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She's L.A.'s pedal pusher

Monica Howe sees herself as the voice of a two-wheeled future, dedicated to the notion that an urban bicycle culture will make this a better place to live.

January 02, 2007|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

It scares her to ride her bicycle to work. A vague prickle of apprehension follows her along Sunset Boulevard and down Spring Street on her way into the teeming core of the city. But she rides anyway. Her faith in the future of the bicycle overpowers her dread of the cars that rule these impatient streets.

Indeed, it's Monica Howe's job to argue the case for the bicycle as everyday transportation in Los Angeles.

The bicycle is central to her social life in the city, her romantic life too. It's the source of her idealism. If you've known her for a while, you understand that the very thought of the bicycle in Los Angeles makes her smile.

Right now, she is awaiting delivery of that end-of-the-rainbow dream cherished by true-blue cyclists everywhere: a custom-built frame with hand-selected, jewel-like components, a precision machine that weighs barely more than a bowling ball but that can propel its rider at eye-watering speed more efficiently than anything else ever devised.

"My whole life is about the bicycle," she said. "I have to work to make time for anything else. I dream about this stuff."

In the last few years, without really trying, 31-year-old Howe, tall and blond, has become the voice of the emerging urban bicycling culture of Los Angeles.

Urban cycling

Here in the throne-room of the motor vehicle, the bicycle is not quite as improbable as it might seem -- not as far-fetched, say, as icebergs in Santa Monica Bay. Indeed, urban bicycling as a mix of activity and cause has been on the upswing in Southern California for a few years now.

Small but lively, the city-center culture took root and gained attention around a neighborhood repair shop and hangout called the Bicycle Kitchen, off Melrose Avenue just west of Vermont Avenue. Whirly Girls emerged as a recreational and social club for women wanting to escape the masculine overtones of urban cycling. Midnight Ridazz, a free-form monthly nighttime ride through the city, grew from just a handful of die-hards to more than 1,200.

Howe, naturally, has been associated with all these activities and many others. They caught her interest, one after another, and the friends she made helped shape her thinking about the future of the city in which she lives. She became a champion of the idea that the bicycle makes Los Angeles a better place. She threw her spare energy into bicycles and bicycle activism. Because of her enthusiasm, because of her frequent and exuberant e-mails to fellow cyclists and because she always seemed to be close to the center of things, people listened.

She wasn't a founder of the scene. But, she said with a laugh, "I do tend to become the voice of things. I meet people and they've come to identify me as a bicycle gal around town, whether it's an important issue or just a ride somewhere."

In June, Howe took the final step. From avocation, the bicycle became her vocation. She took the job as outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Right away she turned up the volume for this small advocacy organization that is dedicated to "improving the bicycle environment in the county." The traditionally conservative and cautious cycling establishment found itself with a genuine urban insurgent in its midst, and cyclists around the city could detect a fresh spurt of determination.

'Sick of driving'

There are plenty of excuses to have fun on a bicycle in Los Angeles. For Howe, it's time to turn the party into something more ambitious.

The inherent danger of confronting hot-headed motorists from the vulnerable saddle of a bicycle is a kind of daredevil endeavor on which the youthful urban cycling culture has thrived, first in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, and now in Los Angeles. But gladiator antics do not form a reliable foundation for a calmer, cleaner, more human-scale urban transportation system.

"We're really at a turning point," Howe said during an interview at an Echo Park cafe. "We've seen an explosion of cycling in this part of town.... There are multiple fun rides every day of the month now in L.A., from club rides to pub crawls.

"What has to happen now -- and what I think will happen in five years -- is we'll see new advocacy groups joining in the work of making room here for the bicycle. Los Angeles is really the last big city to realize that bicycling is a good idea.

"In Los Angeles, people are sick of driving, sick of looking for parking. And most trips are under five miles. But people don't want to ride in a city that feels dangerous."

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