From the issue feature, "Empathy Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation."
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bikes illustration

Illustration: Tom Eykemans (detail)

Los Angeles should be an ideal place to ride a bike. It’s flat, it rarely rains and almost everything is paved. The problem is, when I get on my bike, it’s as if I become invisible. Even if I wear so much reflective clothing that I resemble a lightcycle from Tron, I’m still not as interesting as an iPhone, a lap dog or any number of other things that regularly distract LA drivers.

Increasingly, there are official efforts to make LA a more bike-friendly city. Near my home is a brand new designated bike lane. Setting aside the fact that it’s only two blocks long and nearly impossible to get to, this is a “win” for bicyclists and a definite step in the right direction. There are also more and more “sharrows”—streets marked with bike symbols to remind drivers that bicyclists are permitted to use the full lane; the intention is good, but honestly, I’ve only noticed the signs when I’m on my bike. I’ve never noticed them when I’m in my car, fiddling with my iPhone.

Fortunately, some brilliant social innovators have been busy increasing bicycle visibility using a classic theme: strength in numbers. Critical Mass and other organizations regularly host “group rides”—informal gatherings of bicyclists, ranging in size from a half dozen to over four thousand, taking over the streets of LA in grassroots pelotons. Not only do they command attention with their sheer numbers, they also tend to be populated with happy, smiling, laughing people. Tiring of my gritted-teeth solo rides, I decide to join them.

I find a number of excellent sites listing group rides. Midnight Ridazz, an organization that’s been around for at least a dozen years, offers a calendar of upcoming rides. Hosts offer brief descriptions. Occasionally, there are restrictions like “a hustle” (fast-paced) or “fixies only,” but most rides make a point of inviting everybody and anybody.

After a quick survey, I boil the choices down to two: “PoPPycoCK” and “The Passage.” Words that randomly combine upper and lower­case letters make me feel old, so I go with “The Passage,” short for “The Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time” (more details at thepassageride.com).

The directions are simple: Meet at California Donuts #21 near the corner of 3rd and Vermont at 9:00 p.m. I fill my backpack with water and power bars and pedal off to the neighborhood Google Maps calls “Little Bangladesh.”

By 8:45 there are roughly 25 cyclists gathered, an incredibly diverse group, with riders ages 18 to 67. The only common denominator is that they’re all friendly. As we get close to departure, most people stretch and check equipment. One guy eats two crullers, drinks a beer, burps, then lights a cigarette. I make a mental note, “If this is a race, I can take this guy.”

9:00 p.m. arrives. Someone yells “rolling” and we’re off. Where? Only our leader knows. We’re asked to keep our eyes open and enjoy the ride. Someone reaches into their bag and turns on music—smooth, down-tempo ska.

The group ebbs and flows. It clusters at red lights, and then, when it gets moving, can stretch out over blocks and blocks. Because of our size, we earn a respect and visibility that could never be achieved on a solo ride. We own entire lanes on busy streets. People yield to us. Pedestrians shout encouragement. We’re not invisible! We’re a stealthy parade with the soundtrack of squeaking brakes and laughter. Of course, there’s the occasional honk and yell from a disgruntled driver—always an SUV. What’s up with that? Norma, a young woman on a fixie, tells the SUV driver to suck her dick. Problem solved.

This particular ride, “Reading, Riting, Rithmatic,” has an end-of-school theme and takes us on a looping tour west toward UCLA, visiting all types of schools along the way. We take a combination of backstreets and major arterials. When we get to Beverly Hills, we ride through a complicated and beautiful network of alleys. Alleys! I had no idea there were this many alleys in BH! Apparently, when cool/interesting routes are discovered, other leaders “remix” them into future rides.

Eventually we end up at the UCLA campus where we ride single file through parking garages, around fountains and ultimately to a large quad with an excellent view. We dismount and take 10. That dude who was smoking earlier? He’s ridiculously fast. I can’t keep up with him. And he’s smoking again.

Break is over. We wrap up conversations and start heading east, back toward where we began. We pass some students:

Student: “What ride is this?”

Me: “Passage Ride. You can find it online.”

Student: “See you next week!”

It’s obvious how this movement has grown over the years. Hearts and minds, hearts and minds.

The ride back takes us through posh areas of Bel Air and Beverly Hills, slightly grittier parts of East Hollywood and Koreatown. Cigarette guy passes me while smoking. Eventually we make it back to California Donut #21. It’s 1:00 a.m., we’ve ridden 25 miles. I have the best donut of my life and say my goodbyes. I start on my short ride home and instantly realize that I am, once again, a solo rider, invisible and defensive. I no longer have the luxury of 24 other cyclists making me impossible to ignore. At least not until next Wednesday at 9:00.