“I’m the poster child for a car-free L.A.!” our tour guide, Ryan Bartz, said as she led our motley crew through the coastal suburb of Santa Monica on rented bikes.
We were approaching the half-way point in our 32-mile L.A. in a Day tour, and I had just finished telling Ryan what an oxymoron a car-free L.A. seemed to me. L.A. is defined by choked traffic and smog, a car-centric place that inspires a headache in people even before they get behind the wheel, right?
That’s exactly why the city decided to show locals and tourists alike that there’s another way to explore the City of Angels.
“We kept receiving feedback from potential visitors that traffic was still a big deterrent, but we knew that the city had become more bike and pedestrian friendly,” explained Susan Lomax of the L.A. Tourism & Convention Board. In response to a growing trend of more residents opting for a car-free lifestyle, “we wanted to show visitors they could go carless, too,” she said.
The city unveiled seven “car-free itineraries“ – each with its own focus or theme — on Earth Day this year, just one day after CicLAvia, when major thoroughfares are shut down to car traffic to make way for people power. You can explore L.A.’s music scene, its Downtown, multicultural attractions, Museum Row, San Pedro, and, of course, Hollywood and the beaches – on foot, or by bike, Metro, bus, or trolley.
In addition to these special itineraries, the Car Free L.A. website highlights tour companies that are geared toward getting folks out of the driver’s seat — which is how I found myself cruising around the city on two wheels.
After beginning in West Hollywood, WeHo in local speak, our group biked into Beverly Hills (which, my calves discovered, has the topography to back up its name). Pedaling past star-studded mansions and fancy silver fire hydrants was fun, but the real highlight of our trip was a tucked-away estate turned city park called Greystone.
We locked our bikes at the gate at the bottom of the hill leading up to the 55-room Tudor-style mansion, and paused to watch the parade of Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, and other outrageously expensive cars go by — a fitting welcome to what had been the most expensive home in California when it was completed in 1928.
The air of scandal (the home was the site of a murder-suicide in 1929) and glamour (the estate is a popular filming location; parts of The Big Lebowski, Eraserhead, The Social Network, Spider Man, and There Will Be Blood, were shot there, to name-drop just a few) fit the scene, too.
After Beverly Hills, we sailed through Bel Air (past one of the homes used in my favorite early-90s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), the UCLA campus, Westwood, the Brentwood of O.J. Simpson infamy, and Santa Monica. As we paused for a break on the dirt trail overlooking the water, this San Diego native got a chance to hear more about the benefits of being car-free in L.A. from Ryan.
Her round-trip commute to work ranges from 8-16 miles a day, depending on route and ambition. Obviously, when she gets to work she bikes a whole lot more. “It’s healthy, it saves me money, and I feel like a giddy little kid while I ride and arrive at my destination feeling energized and alive,” Ryan explained. “I love the adventure of figuring out new routes, seeing neighborhoods, shops and people I would otherwise miss or be cut off from in a two-ton vehicle.”
All that and not having to deal with traffic and parking? That’s an endorsement if I’ve ever heard one. I had to admit that during the few hours we’d been riding together, I’d gotten more of a feel for L.A. than I had in a lifetime of driving around in it.
We resumed our journey, breezing past the Santa Monica “pleasure pier” and Muscle Beach, where we snapped the obligatory flexing pics. After a quick lunch in Venice Beach, we veered away from the water. I’d heard the name “Venice Beach” hundreds of times, but it never really occurred to me that it had actual canals a la its Italian namesake.
Turns out the founder of the city, Abbot Kinney, had intended to replicate the “City of Water” in California, complete with a series of canals plowed by gondoliers. Several decades later, oil was discovered and the canals were either converted to transport roads or became polluted. That is until the city decided to revamp them in 1994. When we dismounted to amble through the beautiful modern-day neighborhood with its mega-expensive homes and brightly colored boats, it felt like we’d hopped the pond to Europe.
We hopped back on our trusty steeds and headed toward Marina Del Rey, riding along Ballona Creek Path until it dropped us into Culver City, where we encountered what Ryan called “Graffiti Cove ” — my favorite stop of the day. Finally, we gawked at the Gone with the Wind plantation, presently Culver Studios headquarters, and saw the Olympic rings at the Helms Bakery, a vestige of its status as the official bread maker of the 1932 summer games (the building now houses a series of high-end boutiques).
By the time we got back to WeHo, I was fully vibing on L.A. — and the satisfaction only physical exhaustion brings.
Back in the comfort of my home, I wondered if the car-free L.A. movement was just a flash in the pan, or if the trend was here to stay. Susan Lomax reported that the city has been working to launch a bike-sharing program that would bring more than 4,000 bikes and more than 40 rental stations to L.A. “We intend to create new car-free itineraries to coincide with specific events and spaces in time,” she added. Which is what they did recently with the LGBT Tour released in June during L.A. Pride Month.
Danny Roman, founder and owner of Bikes & Hikes L.A. agrees that there is hope for a car-free L.A. “People are catching on,” he said. “Biking here every day is an absolute treat. We live in a city where it is perfect biking and hiking weather year round, so why not?”