WHEN Robert Petersen bought his bike a few months back, he hadn't ridden for two decades and didn't know if he would be able to stay upright. He was so nervous about falling that he lowered his seat.
"I never even considered the bike as a method of transportation," says the 29-year-old, third-generation Southern Californian. But he was sick of forking out $6 to $20 per day in parking fees for a lot in downtown L.A. near his work. Plus he'd been gym-less since graduating from UCLA Law School last spring and figured pedaling to work from his home in Angelino Heights would force him to exercise regularly.
He approached his maiden voyage carefully and with not a little stress. "The first day was a little strange, not knowing if I was more car or pedestrian," he says.
So he took it slow. Really slow. He spent a lot of time on the sidewalk, especially when he hit the thick traffic on Figueroa Street. But -- and it surprised him -- by the time he'd gotten to work he'd cycled through most of his fear.
"I was really, really worried that first day," Petersen says. "Within one week, I was going fast and enjoying going fast."
Petersen is a good example of the new face of bike commuting -- professional and average folks who are abandoning their daily drive for bikes in increasing numbers for a variety of reasons: fitness, a refusal to sit in traffic, politics or pocketbook, especially during days of skyrocketing gas prices.
Every day, according to the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, between 100,000 and 240,000 Angelenos ride a bike and 24,000 commute by bicycle. There are signs that the number is climbing and set to climb higher. For the last seven years, large employers in the El Segundo area have been conducting a Bike-to-Work challenge -- including one last Tuesday, during national Bike-to-Work week, that saw 306 cyclists pedaling to work versus 245 the year before. (This year's winner: Raytheon, which beat Aerospace Corp., Los Angeles Air Force Base and Boeing when 61 of its employees showed up to work on bikes.)
Demand for on-site bike commuting seminars at workplaces has surged, including requests from big employers such as LAX, 20th Century Fox and Disneyland, according to Kastle Lund, executive director of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
Demand has surged too, for hybrids, the kinds of bikes often ridden by new commuters -- bicycles with wide tires, flat handle bars and a relaxed riding position -- and they're being purchased by customers who haven't ridden much in the past, says David Landia, assistant manager of Budget Pro Bikes in Eagle Rock. According to the National Bicycle Dealers Assn., last year was a bumper one for bike sales, which totaled close to 20 million.
Los Angeles is working to become more bike friendly. It recently completed a bike lane that runs parallel to the Orange Line, and the first phase of the San Fernando Road Bike Path, which will run from Roxford to San Fernando, is scheduled to open in a few months, says Michelle Mowery, senior bicycle coordinator for the City of Los Angeles.
Next year, the city plans to begin construction on the next segment of the Los Angeles River Bike Path, which already stretches from the north end of Griffith Park at Victory Boulevard to Fletcher Drive; and to install bike lanes near LAX, the harbor and the San Fernando Valley, Mowery says.
There are also plans to add an additional 800 bike racks to the 2,500 racks that are currently placed on sidewalks throughout the city on which cyclists can lock their bikes.
Potential changes are cropping up on the national front as well. In April, a bill was introduced in the Senate that would give employers a tax incentive to offer employees $40 to $100 a month to cycle to work. A similar bill is pending in the House.
It's smoggy. It's congested. But actually, L.A. is a great place to ride, Lund says. "Los Angeles is relatively flat, has beautiful weather and the destinations are relatively close together," she says. "What makes Los Angeles seem onerous to get around is the traffic. But when you ride your bike, you don't have to deal with 10 or 15 minutes to find a parking spot or sitting through three cycles at a light."
Lately, she says, she's seen an increasing number of men in suits commuting on bikes.
"Gas came to the forefront last year," she says. "It got people thinking, 'Hey, there has to be a better way.' "
No gas required
The price of gas got Lisa Anne Auerbach out of her car and onto her bike full time four years ago. She wanted to see if she could go car-less for a month -- and by the end of the experiment, the 38-year-old artist, writer, photographer and college instructor viewed the city differently. It seemed smaller.
"The city just becomes compact when you're able to traverse it very easily by your own power," Auerbach says. "On the bicycle, you feel like it's all within reach."