Operating in a city by riding a bike is one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. It's a pure and invigorating feeling of freedom that you really can’t find anywhere else. But how do you make sure that your freedom doesn’t interfere with other people’s freedom? How do you maximize your good time without infringing on someone else’s? And how do I stay safe while having a great time? I constantly ask myself these questions when I’m riding around Los Angeles, so in this blog post I'm sharing some of the solutions that I’ve come up with.
Some background: I gave up driving in LA in 2012. I was just sick of paying for parking tickets on street sweeping day, always stuck in traffic on the same route to work and back, ugly dusty smelly freeways, and endless expenses. I became unconvinced of the convenience argument. I bought a Brompton folding bike, which I named Charlie Brompton, and after riding that indestructible machine around this city and several others for 10 years, it definitely has the look of Mr. Majestyk. I’ve learned all kinds of routes and pathways, tricks to stay safe and get to where I’m going, and in many cases I can actually match or even beat the time it takes to drive!
I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time. I’ve been in countless situations where I wished I could have shown more courtesy to the people who share the roads, bike paths, sidewalks, and side streets with me. One of the key triggers that led me to invent RODL happened while riding on the Chandler Bike Path in Burbank. I was listening to thrash metal in the morning to keep my pace up, but then I stopped at a busy crossing next to a couple who were walking their baby in a stroller. I tried hard to turn my music off before I reached the intersection, but was too late and I caught a dirty look from them. I felt awful about it and started making a list of ways to make my bike-politeness more efficient.
Obey Traffic Laws!
My biggest gripe with the way cyclists act on the streets is that they don’t obey traffic laws. I get it, it’s nice to feel like you’re free from the confines of being in a car, and the police don’t actually ticket you for running red lights and stop signs. But come on. Beyond the obvious safety risk you’re taking by diving out into the street, you’re making things worse for everyone. When you skip stop signs while other people who got there first are waiting for you, they sit there getting angry at cyclists in general. Now I have to deal with road rage because you didn’t feel like doing a startup pedal.
The laws all over the country are written somewhat vaguely and I think that’s on purpose. Is a cyclist a pedestrian or a vehicle? Which set of laws should they obey? Should cars stop for them or should they stop with the cars? I see it as a combination of both. A cyclist is clearly at the same level of risk (if not more) than a pedestrian, but they are operating in the same lanes of traffic as cars, generally. Rather than ignoring both sets of rules, as many are wont to do, I think observing a hybrid of both sets of rules is best. When in traffic, operate as an automobile. When on side streets and no cars are present, operate as a pedestrian. As a cyclist in a city - especially Los Angeles - you take your life into your own hands, so you might as well demonstrate some common sense.
There is the old adage for motorcycles, “You can be a bold rider or an old rider, you can’t be both,” and I think it applies. Don’t be cocky, don’t be arrogant. If you ride a bike in the city, you are in danger. Freedom should be respected as much as it’s enjoyed.
Where To Ride? Sidewalk or High MPH Street?
Los Angeles Municipal Code section 56.15(1) provides: “No person shall ride, operate or use a bicycle, unicycle, skateboard, cart, wagon, wheelchair, roller skates, or any other device moved exclusively by human power, on a sidewalk, bikeway or boardwalk in a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”
This is pretty typical language across the country as far as I have seen. It’s pretty non-definitive. Can I ride or not? What constitutes a “wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property?” It sounds a lot like “go ahead and do it but you will be liable if you break something.” I always interpreted the law as “just don’t be a jerk.”
If you’re in LA, you can generally avoid the whole discussion by going one street over and finding yourself on a nice big safe side street. A lot of them are really beautiful and you can almost always find an orange tree or an avocado tree to grab a snack! Learn your routes and find the streets that are comfortable. You may need to spend some time walking your bike to get through some awkward sections, but eventually you will learn new pathways through the city and get to know her in a totally new way.
Metro.net has a great interactive system to figure out your routes in LA.
My take on it is this: if you’re riding a big, fast, heavy bike, stay off the sidewalk. Likewise, if you’re riding an e-bike that goes 30 miles an hour, maybe also stay the hell off the sidewalk. If you’re with a group of 15 people riding drop handlebar racing bikes with razor thin tires, you would probably be insane to ride on the sidewalk - just go to the Angeles National Forest or the PCH, you maniacs (I love you)!
On the other hand, if you’re riding a tiny little BMX or some kind of folding bike like mine, then I guarantee you will not feel safe on any of the Blvds or the main street “bike lanes” like on Fountain. It’s a horror show, dude, I’m telling you. For urban riding, stay to the side streets and known bike-friendly thoroughfares. Basically, just do everything you can to avoid conflict of any kind.
Our lawyer told me I have to mention that I am not a lawyer, nor an accredited expert in any way. I am just a dude who rode his bike around LA for several years and didn’t die, then started a bicycle accessory company and ended up with a blog that needed content. What I am saying here should not be taken as official advice and Ride DNA indemnifies itself against all liability. Just saying.
So to summarize, for small bikes riding slowly and when the only other option is certain death, ride on the sidewalk but make sure your presence is known to pedestrians. Be polite and courteous and be vocal about it - say “excuse me” and “thank you.” Being nice to people makes them not hate you, and when they don’t hate you they are less likely to start out hating me. Big heavy racing and super fast bikes with e-assist or full throttle, get on the road. Wear a helmet, and don’t be a jerk.
Listening to Music and Talking on the Phone
I love having music while I ride - it gives me a rhythm to pedal to and I have dozens of playlists full of “get psyched” songs to keep my energy up. I invented RODL grips to make it possible to get my music just right for every situation, because sometimes I want to turn my music off to hear the sounds of nature and sometimes I have to crank it up to get up a hill. Sometimes I just want to change the vibe and go cruising. As I’ve said, I’m not into it when my good time infringes on someone else’s, so I wanna be able to shut it down when the time arises. Here’s my breakdown of how to get the most out of jamming while you’re riding.
I’m not a fan of wearing headphones or earbuds while riding, and it’s actually against the law in some states to wear headphones in both ears while biking or driving (California included). It’s dangerous because it really does block your senses, especially when there are electric cars on the road that make almost no noise anyway. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of people who play their music out loud in public spaces. I have a small speaker mounted to my handlebar - it’s tiny, decent sound for the size and price, and the sound doesn’t travel much further than my face. If you’re a total beach cruiser and all about the party, then something bigger might be for you, but that really doesn’t vibe on a morning commute. Another option that I really love is bone conduction headphones. They give you a full sound right into your skull (which is actually a super cool feeling) and they don’t block out environmental sounds.
I like my phone mounted to my handlebar so I can keep an eye on my maps. I often have to reroute to make sure I’m not heading for those tough intersections that are less than pedestrian-friendly. I suggest a good, solid bike mount like this or this.
Finally, and most importantly, RODL grips give you the ability to adjust your situation on the fly. When I approach an intersection with a bunch of people, I just click the "pause" button before I get there and tap "play" again the moment I take off. If I’m riding next to a friend, I adjust the volume so I can go in and out of conversation. When I’m in heavy traffic and I get a phone call, I can easily decline the call and stay focused. The controls are second nature and my hands are already there, so making those kinds of adjustments is as fluid as speaking.
It’s funny to do all this analysis when it all could be summed up as “just be cool, and don’t do stuff that sucks.” But that’s actually how the laws are written in so many words, so I think it’s valid! Biking should be a fun, healthy, liberating activity. Courteousness toward others on the road is absolutely key to making sure you and everyone else are having a good time. Safety is absolutely essential to the enjoyment of any activity. RODL grips give you the ability to be courteous, safe, and maximize your good time!
Stay safe and have yourselves a blast!