For Stephen Box, it all began in the summer of 2005, when he was almost killed by a bus.
It was Bike Summer, a series of bicycle-related events all over Los Angeles, and Box and his wife, Enci, were riding their bikes home from a screening at the Echo Park Film Center. A bus passed Box, a little too close for comfort. When it pulled up to a stop, Box went around it. A few blocks later, the bus shot by him, and again Box overtook it.
Then he heard Enci scream. He looked to his left in time to see the bus bearing down on him. Panicking, he swerved, hopped the curb and crashed into some bushes.
OK, that's just wrong, Box thought to himself.
So he called the police. They referred him to the Sheriff's Department. The sheriffs told him to call the LAPD. He called them all, and then called Metro, which led nowhere. Then he called the region's biggest group of bicycle activists, the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, and even they didn't seem interested. It was as if the city as a whole genuinely didn't mind that a Metro bus driver had run a cyclist off the road.
"I'm not happy with the department of No," Box says.
That's when he became an activist.
After decades of neglect, L.A. is finally taking bike riders seriously, thanks in part to a mayor and City Council members who ride bicycles, but more because of activists like Box, who approach the issue with all the fervor and righteousness of civil rights marchers in the 1960s. They're challenging the car-centric culture that all but defines Los Angeles, and demanding a new vision.
"Clearly they've turned the corner from being the bad guy, disrupting traffic, being abused by cops, being run over by motorists without anything being done about it, to a movement that's being embraced by everyone from the mayor and council, to winning major concessions to policies they've advocated," says Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, now a blogger and activist known for his vitriolic posts against city overspending.
In the process of complaining about poor treatment by motorists and policymakers, cyclists have learned how to navigate the ins and outs of city government. They've learned who and how to ask for what they want. They've learned how to get people to listen. And they could be the next big political force in a city government as dysfunctional as any out there.
On March 8, Box faces City Councilman Tom LaBonge in the Council District 4 race. If he forces LaBonge into a runoff in the three-way match, which also includes small businessman Tomas O'Grady, that would be a major upset. In Los Angeles City Hall, the last time an outsider beat a City Council incumbent was when slow-growther Ruth Galanter ousted pro-growther Pat Russell. That was in 1987.
But the bikeroots crowd has been producing a lot of surprises lately.
Despite L.A.'s climate and relatively flat topography, less than 1 percent of commuters bike to work in this city. The reasons: the roads, which aren't built to accommodate cyclists, and the culture, which revolves around the automobile.
Before the Model T, even before the Pacific Electric Railway, there was the California Cycleway, a 1.25-mile wooden turnpike lined with electric lights, that its creator hoped would one day connect Pasadena and Los Angeles — for bicycles only. The round-trip toll was 15 cents. But it didn't attract enough users to turn a profit, so the bike turnpike was torn down, making way for the northernmost part of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, California's first freeway (now the Pasadena Freeway or 110).
"If we could turn back the clock," LaBonge says, "there could have been bikeways down San Vicente, instead of coral trees. Mass transit, as well as bicycle routes. Shared space. A little like Europe. After World War II, during the reconstruction of Germany, they really thought about land use. They know how to deal with traffic and bicycles and pedestrians."
Instead, we got freeways, long, fat and monolithic, perhaps the most iconic structures in L.A. And we got streets, wide and gridlike. The city's streets and freeways are, by most accounts (studies by IBM and the Texas Transportation Institute, among others), the most congested in the nation. That congestion has set off a conflict among drivers, transit riders and cyclists over L.A.'s most fought-over resource: its hundreds of miles of pavement.
In the 1990s, everyone knew everyone else among L.A.'s small population of serious bicyclists. One of them was Joe Linton, a Zeligesque figure in the bike community who seemed to know every other person riding a bicycle and, like the movie character, kept popping up at key moments. "There were a lot of lone-wolf activists in L.A.," Linton recalls.