If you wish to avoid falling into a spiral of recrimination about the state of Los Angeles, I don’t advise a trip to Europe. You will return to California like Mary Poppins on her umbrella.
Definitely don’t get on a bike. Or ride the tram. Or order ristretto. Europe is a moveable feast. It stays with you.
I was away, away, away on the mother continent for awhile, doing precisely those things and my life was both more peripatetic and yet slower. To my surprise, it was more affordable. Baskets of blueberries for $2, croissants for 80 cents. I ensconced myself in an AirBnB in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin with 11 foot ceilings and rococo moldings for €50. Slept in a space pod in Vienna. Hiked the Inner Border between the former East and West Germany in the Harz mountains. Biked the Danube and drove a Fiat through the lands of Tintin, €40/day, unlimited miles.
Suffice to say, I didn’t see a single tent encampment, nor did I encounter crazy/aggressive people in the street. Not a one, though I did meet this guy:
Now that I’m home, in trying my best not to add to the measure of America’s collective outrage. I’ve fallen into quietude.
To get back on the horse, I shall start small, with a little something to say about bikes.
Berlin has hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes and paths. You can keep pace with cars. Trams, pedestrians and bikes and autos share the roadway on a proportional basis.
This is easily done in Europe, one might reply. The built world is made for it. The sidewalks are six meters wide. Trams run every three minutes, spotless and welcoming. A car is an anachronism, not a necessity. In Los Angeles, the car is king. Form follows function, and the Red Line is an unpleasant alternative.
All true. But seventy years after abandoning the principle of streetcar neighborhoods for sprawl, L.A. is seeking to return to a hybrid city, re-developing around transportation nodes in the hope of nudging people onto the bus or train. Few do. The people who can afford to live in these Disneyland dorms for young adults are not service workers. Service workers ride the bus because they are to be punished.
But we could have ONE bike lane in the Valley, right? In the name of civilization. Or safety. For the oddballs, like me. Or as an experiment in promise-keeping. Or just to claim bragging rights over Fresno.
The most densely populated district of the Valley is the North Hills-Panorama-Van Nuys nexus, a corridor three miles wide lacking any bike lanes in the choke points on the stroads north of Oxnard. Name another world city where this would be allowed to happen.
For every dollar that is spent in L.A. County, a penny is raked off the top and sent to Metro, in perpetuity. From this giant pot of money bike works are to be paid for. Or not, in our case.
Instead we build trains, slowly. Very slowly. Then we turn them over to people like this:
Traffic flows on Sepulveda, Van Nuys and Kester average 45 mph+ during non-commute hours. To attempt to share a lane with a GMC Yukon is to put oneself at hazard, body and bone.
Yet there are people who make this commute every day, white knuckling it onto sidewalks. I’ve been that guy, until I exhausted God’s distribution of good fortune and couldn’t live on random luck any longer.
What if, like clean water and sewers, a bike lane is the yardstick of civilization?
Hungary has the same population as Los Angeles county and its national economy is a fraction of California. Budapest, only recently emerged from the Soviet yoke, buildings still pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1956 uprising, has a modern river system fully accessible to cyclists and rollerbladers and joggers.
The bikeways are dotted with biergartens and little rest stops with repair stations.
Los Angeles has a perfect climate and an elaborate river system closed to the public except for brief, non-contiguous stretches which serve as private esplanades for privileged neighborhoods.
To travel in Eastern Europe is to both go back in time and visit a future that may not be possible for America. You’d almost think we lost the Cold War.