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LA’s potential as a cyclist’s paradise rests on a cultural gear shift

Los Angeles should be the perfect city for cyclists. Its streets are wide and flat, its climate Mediterranean and its citizens are obsessed with health — their own and that of the environment. Yet dark-in-the-winter, cardigans-in-the-summer London is at least a decade ahead of LA when it comes to encouraging bikers and providing a safe space for them to ride.

Eli Kaufman, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, is hoping to change this. “LA has the potential to become the next great bicycle region,” he says. “The pandemic has taken folks who were used to the daily grind, spending all these miles in rush hour, and broken that routine.”

Like other cities around the world, LA saw a boom in bike ridership during the depths of the pandemic. The question, Kaufman says, is how to keep Angelinos on two wheels.

It will not be easy, even in California, which sees itself as a global leader in shifting away from fossil fuels. Gavin Newsom, the state’s governor, has pledged to phase out the sale of new petrol cars in California by 2035. Yet the birthplace of Tesla seems more focused on the transition to electric vehicles than alternative forms of transportation.

Still, LA has made a start. In 2008, voters passed Measure R, a sales tax increase that was promoted as a way to get more Angelinos “out of their cars and into the region’s growing subway, light rail and bus services”. The Metro Bike Share programme, similar to London’s Boris Bikes, grew out of the measure.

On a recent Sunday I checked out an electric Metro bike on Sunset Boulevard and set off in the direction of the Hollywood sign. The bike lane was generally free of nuisances such as potholes and stopped cars; unfortunately, it was also free of other bikers.

Which is too bad, because I was able to take in far more of the gaudy beauty LA has to offer at street level than when I’m behind the wheel. I could imagine cycling to a meeting downtown or even in West Hollywood in about the same time as it would take to drive. With prices falling for e-bikes, perhaps more Angelinos could see them as an alternative to driving for short or medium distances.

For now, though, most cycling enthusiasts I’ve spoken to here avoid riding on the city’s streets, saying they’re just too scary. Instead they hitch their bikes to their cars and drive to the mountains or beach, where they don’t have to worry about the traffic.

I didn’t have any frightening encounters on my Sunset cycle ride, but I was reminded of who rules the roads in LA. While sitting at a traffic light, I heard the thrilling, low growl of a 350-cubic inch engine chugging behind me. I soon found myself staring at a classic 1970s Camaro just inches away from my handlebars, its new orange paint job gleaming in the sun.

As I drooled over this perfect slab of Detroit muscle, the light turned green and the driver floored it, making a high-pitched squeal as he left a thick arc of black rubber tattooed on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado. No wonder this stretch of Sunset is considered a “high injury area” by the city.

In fact, there is burnt rubber all over the streets of Los Angeles. The pandemic may have prompted more Angelinos to ride bikes, but the cleared-out streets also created perfect conditions for drag racing and the gatherings that accompany it, known as sideshows or takeovers. Last month, two LA city council members began work on an ordinance that would outlaw organising “a street race or reckless driving exhibition”.

I haven’t been a regular car driver since the mid-1990s, and I haven’t missed it. Still, I have been surprised since moving here last summer by the powerful draw of LA’s car culture. The traffic is as horrible as advertised, but this just allows more time to stare at the wheels on parade: tricked-out 70s Impalas, shimmering classic Mercedes convertibles, brand-new Dodge Challengers and much else.

Kaufman believes LA can move beyond car culture, starting with a new 5km stretch of protected bike lanes, through an initiative called Sunset4All. “Do we need to build the infrastructure first, or build the (cycling) culture first? We have to do both.”

christopher.grimes@ft.com

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