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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Sic Transit

Two-Wheelin' Down the Highway

March 15, 1998|NOA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bicycle fanatics are a varied lot--anarchists, rosy-cheeked environmentalists, punk couriers, thrill seekers--but they all seem to have the same supercharged current of enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, the man who mounted one of the most impressive two-wheeled enterprises in these parts was not a bicycle fanatic. Horace Dobbins was simply a problem solver, and his veloway, an elevated bicycle highway, still looks to some like a solution for L.A.'s commuter woes.

Archival photos are all that is left of the veloway, the first and probably only toll highway catering exclusively to two-wheelers. The wood-planked structure opened Jan. 1, 1900. It was the Golden Age of bicycling. Women in long skirts and men with handlebar mustaches gladly paid their nickel to commute from the Green Hotel in Pasadena to any point along three miles of finished bikeway. Workers were on schedule to extend the elevated path all the way into Union Station in downtown L.A.

"My grandfather was a visionary businessman," says Will Dobbins, who now serves on the board of California Cycleways, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to bike advocacy. "He was always looking at ways to improve society." The elder Dobbins also served at one point as mayor of Pasadena, dabbled in waste management and invented one of the largest tri-hull catamarans ever built.

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Then along came Mr. Ford and his Model T. Railroads and highwaymen began muscling their way into his land. Construction halted, and Dobbins eventually sold his right-of-way to Southern Pacific Railway in a hostile takeover. The veloway was buried.

Now, Dennis Crowley wants to exhume its remains. Crowley, president of California Cycleways (a bike enthusiast of the rosy-cheeked variety), fell upon historical records of the veloway while doing research for a mayor's bicycle task force report in 1991. Crowley was on a mission of his own, eerily similar to Dobbins'--an elevated bikeway along the Arroyo Seco--and was shocked to find he had a 19th century brother-in-arms. He quickly contacted the family and enlisted their help.

"I was astonished," he says. "I always fancied myself a hard-core cyclist and a history buff. It was amazing that this incredible structure had been built and then so thoroughly forgotten."

The Arroyo Seco bikeway would extend from Pasadena, just as the Dobbins veloway had, nine miles down the Arroyo Seco flood-control channel and the Pasadena Freeway, across the L.A. River into downtown.

"And then we're going to the beach," says an optimistic Crowley.

This is no average bike path. We're talking bicycle superhighway--elevated, lighted, patrolled and landscaped. The price tag? $18.5 million.

"It's peanuts. It is the lowest cost per rider of any transportation facility in the works by far," argues Crowley. "The cost would be completely mitigated by a 50-cent toll and would, within five to 10 years, generate a surplus."

Robin Blair, coordinator of non-motorized transportation for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, responds that the Cycleways plan is not practical because of the finite amount of funds allocated to bicycle-traffic solutions in the region.

While he would be just as happy as anyone to see the elevated bikeway come to life (he is an avid bicyclist himself), he notes that fewer than 1% of commuters here use bicycles (compared with 7% to 10% in other bike-friendly metropolitan areas such as Toronto; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.).

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In any case, the existing bike path extending from Pasadena, merely a concrete slab at the bottom of a flood-control channel, is slated for a $1.6-million face-lift. An additional $2.1 million has been allotted for a bridge connecting the L.A. River bike path and the Arroyo Seco bikeway to downtown.

The MTA is looking at the feasibility of hanging the bike bridge off the (unused) Blue Line bridge just south of Taylor Yard, in the midst of a tangle of rail tracks, highways and bridges, one of the most hotly contested areas along the path.

"We are going for the Route 66 approach," says Blair. This is civil engineerese for "take what you can get." Route 66, the first interstate roadway, was slapped down pell-mell, only later to be paralleled by the fancier Highway 10. "Build a utilitarian infrastructure as cheaply and as quickly as possible," recommends Blair. 'Then fight for the rest later."

So, no daisies tickling your Bianchi for now.

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