Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Bikes and Sustainability

Turns out, the UN likes bikes.  Well, not explicitly, but pretty darn close.

The most recent report from the UN’s Working Group on Sustainable Development (WGSD) affirms 17 ambitious and interrelated goals for sustainable development it hopes will be attained by 2030 (that’s just 16 years away).  The WGSD urges governments to address these goals together, what they call “holistic and integrated approaches that will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and will lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the earth’s ecosystem.”  The report lists a wide variety of goals for sustainable and equitable development that are laudable and avoid isolating environmental and social issues in separate silos:

1. End poverty everywhere

2. End hunger, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

3. Attain healthy lives for all

4. Provide quality education and life-long learning opportunities for all

5. Attain gender equality, empower women and girls everywhere

6. Ensure availability and sustainable use of water and sanitation for all

7. Ensure sustainable energy for all

8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

9. Promote sustainable infrastructure and industrialization and foster innovation

10. Reduce inequality within and between countries

11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe and sustainable

12. Promote sustainable consumption and production patterns

13. Tackle climate change and its impacts

14. Conserve and promote sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources

15. Protect and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, halt desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss

16. Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and effective and capable institutions

17. Strengthen the means of implementation and the global partnership for sustainable development

Category 11, “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, and sustainable,” is particularly relevant to bicycle transportation, calling on societies to prioritize “access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport for all, and expand public transport.”

Take a look at each of these categories.  Which form of transportation is safe?  Bicycles, or the one that kills approximately 35,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands more around the world every year?  How about goal no. 3 “attain healthy lives for all”?  What’s more likely to achieve that, sitting in traffic for hours a day or riding a bicycle to get to work and school?  Affordable and accessible?  Bikes win hands down.  Sustainable?  As we’ve discussed before, there’s no such thing as a “green” car, notwithstanding the auto industry’s attempts to paint itself green to make first world consumers feel better.  And goal no. 13 “tackle climate change and its impacts.”  Think cars for the world’s 7.5 billion people are going to bring us closer to addressing climate change?

The group calls on societies to “reduce urban sprawl” and “ensure universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible public spaces, particularly for women and children and people with disabilities.”  Designing cities primarily around automobile access runs contrary to this goal.  Cars are synonymous with sprawl, even if they’re electric, and they are the major hogs of space in cities, destroying safe public space in the name of parking lots, freeways, highways, and other urban “dead zones” suitable for nothing but the car.  Cars create danger for pedestrians, especially the young, old, and persons with disabilities.  In fact, if you wanted to create an extremely inequitable and unsustainable form of transportation, you’d invent the automobile and design your cities around it.

I realize these sustainable development goals are a long way from being met, but when you think about the larger issues human society faces, the UN has the right idea, and though it doesn’t explicitly endorse bikes, the handwriting is on the wall:  we can keep driving, or we can get on the simple bicycle and live sustainably.

Buffered Bike Lanes!

NYE Bike Lane

You know you’re a bike geek when the appearance of new buffered bike lanes on a local street makes your day.  In this case, Pasadena DOT has at long last upgraded the bike lanes on New York Drive between Altadena Drive and Sierra Madre Blvd to buffered bike lanes.

The addition of a painted 2-foot buffer zone between the bike lane and the traffic lane is especially important on this stretch of NY Drive insofar as cars travel at about 50 mph.  That’s right, 50.  On the downhill stretches of the road, motorists are sometimes going even faster.

The first time I rode the old bike lanes on NY Drive (about 4 years ago) was the last.  There’s nothing like the terrifying feeling of a car or truck passing within a couple of feet of you doing 50 mph or more.  It’s enough to make all but the most hard core cyclist say “fugettaboudit.”  Today, on the other hand, I rode in the buffered lane and felt much more comfortable.  The 2 additional feet of space between you and speeding automobile traffic may not seem like much, but, believe me, it makes a huge difference.  Now I feel more comfortable taking this route to visit friends and family in the Eaton Canyon area of Altadena and it cuts a good 8-10 minutes off of the longer route I used to take to avoid what had been an awful stretch of road to ride on.

The weak link: cars parked on the shoulder require bikes to enter travel lane where cars approach 50 mph.

The weak link: cars parked on the shoulder require bikes to enter travel lane where cars approach 50 mph.

While the buffered lanes are a major improvement, the route is still not completely safe.  Unfortunately, the bike lane abruptly ends and DOT left the shoulder of the roadway open to parked cars for the 4/10ths of a mile between N. Altadena Drive and Eaton Canyon Drive (in front of swanky Gerrish Swim Club).  During the summer months and on weekends there are often long lines of parked cars along the entire stretch, forcing bicycles into a traffic lane where cars are moving at upwards of 50 mph.  Moreover, on the westbound side, the road pitches uphill steeply, meaning bikes traveling this portion will be going slow, unless being ridden by a Tour de France-level athlete.  So with the sudden loss of a bike lanes and parked cars, you go from tolerable comfort and safety level to super high-stress, unsafe roadway.

As such, I give the stretch with the buffered lanes a B+ (because of the high traffic speeds, some plastic bollards along the outer edge of the buffer would earn an A- and a curb-protected bike lane would earn an A), and I give the stretch between Eaton Cyn Drive and Altadena Drive as currently designed an F.  Because of the prioritization of curbside parking for cars, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending this stretch of the route for kids, newbies, or less confident riders, and thus it fails the “8-80″ test (i.e., is it safe for cyclists from 8 to 80?).  If we want to get more people out of their cars, a bike route is only as good as its weakest link, and I fear this design flaw will not make the route more popular with people who don’t already ride.

Uphill section much improved by buffered lanes.

Uphill section on eastbound side of New York Drive is much improved by buffered lanes.

Overall, however, I have to say that the buffered lanes are huge improvement over the non-buffered lanes that existed before.  On the eastbound side, as I rode the uphill stretch going much more slowly, the buffered lane made a big difference.

What a change 2 feet make.  We still have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.  Here’s hoping Pasadena DOT fixes the weak link on this road and continues to add more buffered bike lanes to more streets.

Small Steps?

BikewayStudyMTG

Could the city of Pasadena finally be close to adopting an ambitious mobility plan?  This week, my friends at the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition (PasCSC) attended meetings with city officials to provide feedback on elements of a new mobility plan that, if implemented, will make getting around Pasadena on foot and by bike much easier and safer.  The first of those meetings was a preview of potential new bikeways in Pasadena.

A year ago, in the wake of the tragic death of cyclist Phillip O’Neill in the city, a group of local advocates met and formed PasCSC to lobby for safer streets for all road users (“complete streets”).  As part of that effort, the group was critical of the Pasadena DOT’s draft mobility plan as not going far enough to make Pasadena bike and pedestrian friendly.  Several members of the City Council, including Mayor Bill Bogaard and Councilmember Terry Tornek, called on DOT to revise its bike plan and “be bold.”

On June 24, community members got a sneak peek at a “Bikeway Analysis and Feasibility Study” that assessed the feasibility of major street redesign on up to seven east-west corridors and four north-south corridors in Pasadena.  The study was conducted by KOA Corporation, a transportation planning and engineering firm that has designed, among other things, the highly regarded 3rd Street and Broadway Cycle Track in Long Beach and the new Rosemead Cycle Track in Temple City, the first of its kind in the San Gabriel Valley.

Temple City's cycletrack on Rosemead Blvd. (photo: StreetsblogLA)

Temple City’s cycletrack on Rosemead Blvd. (photo: StreetsblogLA)

 

Cycle tracks are essentially bike lanes protected by a physical buffer, such as a curb, landscape planters, or parked cars.  They are common in Europe and have just begun to be used here in the US.  They are, if you’ll excuse the automobile metaphor, the Cadillac of bike lanes.  Rich Dilluvio, senior transportation planner for Pasadena’s DOT (see photo, top), asked the advocates for feedback and to prioritize the proposed routes that would be most valuable to cyclists as the initial backbones of a bike-friendly Pasadena.  Planners wanted to know, in other words, in case they’re not all funded at once, which ones did bicyclists want to be completed first?  I confess, I want them all—now, but I know that it will take time to work its way through the political process, the community outreach process, the funding process, and finally, the construction process.  I also realize they may not all be funded immediately.  The sooner we get them, though, the better for active mobility and traffic safety in Pasadena.

Readers will know that I’ve been critical of Pasadena’s previous bike plan, but my initial response to these new proposed bikeways is cautious optimism.  The east-west routes are especially ambitious, including plans for separated, bi-directional bike lanes on Green and Union, as well as proposed cycle tracks or buffered bike lanes on other routes. The north-south routes are a bit more difficult because they need to be routes that cross the 210 freeway (the huge concrete traffic sewer that cuts through the heart of Pasadena like a jagged gouge carved out of the city’s midsection) and don’t have high traffic volumes.  These constraints limit north-south routes, and they tend to be narrower streets.  For these north-south corridors, KOA Corporation engineers have proposed four “bike boulevards” that will be designed to minimize automobile volume and speed, and prioritize bicycle travel.  Similar treatments have been done on streets in Portland and Minneapolis, two of the most bike-friendly cities in the US.  A pilot for such treatment has also been implemented on Pasadena’s North Marengo Ave. between Orange Grove and Washington.  In addition, DOT director Dilluvio indicated that several existing streets with bike lanes are slated to be repainted with buffered bike lanes when they’re up for resurfacing.  Buffered bike lanes increase a cyclist’s comfort and safety by providing a painted “buffer zone” between the bike lanes and other traffic lanes.

This proposed network of bikeways is not perfect.  Several advocates noted that the planners seem to have paid little attention to modifying intersections.  Most collisions take place at intersections, and less experienced bike riders who feel comfortable in a protected bike lane mid-block will find themselves unprotected when they get to busy intersections.  This may reduce potential ridership, and hence the purpose of the protected bike lane.  Also, there was apparently little effort to choose key corridors that would directly connect with any of the city’s six Metro Gold Line stations, meaning commuters, shoppers, or visitors who take the Gold Line won’t be right next to the best bike routes to and from Gold Line stations.  There are still gaps: Northwest Pasadena and East Pasadena get little attention, though these bikeways are only part of the larger bike plan.  Finally there has, as yet, been little thought given to a system of wayfinding signage to help bicyclists navigate the proposed bike-friendly network of routes through town.  I am hopeful that there will be opportunity to address these issues when the entire bike plan comes up for public comment.

I have to say that these proposed bikeways, if they are funded and constructed, have the potential to be a significant step in the right direction for Pasadena, making the city a leader in active transportation in the San Gabriel Valley.  Soon it will be time for Pasadena’s elected officials to resist the inevitable boo-birds and anti-bike lane NIMBYs who will oppose any change in the current car-centric design of Pasadena’s streets and approve these proposed bikeways.  PasCSC will have to mobilize its supporters to provide support for the plan.  A healthier, safer, greener, even happier city awaits this pending test of community mobilization and city leadership.

Bearing Witness

Yesterday, Father’s Day, was a day for looking back and looking forward.  I began the day attending commencement at Cal Poly for my students who were graduating.  It is always so uplifting to watch my students achieve a goal they’ve worked so hard to attain, for many, the first in their families to obtain a 4-year college degree.  They’re just starting out, young lives full of promise and hope.  Last evening was also the memorial walk/ride for Phillip O’Neill, a 25-year-old young man whose life was also full of promise and hope, killed by a careless driver one year ago in Pasadena.  I was bearing witness in both cases.  The first fills me with joy, and affirms my hopes as an educator.  The second fills me with deep anger and a fervent desire to change our roads and our laws.

Ready to Roll

Last night’s walk/ride brought together many bicycling advocates from the area, as well as those who just wanted to ride with us in solidarity.  Chris Cunningham of the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition led the ride, and there were attendees from as far as South LA’s East Side Riders Bike Club.  We rode from Pasadena’s City Hall, where we must press our case for safer streets, to the ghost bike placed on Del Mar Blvd. where Phillip was killed.  We stopped and had a moment of silence for Phillip, and people placed flowers and candles on the ghost bike.  I contemplated both the fragility of human life and the nearby roadway that has been designed primarily for the convenience of cars.  It’s wide enough for bike lanes, but such redesign might make drivers slow down.  As I so often do, I wondered why we let such things happen.  Why do we design our streets for machines of death that kill an average of 35,000 and maim nearly a quarter of a million Americans every year?  Why aren’t more people standing here with us?  Why aren’t more people outraged?

PhillipGhostBike

From there the group then rode or walked to Grant Park, where there was a small ceremony.  Katie, who was riding with Phillip when he was killed, described their beautiful first date that day, and noted that both of them were riding legally in the right lane because of the lack of a bike lane on Del Mar.  Among the other speakers was Phillip’s mother, who spoke about her son’s work as an environmental scientist and his desire to make the world a better place.  As a parent, I deeply felt her unending grief and anguish at the loss of a child.  Worse yet, she noted that her son’s killer has yet to accept responsibility for his actions that day, that he was driving too fast and was illegally passing on the right when he struck Phillip.  I’m saddened and angered by this lack of responsibility, but I’m not surprised by it.  Our car-centric culture has a tendency to absolve drivers of responsibility and blame the victims of car violence.  If you doubt me on this, next time you see an article describing the death of a bicyclist, read the online comments.  The callous victim-blaming will sicken you.

I was heartened to see Terry Tornek, a Pasadena city council member, attend the event and speak on behalf of making the streets of Pasadena safer for all people, not just motorists.  I’m also heartened by the people from the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, formed in response to Phillip’s death last year, who organized this event.  PasCSC continues to grow and is now lobbying for an ambitious new mobility plan for the city of Pasadena.  Indeed, many members of the coalition (as well as the LACBC, CICLE, BikeSGV, Walk/Bike Glendale) were there last night.  I’m also heartened that members of this small but growing advocacy community have neither forgotten Phillip nor lost hope that things can change—must change.  In this way, bearing witness and looking forward go hand-in-hand.

As Danny Gamboa said last night, we must never forget those killed or maimed by cars and we must work for the day when we no longer need ghost bikes because our streets will be safe for people on bikes.  I made a solemn pledge to Phillip’s mother that this is what I would do.

Flowers for Phillip

Bike Week Log

Monday, May 12:  Rode to school with my 8th grade daughter, as we do just about every Monday morning for the last year or so.  The ride takes us about 35 minutes, but affords us a nice father-daughter time together, especially when we’re on some of the quieter streets on the route.  The middle portion of the ride is on a busy, moderately high-stress Sierra Madre Blvd between Michillinda and Victory Park, where auto speeds can reach more than 40 mph.  Even though this street has bike lanes, as I’ve argued before, they’re inadequate, and the intersections have right turn lanes that bicyclists must steer around if you’re not turning right.  Right-turn lanes themselves aren’t so bad, but high traffic speeds for right-turning cars are.  A green right-turn arrow at the intersection of S.M. Blvd. and Sierra Madre Villa means cars barreling down the road into the right-turn lane don’t need to slow down.  Clearly this wasn’t designed by anyone who ever walks or rides a bike.  A myopic car-focus on intersection design is the cause of this poor design.  As long as the City of Pasadena’s DOT does not address high-stress streets like this, bicycle mode share in this part of the city will not increase.  The street is plenty wide enough for buffered bike lanes, but the will has been lacking at Pasadena DOT.  Once we get past the high-stress part, though, it is a glorious ride.

After school, my daughter notices that her rear tire is completely flat.  My wife picks her up from school and when she gets home I show her how to inspect her inner tube.  We find no puncture, and reinflate the tire.  Problem is chalked up to (most likely) middle school boys letting the air out of her tire.  Little do they know their little prank enabled my girl to learn how to fix her flat tire.  We had a good laugh and she remains undaunted.

Good news released this day, too.  A new report from the LACBC documented a healthy 7.5% increase in L.A.’s bike ridership since 2011, including big increases on routes with new bike infrastructure.  L.A. is moving in the right direction, thanks to advocacy by groups like LACBC.

Tuesday May 13:  An early day today, with an unexpected multimodal commute disaster that turned out positively.  I’d planned on taking the early bus and get to Cal Poly Pomona in time for a roundtable discussion with University officials and students about how to make the streets around Cal Poly safer for bicyclists.  I take a Metro bus that stops near my house and transfer to a Foothill Transit bus that takes me to Cal Poly for my morning commute.  That way I don’t get sweaty in my work clothes.  I almost always ride my bike back home from the El Monte bus station at the end of the day.  It’s all uphill, but the hour-long ride from El Monte is a good end-of-day workout and de-stresser.

This morning I text message Metro and the bus is supposed to be at my stop in 10 minutes.  It takes me about 4 minutes to ride down to the bus stop from my house and I leave with plenty of time to spare.  However, as I get within about 50 feet of the bus stop, I see my bus fly by.  Today the damn bus is 4 minutes early!  This bus only runs once every half hour, and I really need to get to work early today.  I take off on a sprint after the bus.  There’s a stop about half a mile down the street and if I can catch up, I’ll make it.  About half a block behind the bus, I yell for the passenger at the corner to tell the bus to wait.  I guess she doesn’t hear me and the bus takes off.  There’s a traffic light in another mile … if the bus catches the red light, I just might be able to catch up.  Pedaling furiously, I watch helplessly as the bus sails through the intersection on a green light.  I, on the other hand, catch the red.  Should I ride back home and drive to work?  Hell no.  Since I’ve already gone more than a mile toward the station, I decided to ride the rest of the way to the El Monte station, where I can pick up the Foothill Transit bus (which run every 15 minutes) and avoid being too late.  To my surprise, the ride to EMS is much faster (and less strenuous) than the ride home, because it’s almost all downhill.  Morning traffic is not too heavy, and, while I don’t beat my bus there, I do make it in time to catch a subsequent Foothill Transit bus to Cal Poly and I’m only 15 minutes late to the meeting (rather than 30 minutes late if I’d waited for the next Metro bus).  I also learn that if I miss my Metro bus, I can ride to EMS.  Metro, you let me down today.  My bike didn’t.

Gwen_Bike Week

Wednesday, May 14:  An uneventful multimodal commute today.  Buses were on time and not too crowded.  This afternoon Dr. Gwen Urey and I led a workshop on bicycle safety for students.  About 7 or 8 showed up and it was covered by the student newspaper.  Best part was I got to wear my “Bike Week Volunteer” t-shirt.  Bike culture at Cal Poly Pomona is still small, but I’m impressed and heartened with how it is steadily growing.  Temps in LA were in the low-100s, but I rode home after sunset, had plenty of water, and the ride allowed me to unwind.

Bike2WorkCPP

Thursday, May 15:  Bike to Work Day at Cal Poly Pomona.  Did my regular multimodal commute, but I proudly wore my “One Less Car” T-shirt, which the students loved as I rolled up to the B2W table the University Cycling Coalition had set up.  The students were offering free bagels, coffee, and orange juice to all bike riders, and there was a great feeling of camaraderie among the participants.  It was inspiring to see Rob, one of my colleagues, ride to work from Pasadena, despite the heat.  I know it is a small thing, but it is nice to get a little recognition for doing the right thing when so much of the time our car-centric society is either hostile or indifferent to our existence.

Friday May 16: Stayed home, caught up on work.

DorkySelfie_HB

Saturday May 17:  The only time I used my car this week.  Drove to the beach for an early morning surf session. Afterwards, rode my bike along the beach bike path to Huntington Beach, where I bought a gift certificate for a beach cruiser rental for a friend.

Final thoughts on Bike Week 2014:  Last year during bike week I was feeling thoroughly discouraged.  The death of a student cyclist at Cal Poly and the lack of safe bike infrastructure on the streets around the university seemed to make a mockery of the week’s festivities.  This year, the challenges have not gone away, but I see signs of hope.  A new student-led bike advocacy club at Cal Poly has reinvigorated the discussion of bike infrastructure around the university and two young colleagues of mine, one of whom is in my department and both of whom have offices near mine, regularly ride to work.  The city of Pomona has a new bike plan, and there is renewed discussion of a bike path along a nearby creek that would provide a safe route from the Pomona/Claremont area to campus.  Near my home in the San Gabriel valley, bike advocacy is still small, but it is growing and showing signs of influencing local decision-makers.  Groups like Bike SGV, Move Monrovia, and the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition are organizing and advocating for bike and pedestrian friendly streets.  I now have been certified as a bicycle safety instructor and have found new opportunities to teach bike safety to the next generation.  Finally, I’ve been consciously focusing on the positive in my own life, avoiding the enervating negative energy that can paralyze me as I try to move (literally) in a positive, sustainable direction.

These are reasons to be cautiously optimistic this Bike Week.  The movement continues.

Just Keep Trying

Jim Shanman of Walk n' Rollers leads a bike safety lesson at Sierra Madre Middle School. At right, volunteer instructor Andrew Fung Yip of BikeSGV looks on.

Jim Shanman of Walk n’ Rollers leads a bike safety lesson at Sierra Madre Middle School. At right, volunteer instructor Andrew Fung Yip of BikeSGV looks on.

I haven’t posted on this blog for a while and it’s time to get back to it.  Partly, my absence has been to the usual things: work, family obligations, the busyness of life.  On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago I’d penned an angry rant about the average suburbanite’s laziness and unwillingness to get their fat asses out of their cars—even for their kids’ sake, but ultimately decided not to post it.  I wrote it at a low point, mostly as therapy.

My frustration stemmed from the low turnout at a bike festival I had put together to provide a free bike skills class at the local middle school.  After busting my tail to put this thing together, the turnout was anemic, and I couldn’t get any parents from the middle school to step up and help boost turnout.  A parent advisor for one of the student clubs who’d agreed to have some students paint a banner to publicize the event completely flaked out on me, and I wound up paying for flyers out of my own pocket.  Other parents to whom I’d appealed to bring their kids were no-shows.  I felt angry.

I’ve decided to look at the bright side, however.  The bike safety event at least provided an opportunity for a small number of students to learn safe bike skills and, while we had more instructors than students, it was still a fun event.  Jim Shanman of Walk n’ Rollers, a Culver City-based organization that puts on such events, and volunteers like Jackson, Nikki, Andrew, and Chris from Bike San Gabriel Valley, a local advocacy organization, put together a great program. The students who did participate really got a lot out of the experience, and I enjoyed watching them gain confidence handling their bikes, learning some basic maintenance and riding safely.  The compliments I got from the local Rotary Club that funded most of the event, the local PD, and  the school principal helped ease the frustration of dealing with apathetic parents.  And, at least there are a couple more kids in town who know how to ride safely and have more confidence doing so.  A follow up email from Jim Shanman lifted my spirits, too.  Really, if anybody wants to put together a youth-oriented bike event, contact Walk n’ Rollers.  They’re terrific.

The morning of the event, when I saw how few kids had brought their bikes to school, I swore I’d never do it again, but I’m at the point where I’m willing to consider trying again.  Maybe getting an earlier start with the local PTA and the student body leaders at the school.  Maybe I’ll take a different approach and make it a community event next year.  At any rate, I’ve decided I’m not going to give up.

It’s going to take a long time to break the stranglehold of the automobile on our suburban culture, but the change is necessary for so many reasons and youth are integral to changing the culture.  Next year, I’ll build on what I’ve learned and the event will be better.  It’s like learning to ride a bike.  If at first you don’t succeed ….

Homage to JHK

tol-life

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.

SMBlvdWB_unimp

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.

SMBlvdWB_current

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.

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