L.A. Should Roll on City of Bikes

We don't take bicycles seriously enough. We should aspire to imitate the city of Paris, not for all the unforgettable reasons to love the place, but for its imminent policy regarding bicycles.

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Published June 11, 2007 by the Downtown News

Editorial 

We don't take bicycles seriously enough. We should aspire to imitate the city of Paris, not for all the unforgettable reasons to love the place, but for its imminent policy regarding bicycles.

 
 

Beginning in July there will be 20,000 bikes left here and there around Paris, approximately every 250 yards, and anyone can use them for a nominal fee.

Los Angeles is a city yearning to rid itself of smog. California is a state that prides itself on being at the cutting edge of smart new social movements. The U.S. is a nation desperate to minimize its dependence on oil, foreign or otherwise. Yet our thinking doesn't get far beyond complaining about the price of gasoline and hoping for more and better public transit. We don't often contemplate getting off our bums and pedaling to work.

The best the MTA could offer in last month's Bike to Work effort is that they gave people with bicycles a free ride on the ceremonial Thursday of what was supposed to be a week-long push supporting bike riding. Nice gesture, but no cigar. We all need to think bigger. We need to think like Europeans, as painful as it is to conceive of such a thing.

When the City of Bikes plan hit the magic of Paris, an international symbol of all things fashionable, the news spread in a flash around the world, never mind that Helsinki was apparently the first to try the experiment at this level, though some also credit the original idea to a long-ago free bike plan in Amsterdam. Portland, Ore., experimented with free bikes in the mid-1990s, but the plan failed because the bikes got stolen or were in disrepair. The "City Bikes" (as it is broadly known outside of Paris) concept and execution have made great improvements since then.

In Paris, City of Bikes is being implemented on a grand scale. Officials want to change the entire character of the metropolis with the mass availability of free bicycles. They hope to shorten commute times (studies show bikes are the fastest, all things considered), as well as reduce smog, noise and congestion. It's a huge deal in Paris, anticipated with excitement, as much a social experiment as a plan to survive in the face of more and more traffic, a problem that sounds familiar. The small charge (about $38 annually or $1.30 per day) allows riders to press into service any available two-wheeled wonder for up to a half an hour ride. After that, other almost trivial fees apply.

Los Angeles would be a bigger challenge than Paris, to say the least, but the program could have particular potential in our community. Just think how appealing it could be to have hubs in each of the 15 districts that make up Downtown Los Angeles, how someone could get from, say, City Hall to South Park or from the Financial District to the Fashion District without having to drive or figure out the DASH.

Then there is an opportunity to connect by bicycle to and among Century City, East L.A., Highland Park, Westwood or South Central, as well as dozens of cities throughout L.A. County. It sounds crazy, until you remember what it feels like to sit interminably on the 10, the 405, or name your own personal demon freeway.

It's true that getting over the hill to the Valley would be a particular problem, but maybe the same setup could be done within the Valley. The air in Los Angeles could be cleaner, the ambient noise could be reduced and some of us would be thinner. It's a thought that is slightly ahead of its time, we acknowledge, but not by much, even for Angelenos who enjoy our endless self-indulgences. As congestion grows, City Bikes will naturally come under serious discussion.

Our old friends at Decaux, a company that has been criticized on these pages for the slow pace of their local street furniture (including toilets) program, play a significant role in the 10-year agreement with the city of Paris. Just as in Los Angeles, Decaux promises services in exchange for the opportunity to advertise, in this case on 1,600 billboards. Decaux has designed a sturdier bike, each valued at about $1,300, according to the Washington Post. They will provide the bikes and the bike stands that can analyze the time charged as well as the condition of the bike.

 
 

Maybe Decaux can do this one right. The county and city of Los Angeles both ought to ask. The MTA should lead the charge. A Los Angeles City Bikes plan should be first on the project list, since free is a whole lot cheaper than a fleet of new buses and a network of rail lines, and since any plan (even a free one) is likely to take at least a decade to implement. If they start now, we may only be a generation behind Europe when we put our foot on an official pedal for the first time.