit options. During July, people can sign up for a monthly or annual pass online and use their TAP card to borrow a bike. “Walk-up” riders who want to use their credit card to charge individual 30-minute rides will have to wait until August, but that month and September will feature half-off all rides — $1.75 instead of the normal $3.50.
The bikes are roughly 45 pounds, and feel far sturdier than most consumer bikes — instead of a common tube frame, it flaunts a big main beam that’s easy to step over (helpful for anyone wearing skirts or dresses) and chunky coverings over all moving parts, including the sprockets and chain.
I adjusted the saddle height, then cruised out of Union Station’s parking lot, cutting across Alameda Street and El Pueblo to get to the new protected cycle track on Los Angeles Street.
Despite my snotty attitude toward heavy, fat-tired specimens, Metro’s bike felt smooth and comfortable off the bat, with the heft contributing to stability and a plush, wide seat to rest on. Soon my mind turned to the road. Los Angeles Street’s new cycle track runs from El Pueblo to First Street, and it’s a stark reminder of how safe it feels to ride on protected paths. No, those small stumpy plastic poles won’t actually stop an Escalade from plowing into you, but it’s a clear mental barrier for both cars and bikes.
I blitzed south on the path, seeing if I could keep up with traffic. Even in the highest of three gears, the bike’s comfort-first architecture makes it hard to maintain speed. That shouldn’t really matter, except when the cycle track ended at First Street, a conundrum appeared: Run in a mixed lane with cars, or coast on the glassy concrete sidewalk on the east side of the Caltrans headquarters building?
The answer will be clear to new riders, as it was to me: Sidewalk. Well, at least until the sidewalk turns into a cracked-up mess. I knew offhand which streets and sidewalks were the worst for cyclists; tourists most likely won’t. Using Metro’s bike map, or map apps to lay out bike paths, will be a critical tip for the agency to push.
Personally? I hate riding on sidewalks, and it’s downright dangerous to do so on crowded blocks in the Financial District, Fashion District and Historic Core, among other neighborhoods. L.A. city law allows for riding on sidewalks as long as you don’t endanger anyone else; I can guarantee that toppling into a couple eating crepes at Syrup will catch a cop’s attention.
So I transitioned to Spring Street, which has a buffered bike lane, but faced the usual problems: Cars parked in the lane without a care in the world, distracted drivers, plumes of dust in the wake of screeching buses. Worst of all was the construction that blocked sidewalks and spilled out into the street, as at Holland Partner Group’s project at Eighth and Spring streets, requiring me to nudge back into a lane amid cars, pumping my legs and looking utterly ridiculous on a bike not built for speed.
Will visitors, or even Downtown residents and workers new to biking, know to give hand signals before merging or turning? Will they make eye contact with drivers waiting for a right turn so everyone’s on the same page? Will they do anything to be extra visible at night?
Those questions tumbled in my head as I sped to Olympic, took a right, and headed toward Olive Street. I’m afraid the answer is “No,” but there’s also research from other bike share systems that suggests offering bike share can help educate even the most casual riders over time.
As for me? The longer I rode, the more comfortable I felt, potholed streets and the bike’s weight be damned. I traveled north on Grand Avenue with one final challenge in mind.
The grade of the hill at Grand and Fifth is daunting. But Metro’s bike features three gears, and what’s the point if I don’t try the lowest notch?
With a rolling start, the elevation felt manageable at first, until the bike got halfway. It crawled slower and slower, my face huffing and puffing with each pedal turn, attracting a cackle from a young man walking past me. A minute passed, and I could see the white flash of The Broad’s honeycomb facade. Dripping in the heat, I stripped off my dress shirt and exhaled in the shade of Two California Plaza. Riding up Bunker Hill is a task better suited for autumn.
The sweaty elation was punctuated by a stranger.
“Hey, is that like one of those Hulu bikes?” she asked, referencing Santa Monica’s already launched bike share system. Her blue eyes peered at the bike, puzzled, over a pair of Gucci shades. “Can I rent one right now?”
She was one of about a dozen people who asked me about the bike that afternoon, which, if nothing else, bodes well for Metro. As I flew past the Music Center, and then downhill east on Temple back toward Union Station, I heard a pack of teens call out.
“That’s [expletive] doooooooope!”
Sarcasm? Sincerity? I didn’t care. In an hour, I had circulated through Downtown on a public bike. Over the next few months, more and more will share that experience. There will be literal stumbles, but for the most part, “[expletive] dope” is about right when it comes to the debut of something the city’s craved for years.
Now can we get more protected cycle tracks, please?