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The Bikeroots

A teaming force: Critical Mass gathers at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

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.

L.A. resident Ron Milam was 22 and just out of college, with a degree in urban planning when the California Bike Coalition, a Sacramento-based lobbying group, approached him about starting a similar group in Los Angeles. Milam turned to Linton, 13 years his senior, for help. They met for sandwiches at Doughboys in Mid-City.

"Do you think there's gonna be enough to do?" Milam asked Linton.

"Oh yeah," Linton said. "There'll be plenty."

And so Milam and Linton founded the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition and, over the next five years, the group scored a number of victories: new bike lanes on Silver Lake Boulevard, the protection of threatened bike lanes on Venice Boulevard, the adding of bike racks to the fronts of Metro buses. More than anything, the active bicyclists voiced their opinions at all kinds of public meetings. There weren't many in attendance — but then again, there weren't many cyclists.

In 2002, a bike messenger named Jimmy Lizama installed a dozen or so bike racks in an empty room at L.A. Eco Village, a housing co-op where he lived near Vermont Avenue and First Street in Koreatown. People from the co-op started using the kitchen to fix their bicycles.

"It quickly spilled out into the hallway and into the street, in the lobby," recalls Linton, who has lived in Eco Village for years. "It was like a cross between a bar and a bike shop."

Thus the Bicycle Kitchen was born: a nonprofit collective for building and maintaining bicycles. "It went from this one guy to a lot of people in two or three months," Linton says.

In 2005, shortly before Bike Summer, the Kitchen moved to a storefront on Heliotrope Drive, near Los Angeles Community College. Hipsters in rolled-up, skintight jeans waited to work on their brightly colored fixed-gear bicycles. What had begun as a DIY, anticapitalist hobby was becoming a fashion statement.

"You have a youth culture who thinks it's cool to have an iPhone and a cool bike," says Dan Gutierrez, an early L.A. Bicycle Coalition organizer. "They see the bicycle as tied up in their identity."

Some of the old guard embraced the youth culture. After all, they were cyclists, too.

"I thought it was the coolest thing on the planet," Linton says.

Alex Thompson went on his first group ride in 2004. He borrowed his roommate's rusted Italian 10-speed, which had been sitting in the grass for God knows how long, and met about 15 people at Santa Monica Pier.

"They were all pretty friendly," says Thompson, who'd just moved to Los Angeles to study for his Ph.D. in math. "I'd been hanging out at the bar scene, and with mathematicians. And this was, like — mathematicians are weird, but this was another kind of weird."

Every ride seemed bigger than the last. In February 2005, Thompson went on a Critical Mass ride with 60 people. Then one Friday night, he met a couple hundred cyclists at the Pioneer Chicken in Silver Lake for a ride called Midnight Ridazz.

"The hipster scene took note of Midnight Ridazz — and that was what built it to its first crescendo," Thompson says.

The group rides proved to be a galvanizing force. Box calls it a party on wheels. "There's a shift from, like, 60 people to 200 people. There's a shift in what it feels like," Thompson says. "People call it the mob mentality, but there's a different feeling when you're in a group. Like, the human brain is just different."

Midnight Ridazz became a behemoth. Because the point was to stay together, organizers began the controversial practice of "corking" at intersections. In corking, cyclists block all cars from crossing their path while the bike swarm passes.

As the rides swelled to more than 1,000 people in the summer of 2006, L.A. motorists could find themselves stopped for many minutes at a time, watching traffic lights turn from green to red over and over while bicyclists streamed by.

The LAPD started ticketing, and even handcuffing and detaining, cyclists. Some had run red lights and been drinking alcohol, while others seemed to have been deemed guilty by association. Drivers started hitting bikers. Bikers started protesting what they saw as their shabby treatment. Why were streets presumed to be owned by cars?

"Everybody is a pacifist until they get run over," Box says.

They ran into red tape — the same red tape Box had encountered when he was run off the road. And many bikers responded just as Box had, by organizing. What started as a party on wheels was becoming a movement.

You wouldn't think Stephen Box is 53. Until a recent makeover, he could be spotted in his trademark Dickies shirt, which, he claims, he got for free while working on a Fred Durst video. Or you'd see him at City Hall in his brown suede jacket, flat cap, white iPhone earbuds draped around his neck, thick Fu Manchu goatee and thin gold-hoop earring. He looked like some beatnik refugee or coffee-shop vagrant.

And then there's his energy. He talks so fast it often sounds as if he's saying more than one word at the same time. He's on the boards of Sustainable Streets, Bikeside (Thompson's nonprofit), the Bike Writers collective, the L.A. Bike Working Group and the Transit Coalition. He's also a part of the Cyclists/LAPD task force and Budget L.A. He's a volunteer firefighter — his unit was the first to respond to the 2007 Griffith Park fire. The volunteers got there before the city trucks could because they biked.

"Along the way we realized we need to replace the word no with more affirmative action," he says.

Box was born in Mackay, Queensland, Australia. His parents are pastors of the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical Christian denomination. In 1965, when Box was 7, he, his parents and his sister moved to Nampa, Idaho, so his parents could attend Northwest Nazarene College.

When his mother and father graduated, the family moved to Kansas City, then to California. They drove west on the 10 freeway, just as L.A. smog was at its eye-watering, thick, brown peak in the 1970s, before the Los Angeles Basin's air was dramatically improved by catalytic converters and smog controls. As he looked out the window at the suburban morass and the murky air, Box couldn't help but think, This is California? Where are all the palm trees?

"Two weeks after we moved to Glendora," he recalls, "we hear my mother scream. She was at the kitchen, at the sink, and she screams, and we run in there, thinking she cut herself. And she had just seen the foothills for the first time. They're so big, because they're right there at Glendora, but we hadn't seen them for two weeks because of the smog."

It took Box 46 years to become a U.S. citizen, which he did in 2010 for a specific purpose: to run for Los Angeles City Council.

One of the most damning criticisms of the 15 council members, the highest paid in the U.S. at $178,789 a year — 400 percent of the average L.A. household income — is that they oversee their districts like feudal lords, with more than 300 personal staffers, while their time is largely occupied by parochial minutiae instead of, say, developing citywide policy or planning new infrastructure.

If you have a pothole on your street, why wait for Street Services? Jump ahead of others by seeking a favor from your council member. And if the council member thinks you can help — say he or she faces a development battle and needs to fill seats with "stakeholders" — your potholes stand a good chance of being filled in a city that admits it's about 50 years behind on road repairs.

"I don't think we should be running 15 gatekeepers who deliver buckets of asphalt to people who know how to ask for it," Box says. "This'll be a great city when we stop reacting to complaints and start addressing standards."

Addressing standards would be a radical new way of thinking by the City Council. Box says, "When that happens, life as you know it will change."

Box is running against LaBonge, 57, who is widely seen as an energetic, likable booster for L.A. — and, like many of the 14 other council members, an intellectual lightweight.

"His lack of understanding, having any clue about the policies he votes for ... " Ron Kaye says. "His competence as a legislator is nonexistent."

Seven incumbents running for City Council on March 8 enjoy countless advantages, not least of which is delivering these special personal favors to constituents, including cash gifts drawn from a $90,000 annual slush fund controlled by each council member. A new candidate like Box could never tap such riches.

In L.A., such gifts and fast-tracking of requests that move certain residents and neighborhoods to the front of the line are called "constituent services." On the East Coast, it's called "patronage." But it's paid for by taxpayers, just the same. Outsiders like Box and Tomas O'Grady can't funnel such cash and favors to residents. LaBonge and the other six incumbents up for re-election can.

Another big advantage for L.A. incumbents: Though no candidate can accept more than $500 per donor, big unions and other groups can spend without limit. They pour vast sums into campaigns to protect incumbents via "independent expenditures" that pay for mailers, phone banks, billboards, door-to-door campaigning — even vans to ferry voters to the polls.

So far, Box has raised $34,170, O'Grady $48,242 and LaBonge more than $150,000. O'Grady and Box have done better than most of the other 14 challengers taking on seven incumbents citywide on March 8. (The race for Council District 12 in the Valley is wide open because incumbent Greig Smith is voluntarily — and unusually — leaving before term limits are up.)

The only March 8 candidate spending serious money to take on an incumbent is Rudy Martinez, a cast member of A&E's Flip This House. Martinez is challenging Jose Huizar in the Eastside's Council District 14, where he's scaring the bejesus out of Huizar, having poured $150,000 of his own money into his race. (See L.A .Weekly's Dec. 2 story, "Rudy Martinez vs. Los Angeles City Hall.")

"When you go to City Hall — we use the back door," Box says, referring to the public entryway in the back of the building, used since City Hall's grand, white-stepped entrance was closed in the wake of 9/11. "I want a fucking concierge."

Not long after he got run off the road by Metro, Box decided to run for a seat on the board of the countywide L.A. Bicycle Coalition. It wasn't a good fit.

The first thing Box did was criticize the L.A. Department of Transportation's remake of Santa Monica Boulevard — a stretch of landscaping, high walls and additional traffic signals between Beverly Glen and Westwood Boulevard.

Ever since LADOT completed those pricey "improvements," which it labeled a transit parkway, traffic on those blocks of Santa Monica Boulevard has nearly ground to a halt for hours each weekday.

Box was told by other cyclists that by criticizing the design for Santa Monica Boulevard, he could jeopardize the Bicycle Coalition's grant from LADOT. Box wanted to know: "Do we work for the [city]? Or the cycling community?"

Many activists also felt the L.A. Bicycle Coalition was too satisfied with the status quo. Dan Gutierrez, who left the countywide group in 1999, says, "I don't want to be involved in an organization if they're taking money from some of the organizations they're supposed to be influencing."

Jennifer Klausner, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, responds, "It's very typical for groups that take on social change to not agree on everything. Maybe they should sit down and talk to me about budgeting. I'm trying to run a nonprofit here."

But Thompson complains that Klausner's organization does more harm than good: "I'm working for free, and I'm spending my time cleaning up work that [the coalition] do while they're on the clock."

In 2006, new, more radical organizations popped up in L.A. Bikeside, started by Thompson, does not accept tax-deductible donations, so unlike the L.A. Bicycle Coalition, his group is free to lobby and participate in politics.

Its slogan is "Resistance is futile."

"We're not afraid of uncompromising rhetoric," Thompson says.

On Bikeside's blog, he has devoted energy to attacking Michelle Mowery, LADOT's project coordinator for bicycles. Despite being an avid cyclist, Mowery is pilloried by activists, who call her Dr. No.

"It's been very difficult for her," says Chris Kidd, an assistant of Mowery's. "For me personally, there's been no greater advocate for bicycles than Michelle, but she's working under a lot of constraints by the city."

Linton, meanwhile, offers some backhanded sympathy on Mowery: "I think of her like a battered wife — pitiful, apologetic, not able to get traction. She's been neutered by the huge forces bearing down on her."

Box, who calls the LADOT "a fortress of status quo, a culture of obstacle, the land of no," started blogging on SoapBoxLA at around the same time that Thompson started writing for Bikeside's blog. At the time, Box suggested creating an organization of bike bloggers.

"We thought, 'Well, we're all writing about the same pothole. What if we put our efforts together?' " he says.

The Bike Writers Collective was founded by about a dozen people, including Enci and Box, Thompson and blogdowntown founder Eric Richardson.

"No one gives you respect at first in politics," Thompson says. "You have to prove you have clout. I think that group got really effective really fast because we were very well-spoken on the issues, and I think that comes from writing."

In 2008, the friends drafted the Cyclist's Bill of Rights, a list of 12 rights, including:

Cyclists have the right to travel safely and free of fear.

Cyclists have the right to equal access to our public streets and to sufficient and significant road space.

Cyclists have the right to the full support of educated law enforcement.

"The Cyclist's Bill of Rights was the first shot over the bow that said, 'We're here, we're pissed off, and we need to fix things,' " says Ted Rogers, who blogs for BikingInLA.

But the list of rights might never have gone further if not for a horrifying incident later that year, on July 4, 2008, in the exclusive Westside neighborhood of Mandeville Canyon.

Mandeville Canyon Road is a five-mile street in Brentwood that begins at Sunset Boulevard and climbs north to a dead end. For years, there's been a division between those who live at the top and the bottom, formalized by the Mandeville Canyon Association and the Upper Mandeville Canyon Association.

"The Upper Mandevillians hated the lower Mandevillians," Box says.

Residents at the top sped in their cars down the long, unbroken street. So residents toward the bottom got somebody at City Hall to install speed bumps. In protest against this action by their neighbors, cars heading uphill honked as they passed over the bumps.

The canyon road is favored by cyclists for its arduous uphill climb, followed by an exhilarating shot down without stop signs. But the growing number of cyclists irked the Mandevillians, who were already irked by each other.

Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr were among the 300 riders who comprised a July Fourth group ride along Mandeville Canyon in 2008. They were just starting their descent, riding side by side downhill at 30 mph, when an Infiniti sedan pulled up behind them, honked and sped up to pass them.

According to Peterson, the driver shouted profanity and ordered them to ride single-file. Peterson cursed back. Then, without warning, the driver cut in front of the bicyclists and slammed on his brakes. Peterson's bicycle slammed into the back of the Infiniti at full speed and Peterson was severely injured when his head crashed through the rear window. Stoehr tried to swerve but clipped the car, sending him flying to the pavement.

Box broke the story the following Monday morning in a guest post for the widely read LAist.com. It was picked up by LA.streetsblog.org, SoCalCycling.com and the L.A. Times' Bottleneck blog. A cell phone photo of a bloody Peterson lying on a gurney added weight to the story.

His nose had been broken so badly, it was almost detached from his face, and some of his broken teeth were found in the Infiniti's backseat.

The story spread, and when the L.A. Times printed it, it quoted City Councilman Bill Rosendahl as saying, "Cyclists have the right to travel safely and free of fear."

It was a direct quote from the Cyclist's Bill of Rights.

"Cyclists were relentless," Box recalls. "We went to the courthouse. We pummeled [people with] the bill of rights, the photos. All of a sudden you've got a council member holding it up."

The driver, Dr. Christopher Thompson, was charged with mayhem and assault with a deadly weapon and, in January 2010, sentenced to five years in prison.

The Bike Writers now had a new goal: Get the City Council to adopt the Cyclist's Bill of Rights. They spread out to various neighborhood councils, seeking their endorsement — and that led to a surprising new power platform for bicyclists. Alex Thompson began regularly attending Mar Vista Community Council meetings, and eventually ran for a seat. He won.

By 2009, Los Angeles neighborhood councils were peppered with bike activists: Thompson in Mar Vista, Glenn Bailey in Encino, Joe Linton in Rampart, Jeff Jacobburger in Mid-City. Box was hired by the city as a contractor to oversee a number of neighborhood council elections.

This job led Box to play a featured role in the grassroots citywide campaign against 2009's Measure B, the controversial bid by the Department of Water and Power to control much of the solar power–installation industry in L.A.

Remarkably, bloggers, activists and neighborhood council leaders convinced normally disinterested L.A. municipal voters to reject the DWP power play. The little-guy opponents stopped Measure B, while being outspent by $1.5 million to just $65,000.

The victory cemented an alliance between Box and a group of budget-restraint advocates and City Hall watchdogs, such as Jack Humphreville, who blogs at CityWatchLA.com, and former newspaperman Kaye, who blogs at RonKayeLA.com.

Humphreville and Kaye are far different from bicycle advocates — they're older, less liberal and, for the most part, skeptical of a vision of Los Angeles that isn't car-centric. But Box has won them over on the issue of making allowances for bicycles by finding common ground.

Five years after Box got run off the road, 2010 was a watershed. In August, the city launched new bicycle-awareness posters aimed at motorists: "Give Me 3" — as in three feet of space.

But at about the same time, without public notice, the city's Department of Transportation turned four-lane-wide Wilbur Avenue in the San Fernando Valley into a two-lane street with bike lanes.

Northridge residents erupted in anger over the immediate congestion caused by removing a car lane in each direction. Initially, the LADOT denied it was behind the Wilbur Avenue project.

As anger grew, LADOT admitted it purposely reconfigured Wilbur Avenue without telling residents. Known as a "road diet," the removal of traffic lanes was intended to slow cars passing a middle school in the area, regardless of the congestion it can create. LADOT assistant general manager John Fisher explained to Box on CityWatch that its large city staff "had no time for outreach" to let Northridge residents know what was going on.

LADOT's screw-you attitude to Northridge locals was so distressing to bicycle activists that a rumor swept the blogs that City Hall, by not explaining the road diet's purpose, was trying to turn Valley residents against more bike lanes in L.A.

But on Sunday, Oct. 10, something amazing happened: Tens of thousands of people turned out for CicLAvia, during which seven and a half miles of L.A. surface streets were closed to cars and a pleasing, yet odd, silence descended in which no engines or car tire noise could be heard — only cyclists laughing and calling out to each other.

"There was a feeling of euphoria," says Adonia Lugo, the organizer of CicLAvia, who got the idea for the event while at a Bogota, Colombia, bicycling event known as Ciclovia. When she came home to L.A., she worked to re-create it here, as did members of the Bicycle Coalition, Green L.A. and Linton.

"We'd say 'San Francisco' and 'Bogota,' and people would look at us and say, 'Oh, this is L.A. and we're different,' " Linton recalls. "Police and LADOT looked at us like they expected the event to be small. We expected 10,000."

Instead, they drew multiples of that figure. "It argues that there's a kind of 'If you build it they will come' that's missing in L.A. urbanism," Linton says.

Another victory came when the Los Angeles City Planning Commission rejected the Draft Bike Plan, a 433-page blueprint for City Hall's accommodation of bicycles.

Activists like Thompson, Linton and Box were outraged by what seemed like lip service: frequent mention of "bicycle-friendly streets" in the blueprint, meaning nothing more than a few signs with bicycles on them. And the plan did not mention the Cyclist's Bill of Rights.

At the City Planning meeting on Nov. 4, bike activists presented a united front: Bikeside, Midnight Ridazz, the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, the Bicycle Advisory Committee and the Bicycle Kitchen were all in rare agreement.

The plan was reworked by activists working side by side with city officials. It adopts the Backbone Bikeway network, a Bike Writers hobbyhorse for some time, which designates several heavily congested commuter routes such as Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard as bike-friendly.

"I think we found a way to get along," says Thompson. "For the time being."

Four months ago, in room 1313, high in the space age–looking Caltrans building built across from City Hall, a rather odd meeting is taking place. Spread on a long, wooden table are architectural blueprints that contain proposed changes to the 405 freeway and other roads in the Sepulveda Pass.

The 405 is getting new carpool lanes, and Caltrans is adding a three-and-a-half-mile reversible lane down the center of commuter-crammed Sepulveda Boulevard.

Gathered around the table are transportation bureaucrats from the city and state, as well as members of the 405 design team, each with their leather-bound notebooks.

The odd part is the three others present: Alex Thompson, Dan Gutierrez and Stephen Box. And the three don't like what they see.

"If you're coming from the west and approaching this area," Box says, hunched over a blueprint of Sunset where it crosses Sepulveda via a bridge, "you're not gonna see things as we're looking at now."

"You're gonna need to make two anticipatory merges," Gutierrez says.

"Why do you have to turn right here?" Thompson asks. "Why isn't it right and possibly through?"

"We can look at it ... " says a reluctant Jose Valle, a contractor. He looks as if he'd rather be anywhere but here.

"It's a bit late to be having this conversation," says one member of the design team.

"It's never too late," says Box, smiling brightly.

Here, in this room, after years of indifference if not outright hostility toward bicyclists, city officials are asking for their input. They may not be buying the advice, but they're asking.

"It is a sign," Thompson says later, "that we're able to pull the 405 contractors to the table. That's a sign of growth. We wouldn't have gotten that meeting a year ago."

Then, on the first Thursday of 2011, Box officially launched his campaign for City Council. His wife and campaign manager, Enci, and more than two dozen volunteers and friends packed into a lime–green room at Hollywood Rent-a-Car, which serves as Box's campaign headquarters.

Some guests couldn't help but do a double take as Box walked in. Gone was his trademark thick goatee and earring. He was clean-shaven, wearing a gray suit and a silver tie. He looked like a kid showing up for his first job interview at a law office.

Box's campaign is a long shot. But if he does well, coming in second and forcing LaBonge into a runoff if the longtime pol gets less than 50 percent of the vote — or simply gaining enough votes to garner press for the power of bicycling — it will herald the arrival of a new grassroots movement, capable of upsetting a historically inert City Hall.

Correction: The original posting said the California Cycleway was  9 miles long. In fact, it wasn't completed between Pasadena and Los Angeles, and was 1.25 miles long.


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