How to Bike Commute Safely in Los Angeles
Electric bikes have changed the game for cyclists looking to improve their quality of life by bike commuting. I’m sure I don’t have to explain this to anyone reading this post, but Los Angeles is a terrible city to drive in. At any given time of day, you could be looking at 45 minutes just to go four or five miles. As bike commuters, we are not only saving ourselves time and money, we are helping relieve traffic congestion and reducing air pollution. Unfortunately, our fellow commuters who ride in automobiles don’t always see us that way. At best, drivers are frequently unaware of us. At worst, they see us as a nuisance. Luckily, there are ways to make yourself visible and keep yourself safe. We sat down with electric bike commuter, bicycle attorney, and cycling activist Josh Cohen to teach us how to bike commute safely in Los Angeles.
Scott: How’d you become interested in bike commuting?
Josh: It was freedom for me. Independence. I think I learned to ride a bike at 7. My parents bought a house under the Hollywood Sign in Beachwood Canyon. It was nice but it was far from everything. I couldn’t get anywhere because they both worked all the time, and I didn’t have anyone to drive me anywhere in LA. It’s too far to walk so you need to have a car or something. It gave me the opportunity as a kid to take off and explore the world.
Scott: How has that neighborhood and cycling in LA in general changed? Has it gotten better or worse?
Josh: There was no such thing as a bike lane for commuting. Now on Griffith Park Blvd.–although they’re trying to take it away–there’s a bike lane on Griffith Park Blvd. There’s one on Rowena. Those are under threat. But at least there’s now some consideration being give to bikes in LA. The other thing is there’s more traffic. There’s more intense traffic. I grew up in the 70s in LA. There were just fewer people and fewer cars. It’s just a crowded city now. There is a strong movement to idealize the past and say if we stopped taking infrastructure from cars and giving it to bikes then traffic would be better. But the reality is it’s a very crowded city and everyone still drives around in it.
Scott: It’s basically a situation that can’t be kept up with. The amount of cars coming in.
Josh: Yeah and if you look–consider transportation infrastructure. It’s primary purpose is to move the occupants of its city around. We should be devoting all these avenues and roads and highways to moving people and they’re not. They’re devoted to moving cars. And most of those cars have one person in them.
Scott: You mentioned certain bike lanes being threatened. I figured with Measure M going towards public transportation and bike infrastructure–well, what’s going on with that?
Josh: Well this has nothing to do with measure M and admittedly I am part of the issue here which is that the highway design manual requires that when bike lanes are painted the road surface is free of imperfections and smooth. And what happened was you have historic preservation overlay zones in Los Feliz and Silverlake where you’ve got all these old concrete roads that are not supposed to be resurfaced because they’re historic. Somebody decided that the streets need to be–that the character of the streets needed to be preserved. The problem is they are concrete streets and concrete is brittle. After 100 years of rain and heat and sunshine they’ve just cracked. They’ve been repaired in superficial sort of patchwork ways but there are still really poor surface conditions in this neighborhood. So along comes the Griffith Park bike lane and they just kind of painted a bike lane over this. They put paint down over this horrific surface. So what has happened is–and this has happened all over the city–Colorado Boulevard and elsewhere you’ve got these—nobody actually went out to inspect surface or the roadway–So the process is supposed to be that somebody does these volumetric and speed studies of the roadway and they say this would be a good place to put a bike lane down. But in between the process of putting a bike lane down somebody should go out and actually look at the road and say wait a minute you know what we need to resurface this road first. Nobody is. Then someone comes along on a bike and their front wheel gets lodged in some defect in the road and they fly over their bars and die or break some bones. So the city winds up paying these multimillion dollar payouts in lawsuits and the City Council people just drew a line and said let’s just get rid of these bike lanes all together. So rather than fix the roads they’re taking out infrastructure that protects bicycles. It’s pretty cowardly and it’s a real retreat considering how many people are out there on their bikes trying to just not get hurt.
Scott: And you do see more. The number is not decreasing for the number of people riding. Since I’ve started bike commuting I feel like I see more people every week…bureaucracy stuff unfortunately is never going to change. What would you say cyclists, specifically for us electric bicyclists, what can we do to keep ourselves safe? We’ve talked a lot, you and I, about the uninsured motorist insurance you can do. Gearwise though, what would be your ideal setup for an electric bike commuter?
Josh: Well I really like the Riese & Muller bike that you guys sold me. One thing I like about it is the full suspension. I live in Franklin Hills and the roads here are super super messed up so there’s all these I mean it’s basically like you’re off Roading. Might as well be on some kind of fire Road. This is spent on it just moves it out. It just makes it so much easier and less jarring. You know the key really is That it’s not as fatiguing. The less you’re battling the road conditions The more comfortable, the more enjoyable. The longer you can ride. I really like that it’s got this turbo mode thing because I can fly across the city. I got to Santa Monica in 45 minutes. My kid has been going to school in Atwater Village. The car commute from across the LA River and across the five freeway to get into Atwater Village from Los Feliz is extremely congested and on the bike I can just fly past everybody. So it actually takes me less time to commute by e-bike. E-bike I can take the bike lanes whereas if I were on a motorcycle I couldn’t. So it really gives you the best of both. And, you know, 28 mph, that’s plenty of speed for crusing around LA. So I like the full suspension. I like the speed. I like that it already has built in lights. Additional lights, I like strobes. I put additional strobes on my bike and then I have strobes on my helmet. I settled a case for $5 million for a doctor who was severely injured because the driver that hit him turned left in front of him. Had he been wearing lights on his helmet, the driver likely would’ve seen him. I think most people won’t hit you if they could see you. So dynamic lights are way more conspicuous than if you’re wearing a steady light because you don’t have that depth perception, it doesn’t jump out.
Another thing is I really like disc brakes. They just have greater stopping power. You should not be riding around the city without disc brakes. You have to drive too defensively to not have disc brakes. I’ve had plenty of left hook cases where the distance needed to stop would’ve been less and he wouldn’t have been hit. And then the other thing I really like–and I have no business relationship with them–but I have a Loud Bicycle Horn. Mine is the Loud Mini and it is loud. I can’t tell you how many times it’s saved my life.
Scott: In terms of keeping cyclists safe as things exist right now, especially when considering Class 3 e-Bikes since they go a little bit faster, what can we do as cyclists in terms of our personal safety in addition to what we’ve already mentioned?
Josh: Conspicuity is really key. That horn. The lights. I definitely encourage people to wear helmets. I don’t think it should be required by law because you’re criminalizing people for their poverty basically. But I think you should wear a helmet. If you can afford it, get one. They may not completely prevent concussions but they prevent skull fractures. Other safety gear. I don’t know, I feel like the jury is out on clothing. I think if you’re wearing strobes and you’re visible that way you should be set. I don’t really know about vests, body armor. I like big tires.
Scott: So plus-sized tires. It’s interesting for me, especially for people coming from the world of bikes are so used to 28c tires. But it does make sense when we’re on basically fire roads that having the plus-sized tires is a huge plus, no pun intended. I would guess it could literally save your life sometimes.
Josh: I had dinner with a buddy a couple nights ago who has an E bike. He was riding in Marina Del Rey. He showed me—I think it was an IZIP—and it had fairly skinny tires. Maybe 36s. Which on a road bike would be considered big but on an ebike I don’t think they were big. Certainly not compared to the tires I have on my bike. Anyway he was telling me about how he tried to go up on the sidewalk because there is no biking infrastructure. There was a lip to the sidewalk and he just hit it at the wrong angle and he went over the bars. And just face planted on the sidewalk. But one thing that big tires do is they just help you get over obstacles. The reality about bicycles is [that] one of the things that makes it so great also creates opportunities to fall. Which is being able to go up and over anywhere. At least a couple of times every day even though I ride mostly on the road I do just have to get up on the sidewalk. You can ride against the flow of traffic in the city of LA on the sidewalk. So if you’re in a spot where you just feel pretty exposed and you just want to get away from the cars for a second, cut across the street and get up on the driveway and suddenly you’re on the sidewalk. There’s almost no pedestrians anywhere in the city. You’ve got to have your wits about you but having big tires helps because so many of the sidewalks in the city just…I mean I can’t even say that they’re chewed up. They’re like ramps.
Josh and I have frequently talked about other issues surrounding bike commuting in Los Angeles. Here are a few of my takeaways based on our conversations:
- Carry uninsured motorist insurance: Your auto insurance provider can supply insurance if you are involved in a hit and run or an accident with an under-insured driver. Josh recommends at least $500,ooo in coverage.
- Class 3 e-bikes are likely safer than Class 1: Because so many drivers will try to pass you and race you out on the roads, it is actually beneficial to have the ability to go 28 mph and potentially keep up with traffic.
- Roads can be as dangerous as other drivers: You should always know the route you are going to take and not cycle in a distracted manor. Never ride a route for the first time at night.
- Do what it takes to make yourself seen: Not being visible is easiest way to get yourself hit. You cannot have too many lights, so don’t be afraid to spend money on these!
You can find Josh Cohen at www.losangelesbicycleattorney.com where he has an excellent and informative blog and information on how to contact him. Keep an eye out for more of our electric biking lifestyle posts and figure out what e-bike you’ll be commuting on by checking out our Top 10 Electric Commuting Bikes for 2018! Cheers!