When The Bike Was King

The first Arroyo Seco freeway
The first Arroyo Seco freeway

Imagine biking from Pasadena to downtown LA on a dedicated boardwalk, at rooftop level, then pedaling home in the evening under magic lights while serenaded by bullfrogs and crickets. Like the NYC High Line, but without pedestrians.

In 1900 you could do this. For about two miles.  The remainder of the California Causeway foundered for lack of paying customers, and the ungracious and untimely arrival of the automobile. Like so many magnificent wooden structures of yore, inevitably it would have burned to the ground at some point.  Instead the lumber was sold off, repurposed in local houses.

Oh, to have ridden upon it, even once!

A century later one is taken by the separation from streetcars and horse-drawn carriages. Here, in first conception, the bike fulfills transportation needs and communes with nature in equal measure.

Steve Jobs was fond of saying the condor was the most efficient creation in nature. It moved the greatest distance with the least amount of energy. Man, by contrast, was way down the evolutionary list. Until he got on a bike. A man on a bicycle was the most energy efficient creation ever. He moved at four times the speed of the pedestrian and used five times less energy. A computer, he added, was a bicycle for the mind.

Bicycles take less space, require less public infrastructure, impose less on the physical space of our fellow citizens. If unimpeded, a woman on a bike can cross the city like a wind deity. A boy on a bike arrives at school like a knight in training. Imagine if we had a whole network of cycleways like this connecting the neighborhoods of the Valley.  Oh, wait.


So we are obliged in the absence of civic leadership to play Russian roulette on public streets, our laptops tucked neatly in our backpacks, spinning the pedals with Jobsian hyper-efficacy, masters of our own movement until a hit and run driver says otherwise.

Light and Dark in the banana republic of Los Angeles

Glendale has streetlights
Glendale has streetlights. How did they manage to do that?

Juan, a nice young man who works for a neighborhood advocacy organization approached me last week with a petition. ‘Sign here, and Nury’s office will ask for streetlights for the neighborhood.”

How wonderful.  Who could say no?  Sure I’ll sign…

Not so fast.  The streetlights are going to cost ‘only’ $6/month, per house. $72 a year, for life.

Juan was having difficulty collecting signatures.

Streetlights fall under the category of Things We Already Pay For.  That is, in the normal run of things in the wealthiest state in the country, from the vast pools of property tax revenue, income tax, sales taxes, utility taxes there are ample funds to light the streets.  Not so in the banana republic of Los Angeles, where we are now being asked to kiss the ring of jefa Nury, and pay a special assessment, to obtain what Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena,  even downmarket working class San Fernando already have by right of citizenship.  How soon before we are issued shovels and asked to fill in our own potholes?

In Van Nuys, $450,000 buys  moonlight
In Van Nuys, $500,000 buys moonlight

Hector Tobar, formerly of the Times, wrote recently the presence of a permanent caste of squatter communities is the signature characteristic of Third World cities. A life-long Angeleno, liberal, and son of Guatemalan immigrants, Tobar sees Los Angeles heading in this direction. This is true, but only half the story.  L.A. has its own twist on the formula: Swedish levels of taxation and Brazilian levels of service.    A two-tiered society with a narrow band of Beautiful People on the other side of the hill living in an urban playground of artisanal pleasures, and a vast workforce paying top dollar to live within commuting distance to serve them, then returning home to unlit streets.

All one has do is leave the city limits to see how different it can be.

It’s different in Pasadena

The bungalows are not quite the same
The bungalows are not quite the same
Even the shotgun shacks are charming
Even the shotgun shacks are charming
The storm drains are lined with river rock
The storm drains are lined with river rock
So are the gutters, and they have charming driveway bridges
So are the gutters, and they are topped by delightful bridges
There are little free libraries under the camphor trees. Go ahead....
There are little free libraries under the camphor trees. Help yourself….
People bag grapefruits for their neighbors and leave them out by the sidewalk
People bag grapefruits for their neighbors and put them out by the sidewalk. Go ahead…


And then….you get off the 405, in North Hills….

There are a few reasons why this bothers me, besides the obvious. For one, this has been developing for at least half a year.  The Parthenia St. undercrossing happens to be one of three in the Valley featuring a 144 foot long mural:  Los Pajaros -Birds- of California.   On Roscoe, there’s the Bear Mural. On Nordhoff, there’s the Fish.  All delightful, if not quite Pasadena-like, and all painted by local students.  On the North side of Parthenia, unremoved tagging has obscured much of the work. Here on the south side, what started as a small encampment of a single shopping cart and a plastic tarp has expanded like Ewing’s sarcoma over the entire sidewalk.

The City of Los Angeles in its majesty has decreed any blight along the 405 or Metrolink right of way no longer to be its responsibility.  The underside of these structures are in effect consigned to a civic state of nature, even if they face a heavily-used public street in a densely populated neighborhood and kids have to step off the sidewalk onto a busy thoroughfare to avoid the debris field.