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It takes guts to ride a bicycle in the nation’s most crowded county, Los Angeles. It’s not just the traffic, it’s the rundown roads and the stressed-out drivers. Yet, more people than ever are commuting by bike. And now, thanks to one fateful broken elbow, cycling in LA may be getting some real traction. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our report.

[BUSY STREET]

LOBET: At the foot of the soaring Metro Transit Authority building, cyclists dismount and hand their bikes to a valet. Louis Moya, dressed in a Fender guitar T-shirt and glasses, describes what it’s like to ride in LA.

MOYA: Um, well, no bike lanes, cars opening doors, just swinging them open without looking back, cracked roads, potholes… And, people driving really close to you, they start honking at you. They yell at you, you know, ‘get off the road, get on the sidewalk.’

LOBET: These conditions are what motivated a couple of hundred cyclists to attend a Bike Summit called by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He opened on a solemn note.

VILLARAIGOSA: Lemme just say, unfortunately, today a cyclist was killed in a traffic accident in the San Fernando Valley.

LOBET: That cyclist was only one of several to lose their lives on Los Angeles streets in recent days. One woman, 31, was pregnant. And the mayor recently had his own near miss.

VILLARAIGOSA: I was going 16-18 miles an hour, hit headfirst. Then hit my elbow. My elbow was the size of a grapefruit. It’s shattered in eight places and I have a plate from my elbow almost about two-thirds of the way to my wrist. So, imagine what would have happened if I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

LOBET: The severity of the mayor’s injury did not stop former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan, a cyclist still, at age 80, from goading him.

RIORDAN: So here’s what we bought for you…

[SOUNDS OF BAG RUSTLING]

RIORDAN: It’s a set of training wheels.

[LAUGHTER]

LOBET: But serious frustration has been growing among people who rely on bicycles across this vast city. The chance to describe the conditions they endure directly to city officials was without question a turning point. Brent Butterworth and several others stressed the hostility they often encounter from drivers.

BUTTERWORTH: I was yelled at twice last night for making legal left hand turns on my bike. And, you know, I survived, but I left two drivers who now hate cyclists even worse. The problem is these people are running around with a set of laws in their head that they basically made up. they have no awareness of what bicycle laws are.

LOBET: The riders got no disagreement from Rita Robinson, LA’s general manager for transportation.

ROBINSON: We have a car-centric mentality in this city. It is our hope to be able to implement a plan that we can be proud of on a regional basis, not to mention, educating the drivers that you deserve to be there.

LOBET: Vehicle laws here give cyclists the same rights and responsibilities as cars. To publicize that fact, some cities are posting signs instructing drivers to share the road. When the message is painted on the street, it’s called a sharrow. Of course a major priority for cyclists is more separate bike lanes and bike paths. And, to that end, the mayor promised a fivefold increase in new lanes each year.

VILLARAIGOSA: And at that rate we’ll build about 200 miles every five years.

LOBET: But in a moment that captured both the frustration and the flavor of this giant city, Ramon Martinez of the LA County Bicycle Coalition pressed the mayor to move faster.

MARTINEZ: Antonio, if you are really interested in moving quickly on bike lanes– there are bike lane projects in the downtown street centers that can be done downtown Los Angeles in dense areas that are transit-dependent, today, right now, with your support.

VILLARAIGOSA: I gotcha, Ramon.

[APPLAUSE]

LOBET: In a way the hearing was a culmination of efforts already underway. The city was already finishing up a bike plan. Los Angeles police have been paying more attention when cyclists complain of abuse. A new street sign warns drivers to leave at least 3 feet of space when they pass a bike. They’re all responses to the growing number of people demanding safe bike travel.

SNYDER: I’m convinced we’ve at least tripled the number of people on bicycles in Los Angeles in the last few years.

LOBET: Ryan Snyder has been working on pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly urban planning here since the ’70s, now, as a consultant.

SNYDER: This is a global movement. And it’s exciting to be a part of it, especially having been involved when many people just thought the idea of bicycles ever becoming a meaningful part of the mix of transportation modes in the city as a crazy idea.

LOBET: But Los Angeles is a follower, not a leader in this movement, and has a lot of catching up to do.

SNYDER: When you look at the cities that are doing the most, lets see, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Tucson, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Columbus, Ohio, and a growing list of other cities. The only thing those cities have in common is the political will to make conditions better. We have a great climate here, most of our basin is flat, there is no reason that we can’t do, certainly, as well as New York and Chicago.

LOBET: Los Angeles may enact one first for bicycles. City attorney Judith Reel says a new ordinance could make it easier for riders to take on harassing drivers in court. But she stresses, many things riders complain about are already illegal.

REEL: Threatening a bicyclist can be a criminal violation, making an unlawful threat.

LOBET: What about cars that deliberately might pull out in front of a bicyclist?

REEL: That action would violate the vehicle code, they would be following too closely. And if they tried if they tried to hit a bicyclist, that could be deemed an assault with a deadly weapon.

LOBET: What about motorists who sometimes hit the horn just to see if they can startle you?

REEL: Honking a horn at a bicyclist for reasons unrelated to vehicular safety is a violation of the vehicle code.

LOBET: But most of the time, these acts can’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, so prosecutors aren’t going to file charges. The new ordinance would provide a civil remedy, meaning a lower standard of proof, and something cyclists could pursue on their own.

REEL: The city could pass a law that would give someone who is unlawfully harassed the right to sue for that and could also award punitive damages, treble damages and attorneys’ fees.

LOBET: Most cyclists, though, prefer coexistence to lawsuits. And some see this as a larger movement, of public health workers, disabled and older people, advocates for school kids, coming together for more walkable, bikable cities.

On October 10, Los Angeles, will close 8 miles of downtown streets to cars. Other cities have done it, but it will be a first in this town, where for so long, status has meant your four-wheel ride. For Living On Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.

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