It has been a pleasure to see the large number of bikes in use in London, and particularly pleasing that it is a wide range of types of people using them as well. There are many things about London that make it feel even more comfortable to me than ever (high prices of everything not being one of them) and the heavy bike use has to be one of them. Things in that department continue to improve over in my home city of Los Angeles, although I think it’ll still be a bit of time before you get bunches of cyclists routinely clustered at the lights waiting for the green, as in the photo on the right.
Also great to see, sending a shiver of pleasure down my spine each time I’ll admit, has been the huge number of Bromptons in use in London. (See photo left.) I know it is true statistically that they are among the most popular single type of bike here (of any type, folding or non-folding) but it is still great that there are so very many sightings of them as you walk along the street especially at peak times. That’s something that really still has not taken off in LA. I’ve seen fewer than a handful of Bromptons in almost seven years on the streets here, relatively few folding bikes in total, and maybe only twice have I seen someone else using them in combination with the subway (and I remain the only person I’ve ever seen bringing them on to the bus). It is still odd to me since I can’t be the only one who has figured out that a folding bike in particular is the perfect complement to the public transport system in LA, filling in a lot of the gaps that people complain about.
In general, I think there are two main things going on in LA that put folders on a very slowly rising (if at all) curve: The first is that the main bike users on the streets are still largely the more militant early adopters, who are (I find) all macho about the whole bike thing to the extent that it would never occur to them to consider using a bike with a smaller profile (as is often the case with folders). Folding bikes seem to be considered by these cyclists to be an inferior species of bike, or at least not “serious” enough. (Of course, I mean that I’ve seen this as the dominant view among this group. I know that there others who know and respect folders but just don’t use them because they are not the mode that works for them.)
The second is that people more generally (rider or not) have a very rigid idea of what a bike should be, and using something that (as is so often said) “looks weird” (where “weird” simply means “different from the arbitrarily chosen norms”), no matter how practical, is just less likely to occur. (Such perceived eccentricity is less of an issue for Londoners, perhaps not surprisingly. Pragmatism and practicality seem to weigh quite heavily there, and so folding bike use naturally got a boost out of that.)
Oh, three main things:
The third is that people still perceive cycling here in LA as inherently (and insanely) dangerous, and think that if you’re going to do it, a bigger bike is somehow safer. This is simply wrong on many counts. First of all, as I have said many times before, I think that the danger issue is simply overstated. While there is the valid concern that drivers are careless and might not see you while they are playing on their blackberry or iphone and sideswipe you (this is actually much more rare than people think, however – it is visibility at junctions that seem to present the most severe dangers) I see cyclists doing so many more things to endanger themselves that override that particular danger, such as defensively weaving in and out of the gaps between parked cars as though entirely apologizing to drivers for being on the road. (And don’t get me started on my exasperation at cyclists with no lights, wearing all black, etc, at night, or cyclists with no helmets…) Safety lies in clear visibility and consistency in your presence on the road, politely asserting your right to your space on the road alongside other traffic. Being predictable helps drivers take you into account, and deal with you, and makes them less angry at you and other cyclists. A person on a folding bike presents exactly the same visible profile as on a non-folding bike because it is your body or your lights that drivers see most, not the bike frame or wheels. That folders may not have the top speed of a lot of racing bikes and so forth, sometimes considered a drawback, is in my opinion a good thing too. Drivers (and maybe people opening doors into your lane – another fear) have more time to see you and adapt to your presence than if you’re whizzing along at high speed.
A pleasant surprise to me was the number of folding bikes I saw in Madrid. I saw at least one a day during the phase of my Walkabout there, which was a lot given that there’s not a huge number of bikes in use the city, as far as I could see (although I won’t be surprised if it might change significantly soon). In fact there was a point where I wondered if folding bikes might actually be in the majority in terms of bikes in use there. I’ve no real data though – Just my observations from walking around the city and in the late Winter too, so it is not clear what the norms are.
Anyway, wandering around London and seeing the increased bike use is great, overall. Combining that with the much more frequent discussion I’ve been hearing about bikes in various US cities makes the future quite encouraging. I’m pleased that there are also bike-sharing programs popping up in several places, and being discussed in LA. Did I mention all the discussions I’ve been having about it at USC? I’ve been trying to get the senior administration to take seriously the idea of launching something on campus, and so have made the case at the highest levels in the Provost’s office. They don’t even have to start from scratch. Physics postdoc Nicolò Macellari enthusiastically did his own study of the campus and designed a system he calls CICLO. You can now see it on the USC website here.Let’s hope that they go for it, as the USC campus is a perfect place to try out such a scheme in LA, and it would integrate perfectly with the subway stops we’ll have within the year (news on that aspect: the station structures above ground are now clearly taking shape – it is very exciting. Click on thumbnail photo on the right for a view of the one between USC and the Rose Garden/Science Center.)