Bicycle to work.
It sounds like a great idea, especially in sunny Southern California.
In recent years, politicians across Los Angeles and Orange counties have increasingly called on residents to try the alternative as local transportation agencies scramble to meet increasingly stricter emissions standards amidst dwindling resources for streets and freeways.
Public agencies have invested in elaborate public relations events to encourage more cycling. May is National Bike Month, and the message at events like Los Angeles' CicLAvia and the Orange county Transportation Authority's Bike to Work Day is clear: Get out on your bike.
As the Great Recession tightened its grip, bus fares rose and bus routes contracted. In recent years, many met the challenge by turning to bicycles as a cost-effective means to get to work.
Yet according to accident data reviewed by Voice of OC, the transportation agency’s marketing logo could easily read “Bike to Death.”
Even fabled Pacific Coast Highway is referred to by many cycling activists as one of the most dangerous strips of road in California.
In many working-class neighborhoods across Southern California, bicycle riders immediately encounter older streets and highways that are nowhere near ready to handle cyclists safely.
And despite being on notice since a 2005 National Highway Transportation study that Latinos are especially threatened by cycling accidents, local government leaders have done relatively little in recent years to update bike infrastructure in many of these areas.
“It’s Frogger,” said Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, referring to the 1980s-era arcade game that reminded him of his Bike to Work Day last year.
“The hairiest part was riding over the bridge on Broadway [in Santa Ana] during rush hour, because there’s no bike lane and there’s no sidewalk and I’m not that fast,” said Nelson. "You're exposed."
Nelson, former mayor of Fullerton, has become an unlikely champion of a regional bicycle lane system in Orange County. The OCTA approved about $9 million in grants last year for bike infrastructure projects.
The accident numbers for Orange County and Los Angeles are troubling.
According to California Highway Patrol accident data reviewed by Voice of OC, accidents involving bicyclists have risen by 40 percent in Orange County and 90 percent in Los Angeles since 2002.
In Orange County, there were about 1,400 injuries in 2011, the last year for which data is available. There was one death a month last year.
Many of the largest hotspots for injuries are in largely Latino neighborhoods like Main Street in Santa Ana, downtown Anaheim and Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. In the cycling community, they’re called, “los invisibles,” the invisibles.
People like Romeo Zavaleta, an undocumented 35-year-old day laborer who was cycling home in Laguna Hills on a rainy night in November 2011 when he rode across the crosswalk on Paseo de Valencia and Alicia Parkway near the Laguna Hills Community Center and was struck and killed by an OCTA bus.
Zavaleta’s death drew little media attention.
While Zavaleta’s family has a lawsuit against the transportation agency, they live in Mexico and may never be heard from, even if there is a trial. Attorneys representing the case also have declined to comment.
Several of the recent deaths also involve younger Latinos.
Consider the case of cyclist David Alexander Granados, who according to witnesses flew nearly 200 feet after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while trying to cross from the northeast corner of Oxnard Street and Bellaire Avenue in the Valley Glen neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Granados, an 18-year old senior at Ulysses S. Grant High School, reportedly looked both ways and had the right of way but was killed in a crosswalk on March 24 after being hit at nearly 50 miles per hour by a car that ran the light.
Weeks later, another Latino youth, 13-year old Jonathan Hernandez, was killed in Glendale after being struck by a school bus in front of his school while he was cycling off the sidewalk.
Rise of Southern California’s Latino Biking Culture
While the cycling community across Southern California has continued to grow over the past decade, bike usage in the Latino community skyrocketed.
With many undocumented Latinos unable to obtain driver's licenses and losing their cars seize and drunk driving checkpoints, many immigrants turned to the bicycle, or “bika” as many day laborers call it.
Yet in the mainly urban, older infrastructure of working-class Latino neighborhoods, it can produce a deadly situation where cyclists are competing for room on the road with cars that move at near-freeway speeds.
In places like Santa Ana, downtown traffic is so tight and aggressive that cyclists have all but abandoned the roads, prompting a different sort of dangerous competition with pedestrians for the sidewalks.
“It can be horrible” dealing with urban traffic as a novice cyclist, said Mario, a 35-year-old day laborer just outside the Home Depot on Edinger Avenue in Santa Ana. Mario, who would offer only his first name for fear of retaliation over his legal status, said he's had accidents with cars. Lots of his friends have been seriously injured, he said.
“There’s no culture of drivers looking out for bicyclists,” he said. “And there ‘s no bike lanes. So we have to use the sidewalks.”
On most days, it’s easy to spot the sea of cheap bicycles locked to the fences at Home Depot stores, waiting for their owners — people like Mario — to be dropped off when their workday is over.
“I used to be afraid of bikes,” he said. “I started riding when my car broke down. I used to walk, it took me two hours on bus and then I started riding bikes.
"One day, a friend came by and offered to sell me his bike. It cost me $9. I walked it home because I didn’t know how to ride it. I started practicing at home," said Mario. “Today, I’m an expert.”
It’s the same for Daniel, another day laborer who came to the United States from the Mexican state of Michoacan as a 15-year-old. Now he’s 41 and said he has spent so many years traveling on bicycles that he never thinks about buying a car.
Many activists argue that there needs to be much greater outreach in the Latino community, offering advice on how to cycle in urban corridors as well as safety training, such as the use of helmets and lights.
The nonprofit Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition has been working on outreach to Latinos for years, operating several workshops.
In 2008, the group initiated the City of Lights program, helping to pass out lights to day laborers, who were often riding bikes in the dark. Today the group operates the Bici Libre community workshop that allows day laborers to stop by, maintain their bikes and get information on lights, helmets and bike safety.
Ramon Zavala, who coordinates UC Irvine's bicycle program, said Orange County bike activists can do a better job of reaching out to Latinos. Organizations such as the Orange County Bicycle Coalition can learn from the efforts being pioneered in Los Angeles.
Most importantly, Zavala echoed what bike activists in LA are pushing for: officials going into the field to survey bicyclists (including Latinos) about their habits and needs.
LA Outdistancing OC in Bike-Friendly Policies
Facing the recent increase in cyclists and accidents, Los Angeles and Orange County leaders are working to make their transit infrastructure more cycle-friendly.
So far, Los Angeles is ahead, with strong support from the City Council and from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who became very active about bicycle safety after he was struck by a taxicab while cycling on Venice Boulevard.
In addition to establishing the position of a bicycle coordinator at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, there are ambitious plans to install more than 1,600 miles of bicycle lanes during the next 30 years. There are also plans for robust education efforts for both motorists and cyclists on how to share the road successfully.
Progress on bike lanes in Orange County has been more limited until recently. There are now plans to establish about 700 miles of bike lanes throughout the county.
Supervisor Nelson said he had several volunteers in his 2010 campaign who were active cyclists, especially in his hometown of Fullerton.
With limited open space and parks in North Orange County, Nelson said, he was intrigued by the possibility that he could make a difference and weighed in with the focus and energy he’s known for.
Like a library, Nelson sees an Everyman aspect to bike lanes and has focused significant staff time and political capital to move the issue forward.
He has apparently energized the transit elite at the Orange County Transportation Agency, which has been ramping up efforts to help local cities plan for a connected bikeways system in the county.
“Everybody’s looking for leadership,” Nelson said. Orange County's 34 cities — many of them small —had their own policies on bike lanes and not getting far. OCTA is the perfect answer to the problem, Nelson said.
Just about everyone was looking for a centralized approach, Nelson said, adding “We’re not getting any pushback.”
Bike activists also credit Nelson for being instrumental in establishing OCTA as a regional planning force, helping cities work on grant applications for bicycle projects and working toward a countywide, interconnected bikeways system.
Nelson has already established a series of studies for North County and helped organize study sessions for the 1st and 2nd Supervisorial Districts this month toidentify the right corridors for extending the countywide system.
When it comes to bicycles, regional thinking is key, Nelson said.
“You’ve got to have a regional buy-in,” he said. “What is the point of building a section of trail if it gets you from nowhere to nowhere else.”
The key in Orange County is also political buy-in, which seems to have arrived.
“We should have the flexibility to ride bikes,” said Supervisor John Moorlach. “It’s almost expected with greenhouse gas requirements that you want to get us out of our cars as much as you can.”
While Moorlach said his current schedule makes biking to work tough, “when I’m done with this job, I’d like to have the facilities to ride around.”
The new movement for bicycle lanes in Orange County has activists and policymakers excited, because they see an opportunity to open alternate ways of moving people instead of just cars.
“I’m giddy,” Zavala said at a meeting on bicycle lanes held in Garden Grove earlier this month. “This is a bike enthusiast’s dream.”