Tall poppy syndrome, greener grass syndrome, whatever you like to call it – us kiwis have a habit of immediately thinking ‘they have it better over there’. I’m no different: I fell in love with Portland after watching Portlandia, and somehow I knew if I ever went to America that was where I’d find my people. People who already ‘got it’ when it comes to better cities and happier humans living in them.
So, back in August, in a devious plan to escape the drab Auckland winter, my partner and I settled on a modest trip. We wanted to bike around Portland and see what it was like to live in a future city. And to go to a music festival.
To get to Portland, however, we have to stop first in L.A. We knew we wanted to get around this sunny flat city on bikes, and it was no trouble finding accommodation that came with complimentary bike hire. (I’m bamboozled as to why we don’t do that here – with Tamaki Drive, the new Westhaven promenade, Lightpath, and the prospect of a SkyPath glistening in our future, it seems crazy not to lay on facilities for tourists to get around by bike!).
Before traveling, I got in touch with one of our sister organisations, BikinginLA, to get the skinny on what we needed to know about this town. Ted replied that biking in L.A., the city of the car, was still a bit patchy – but he recommended Venice Beach as being extremely well connected with bike paths.
So on our first morning in L.A, when we woke to stunning weather, clear blue sky and hot bright sunlight, the way ahead was clear. We jumped on our hired bikes and joined the Ocean Front Walk at Annenberg Community Beach House. The path was a little difficult to get to, as you are faced by roads or stairs, but once there you are treated to a wide flat concrete path that stretches the length of the coast. The golden sand it cuts through is a football field wide, leaving ample room for sun bathers, volleyball players, beach clubs and space to spare.
The thing that I noticed first was the massive number of people using the path. And the variety of bikes: there were tandems, and cruisers, families on all sizes of wheels. Old dudes on choppers, young people on old bikes, it really didn’t seem to matter. Travelling that long distance in the scorching heat, along the beach, was just better on a bicycle.
The surrounding infrastructure reflected the popularity of the bike. At every access or shop or café or pier there are bolted-in metal tubes with bikes crammed into them. The bike hire companies are making good on their investments, both with the locals who arrive by public transport and the tourists who have come to see the view.
Helmets are not compulsory in L.A. and people were enjoying the wind in their hair on this sunny day. When we exited the path down near the Venice Beach boardwalk and circled back to town, the number of people still heading to the beach by bike was astounding. Given the challenge of finding parking and the misery of being stuck in a car on such a beautiful Sunday, riding a bike to get from A to B was the obvious way to travel. It was a happy reminder that life is a journey and you enjoy the getting there, as much as the destination.
The next morning, with this lovely experience fresh in our minds, we were ready for a day exploring the city. Central L.A, however, was more like the L.A. we’d been warned about by Ted. Much like here at home, the cycle network was patchy and not really well connected. Even so, cars seemed to be overly polite in stopping to let us pass, rather than trying to hit you like a target as they do here.
One great thing: our bikes came with handy deep panniers for carrying our shopping, and these were easy to pick up and use as carry bags when we left the bikes unattended.
Over the course of the following week, I came up with a list of just some of the really great things about biking in an international city:
- You don’t have to wait! You go where you want when you want, you don’t have to wait for a taxi, or a bus, or a train, or a car park, or in traffic. Having your own agency in this way is priceless, or at the very least, cost-saving.
- Your feet don’t get sore. As you might know, a great thing about travel is ‘seeing stuff’, be it art or shops or events or landmarks, but universally you need to spend time walking around looking. Having a bike gives you that delicious break off your feet.
- You don’t have to drive. After spending the entire time with my head darting around 360 degrees while I tried to figure out what direction the traffic was coming from, I did not want to be in charge of a vehicle.
- It’s good for you. After eating out somewhat repetitively, getting on the bike and riding home or going for a ride the next morning helped me feel like I was keeping a healthy balance.
With all this in mind, however, there was a large part of me that kept thinking just how lucky we are in Auckland.
L.A. is no more advanced than we are in terms of biking infrastructure. Maybe their boardwalk beats our Tamaki Drive waterfront path by a nose – but we’d only need to widen the path and add a bit more bike parking to even that score. In L.A., it’s so easy for tourists to hire bikes to get to great restaurants, but our restaurants and cuisine are leagues ahead of theirs: just add bikes and you’d be good to go. Yes, we may have hills, but we also have electric bikes and greener vistas. Plus, it only takes a week in L.A to realise that our rain is a gift we have everything to be grateful for.
The trip reminded me strongly of The Art of Travel and how sometimes you go away to realise just how wonderful it is to come back again. My holiday wasn’t over – I still had the promised land of Portland to get to – but leaving L.A., I was satisfied that I had a great city of my own waiting back at home for me.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which Jessica makes it to Portland and discovers another thing or two about Auckland…