Cruising LA

My biggest surprise since moving to LA County has been the prevalence of cycling. Here it is not just a mid-life accessory sport, or an extension of hipster connoisseurship, or a gym junkie’s wind-down, or a minority pursuit of generally overprotected children. Although it can be all of those,  it encompasses a much broader range of subcultural style and meaning. Bikes in recessionary Los Angeles are also very often simply utilitarian. People of all ages, shapes and genders require them for shopping, commuting, relaxing and hustling because they share what in Southern California we might describe as a condition: they don’t have access to a car. The increasing inequality and poverty here is partly behind an accelerated adoption of bikes and cycle commuting. A recently-arrived, privileged urban Australian of 2013 is thus surprised to encounter, in a Western metropolis, a significant concentration of people for whom bikes aren’t a toy, or a lifestyle choice, but the only option they have besides walking.

Whatever your reason for cycling, you need a bike. A strikingly common choice is a kind that is redolent of leisure, but here answers to a number of other purposes: the beach cruiser. The cruiser-like machine I saw most often before arriving here was the Townie Electra, a mid-range “style bike” favoured, in my experience, by Sunday-riding boomers in New Farm Park or Rushcutters’ Bay. Purer iterations were thinner on the ground in my observation. Here they’re everywhere, and frequently in use as everyday utility bikes. You can get them new anywhere bikes are sold, but second-hand survivors of cruiser booms in the ’50s, ’70s and ‘90s circulate widely, whether as beaters, ungainly patchwork “frankenbikes” or as museum-quality lifestyle fossils. Some not-especially-formal businesses subsist on modifying, repairing or splicing old ones together. One shop I know on Broadway in Long Beach reanimates their evolutionary descendants – mountain bikes – as atavistic quasi-cruisers with outsize mirrors, ornate racks, mudguards and fat, white tyres.

They vary in their precise shape and size but share some attributes. Definitionally they have a cantilevered, curvilinear  frame, with a low centre of gravity. The handlebars are made for upright riding: there are U-shaped and squarer versions of “cruiser bars”, but you also see them with North Roads bars or ape-hangers.  Classically they have balloon tyres, but some newer models have less flamboyant wide tyres with a little less rolling resistance, the better to scoot around town. Geared versions are not uncommon, but the overwhelming proportion are single-speed. And usually they’ll have a wide, thick, sprung, comfy seat. Beyond that, the degree of variation and customisation can be dazzling. Some, for example, are fitted out for display. There’s a certain configuration of soCal masculinity – which also involves skateboards, ink and ball caps, with links to punk and Latino traditions and longer-standing elements of working class culture – which also encompasses vintage or modified cruisers. One of the first, magnificent examples I saw of modification involved a silvered chrome bike towing a trailer with a built in speakers system, bearing a satisfied-looking French Bulldog.

Cruisers represent the main line of America’s home-grown cycling tradition. They were first conceived of in the first Great Depression. Manufacturers were struggling  to flog bikes to adults who saw them as a frivolity. Schwinn aimed instead for kids with bikes that were imitative of motorcycles. Other manufacturers copied, and cruisers became more plentiful. They achieved a heyday in the 1950s, but lighter racers from Britain and Europe edged them out over the course of the 1960s. Light, European-styled ten-speed racers were the basis of the US “bike boom” in the early 1970s, though cruisers still sold to kids until BMXs started cutting their lunch. They never disappeared entirely. Riders doing new styles of fast downhill cycling in the late 1970s built the Mountain bike concept on cheap, tough, surplus cruiser frames after their racers shook apart on the hillsides. Cruisers were at a low ebb until a series of nostalgic re-releases in the 1990s became unexpectedly popular with a range of adult constituencies. Now, they’re mainstream again: Wal-Mart carries several lines, and the City of Long Beach and the University of California at Irvine use them as the basis of municipal bike schemes. They sit alongside other, more rarefied styles of cycling – lycranaut café-hopping and retro-fetishism – in the current mass uptake of cycling that is broader and more contradictory than any before it.

A mixture of demand- and supply-side dynamics have driven the ebbs and flows in the popularity of cruiser bikes. As a technology, though, they combine several desirable attributes. First, they’re cheap. Standard-issue models in good nick are rarely more than $150 secondhand, and often far less, and you can get department store versions for an even hundred if you really want to. Bikes with high quality frames, integrated racks and some other bells and whistles can be had new for $300. Second, they are robust.

Characteristically they’re made of steel, which means that they’re heavier than they might be, but that you can probably run them into a wall without any problems.  To the extent that they’re single-speed machines, there’s very little that can go wrong with them, even without conscientious maintenance. The flatness of much of urban SoCal means that they’re good to go throughout the region. The roomy padded seats and upright riding mean they’re very comfortable, easy, and unintimidating. Even a skittish cyclist will risk taking a cruiser on a footpath. And that’s what you see, every day – helmetless cyclists going about their business on sidewalk-bound beach bikes with varying degrees of enthusiasm. (Although municipalities are beginning to catch up with infrastructure for bikes – LA County’s bike infrastructure is far more extensive than any stereotype would lead you to believe, and is undoubtedly better than, say, Sydney’s).

It puts a whole new complexion on the weird moralising about single-speed bikes in Australia, which has successively centred on “hipsters and their fixies”, then Reid’s cheap-as-chips Chinese builds swarming metro inner cities, and now their sudden appearance in Big W’s sports section. The kind of fixie that comes to us from track bikes, via bike messengers and retro-rebuild hobbyists may not be great for attacking the hills, but if we want to consider reasons for their spike in mass popularity, we might also consider their steel build, easy maintenance, and low cost. The allegedly greater practicality of geared bikes does not take into account the difficulty of owning and riding them for the hesitant cyclist.

We shouldn’t expect bikes alone to redeem our carbon economies. Bike use and cycle cultures exist in relation to infrastructures and economies that privilege car use. If that were to change, the character of cycling would, too, in ways that are difficult to predict. Bikes too are implicated in the use of nonrenewables in their construction, and the current diffusion of bikes is based on a carbon-powered supply chain. And cars will be here for some time – even now, the California pumps oil in residential areas of LA and Orange counties and barely regulates fracking, the better to keep the cheap oil flowing. Still, the inclusive nature of California cruiser culture might give us hope. It’s not hard to imagine many more people on cruisers than we see even now, as the multidimensional costs of car ownership in SoCal become more pressing. Cruiser culture are a kind of utopian crazy mirror of freeway culture, in the place where that particular form of madness began.
The essentially top-down imposition of the freeway system is what made this place both possible and impossible to live in. Governmental largesse in building and maintaining the highways, bailing out the makers of oversized cars that make people feel safe, and in continuing to not price externalities into the cost of fuel have allowed decades of suburban incursion into Orange County. Which of course means that you need a car to live there, and need to waste weeks of your life immobile in stopped traffic as a result. The freeway has its grandeur as an exemplar of engineering prowess and excess. Yet it’s also fated to be something else – to gradually empty out as the petrol drains away, or to carry a different, smaller, quieter kind of car.

Cruisers, on the other hand, are likely not only to be around for a while, but to become an even more important aspect of everyday urban culture here. Their combination of robust function and accessible style and their integration into everyday life gives us a glimpse of a future when either the wells have run dry, or we collectively wake up from our petrol-fuelled dream.


Image by ubrayj02 via Creative Commons Licence.

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