This Week in the Mercury


Friday, May 20, 2011

Bike to Work Day! Q&A with Brand New Los Angeles Cyclist Alissa Walker

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Today is National Bike to Work Day and OH MY GOD it's nearly 80 degrees in Portland.

Earlier this week, I posted some bike to work tips from a drag queen. But for today, I want to share an interview I did with Alissa Walker, a Los Angeles writer who hasn't owned a car in four years and just bought a "real" bike last month. I feel like Portlanders see Los Angeles as the polar opposite of our fair city. Whereas Portland holds itself up as the model of sustainability for the country, we tend to have a vision of LA as smog-clogged sprawl that's impossible to traverse without a car. If she can bike to work in LA, surely (almost) anyone can do it here.

Walker and I got gelato in Silver Lake a few weeks ago and talked about being a new biker, the joys of public transit, and what LA can (gasp!) teach Portland.

SARAH MIRK: So how do you get around LA?
ALISSA WALKER: I got rid of my car in 2007 and I mostly walk and ride the bus. I had a beach cruiser for a while, but it wasn't that good for riding here because of the big hills. I got a new bike two and a half weeks ago, and I've been riding it a couple days a week. I kinda feel like I'm cheating on the bus. But I love it. It's so much fun. I haven't been scared or anything... I actually bought it to go on CicLAvia. I knew the cruiser wasn't going to cut it. I see a lot of people riding around LA, I have so many friends who bike to work and talk about it, and I wanted to be a part of it. And now I have a bike that I really love.

Alissa Walker: Now also Biker.
  • Alissa Walker: Now also Biker.
So what kind is it?
A PUBLIC bike. I'm very, very excited to ride it around.

What's the most challenging part of living in LA without a car?
I don't think it's a challenge. I think a lot of people are really surprised by it because of the perception that it's challenging. But it would be a lot easier than where I grew up, in suburban St. Louis, where there are no sidewalks and I don't think I ever saw a bus come through. Here, the public transportation is actually a great, brand new, awesome system. The only hard thing is getting to people's houses sometimes, like if they live up in the hills where buses don't go. Sometimes I need to take a bus and then get a cab for the last little bit. But I like public transit, it's kind of like a game to figure out.

Do you feel like the city needs to sell public transit to people who live in LA? Or do people here already get it, they just also like to drive?
There's no shortage of people riding it, it's the second most ridden public transportation system, it's not like there's nobody on it. I think the bigger challenge is getting people to ride it when gas prices aren't high. I don't think riding the bus should be as much geared around saving money, I think it should be pitched as something that's actually really fun and exciting.

I could totally see your face on the side of a bus saying like, "It's an Adventure!"
It's just like Disneyland guys, it's a big ride!

One thing I like about riding the bus in any city is the weird conversations with strangers.
I can remember a couple days after Michael Jackson died and everyone was on the bus talking about it. That doesn't happen a lot, we don't have that many shared spaces, where all different kinds of people talk to each other.

No one really sells public transit as community building, but they should!

Yeah, right, get to know your neighbors!

What do you think Portland can learn from LA?
Well, we have this 30/10 Initiative, where we're trying to fund 30 years worth of transit projects in 10 years. it just forces the city to say yes we're going to do this and getting everything in place, instead of letting it drag out and let things get more expensive.

Both LA and Portland just started implementing long-term, major bike plans. Has there been any backlash here?
For the most part, people seem to be getting kind of excited about it, but I worry that when stuff starts to go in downtown, like on Figueroa, I worry people are going to start getting pissed off. We need to start communicating that a street that's better for bikes will be better for everyone, that cars will go slower and there'll be less accidents. You do have to take it really slowly, you have to do it in ways that people can always see the benefit. One concern is businesses worrying about foot traffic, thinking that without parking they'll lose business. It's a couple leaps of logic to say that if we take out parking, it will improve business because more people will be walking and biking by, so that can be a hard thing. I hope that there's somewhere in LA where we can make that happen, one great street that will serve as an example to everywhere else.

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