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Another inroad for Los Angeles cyclists: Spring Street green lane

Los Angeles' Spring Street green lane is only 1.5 miles for now, but hopefully it's leading to a more bike-friendly future.

November 28, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • With Los Angeles City Hall in the background, a cyclist rides along Spring Street near 2nd Street on the new bright green bike lane that extends from Cesar Chavez Avenue to 9th Street.
With Los Angeles City Hall in the background, a cyclist rides along Spring… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The city put an emerald road outside my office.

Well, it's more of a radioactive green, to be honest. But there it was, greeting me last week upon my arrival at the Times building downtown: a six-foot wide strip of paint running inside the traffic lanes on Spring Street.

It's the city's newest bike lane, an inspiration that comes to Los Angeles via the Netherlands, where the people love getting around their cities under their own power so much, they're constantly giving bicycles more of the road.

Like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," I felt that colorful pathway beckoning me. I wanted to experience the oddity of riding a bike in my own lane, in the heart of an American city that's still in love with automobiles.

So I wheeled my new bike out of my garage and pedaled southward from my home in Mount Washington.

The city's new green bike lane runs only along 1.5 miles of downtown, mostly through the old Bank District, and reaching it required a five-mile ride on streets without bike lanes.

Down into Lincoln Heights and through Chinatown, I had to do what most devoted cyclists do in L.A. every day: hotfoot it with traffic scurrying past me.

L.A. is slowly becoming a bike-friendlier city, though you still have to possess a certain daring, a willingness to risk injury, to make getting around by bike your chief form of transportation.

My mother, who is visiting from Guatemala for the holidays, sensed this. "Be careful," she told me as I strapped my helmet on. "And may God be with you." Que Dios lo acompañe.

I've learned from veteran cyclists to ride as if the road belonged to me — while following the law, of course, which generally favors the rights of cyclists.

Lucky for me, weekday traffic was light Friday morning, a day after Thanksgiving. No one cut me off or tailgated me as I cruised rather slowly over the Los Angeles River. The only inconvenience was the cloud of cigarette smoke drifting over the Chinatown intersection where a couple of elderly, puffing pedestrians crossed in front of me.

A few blocks later, I was at the start of the Little Green Road.

This is sweet, I thought. And also a little scary. The green lane puts you, seemingly, near the center of the street. That big, wide lane on your right is supposed to be for parking, but buses use it all the time, and for a moment or two I had a bus on my right and a car on my left, without any layers of steel or glass to protect me.

And I was the only self-powered vehicle in the little green lane itself. Then another guy pulled up ahead of me — on a skateboard.

"This is better than being on the sidewalk," Jed Stoddard, 32, told me. "On the sidewalk, I'm a moving target for all the dogs."

Stoddard pushed and rolled his way down Spring and finally leaned his body into an elegant left turn, across three lanes of traffic onto 8th Street.

No other person joined me in the green lane on my two rides down Spring Street on Friday. Earlier in the week, during my regular comings and goings from The Times, I spotted just one pair of cyclists using it. Most cyclists I saw on Spring were on the sidewalks.

Give them time, said Tim Fremaux, who directed the green lane project for the city's Department of Transportation.

"It's really the first step, a pilot project," Fremaux said of the lane, which was inspired by a meeting between city officials and Dutch bike experts. "It's going to take some adjustments."

The idea, Fremaux said, is to eventually extend the green lane some eight blocks south to Venice Boulevard. And then, to create another green lane northbound on Main, running parallel to Spring (both are one-way streets).

When completed, the new lanes will allow commuter cyclists to connect to various "nodes of activity" downtown, Fremaux told me.

For the moment, however, the green bike lane feels like a road to nowhere. It drops you off in the middle of the Fashion District, which is fine if you're headed there (I rarely am).

Of course, every new transportation network feels like a road to nowhere when it's first built. I can remember driving to the end of the Pomona Freeway when it was still under construction in the late 1960s, pulling off those wide lanes into a bunch of citrus groves that felt like nowhere.

I got a hint of downtown L.A.'s bike future on the ride north, back up Broadway, when I happened upon the recently opened showroom of D.T.L.A. Bikes.

It was like entering an alternate reality of L.A. transportation. There were dozens of gleaming new bikes for sale, available on credit if necessary, and a shop in the back. Like a mechanic at a car dealership, a D.T.L.A. staffer had a bike suspended from a rack and was telling a customer how much a repair would cost in parts and labor.

"I anticipated downtown would be the spot for biking," Rodney Masjedi, the owner, told me. Most of his customers live within one or two miles, he said. "If you only have to travel 15 blocks to get where you're going, a car doesn't make sense."

After cycling down to Boyle Heights and trying out another bike lane there — it has a lot less green paint than the one on Spring — I took the Metro Gold Line back home and met another cyclist.

Agnew Wilson, 50, bikes from Highland Park to Culver City regularly. He said he's tried out the new Spring Street lane several times.

"I was impressed with the fact that people were giving more respect to it," he said. "I felt safer." And for someone who's been hit by cars a couple of times, as he has, that's important.

Yes, the new bike lane's bright greenness is itself a kind of announcement of cycling's arrival in L.A.

We've got one little green "node" in the center of the city. Now all we need are the arteries, the biking highways of the future linked to the sprawling city beyond, pathways for people perfectly happy to get home a lot slower but under their own power.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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