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A Biking Commuter Rides Out the Subway's Bureaucracy

First Person

March 13, 2000|JANE ENGLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seemed like a pretty straightforward proposition last summer: Bicycle the three miles between my home and the new Red Line subway station at Hollywood and Vine, take the train to the downtown Civic Center station and walk the 1 1/2 blocks to my office. A pollution-free commute that included my daily exercise.

Three months later, I was on the verge of giving up. No, it was not the potential danger of biking at night through Hollywood, or crabby and inattentive drivers, or laziness that pushed me to the edge. It was the transit bureaucrats, who make it virtually impossible to do a bike-train commute in Los Angeles.

I started out by parking my bike at the outdoor racks at the Hollywood station, returning later to pick it up for the ride home--despite daily warnings from the newspaper seller near the station that it was sure to get stolen. I nicknamed him Cassandra, having been assured by station employees that hidden cameras monitored the bike racks. (I had asked them why the racks couldn't be put inside the station. Smiling, one employee nudged the other and laughed: "Because then we'd have to watch them." I have found that people laugh a lot when asked about accommodating bike commuters.)

This method worked pretty well for about two months. I loved commuting by bike. It made me feel like a kid again--the breeze blowing against my face, the energizing exercise, sightseeing the houses. My office even paid half my train fare. An avid recreational biker, I commuted by bike and train two or three times a week.

The only depressing part was festooning my little steed with chains at the station: a U-lock around the rack, then a chain to lash both wheels to the U-lock and then attaching yet another chain to secure the seat. I joked that it took me 25 minutes to ride to the station and 30 minutes to lock up the bike.

Then on the Friday before Labor Day weekend, I climbed up the Hollywood station's stairs after my work day and popped into daylight (well, dusk light) to find my bike gone. Just a forlorn broken U-lock lay where my bike once stood. I called police, who arrived at the scene and told me that two bikes had been stolen from the racks just the day before. (I did a quick calculation: I have never seen more than six bikes parked there, so that made for a theft rate of 33% that day.) I asked about the hidden camera. Officer A looked quizzically at Officer B and asked: "What camera?" It turns out the only site monitored by cameras is the area of the ticket machines inside the station, they said.

I was heartbroken (I actually cried), but I soon got another bike and a new plan: I would take the bike on the train and lock it in racks inside my office's parking garage, in view of the security guard just steps away. Not the best plan, lugging a bike around, but cheaper than buying a new bike every two months.

*

Here I came up against some very interesting rules. You need a bike permit to take your bike on the train. Fair enough, and it's free. But it comes with two pages of draconian regulations.

Rule 1 is you can't take your bike on the train between 6 and 9 a.m. and between 3 and 7 p.m. on weekdays--the hours most people use to commute (in fact, the only hours that work if you don't want to ride home in the dusk or dark). Rule 2 is that you must stash your bike in the train-car doorway that is opposite the platform--a fairly straightforward concept except that midway during my 20-minute trip, the platform changes sides. Where is the worst place to have your bike? In the doorway blocking boarding passengers, of course. So you must schlep the bike across the aisle and back--a difficult maneuver on a crowded train, and in fact, a violation of another rule forbidding you to move your bike through the aisle.

*

And speaking of crowds, my favorite rule, bar none, states: "No bicycle shall replace or inconvenience a passenger. If a car becomes crowded, the bicyclist must leave the car and wait for a subsequent train."

Are these rules enforced? Yes. I've seen officers collaring some poor pedaler on the Hollywood platform after 7 p.m. to see if he has a permit. And a strap-hanging colleague of mine says he has seen officers pull bicyclists off the train during rush hours. That's a $250 fine, and you can lose your bike permit too--the same punishment for violating any of the rules.

Nevertheless, I struggled on with my bike commute, taking advantage of the fact that I could arrive at the office about 10 a.m. and ride home not too long after dusk in the summer and early autumn light. I did sometimes slink onto the trains before the end of the evening rush hour, truth be told. Along the way, I'd meet a few other hardy bike commuters, generally strapping young men who worked irregular hours and looked like they could muscle their way out of any unsavory situation. No middle-aged women like me. But my bike-train commuting ended when daylight savings time kicked in, and darkness fell sooner.

*

Will I return to bike commuting with the days soon to lengthen again? That's hard to say. It's depressing to wrestle with bureaucrats who seem to view bicyclists either as criminals or as fair game for criminals of the bike-stealing sort. But on the other hand, when I pull out of my garage for my daily commute, it's even more depressing to find myself hunkered down in the driver's seat on another sun-splashed Los Angeles day, wishing I could be outside on my bike.

I think I probably will return to bike commuting for a few months of the year. But with all the obstacles that bicycle-train commuters face in Los Angeles, how many others can be expected to join me?

Jane Engle can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.

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