Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Homage to JHK


With a couple of days left on my spring break, I pulled out a copy of James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, his 1996 call for a reassessment of suburban sprawl and its attendant social and ecological problems.  He is a particularly astute observer of the contradictions and blind spots in our thinking about the automobile, and doesn’t mind telling us we’ve fucked up.  Big time.

His arguments aren’t necessarily new, and are part of a growing body of literature critical of the car-centered suburban mode of social organization, but nobody lays it on the line quite like JHK.  He’s a cross between Lewis Mumford and Hunter S. Thompson.  He’s acerbic, scathing, unflinching, and bracing.  He’s a bit of a cynic and a curmudgeon, but he cuts through the bullshit and lays a withering scowl upon what he calls our “geography of nowhere”—suburban sprawl.  At the center of this heart of darkness is the automobile, the totem of a society gone profoundly antisocial and, at times, quite mad.  One of my favorite scenes is from his dystopian post-automobile age novel, The Long Emergency, set in the not-too-distant future when the combination of petroleum shortages, nuclear war, and climate change have doomed the unsustainable “American way of life.”  In a brutal dissection of the pathological depth of our psychological dependence on the car, one of his characters sits in his beloved automobile and puts a bullet in his own head rather than continue to live in a world without cars.  JHK is the tonic answer to the sickly-sweet carbonated sugar water of American car culture.

Of our penchant for equating cars with “freedom,” Kunstler writes in Home from Nowhere, “[t]his is the freedom of a fourteen-year-old child,” a freedom to do whatever we want, consume whatever we want, heedless of the consequences.  When the consequences (highway deaths, polluted air, climate change) become too obvious to ignore, the tendency is to put our faith in techno-solutions, despite the fact that they ignore the root of the problem and are evidence of the peculiar blindness of wishful thinking.  He dissects the fallacy that the electric car will save us from the destructive effects of the automobile, likening it to “the old joke about the guy who decides to make his blanket longer by cutting off twelve inches from the top and sewing it onto the bottom.”  He lays out the economics of the automobile as clearly as anyone and one realizes how deeply we’re in hock to these tin cans on wheels.  The more money we pour into the car system, the more congested our roads become, the more money we throw at it, the more dependent we become on it, the more congested it becomes, and so on.

In a society living in a deep state of denial about automobiles, it should come as no surprise that politicians tend to pander to this addiction.  Rather than asking the average voter to confront the uncomfortable truth that the age of the automobile is coming to an end—must come to an end for its economic and ecological unsustainability—they promise more and wider freeways, the cost be damned, as a panacea for the problems caused by, well, more and wider freeways.  It’s not as if transportation engineers don’t know the consequences of more, wider freeways.  Indeed, they have a term for the inevitable congestion that will follow: induced demand.  Happens every time.  As JHK points out, “we have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing.”

Despite our auto-sociopathy, there is another way.

I believe that our utter dependence on the automobile must come to an end.  Society can no longer afford the cultural phenomenon of mandatory mass car ownership.  Whatever cars might run on in the future, we will have to use fewer of them and less often.  We are going to need places that are worth dwelling in, from which we won’t feel compelled to escape every moment we are not working. … an intelligently designed town can easily provide access to the needs and wishes of people in everyday life by public transit, walking, and biking.  The models for these places already exist.  They’re called London, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Munich, Oxford, Perugia, and Zurich.

More people are beginning to see this, but there are powerful cultural and economic interests working against such a transformation.  The odds are long, but the stakes are high, and will only get higher the longer we wait.

One More Reason to Ride

There are lots of reasons I ride a bike and take transit whenever I can instead of driving.  Riding a bike for transportation is fun, it relaxes me, it’s great exercise, and it connects me to my neighborhood and my surroundings in a way that driving can’t.  I actually look forward to my commute when I’m riding my bike.  There is no question that these reasons are all important and, as I’ve experienced my world on a bike and transit I have a new appreciation for the pervasive ways we’ve prioritized the private automobile in our design of our cities and our roads.  But there’s another reason riding a bike is important:  the urgent need to address climate change.

Ok, I’m aware the bicycle alone won’t solve the world’s carbon energy and greenhouse gas problems, so I’m not saying it’s the only answer or that it alone is sufficient.  I do think, however, that bicycles and transit must be a major part of the reconstruction of society to shrink our carbon footprint.  As I’ve discussed before, EVs and hybrids—while better than gas guzzlers—aren’t the answer.  If you wanted to design a more wasteful transportation system, you couldn’t have thought of a better way than the automobile.  The idea that every adult must possess a 2,000 – 3,000 lb metal box that sucks up (mostly fossil fuel) energy makes a mockery of sustainability.  By changing the propulsion system from internal combustion to the electricity grid, you might reduce the rate at which those metal boxes consume fuel and spew pollutants, but the overall global scale of energy consumption will continue to rise, especially as that mode of transportation expands to other parts of the world.  The automobile is the nexus of a vicious circle of congestion and sprawl, which is wasteful of space and energy and and creates a feedback loop of more cars-more sprawl-more cars, ad infinitum (well, at least until the carrying capacity of our planet is reached).

I am increasingly convinced that most Americans—even most liberals who agree that something must be done to address the problem—have only dimly grasped the scope and seriousness of the climate change crisis.  Reading the peer-reviewed science on the subject leads to the sobering realization that humanity faces an existential crisis by the end of the 21st century if we don’t fundamentally change our habits of energy consumption.  While the end of the century seems a long way off (I most certainly won’t be around to see it), it is within the life span of a child born today.  In the scope of human history, it is but the blink of an eye.  Yet, most people continue to live—and drive—as if there’s literally no tomorrow.

A recent article by Rebecca Solnit highlights an essential cognitive problem confronting climate change activists who challenge the  status quo.  Many of those in positions of power, even those well-meaning people who recognize the reality of climate change in the abstract, seem not to recognize the scale or seriousness of the problem.  She uses the idea of the burning house as a metaphor for the nature of the emergency we face.  Our house is burning, Solnit tells us, and we’re debating whether to use a bucket or a hose to put out the spreading flames (not to mention those who claim not to “believe” there’s a fire at all).  Here’s the problem: if we wait until the house is entirely engulfed in flames, it will be too late to save it.

She relates the story of how Bay Area climate activists called on the San Francisco Retirement Board to divest from fossil fuel stocks recently, and the board balked at what it considered a “radical” request:

Climate activists speak the language of people who know that we’re in an emergency. The retirement board is speaking the language of people who don’t. The board members don’t deny the science of climate change, but as far as I can tell, they don’t realize what that means for everyone’s future, including that of members of their pension fund and their children and grandchildren.

 Indeed, she highlights a central problem: some of us recognize we’re living on the cusp of an emergency that will affect every human being in one way or another, and some of us don’t.  I’m not talking about the deniers, who live in their own world of wishful thinking.  I mean people who don’t deny climate change, but seem to think some techno-solution will save us and allow us to continue to live as we’ve always done.  Plug-in hybrids!  Electric cars! Hydrogen-powered cars!  Some people are more concerned with what kind of car they’re going to buy in ten years than the fate of the planet.  They can’t imagine not driving all the time, despite the fact that the cumulative effects may destroy the climate by the time today’s children become adults.  Now, that’s radical.

I see this same lack of awareness in some local officials who’ll dither and debate whether to replace a traffic lane with a bike lane, or whether to remove some on-street parking for cars for a bike corral or bike lane.  The world house is on fire and they’re worried about how many extra seconds a bike lane might cost people in cars.  The age of the automobile and cheap oil is coming to an end.  Get used to it.  EVs will not save you.  The massive amount of energy they’ll suck up will have to be supplied to no small degree by fossil fuels, as most energy analysts recognize.  

Change can be overwhelming, but it starts small.  Resolving to replace one car trip a week with your bike or transit is a good place to start.  Advocating for better transit and bike infrastructure in your community is another.  Recognizing that the answer to our transportation issues is not more parking lots, more sprawl, and more freeways, but less.  Supporting the creation of car-free streets and spaces in our cities, de-privileging the automobile in our transportation funding priorities, charging drivers the full cost of their bad habit, and using the revenue to fund transit and infrastructure improvements for biking and walking.

The good news about this is that these alternatives can make our cities more livable, healthy, and as Charles Montgomery argues, happier places.  These small changes add up and make a big difference.  Using UC Berkeley’s carbon calculator, I discovered that by using my bike and transit for many of my commuting trips and local errands instead of my car last year, I reduced my household’s overall carbon emissions by 42%.  While my commute is less convenient than it was when I drove my Corrolla all the time, I’m less stressed and healthier now that I’m taking the bus and my bike and I save money.  It makes me realize how much the car-dependent lifestyle negatively impacts our quality of life.

Our house is on fire and some of us are sounding the alarm bells.  The reconstruction of society along sustainable lines must begin sooner rather than later.  This is not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is about life, period.

Bikes and the Law

Why do some drivers feel entitled to yell at cyclists?  My working theory is that the power and relative anonymity of the automobile provides people with a space in which to give their anti-social tendencies free reign.  That, combined with the fact that many drivers do not understand the basics of the vehicle code as it applies to bicyclists, and you have the recipe for misunderstandings on the roadway.

I was reminded of this on a recent ride home from my local REI.  For a brief stretch of about a block, I must ride on Arcadia’s busy Santa Anita Blvd., a four-lane arterial roadway that lacks bike lanes or a right lane wide enough for bikes and cars to ride side-by-side (I’ve written about Arcadia’s woeful lack of bike-friendly infrastructure here).  In such cases, the California Vehicle Code allows bicyclists to “take the lane.”  I’ve never enjoyed “taking the lane” because it can be stressful to have car traffic riding up your ass, revving engines as they pass, and so on, but make no mistake, my taking the lane is legal, and, in such circumstances, safer, because it prevents an unsafe pass by the automobile.  In this particular instance, there was little stress, insofar as I merged onto Santa Anita and took the right lane with no traffic behind me.  As I approached the next block, I stopped at the red light, in line with traffic in front of me. During the red, a car pulled up behind me.  As the light turned green, I proceeded to the corner, signaled, and made a right turn onto a side street.  The driver who’d been behind me at the light yelled as he passed, “get on the sidewalk!” This, despite the fact that I hadn’t slowed him at all, and riding on the sidewalk would have made me less visible to any motorist who might have been turning right (moreover, in many municipalities sidewalk riding is illegal).

Like all of the other times I’ve been yelled at by drivers, I’ve been riding legally and safely, and the driver’s “advice” was wrong from a legal and a safety standpoint.  In one or two of these cases, my presence on the roadway may have forced the driver to slow down for a second or two at most, but in most cases (such as the one above), my presence did not even cause any inconvenience to the motorist.  Hence my theory that the automobile turns normal people into assholes.

Many drivers are ignorant of the basics of traffic law as it applies to bicyclists, as a recent column in the San Jose Mercury News demonstrated.  The columnist took her written test at the DMV and noticed on one question that California’s Vehicle Code requires bicyclists to ride in the road (not on the sidewalk) “as far to the right as practicable,” and not to impede traffic.  She then complains about a cyclist she encountered who was riding in the middle of the lane making it “impossible to pass him.”  When she finally did pass him, she “beeped lightly” and then was shocked when he gave her a middle finger salute.  She was convinced the cyclist was in the wrong, but more likely it was the other way around.

Here’s the thing: CVC 21202 does require cyclists to ride as far to the right as practicable, but that does not mean as far to the right as possible.  Moreover, there are numerous exceptions to this rule, such as when preparing to make a left turn, or passing parked cars, when the cyclist needs to leave about 3 feet on her/his right to stay clear of the “door zone,” or if there is debris or other road hazards on the shoulder.  This year, motorists in California are required to leave 3 feet of space when passing a bicyclist.  That takes up about half of a 12-foot wide lane and most cars are at least 6 feet wide.  Therefore, by law the bicyclist may “take the lane” any time the lane is less than 14 feet wide, and thus too narrow for a bike and a car to safely occupy side-by-side.  For this same reason, you may occasionally see two bicyclists riding side-by-side taking the lane.  Chances are, they’re not being inconsiderate, they’ve made a judgment that the lane is too narrow for cars to pass safely.  The proper thing to do is slow down, wait until it’s safe to pass, and then give the cyclists 3 feet of room as you do so.

In any case, don’t honk or yell.  It’s neither helpful nor necessary.  Curing yourself of the antisocial behavior caused by the automobile?  That will require you to get out of your metal box and propel yourself under your own power once in a while.

Car-Centered Culture at CalTrans

Bicycle and alternative transportation advocates often lament that state and local departments of transportation (DOTs) seem locked in a time-warp with regard to road design.  Many DOTs continue to privilege the level of service (LOS) to automobiles, regardless of how it impacts the safety or ability of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.  In short, they continue to design roads for cars, as they have since the 1950s, despite the fact that multimodal transportation solutions are essential if we are to address the interconnected problems of gridlock, road safety, public health, pollution, sprawl, and climate change.

Thus it was with some interest I read a new report assessing how well CalTrans is meeting the multimodal needs of California in the 21st century.  The report’s authors, to put it bluntly, excoriated CalTrans, accusing the agency’s transportation policies of being woefully “out-of-date” and the department itself ossified by a “culture of fear” that looks with suspicion on innovation.  The report accuses CalTrans of operating under “an anodyne mission that might have been written in the 1950s.”  CalTrans, said the report’s authors, continues to privilege automotive LOS while ignoring other measures of multimodal road usage, and has failed to align its policies with California’s laws encouraging transportation design that reduces dependence on the automobile and GHGs.  Indeed, the report noted that the word “sustainability” does not show up once in the department’s most recent guide (indeed, the word was apparently struck from the final version).  Perhaps most damning was the picture painted of a culture in CalTrans not only resistant to change, but apparently hostile to it.

This reaches into every community, insofar as CalTrans’s Highway Design Manual is frequently followed by cities as a standard for roadway design.  The current HDM does not incorporate modern best practices that enable cities to design roads to accommodate multiple road users, such as bicycles.  The report notes that, according to CalTrans’s HDM lane widths are set too rigidly, often preventing innovative road designs that might better accommodate bicycles:

The “mandatory standards” for lane width and shoulder width are high—12-foot minimum lane widths are generally required, with 11‐foot lanes allowed in a few limited circumstances. In contrast, off high-speed limited access highways, current best practice nationally calls for lane widths of 10‐12 feet, depending on the context. (p. 30)

The report’s authors also note that CalTans standards prioritize high automobile speeds on such roads, despite the deleterious effects on other non-automobile road users:

The manual’s approach to motor vehicle design speed, which does much to determine the character of a road or street, favors high speeds without regard to their impact on other modes. (p. 31)

The report’s findings are significant for a number of reasons.  First, wider lanes have been shown to induce motorists to drive faster, which increases road danger, and creates an intimidating environment for bicyclists and pedestrians.  For example, on Sierra Madre Blvd., a divided road in Pasadena (under the jurisdiction of Pasadena DOT) with 12-foot wide lanes and a substandard (4 ft-wide) bike lane, the traffic speeds are posted at 40 mph.  The wide lanes encourage high traffic speeds, making the road less safe and intimidating for bicyclists when drivers zoom by, despite the bike lane.  It is no wonder more youth and families don’t ride their bicycles to nearby Pasadena High School and LaSalle High School or to nearby shops.  The report also notes that CalTrans’s standards effectively discourage communities from installing protected bike lanes through innovative use of curbs, bollards, planters, or other barriers that would insulate bicyclists from high-speed automobiles.

Yet, on Sierra Madre Blvd., there is plenty of room on the roadway to widen the bike lanes, making them safer and encouraging more people to ride.  Measuring the road width, I produced a mock-up of that section of road (top image, shown below), using the open website streetmix.  Note that as currently configured, the bike lane forces the bicyclist into the “door zone” of parked cars on the right as with little room to protect her from the speeding traffic on the left.  Not only that, the current road design actually provides a wide buffer along the center divider, and not the bike lane.


On the other hand, if the lane widths were reduced to 10 ft, or even 11 ft, as allowed by the most up-to-date transportation design manuals used in some other states, it would provide at least three additional feet that could be used to widen the bike lane and perhaps provide a painted buffer between cars and bikes, increasing safety and comfort for all (see same street view modified below).  However, as long as California’s state standards prescribe 12-ft lane widths, local governments will be loath to change.


I ride the above route to school with my daughter every week, and I would like the street to be safe enough for all the high schoolers who live nearby to ride their bikes to school.  It would reduce traffic, reduce pollution, reduce GHGs, and improve the health of the community.  This road could easily be redesigned, with no inconvenience to motorists, other than perhaps slowing down 5 mph.  But we need state and local DOTs in California to get their heads out of their a—–, uh, get with the program.

The independent reviewers recommend a significant change in the culture of CalTrans away from the auto-centered perspective that has dominated the department since the 1950s:

Modernization of Caltrans will require a difficult conversation about the conflict between mobility, as conventionally understood, and sustainability, which is not yet well understood by the department at all. Mobility [for CalTrans] has meant facilitating more and faster travel, particularly by automobile. While sustainability … means looking for ways to meet Californians’ needs without increasing auto travel and speeds. (pp. 39-40)

The report’s diagnosis certainly confirms my own frustrating experience with an out-of-date, auto-centered street infrastructure in most of the communities where I ride.  But its diagnosis raises the hope that things may be changing.

New Year’s Resolutions

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions.  I mean, I’ve always figured if you’re going to do something, why wait for the new year to do it?  That said, the new year does enable us to look back on the previous year and set some goals for the coming year.  Here are some thoughts as 2013 turns into 2014.

2013 was a year full of hope and frustration.  Nationwide, bicycling for transportation has continued its upward trend.  Just to name a few examples, San Francisco saw a 96% increase in bicycling mode share between 2006 and 2013, Chicago installed the first miles of protected bike lanes, and New York City launched its tremendously successful bike share program.  In California, Gov. Jerry Brown finally signed a law mandating a 3-foot buffer when motorists pass bicyclists on the street, which is a good start.  In Los Angeles, progress has been much slower, though new bike lanes have been installed from San Pedro to Eagle Rock and just last month LA installed its first protected bike lane in the 2nd Street tunnel.   LA County, in consultation with Bike SGV (one of the area’s growing bike advocacy organizations), is drafting an ambitious new regional bike plan for the San Gabriel Valley that focuses on connecting bike access to transit hubs.

Unfortunately, the news was not all good in 2013.  Motorists continued to kill pedestrians and cyclists at an alarming rate, and two of those deaths hit especially close to home for me.  Last February, Cal Poly Pomona student Ivan Aguilar was struck and killed by an allegedly distracted driver while cycling on a campus road.  Last summer 25-year-old Philip O’Neill was struck and killed on Del Mar Blvd. in Pasadena while riding together with a friend on what turned out to have been their first date.  However both of these tragic, unnecessary deaths may yet spur positive change at Cal Poly and in Pasadena.  Cal Poly has now installed its first bike path on campus, and a new student organization, the University Cycling Coalition, has been formed, for which I serve as a faculty advisor along with my colleague Dr. Gwen Urey.  This new student group has lots of youthful, positive energy among its student members and I see good things happening in the future.

There’s also a new advocacy organization in Pasadena, the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, formed in response to the outrage that followed the death of Philip O’Neill, and the group has already worked with the City Council to call for a stronger bike plan in that city.  Another local advocacy group, Move Monrovia, was also formed in 2013 to encourage bicycling, walking, and transit in that city.  Among Move Monrovia’s first priorities is working with city staff and elected officials to improve bike and pedestrian access to the planned Monrovia Gold Line station, set to open in 2015.  Both of these organizations show a lot of potential to reshape how people get around in their cities.

So much remains to be done, and the car-centered mentality of most Americans (especially those over 40) remains unchanged, but there are enough hopeful signs, especially among young people, to prevent the paralysis of despair.  When all else fails, I found hope and joy gliding along on my bicycle, alive to the sights and sounds of my world.  I found fellowship with the many others out there who are leaving the automobile behind and enriching their lives as a result.  I find such wonderful people online and in person.  We’re flying under the radar, but we’re out there and we’re growing.

As we round the corner to 2014, here are some of my goals for the new year:

  • Get Organized:  Any positive change comes through organizing.  This means continuing to work with local bicycle advocacy groups and build on our modest successes of 2013.  We need better infrastructure and better laws.  There are more streets that can be made safer for pedestrians and people on bikes.  Three words: protected bike lanes.  We must also redesign our roadways to slow traffic speeds and significantly toughen the penalties on drivers who injure or kill vulnerable road users.  And, while we’re at it, let’s stop calling these preventable collisions “accidents.”  Organizing for effective transit advocacy will also be a major goal.
  • Get Hot:  One of the reasons alternative transportation is so vitally necessary is the looming crisis of climate change and the need to radically change our habits and behaviors to reduce carbon emissions.  This won’t be done by fluorescent lightbulbs and EVs alone.  It’s going to require changes to the way we live and how we get around.  This will require driving less and flying less.  This will also require rethinking the sprawl-and-freeway model of development.  This means rail, transit, bicycling, and walking.  This doesn’t mean cars cease to be used, it means that we need to design our infrastructure around people, not cars.  We don’t have time to wait.  The sooner people get wise to this fact the better.  I vow not to waste my precious time and energy on people who aren’t hip to this.
  • Get Moving:  I’ll continue to ride my bike and take transit where I need to go.  With apologies to friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers, I’ll be a pain in the ass and gently encourage you to do the same whenever possible (and it’s more possible than you think).

Best wishes to all in the new year.  And remember, when the world gets you down, ride your bike.

Parking or Transit?

A new study by researchers at USC showed that people who live within half a mile of LA Metro’s new Expo Line were driving significantly less—as much as 40% less than they did prior to the opening of the light rail line.  They also drove less, and had a lower carbon footprint than those who don’t live near transit.  This is excellent news, and most welcome to those of us who understand that driving is not hard-wired into Angelinos, but is a result of an infrastructure that has been built almost entirely around the automobile for the past 80-odd years.  The study showed that infrastructure matters.  If we build it right, we maximize the chances that many more people will leave their cars at home and take transit more often.

The study also contained some important insights about infrastructure around transit stations.  For example, the study found that those who walked to the Expo Line stations showed improvement in health as a result of the approximately 20 minutes of daily moderate physical exercise they got walking to and from the station and their destination.  The study also found that connectivity to bus networks increased use of the Expo Line.  One of the factors that decreased a person’s likelihood of walking to the station was the existence of a large arterial roadway with heavy automobile traffic that had to be crossed in order to reach the station.  Crossing streets with heavy automobile traffic is intimidating for many people, and in such cases, they wind up taking their cars instead.

So, if we want to increase the use of a light rail transit (LRT) facility, the study strongly suggests we should design it to be comfortably and safely accessed by bus, walking, or bicycling.  This means providing easy connections to bus transit, prioritizing safe pedestrian and bicycle access, and reducing heavy automobile traffic on streets around stations.  Improved bus service and a network of bike lanes leading to a station can significantly increase the radius of people who use those means to get to an LRT station.  On the other hand, if we want to decrease the likelihood that people will walk or bike to an LRT station (thus decreasing the health benefits that accrue), design it primarily around automobile access.

What about those people who live beyond the half-mile radius around a light rail station.  Unfortunately, for many Southern Californians the default answer is to promote automobile access.  Take Ms. Leda Shapiro, whose letter to the L.A. Times in response to the study complained that the study didn’t emphasize “the common practice … of parking your car at the station and taking the train.”  Ms. Shapiro apparently misses the point that the study, for good reason, was trying to measure how many people didn’t drive to the station, Ms. Shapiro then reverts to a car-centered default position in her understanding of the role of transit:  

It is time to demand that parking structures be built so we can park and ride and get our cars off the freeways.  Buses … do not run often enough outside normal working hours or are too unreliable.  Many more people could ride the train outside that walkable half a mile if there was parking available (even with a small fee).

While she’s not wrong to bemoan the paucity of good bus service in many areas of our city, I would argue that after a point, more automobile parking is actually counterproductive.  A major problem is that at a certain point plentiful automobile parking and (as the USC study demonstrated) the resulting heavy auto traffic may discourage people from walking or biking to the stations.  

But the problem of prioritizing automobile parking is broader than that.  Large parking lots and parking structures tend to make the approach to the stations more distant and time-consuming for people arriving on foot or bicycle, who have to travel further to reach the platform, and contend with entrances to the station designed for cars.  Moreover, the large physical footprint of a parking lot makes it more difficult to build transit-oriented shops and apartments within convenient walking distance of the station, because the function of the station changes from being one that is comfortably accessible on foot to one that is primarily accessible by car.  Light rail patrons who arrive by car are less likely to patronize small shops nearby, because they’ll get right in their cars and leave.  If they want to shop, they’ll be much more likely to patronize shopping centers with plenty of parking, perpetuating the auto-centered sprawl model of retail development.  Thus, stations with large parking lots don’t lend themselves to the kind of mixed-use development that entices people who live nearby to walk or bike to those local shops.  Let’s not forget that local shopping keeps more dollars in the local economy and creates local jobs, unlike the Wal-Mart style of retail centered around shopping by car.  Build transit for cars and we lose the virtuous cycle of car-light living and replicate some of the worst aspects of the automobile-centered lifestyle, such as sprawl, traffic, parking lot purgatories, and unhealthy sedentary travel habits.

Light rail transit should be designed to gradually shift people away from car dependency, not continue it.  If we want to get more people to use transit and further reduce traffic, our carbon footprint, improve our health, and our local economy, we should not “demand” more car parking, as Ms. Shapiro wants, instead we should demand more frequent and longer running local bus service to transit stations, more bike lanes and low-stress bike routes to those stations, good bike parking, and pedestrian-friendly streets in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The good news is, those pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure improvements are much less expensive than the infrastructure that must be built to accommodate significantly more car traffic.  And if we subsidized local bus transit to the same degree that we currently subsidize automobile parking, we could afford more frequent bus service.  And make no mistake, more frequent bus service is essential to make our cities less car-dependent.

So here’s a dilemma: do we build multi-billion dollar parking structures at all LRT stations that significantly raise the cost of building those stations?  As UCLA economist Donald Shoup has demonstrated, there’s no such thing as “free” parking.  What if the additional costs of building a large capacity park-and-ride facility (and they are considerable) make extending our LRT system so much more expensive that it becomes politically difficult to build more light rail?  I guarantee you, Ms. Shapiro and other car-dependent citizens will raise a ruckus if they have to pay parking fees sufficient to recoup the full cost of new parking facilities, so parking costs will likely have to be subsidized to entice them to bring their cars to the station.

I’m not saying new transit stations should lack any automobile parking, but motorists should be required to pay the full cost of providing parking.  Perhaps parking structures could be located away from the station, reducing traffic and the physical footprint of the station itself so that it is more convenient and welcoming for people arriving by bus, bike, or on foot.  Perhaps a few stations (at the end of a line, for example) might provide extensive park-and-ride accommodations while others should be designed primarily around transit, walkable, and bikeable access with a minimal amount of car parking.

We should pay close attention to the USC study’s encouraging results.  It proves that we can design transit and the surrounding infrastructure in a way that has the potential to alter people’s transportation choices.  Designing stations primarily for automobile parking may bring a few more drivers to the station in the short run, but it unfortunately tends to negate the other, more virtuous choices.  It is a trade-off we should carefully consider when building new LRT stations.

You can say I’m a dreamer

I ride a bike for transportation.  By choice.  I still own a car, but I wish I could get rid of it (and I may someday).  Generally, this has made me happier and healthier than when I drove everywhere.  This makes me something of a, well—a freak—in the eyes of many of my friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and many drivers “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, contestants in a suicidal race,” who rush past me on the road.

But there’s nothing that will clarify your perception more than breaking the chains of automobile imprisonment.  What I mean is that I think the mental liberation I’ve gained by leaving the car at home is as important as the physical benefits and the benefits to the planet.  Ride your bike and you begin to realize that we’ve made a series of choices to construct a car system (what environmental historian Christopher Wells calls “car country”) and locked ourselves in, then many of us claim that there’s no viable alternative.  The only choice we assume we’ve left ourselves is what kind of car to drive.  Of course, there are plenty of people who for a variety of reasons (lack of money, lack of legal status, cognitive or physical limitations) are unable to buy into the only choice we’ve made available, but it is assumed that if you have the means, owning a car is as natural as breathing, despite the irony that cars have made it harder for us to breathe.

Then there are those like me who’ve made a conscious choice to opt out of the car system to whatever extent we can, living car-free or (in my case) car-light.  My own journey started riding my bike once a week, and gradually built up over time as I became more comfortable riding my bike and taking transit where I needed to go.  As I’ve done so, a kind of clarity about the limitations of our car-based transportation system has gradually dawned on me.

As I’ve left the car behind, I’ve begun to realize how interconnected are our problems of climate change, air pollution, sprawl, traffic congestion, stress, public health, and the erosion of local communities, to name just a few.  While the car is not the sole cause of these, it is the nexus.  In a venn diagram of these problems, the car would be at the intersection.  I’ve come to see that automobiles kill more Americans every year than just about anything else except firearms, and maim or seriously injure more than a quarter of a million a year in the US alone (worldwide, the figures are astronomically higher).  When people say bikes are dangerous, what they really mean is cars are dangerous, and especially so to anyone not wrapped in 2,000-lbs of steel, glass and plastic.  Lurking beneath the “bikes are dangerous” claim is an unexamined assumption that being virtually required to purchase an expensive 1-ton exoskeleton to get to work is a normative state of affairs instead of an incredible waste of resources and money.

The economic costs associated with this form of transportation are also staggering, when one factors in the cost of the infrastructure, the cost of motor vehicle management and traffic enforcement, the economic cost of injuries, obesity, cardio-pulmonary disease, stress-related diseases, not to mention the billions—nay, trillions—spent on securing steady supplies of petroleum and other raw materials to feed the insatiable demands of the machine.  Not to mention the multi-billion dollar marketing juggernaut that fills our minds with the message that the car = freedom, setting us up to spend an average of $6,000 – $9,000 a year just to keep the damn thing on the road.  The machine clearly owns us, not the other way around.  Freedom, my ass.

Most appalling is the way so much of our public and private space has been given over to this machine.  Over the decades, cars have gradually taken over road space from other users—people.  These expensive cocoons of privatized space have so come to dominate our public spaces that it is no longer safe for children to walk or bike to school or play in the street as we used to do when I was young.  The bulk of the space of any retail or commercial development, by law, is given over to the storage of our empty metal boxes.  And if you really want to have fun, just try suggesting to your city that space along the road be set aside for protected bike lanes rather than a traffic lane or parked cars and, as soon as they realize you’re serious, witness the mouth-foaming that results.  The solution to our traffic problem is always that more neighborhoods must be bulldozed to build/extend/widen more freeways/highways/parking lots.  This moloch, master of our universe, must be served.

It’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, this rabid defense of the automobile domination of our lives.  As the great historian E. P. Thompson understood, people’s consciousness is profoundly shaped by their lived experience.  The “windshield perspective” reinforces itself until it is internalized and naturalized.   When it is reinforced by a massively subsidized physical infrastructure and gigantic industries that propagandize it daily, it becomes essentialized.  It becomes what Vandana Shiva calls a “monoculture of the mind.”  People will defend it as if their very lives depended on it, when in fact our lives—and the future of the planet—depend on doing the opposite.

Despite the naysayers, change is slowly coming.  With each new bike lane, each new rider I see on the road, my spirit lifts.  Just maybe, I think, there’s hope for us yet.  So, you may say I’m a dreamer.  But, as John Lennon once sang, I’m not the only one.  I hope some day you’ll join us ….

Open Letter to Senator Boxer

Dear Senator Boxer,

On January 1, Congress is reducing the modest tax break for commuters who use public transit.  This would be bad enough, and unwise, but somewhat more bearable if it was part of a shared sacrifice in a time of tight federal budgets.  How distressing then, that Congress is at the same time increasing the federal tax break for automobile commuters.

This policy will reward those who drive and punish those who use transit to get to work.  This is unfortunate, indeed, as we should do all we can to encourage people to use transit for a variety of reasons, including reducing traffic congestion, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as public health (studies have shown that transit users walk more than motorists, which means they get more exercise).

For the past several years, transit commuters and automobile commuters have been able to set aside up to $245 a month in pre-tax income to pay for commuting costs (transit fares and parking, respectively).  While the transit tax break is set to be cut almost in half on January 1, the automobile tax break is set to increase to $250 a month.  This has occurred in part because the tax break for automobile parking is automatically renewed while the transit tax break must be voted on annually (why the unequal treatment?).  Apparently Congress this year thinks it’s a good idea to balance the federal budget on the backs of transit users.

As Donald Shoup has argued, there are a myriad of hidden costs associated with automobile parking, and this is one significant way society subsidizes the automobile.  Such subsidies for automobiles skew the choice people make about transportation.  Senator, we must shift to more sustainable modes of transportation and Congress must critically scrutinize every penny that subsidizes automobile use in order to create economic incentives to alternative transportation.  We should use revenues to bolster our public transportation system so that people have a genuine choice about transportation alternatives.  Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize an environmentally unsustainable automobile system with its attendant problems of gridlock and parking congestion without at least offering similar benefits to those who take transit to work.  At the very least, Congress should maintain parity between the two instead of giving special treatment to automobile users.

While I expect an auto-centric perspective from some members of Congress, I was extremely disappointed to see your defense of this policy’s unequal treatment of transit users.  You told NPR recently:

I don’t agree that you should put one group against the other. 

You’ll pardon me Senator, but that is exactly what this unequal tax policy does.  It treats transit users inequitably, and in effect encourages more driving, which is a questionable policy from a transportation and environmental perspective.

I think we should encourage fuel-efficient cars, and if someone really needs their car for work, I don’t have a problem with saying, you know what, there’s enough expense here, we can make sure that this isn’t exorbitant for you.

As I’ve argued before, there’s no such thing as a “green car,” and giving people another financial incentive to drive by providing taxpayer-subsidized parking does nothing to encourage truly sustainable transportation, let alone fuel efficiency.  Moreover, wouldn’t the same argument hold true for transit use?  Why are you willing to subsidize driving, but not transit use?

My own view is there are some people — many people — who don’t have the luxury of being able to take transit.

This argument is wrong on several levels.  First, as a transit user, I can tell you that “luxury” is the last word that comes to mind when I’m riding the bus to work.  There are many reasons I like taking the bus, but “luxury” isn’t one of them.  Second, human mobility is a right, not a luxury.  For millions of Americans who can’t afford the approximately $6,000 – $9,000 per year the AAA calculates is associated with car ownership, transit is a necessity, not a “luxury.”  I suspect not many of those Americans make it to Capitol Hill to lobby for tax breaks like the auto, highway, oil, and real estate interests do.  Indeed, as a recent article in Salon concluded, there’s a deep political bias toward the automobile that keeps transit starved for funds in this country.  As Salon noted, the bias runs deep: “for most of the political class, everyone they know and interact with owns a car.”  I suspect that most members of your Senate Transportation Committee haven’t actually tried to use transit on a regular basis.

You might try to spin this as automobile populism, Senator, but any policy that privileges the ownership of the motor vehicle as the foundation of its transportation system is not only environmentally unsustainable, it is economically elitist.

EV Boosterism

Is the injunction to “buy an electric car” the best solution we can come up with for dealing with climate change?  Not only does such advice tacitly encourage more driving, it utterly fails to consider the drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (rather than just gasoline consumption) we should be striving for.  It seems to me a bit like offering an alcoholic a “light” beer, because it’s got lower alcohol content and the assumption is that your comfortable drinking habit will be slightly less destructive in the short run.

Steve Scauzullo, a respected transportation and environment reporter for the Los Angeles News Group, authored an opinion piece acknowledging the reality of climate change and urging his readers to take action.  So far as it goes, I applaud him for his willingness to at least try to tackle this subject and present it to his readers.  He advises readers to reduce “heat islands” (i.e., parking lots), use lighter colored roofing to reflect light, and “drive an electric car.”  Anything else? How about taxing carbon? Driving less by taking public transit? Pledging not to vote for flat-earthers who deny climate change? Nope. Just buy a new car and keep living like you’ve always lived.

Scauzullo’s article doesn’t even mention the less-glamorous transportation alternatives of transit, bikes, or walking, and the relatively small changes to our infrastructure needed to make that happen  Not even a cursory nod.  Too bad, because those simpler alternatives, in addition to reducing GHGs, would also reduce traffic deaths and injury, reduce traffic congestion, and result in a more active, healthy lifestyle (all of which are big money-savers for society).  Moreover, driving less is something everyone—regardless of income—can do now.  You don’t have to wait until you have $35,000 for an EV or until there’s a charging station at your office.  We can take public transit to work, walk, or ride our bikes for many of our shorter trips.  Start one day a week—just one—and work up from there.  It gets people weaning themselves off the car, and prepares them to think about mobility beyond the resource-intensive and costly automobile system.

Let’s consider his suggestion to reduce heat islands.  Unfortunately, it fails to consider why we have constructed so many parking lots in the first place.  Indeed, the big box store in the middle of a huge asphalt parking lot is the perfect ur-symbol (and symptom) of automobile-centric sprawl.  The asphalt jungle is what it is primarily because of the desire to design the built environment exclusively around the automobile for the last 80 years.  Switching to EVs won’t do a damn thing to reduce the demand for huge asphalt parking lots.  Best case scenario from this bit of advice is that a bioswale and a few trees might make the Wal-Mart parking lot a couple of degrees cooler as you load your eSUV full of more disposable plastic crap (much of which is made from petroleum and shipped halfway around the world, ballooning its carbon footprint), but it’s not going to cool the planet’s climate.  Moreover, if we assume that the rest of the world’s 7-plus billion inhabitants follow our lead and want their own EVs and Wal-Marts, the result will be the creation of a lot more heat islands the world over, not to mention the spread of an unsustainable mega-consumerist lifestyle.  Shouldn’t climate change advice at least question the ecological appropriateness of the whole big box-in-the-middle-of-a-parking lot mode of development for the planet?

Likewise, his suggestion to “cool your roof,” like the parking lot idea, is unlikely to halt the rise of global CO2 levels.  The main reason for lighter roofs is to cut air conditioning usage but, on a macro-economic scale, it could have the opposite effect on overall  energy use if people and businesses invest their energy savings in additional production and consumption.  Case in point:  Wal-Mart has been painting its roofs light colors, and even installing solar panels on some of its super stores to save money on electricity, but its CO2 emissions are still going up.  What gives?  Well, it is a business model based on endless global growth, for one, and when it ships and sells more crap, its carbon footprint goes up.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on Mr. Scauzullo.  Maybe his third suggestion to “drive an electric car” will be the mega-idea that really sets us on the road to the 80% reduction in overall global GHG emissions by 2050 that climate scientists think we’ll need to achieve to forestall catastrophic climate change.

Fossil fuels (i.e. gasoline) when burned produce more GHG than other fuels and much more than alternative fuels. For example, power plants running on natural gas produce half the amount of GHG than those burning coal. Also, in California, 33 percent of all power will be from alternative-energy very shortly. This means, by 2020, one third of all electric car drivers will produce zero GHG.

Ah, yes.  EVs will save the planet.  OK, I get that EVs produce less GHG per mile than gasoline-powered motor vehicles, but, like most arguments about EVs this one neither considers the scale of the automobile system nor its overall carbon footprint.  Let’s understand this: understood as a complete system, there’s no such thing as a “zero GHG” automobile.  No such thing as a “green car.”

Let’s just do a little back-of-the-napkin calculation, shall we?  Now, let’s assume, as Scauzullo does, that we’re going to have wind/solar power for 33% of California’s energy supply by 2030.  But what happens when tens of millions of California drivers switch to EVs (and let’s assume they drive the same mileage as they do now)? Let’s also assume many of California’s 6 million trucks and millions of buses also switch to electric power.   The monumental increase in electricity demand from tens of millions of EVs might make California utilities happy, but it will also stretch the limits of even renewable resources at peak demand.  The increased overall electricity demand could, I suppose, be met with nuclear power generation, but that has its own set of problems, and let’s not pretend it’s “green”.

EV proponents rarely step back and extrapolate the global energy demand of literally billions of EVs, either.  Let’s consider what happens to global energy demand once the car culture spreads to China, India, and the rest of the world.  Let’s not forget, under this expanding global consumerist future, humanity would still need to generate massive amounts of electricity to power industry, including a larger global automobile industry making EVs for the world’s billions of consumers.  Recently, an energy analysis by the International Energy Agency concluded that global demand for electricity will rise faster than the growth of renewable energy.  Thus, even with new renewable supplies the IEA concludes, global CO2 output is expected to rise by 20% by 2030, despite the fact that climate scientists say we need to reduce CO2 output by 80% by midcentury.  Help me understand how the world’s 7-plus billion inhabitants driving EVs will square that circle.  Maybe EV proponents assume the automobile lifestyle is ok for us (wink), but not for them.

Setting aside the inevitable traffic congestion that will come with an increase of motor vehicles on California’s roads (another thing EV-lovers don’t contend with), let’s think about the inefficiency of this mode of energy consumption.  Because more than 90% of a motor vehicle’s power goes to moving the mass of the vehicle itself, not its passenger, any transportation system designed around the private automobile is an enormous waste of precious energy.  Even if the energy is renewable, wouldn’t it be far wiser to use the megawatts for electric transit (buses, streetcars, LRT)?

The carbon footprint of an electric car is not merely that which it emits from the tailpipe, but the overall footprint of its production, use, and disposal.  Calculate the global carbon footprint of the iron and other metal mines, lithium mines for billions of batteries, and, yes, the petroleum for the large quantity of plastics in each EV, and the other sites of resource extraction needed to produce raw materials for the manufacture of literally hundreds of millions—if not billions—of EVs annually.  Next calculate the carbon footprint of the smelting, refining, and manufacturing operations necessary to make those billions of EVs, then the transportation of all of them to market, not to mention the exponential growth of the GHG-intensive concrete and asphalt industries to pave the way for the billions of EVs globally.  I’m not even touching here the problem of toxic waste disposal of all those batteries when they need replacing.  Bottom line: the amount of electricity and the resource extraction necessary for everyone in the US (let alone the globe as a whole) to continue the automobile-based lifestyle may very well negate the marginal short-term advantage of buying EVs.  Look, I’m not saying gas guzzlers are better, I’m saying if we want to really tackle climate change, we’re going to have to move the conversation beyond cars, period.

We’re going to need to radically alter our lifestyle in the coming decades if we’re serious about tackling climate change, and sorry to tell you car-lovers, this will mean significantly shifting away from the automobile-based lifestyle.  It doesn’t mean you have to go cold turkey from your car addiction, but you should see the EV as your transition, kind of like methadone for a heroin addict.  It only works if you understand that our children’s children will eventually have to kick the entire habit to survive.  On the plus side, you’ll begin to see that not only is life possible after car addiction, you’ll lose the nasty side effects (traffic, noise, sprawl, obesity, and 35,000 highway deaths annually).  Will cars still be necessary for some things for a while?  Of course.  But a redesigned transportation system that focuses on moving people, not cars can eliminate the need for a car for many people, most of the time.  Such change won’t happen immediately, but in the coming years we can begin a serious transition.

When more people start kicking the car habit, we can invest in our transit system so it becomes an even more attractive alternative for getting to work, school, and shopping.  We can encourage businesses to locate near transit and access for bikes and pedestrians.  Then we won’t need so many of those heat island parking lots.  Maybe we can actually turn some of those empty Wal-Mart parking lots into beautiful community gardens.

We’ll also be healthier as people get out of their cars and walk or bike more, and, when we restripe more of our streets to accommodate bikes, pedestrians, and transit first (as many European countries are doing today), we’ll make our transportation system safer for everyone.  The cost of doing so will be less than the cost of providing expensive EV-charging stations, and it will be more socially equitable, because people of modest income won’t be forced to spend the tens of thousands of dollars necessary on an EV in order to get to work or school.  Best of all, we’ll be able to use the earth’s resources and that precious renewable wind and solar energy for things we really need.

We need journalists, teachers, ministers, and other community leaders to tell the truth about the significant changes in our lifestyle necessary to combat the globe’s rising GHG emissions.  It’s doable, and actually less expensive than feeding an insatiable automobile habit.  The good news is, it is not only cheaper, but more healthy than the car-based lifestyle.  Sadly, many people—even liberal environmental journalists—may still be in denial.

Car-Free Weekend

Santa Barbara Open Streets

Saturday, my family and I went on a road trip to Santa Barbara for my wife’s birthday.  Instead of driving, we did a multimodal trip with trains and bikes, and rode our bikes along a car-free Cabrillo Blvd. in Santa Barbara’s first “Open Streets / Calles Vivas” event.  It’s a great low-stress way to visit Santa Barbara, and since there are a number of bike shops in SB that rent bikes, a shoreline bike path, and some (relatively) new and improved bike lanes in town, it’s a great way to visit this charming beach city.

Our multimodal commute started with the Gold Line in Pasadena, where we boarded the light rail train Saturday morning and headed to LA Union Station.  Gold Line trains have plenty of space for bikes in the space between the rail cars or in specially designated areas where seats have been removed.  The train ride is a little jerky at times, so it’s a good idea to pack a bungee cord or nylon cargo strap if you have more than one bike to keep them from falling over.  This also allows you to sit and relax instead of standing next to your bike.


We got to Union Station with plenty of time to pick up the Amtrak train to Santa Barbara, and easily loaded our bikes onto the baggage car, which had space for about 8 bikes on it.  Amtrak allows you to take your bike on board, but you must make reservations ahead of time to ensure that the train will have enough space for your bike.  On the return trip, Amtrak expected more bikes, so the train was equipped with a larger baggage car with space to accommodate many more bikes.  On both legs of the trip Amtrak conductors were extremely helpful.  There is no extra charge for taking a standard bike on the Amtrak, though some larger bikes, such as cargo bikes, tandems, and recumbents will have to be disassembled and packed in a cargo box and Amtrak charges a baggage fee for these.  However, for most people, taking your bike on board is no problem if you have a reservation.

During the approximately 2-hour ride to Santa Barbara, we enjoyed the scenery, chatted with each other, got snacks from the snack car, and, with free wi-fi, surfed the web.  There was plenty of legroom and I enjoy being able to get up and walk around on the train (something you can’t do in your car).  The upper deck of the train allows for some magnificent views of the coast along the way, and we saw sights we’d never seen before on the many car trips we’ve taken to SB over the years.

When we got to the Santa Barbara station, we rode our bikes down the new State Street bike lanes to Cabrillo and joined the Open Streets event in progress.  Cabrillo is usually choked with traffic, but we were able to enjoy the scenery, stop along the beach wherever we wanted to, and see Cabrillo as we never had before.  There was a sense of freedom and relaxation that comes over you when you don’t have to worry about cars.  Oh, and despite the thousands of people along the route, it was quiet without the noise of cars.  You could actually hear the soft murmur of the surf as you rode along the boulevard.  It was a wonderful family experience.

How surprising then, when I read some negative comments a few people posted in an online article about the event in a local Santa Barbara newspaper.  These people disapproved of closing Cabrillo to automobile traffic, claiming, among other things, that it hurt local businesses.  These comments were not only short-sighted, they were flat-out wrong as far as I could tell.  We ate at a restaurant on the Santa Barbara pier that was doing a booming business from people walking and bicycling.  Arts and crafts vendors along the route also seemed to be doing a good business as well (I should know, my wife bought some jewelry, too).  We saw people from all walks of life and all ages, smiling, laughing, getting exercise in the beautiful weather, and creating a sense of fun and community that you don’t get when everybody’s in cars.  As for myself, this was the most fun I’ve ever had in Santa Barbara.  Usually I’m stressed after a 2-hour drive from LA, stressed from dealing with traffic in town (caused, needless to say, by too many cars—not too many bikes), and stressed from trying to find a parking space on a weekend.  This time, however, it was a much more enjoyable experience.  Not having to deal with the car and traffic was liberating.

I guess some people are threatened by anything that suggests there’s another way to get around town besides cars.  Every community has people my mother used to call “crabapples” and the internet seems to bring them out of the woodwork.  I hope Santa Barbara doesn’t give in to the cynicism of such narrow thinking and continues to support, and even expand, this wonderful Open Streets event.

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