If you are American and you haven’t bicycled since you were a child, you were probably born in the 60s or 70s and grew up in the suburbs. Kids cycling was part of American life. We often saw that in movies, yet American suburbia was a true breeding ground for urban cycling during ‘the wonder years.’ Bicycle safety in US cities was not only crafted in Hollywood.
Bikes were children’s own form of transportation, while parents needed cars to drive in and out of the city. Unfortunately by the time those kids reached adulthood, the city lost them to cars. Marcus Gladney was one of them.
It was on a particularly gleaming sunset in Los Angeles that he remembered he was an avid cyclist. Contrary to people’s advice to leave Venice Beach before sunset, Gladney decided to stay. And while he was hanging out there, he saw people randomly riding their glossy bikes with lights on their wheels.
Months later that luminous cacophony had been conducted into a cheerful convoy along the beach boardwalk with a unanimous voice to promote bicycle safety at night. The jaunt of lights is called Venice Electric Light Parade and the founder is Marcus Gladney.
Every Sunday at sunset cyclists meet at Windward Plaza on the beach boardwalk under the world famous Venice sign. From Gladney’s speakers, oldies like the ones of Ella Fitzerland, Louis Amstrong, Edith Piaf, welcome cyclists. Then everyone knows the parade is about to start. Gladney is off with the second song – Sundays@Sunset by Meilin Fefee and William Barry.
Since 2015, cyclists have been enchanted by Gladney’s sparkling world to advance bicycle safety and revive something people would have loved but drifted away from in US cities: cycling.
That night at the beach persuaded him to ride again. He had asked a guy with a bike, ‘Where do you get these lights from? And he replied, ‘Sebastian the Lightman.’ The next day Gladney brought a bike to get some lights fixed on its wheels. “If you don’t mind, I will hang out with you, I like your energy,” said Gladney to him. Weeks later he became his apprentice.
Sebastian didn’t have a store, he used to pop up at the beach with lights and tools. He was in Downtown Los Angeles shopping when he ran across these lights originally for fish aquariums and realized that the lights were good for spokes on bicycles. With one installed on his own bike, he brought his new discovery to Venice Beach. In a city where trends happen and where new ideas originate, lights on wheels became popular. Even the exporter from China rebranded the product from aquarium lights into bicycle wheel lights.
In Los Angeles you don’t really need to drive the car to reach the beach. I feel comfortable riding 17 miles and I am convinced more people will ride if they feel safe. Most accidents happen at dawn and at night.
While learning the job, Gladney was struck by the amount of celebrities that Sebastian knew from this informal practice. “But I didn’t see a community and I thought to come up with something. “I wanna do it,” I told Sebastian. “I bought more lights at a time when LEDs came to the consumer and demonstrated what I could do with them on bikes.” One day Gladney showed up in Venice Beach with a flamboyant bike and a music speaker to ride at dusk. People began following him.
The parade is a moving circus and everything evolves into a show. Gladney dresses up in extravagant and funny ways because “it is very important to attract kids and keep them out of the video games,” he urges. For Gladney, cycling was very important growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, in a neighborhood developed as part of the rapid suburbanization of America. He reckons how “the only thing possible to move around was to ride a bike, it was a given.”
But then “I began working in a carpet cleaning business in the city and cycling was not a part of my life anymore.” Deteriorating bicycle safety is among the reasons to give up cycling in US cities. Cities have grown especially dangerous to nonoccupants of vehicles (that is, bicyclists and pedestrians). From the 1970s until the late 2000s, deaths on American roadways of bicyclists, pedestrians and people in cars had steadily declined. However, that trend has reversed and in 2020, 20 percent of traffic deaths were of nonoccupants.
The city planted trees but without the safety of bikers and pedestrians in mind and chose the wrong locations. In some stretches of the road the pavement had buckled because of tree roots and had provoked serious injuries in cyclists.
I take Gladney at his word when he says that the geography of Los Angeles, where most major streets take you all the way from downtown to the ocean, would make the city suitable for cycling. However, it never made it to the most bike-friendly cities in the US, while hilly San Francisco came out on top.
“In Los Angeles you don’t really need to drive the car to reach the beach. I feel comfortable riding 17 miles and I am convinced more people will ride if they feel safe. Most accidents happen at dawn and at night,” says Gladney.
During the day Gladney rides regularly promoting cycling with e-bikes, sponsored by sellers. Judging by the amount of new bicycle lanes, it seems that Los Angeles has joined other US cities in encouraging bicycle culture and safety. But I asked Gladney “how safe is cycling really in Los Angeles?” Mayor Eric Garcetti created a program called Vision Zero to eliminate traffic deaths on city streets by 2025. But one year ago traffic safety advocates held a “die-in” on the steps of L.A. City Hall in 2019 to protest the city’s lack of progress.
In his view the administration has been proactively implementing dedicated bike lanes throughout the city but much more work is needed to protect bicyclists and pedestrians from fast-moving and intense motor vehicle traffic. “As far as being a cyclist, the city needs to step up with street maintenance and how to design our streets. The city planted trees but without the safety of bikers and pedestrians in mind and chose the wrong locations. In some stretches of the road the pavement had buckled because of tree roots and had provoked serious injuries in cyclists.”
In too many US cities, bicycle infrastructure remains disconnected to safety and in need of innovation. That is why Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with Global Designing Cities Initiative has put together a new competitive grant program called the Bloomberg Initiative for Cycling Infrastructure (BICI) which aims to change that. This opportunity, open until February 3, 2023, will award 10 cities up to $1 million USD each for innovative cycling infrastructure.
It is fair to say that Los Angeles has borne well the intensity with which Gladney is reviving cycling. “In some other cities you will most probably need to have some kind of permit to run the parade. We just did it. Police officers started noticing us, but by the time the parade became bigger, it was a family friendly bike ride with kids, and they started looking the other way.” Even a member of the Los Angeles City Council for the 11th district, Traci Park, rides in Gladney’s bicycle event that takes place in her district.
Besides, Gladney’s parade shows structure. “When we are on the streets, my guys block traffic and I have rules for how to behave on the road. No drinking, no smoking because of the kids.” The community around Venice Beach knows him well. People greet from the balcony as he rides along the road with the crowd or he has accidental encounters with other riders like Arnold Schwarzenegger. You can feel the good vibes, the music, the energy exchange among people.
He dreams of a citywide Electric Light Parade that becomes one of the firsts events among US cities to promote bicycle safety at night. It would be a sunset event where “the whole city is involved and streets are blocked from traffic”. The next morning when the sun rises over Los Angeles, people are empowered to be back on their bikes and feel safe again.