At first, riding a bicycle through Mumbai seemed like a death wish. I saw lines of cars, scooters, rickshaws, horses, oxen and even human-pulled carts lurch into intersections before the light turned green. I hesitated at the crosswalk, holding up traffic and setting off honking from behind. I was petrified by cars going the wrong way, pedestrians hopping between buses, scooters pulling onto sidewalks. It was like the arcade game Frogger, except in real-life, with much higher stakes.
The game was not limited to Mumbai. As I spent two years cycling from France to China, the scene replayed in some of the world's most dense, overcrowded metropolises — Istanbul, New Delhi, Hanoi, and Shanghai, where traffic rules are more like “guidelines.”
Yet, despite this chaos, I still felt more comfortable on a bicycle there than I ever do during my daily bicycling commute in L.A. Here's why:
At least in those cities, drivers acknowledged my existence.
Those who represent the lowly 2 percent of commuters in Los Angeles who ride a bike to work know what I’m talking about.
Every month, an average of two cyclists are killed on L.A.’s roads. But unlike the mega-cities of Asia, the reason for their deaths can’t be ascribed to poor traffic controls. No. In L.A., drivers simply don’t see cyclists on the road. They are the city’s invisible class of commuter, and it seems there aren’t enough cyclists braving the streets to be factored into many drivers’ thinking.
In my daily commute between Koreatown and Culver City, I am often reminded of a cyclist’s invisibility.
The reminders include things like:
—parked cars whose drivers open their doors without checking to see if a bike’s coming alongside;
—cars that merge into the shoulder lane without so much as a sideways glance, forcing bicyclists into escape maneuvers;
—motorists who race to pull ahead of bicycles, only to dangerously cut them off with a right turn moments later.
The few times you know you've been noticed are the "fuck you!” greetings you get while zigzagging past motorists stuck behind stoplights.
The road rage that some people exhibit is impressive. In one case, a driver caught up to me and forced me off the road by edging into the shoulder lane I was using, until I had to turn into a driveway.
In bicycle shops such as Montrose Bicycle Shop in the Valley and Bicycle Kitchen in East Hollywood, stories of such exchanges are commonplace, and have fueled an unfortunate antagonism in L.A. where cyclists and motorists feel at odds.
It's a battle for the road, and it's one that cyclists currently aren’t winning.
By contrast, in Mumbai and Hanoi, where free-for-all traffic reigns, a degree of skill and awareness is required in the effort not to crash.
Sure, those cities’ drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and cows all maneuvered like pinballs in a machine, but they do so knowing exactly where all the other pinballs are. After a time negotiating these roads, you come to appreciate the sense of deliberate concentration it takes to navigate a six-way intersection with no turn signals in city of 16 million.
Cars and scooters might pass mere inches away from your bicycle, but they do so with vigilance and mutual acknowledgement that the slightest mishap might result in a 20 person pile-up.
Is it a colossally disorganized system? Sure. But a cyclist could wade into the frenzy with relaxation, knowing that he or she was a recognized player in the fight.
That is what is missing in Los Angeles.
Critics can point out that there are more bicycle fatalities in cities like New Delhi, which last year had 78 to L.A. County’s 39, but this is only because cyclists represent far more of the commuters there.
On a per capita basis in the U.S., Los Angeles earns no accolades for bicycle safety: 3 percent of the city’s road accident fatalities are cyclists, nearly double the national figure of 1.7 precent.
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With numbers like those, it’s no wonder why so few are cycling to work in L.A. But the irony is that while many people are afraid to cycle here because it is dangerous, it is the very lack of cyclists that makes drivers more apt to ignore them.
The city’s efforts to build more bike lanes are a step in right direction, led by such bicycling advocacy groups as Wolfpack Hustle, Critical Mass, Midnight Ridazz and CicLAvia — and spurred in part by a 2010 incident when a hit-and-run cabbie struck then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Venice Boulevard, breaking his elbow.
But the challenges that Los Angeles-area cyclists face are more a P.R. issue than a lack of critical infrastructure.
Perhaps fewer motorists in L.A. would swear at cyclists if they realized, even with the present risks, that it’s still more fun to ride a bike to work than be stuck sucking the exhaust fumes of other cars at traffic lights.