Bicycling in L.A.: How to go car-free, ride safely, have fun


At its best, biking in L.A. is a cost-effective, climate-friendly means of transportation, leisure and exercise. Yet at its worst, biking in L.A. remains a dangerous errand of twisting through an incomplete network of fading white paint, miles of unprotected bike lanes that vanish into thoroughfares where cyclists compete with cars moving at high speeds.

“The concern is very simple,” bike activist Michael Schneider said. “People feel like they’re gonna die if they bike in L.A.”

Over the past five years, 96 cyclists have been killed on Los Angeles roads, an average of 18 a year, according to LAPD data. So far this year, six have died, including Andrew Jelmert, a 77-year-old real estate agent struck by a driver in Griffith Park in April, and days later, Leonidas Accip Serech who was killed in a hit-and-run crash in Koreatown. That same week, a third cyclist, John Hermoso, was killed while riding near Santa Clarita, outside Los Angeles city limits.

And yet a hardy 3% of L.A. residents, about 120,000 people, through wit, will, joy or necessity, carve out their daily commutes and other trips on two wheels.

Michael Runnels, an assistant professor of business law at Cal State L.A., speeds down Griffith Park hills, catching glimpses of the sun rising over the city. Lena Williams, a community organizer, slows down to take in the murals of South L.A. that reflect their experience as a Black queer person. Through thin rubber tires, cyclists feel the city’s inequality, gliding between neighborhoods with smooth pavement and those whose roads are riddled with potholes.

Their “appreciation for the natural world,” as Pauletta Pierce says, binds cyclists together, many of whom advocate for a city with a safer and more connected transportation infrastructure.

Runnels wants the city to simply “follow its own plan,” referring to the mobility plan that promised 3,137 miles of bike, bus and pedestrian infrastructure by 2035. (The city has built 95 miles of those improvements since the plan’s adoption in 2015.) And such improvements, several regular cyclists said, must work for the people who need them the most — low-income people of color — not at their expense, as when improved transit infrastructure has fueled gentrification and displacement.

For the record:

4:53 p.m. May 18, 2022A previous version of this story implied that L.A.’s Mobility Plan 2035 was adopted in 2016. It was first adopted by the City Council in 2015.

As these cyclists continue to make do with the system they have, we decided to ask a few of them why they bike in Los Angeles, a city where progress on infrastructure and safety seems to crawl, and how to have fun despite the drawbacks.

Michael Runnels, assistant professor

Michael Runnels biking down a hill in Griffith Park

Michael Runnels on one of his favorite rides in Griffith Park.

(Brian Hashimoto)

Typical ride: Downtown to work at Cal State L.A.

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

Since I moved to L.A. in August of 2020. I actually sold my car before moving to L.A. I did research on the top 10 things and the bottom 10 things about L.A. Every problem was the L.A. traffic. And then I did some research on the commute of a cyclist versus the commute of a driver from downtown to where I work at Cal State L.A. It appeared that the cyclists get there either on time or a few minutes quicker. So I was thinking, “I’m gonna move to this beautiful city with all this gorgeous weather. Let me see if I can turn the number one frown upside down, and turn it into my actual exercise.” So I landed in L.A. with the intention to be a cyclist, and it is working magnificently.

What’s the most fun you can have on a bike in L.A.?

Descending down a hill from Griffith Park. Los Angeles is an unfurling gorgeous flower that has no center — continuous gorgeous petals. And the only way that I began to see how this beautiful city is tied together is on the saddle of a bike. I mean you could see, in a poor neighborhood, you’ll tend to go slower because the roads are maintained less effectively. If you bike to Beverly Hills, the pavement turns smooth. You can see the theory of a city: where the money goes, where the money does not go. The views of the city that’s nestled in the mountains right next to the ocean — it’s stunning. So riding your bikes with friends, in this staggering natural beauty, you’re earning this beauty. You’re getting exercise, you have a zeroed out carbon footprint, and you’re making bonds with your community in ways you could never do with a car.

Favorite ride: Downtown to Griffith Park

Pauletta Pierce, substance abuse counselor

Pauletta Pierce with her bike in Chinatown.

Pauletta Pierce turns to cycling to process emotions — even if just for a short ride through her Chinatown neighborhood.

(Pauletta Pierce)

Typical rides: Around Chinatown; from Chinatown to Echo Park for self-care

How long have you been biking in L.A.?

I was introduced to biking by the downtown bike messengers back in the ‘90s. They were the ones, before the internet, transporting court documents to law firms, into courthouses. And I worked downtown at a coffee bar, and we were all just blue-collar workers that all hung out. They just encouraged me to bike ride. And this was before L.A. had any bike lanes. And they said to me, just as long as you are in the gutter, you know, or on the road, you can be there; you have every right to be there.

I started to change to bike riding, because I used to have to take the bus in the morning, and there was a man that always used to harass me. He’d see me in the morning, and he was taking note of the time I came home, and he followed me home. So at that point I made a decision to just start riding my bike to work and home. And that’s how I felt safe. Because if people don’t get close to you, they can’t get you.