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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.

100903bikes-01.mp3 2.5 MB

California’s Department of Public Health says less half of African Americans in the state eat enough fruits and vegetables—often because fresh produce simply isn’t available where they live. A farmer’s market in LA’s predominantly black Crenshaw neighborhood is working to make fresh foods more available, but they are finding that if you build it, they won’t necessarily come. Planet Harmony’s King Anyi Howell reports and Host Regina Campbell-Malone follows up Harambee Farmer, Larry Williamson, about his vision for a healthier inner city.

[SOUNDS OF STREET/MUSIC]

ANYI: Out here at the Harambee Farmer’s Market, its crazy empty! I’ve been here since maybe 12—it’s almost 2:30—there’s nobody here, I maybe saw one person go get some fruits.

[SOUNDS OF INTERSECTION AT CRENSHAW/SLAUSON]

ANYI: It’s an average Saturday morning at the Harambee Farmer’s market. Baskets of bright red tomatoes and strawberries settled next to fresh picked greens and okra all compete for attention in the area saturated with fast food chains and lesser known grease depots.

[SOUNDS OF INTERSECTION AT CRENSHAW/SLAUSON]

ANYI: The market is at the busy intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson, at a former Fire Station tucked between a bank and an auto paint shop. Michelle Guillaume lives in South Central. She says the farmer’s market is in the perfect location to attract customers.

GUILLAUME: It’s where commercial business meets hustlers and street vendors and with Crenshaw Boulevard being what it is, just everybody—it’s a main vein in our city, so you get some of everybody and we all mingle on these corners.

ANYI: Guillaume buys fresh strawberries to add to lemonade, green onions and lettuce for her taco truck that operates right outside the market. Nearby a customer is buying oranges.

MAN: We have oranges three for a dollar.

ANYI: But apart from them there are very few shoppers. The African Firefighters in Benevolence Association or AFIBA that organizes the Market is really trying to attract more customers and expand the market, which currently only has seven stands. They’ve hung a large banner advertising the market’s hours for the thousands of cars that drive by daily; they telephone local residents, and they also try to lure customers with a live band.

[SOUNDS OF LIVE JAM BAND]

ANYI: But even that doesn’t seem to be working. The market remains largely empty. Shoppers pass the market by and head for the neon-emblazed, Ralph’s Supermarket. I walked across the street to ask a Ralph’s customer, Ladine, why she didn’t come to the Market.

LADINE: Mostly everybody buys their produce here because they want to go to one place to get everything you need.

ANYI: The big supermarket may not have quality produce but it is convenient and familiar. While the farmer’s market remains hidden in plain sight.

LADINE: I didn’t know about the market and now that I know I will go.

ANYI: Vegetables at Harambee go straight from the ground to the community. The food here provides nutrition that is missing from the fast food chains and bodegas that line these streets.

ROBINSON: Today we have grapes.

ANYI: That’s vendor, Etea Robinson.

ROBINSON: We have corn grown in the Williamson farm up in Merced.

ANYI: The lack of customers puts Farmers like Larry Williamson, who labor to make fresh produce available to the black community, in a tough spot.

WILLIAMSON: I could probably run this, struggle along for another five years.

ANYI: Williamson is a native of Los Angeles, but farms about a four-hour drive away in Merced, California. He told me that he is in a unique position to help provide healthy options to the African-American community.

WILLIAMSON: I don’t think that I’m gonna never garner the Italian Market, the Hispanic market or the Asian Market. I’ve made it very clear that I’m in a better position to help the black market because we’ve always had the argument from the ‘80s to the ‘90s that the food that comes to our stores is old; it’s tainted and all these things.

ANYI: His farm grows 150 to 200 thousand dollars worth of produce annually but he has to give away most of his unsold crops or feed them to the chickens and goats that graze on the farm, so he barely turns a profit. However, Williamson keeps coming back to the farmer’s market. He’s committed to providing competitively priced healthy alternatives to the cheap junk food that’s so common here. For Larry it’s about more than just green, he has a vision.

WILLIAMSON: I have enough land and seeds that I can make probably an extra 20 to 30 thousand dollars and put it in my pocket and be totally satisfied but that’s not my goal, that not my objective. My goal is to in the next five years I want to own 100 acres and lease 1,000 acres. With that amount of land, I can feed every black family in California!

ANYI: And maybe Williamson’s enthusiasm is starting to catch on. Traffic at Harambee is slowly picking up. The people who organize the market have added more regular activities like live music and self defense workshops. They also accept WIC vouchers. With the help of farmers like Larry Williamson and the AFIBA center that supports the market, Harambee may slowly start to shift inner city eating trends. Drop by if you are ever in LA on a Saturday afternoon.

[SOUNDS OF HARAMBEE MUSIC]

ANYI: Let me get some of these grapes! For Planet Harmony and Living on Earth, I’m King Anyi Howell

Good Eats 2.mp3 8 MB