Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Vehicular Violence and Victim Blaming

Riding a bike for transportation isn’t easy.  Well, let me rephrase that.  It is easy, but our society makes it harder than it should be.  Among the problems cyclists face are 80 years of mis-designed roads that are dangerous for people who walk or ride bikes, a legal system that too often enables drivers to get away with mayhem or murder of vulnerable road users with the tired excuse “I didn’t see him/her,” and lack of basic amenities such as secure bike parking, even in areas that are supposedly “bike-friendly.”  Finally, there is the pervasive tendency of the driving public to reflexively, unselfconsciously, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) blame cyclists for the danger caused by cars.

Our car culture has become very good at shifting the blame away from cars and drivers’ behavior.  Bicyclists getting struck and killed by motorists?  Make them wear helmets, hi-viz, spray their bikes with reflective paint.  They still might get killed by a distracted driver, but ultimately anyone who rides a bike on the streets is asking for it, right?  Whether motorists realize it or not (and for the most part, they don’t) this is the most infuriating kind of victim-blaming.  It would be as if we sought “solutions” to gun violence by marketing bulletproof vests and kevlar helmets to everyone.  “She got shot and killed?  Doesn’t she know the streets are dangerous?  Too bad she wasn’t wearing her bulletproof vest and kevlar helmet!

Let me repeat.  The overwhelming danger on our roads is not bicycles.  The real danger is cars, or more specifically impatient, reckless, selfish, distracted, impaired, and/or careless drivers.  After 70 years of designing roads primarily to maximize the speed and volume of automobiles on public roadways, we need to re-engineer our roads for multimodal commuting, safety, and environmental sustainability.  Some people get this, and things are changing.  People in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen ride bikes everywhere.  Hardly anyone wears a helmet and no one sprays themselves with paint.  You know why?  They’ve designed their streets for the safety of all road users.

In addition to redesigning our roads, to prioritize transit, bicycling, and walking instead of the private automobile, we need tougher laws for drivers who crash into, injure, or kill vulnerable road users.  Those are slowly being implemented, too.  Finally, we need a comprehensive education campaign on road safety, focused primarily on those operating dangerous heavy machinery in public spaces—cars and trucks.

Frankly, what we don’t need (or what is so far down the list as to be irrelevant) is bullshit products like “Volvo Life Paint,” the car company-sponsored reflective paint marketed for bicyclists.  Listen, I think bicyclists need to take reasonable measures to be seen, including reflectors and front and rear lights.  What we don’t need are motorists who see products like helmets and sparkly paint and think that absolves them of the need to change their behavior and support the re-engineering and re-prioritizing of our road spaces.

Instead of telling cyclists what to do, here’s a hint: slow down and pay attention while you’re driving.  Drive as if you’re at the controls of a potentially deadly projectile.

I commute home by bike nearly every evening, in all conditions.  I am a trained cycling safety instructor and have years of experience riding the streets.  I also have a drivers’ license and a good driving record for over 30 years.  I’ve thought a good deal about the risks and extensively studied the scholarly and popular literature on issues facing cyclists and the need to improve safety conditions.  When I ride at night I wear reflective accents on my clothing and have two sets of lights (two in front and two in rear) on my bike and another set on my helmet.  Despite this, I frequently encounter drivers who drive carelessly or dangerously around me.  You’d be surprised at how my vantage point on the bike allows me to see drivers talking—and texting—on their phones while driving.  If I am struck by a motorist (heaven forbid), it’s not going to be because I didn’t have Volvo’s effing sparkly paint on my bike.

We certainly can do more to educate cyclists and provide lights for night riding (as advocacy groups are doing all over the country), but that’s not the main problem.

The main problem, let me say once again, is cars.  It’s a lack of safe infrastructure.  It’s unsafe driving.  It’s a car culture that sells cars on TV by overt appeals to fantasies of speed and danger.  These are systemic problems that need to be confronted and changed sooner rather than later.  A bullshit product like Volvo Life Paint takes our eye off the ball.  It allows motorists to persist in the comforting (for them) fiction that the only thing that needs to change is cyclists’ behavior or appearance.  It allows a company that manufactures machines of death and environmental destruction to market itself as the savior of cyclists.  Car companies know that their business model is destructive of the environment and human life, they know that millennials are driving at lower rates than previous generations, that young people want to live in walkable, bikeable communities with access to transit.  They’re desperate to appear “cool.”

Volvo Life Paint is not going to solve a road violence problem that is ultimately caused by cars and car-centric infrastructure.  Just as VW’s “Clean Diesel” cars weren’t going to reduce air pollution.

Time to tell the car companies to take cynical marketing gimmicks like “Volvo Life Paint” and shove it where the sun don’t shine.  Meanwhile, some of us are going to continue working for real change in our transportation system.

New Bike Co-Op in El Monte

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

A new bike co-op opened its doors yesterday at the Seymour Family Center (formerly Mulhall elementary school) in El Monte.  Sponsored by BikeSGV, the local bike advocacy organization, the “Bike Education Center” (BEC) provides the members of the community a space (for a nominal fee) to work on their own bikes, learn bike repair, and even rent bikes.  There will also be regular bike safety classes taught by local LCIs (League Certified Instructors).  I’ve been calling for more bike co-ops for years, and it is especially gratifying to see this one finally come to fruition.  Aside from the CalTech Bike Lab (open only to students, faculty and staff at CalTech), it is only the second bike co-op in the San Gabriel Valley.  Bike co-ops can be great spaces not only for wrenching and education, but for bike community organizing, advocacy, and activism.

Wrenching at the new BEC

Wrenching at the new BEC

The BEC fills a very great need in El Monte, a working-class community that has a large proportion of people who depend on bikes for transportation.  Riding the bus or my bike in and around El Monte, I’m constantly struck by the fact that it really is “bike city USA” if you look at all of the people riding utilitarian bikes for transportation, carrying their groceries or work gear with them.  Many of these individuals are immigrants or people of color and their bikes are their means of transport.  Further, with El Monte’s main transit hub, the El Monte bus station, nearby, the bike/transit transportation connection is very strong in this city.  Sadly, El Monte has very few (read: almost none) streets with bike lanes.  As a result, you’ll see a lot of people sidewalk riding.  I sometimes do likewise for a stressful portion of my commute on Lower Azusa Ave. near the Rio Hondo bike path.

I hope the BEC becomes a place where this often “invisible” segment of the bicycling community can begin to make its voice heard in City Hall to demand better bike infrastructure in and around El Monte.   I think BikeSGV is doing a great job of outreach to youth and families in the area.  In addition, I expect to see some bike wrenching workshops and safety classes offered in Spanish, and I’d love to see them offered (and run) by women, too.  Perhaps BikeSGV can set up a monthly wrenching event run by its WoW (Women on Wheels) group.  Bike repair and maintenance in most bike shops is too male-dominated, but the bike itself  can be a tool of empowerment for women.  Making the BEC a place where women feel comfortable working on their own bikes can be a very liberating function.  With outreach efforts in these directions, the BEC could become a place of community engagement and empowerment.

There was fairly good media coverage of the BEC grand opening on the local ABC news and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.  And, while it may be petty to quibble about media coverage, I was disappointed that the editors at the Tribune filed Brian Day’s story under “Sports.”  This isn’t the first time Tribune editors have been tone deaf when it comes to transportational bicycling.  It’s ill-conceived “summer of cycling” series a couple of years ago seemed designed to highlight the editors’ assumptions that bikes weren’t a viable mode of transportation more than anything else.  Ironically, this very same weekend, the California Bicycle Coalition is holding its annual statewide bike summit, where the theme is “equity” in the bike movement.  The connection between bicycling and social and environmental justice are now coming to the forefront for many of us who advocate for bikes as transportation.

A question for Tribune editors: why wasn’t this categorized as local news or transportation?  Categorizing a story about a community bike co-op as a “sports” story reflects the middle-class bias of the paper’s editors and misses one of the main reasons for the bike co-op.  Look at the location of the event, in El Monte, less than a mile from the El Monte bus station, where the overwhelming majority of people on bikes on a daily basis are not lycra-clad racers.  There were a few folks in lycra at the grand opening, but overwhelmingly these were just regular folks who want to ride their bikes for a variety of reasons.  Categorizing the story as “sports” ignores the fact that speakers at the event referenced the need for more bike lanes in the area, and more riparian bike paths for, as Bike SGV’s Wes Reutimann put it, “getting around the San Gabriel Valley by bike.”  Indeed, one of the main sponsors of the BEC is Dahon Bikes, a company that specializes in folding bicycles, particularly useful in conjunction with transit (a point explicitly made by the Dahon representative at the event).  It ignores the fact that the vast majority of old bikes donated to the BEC are utilitarian bikes, not racing bikes.

I hate it when the media’s myopic view of cycling pushes us all into the “recreation/sports” stereotype.  The Tribune should know better.  Cities all over the SGV are gradually waking up to the importance of connecting people to the Gold Line by bike.  Pasadena itself will soon be getting new bike infrastructure as part of its updated MOBILITY plan (not, “sports” plan).

Yours truly with a trailer full of donated bike parts. As you can see, I'm all lycra'd out, riding purely for "sport."

Yours truly donating a trailer full of bike parts. As you can see, I’m all lycra’d out, riding purely for “sport.” (photo: W. Reutimann)

Wake up, Tribune.  The bicycle is much more than just a recreational toy.  Quit treating it like it’s no different than a surfboard or a pair of skis.  It is a means of transportation, one that, especially in conjunction with transit, can replace a lot of car trips, reduce congestion, air pollution, society’s carbon footprint, and make our cities more livable and people healthier.  It’s cheap, equitable, healthy, sustainable, liberating, and empowering.

That’s the real beauty of bikes—and of El Monte’s new Bike Education Center.


Grading Pasadena’s Transit Stations

Researchers at UC Berkeley have released a study of rail transit stations in California’s metropolitan areas and the results, while unsurprising, are nonetheless revealing.  Researchers graded transit stations based on criteria such as the walkability of the surrounding area and the percentage of people who live or work nearby who use transit.  Additional criteria such as the density of jobs and housing nearby, the land use policies in the surrounding area, and public safety were also included.  The study highlights the importance of encouraging more mixed use development close to transit (called transit-oriented development, or TOD), as well as prioritizing safe pedestrian and bike access to stations in order to encourage transit use and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Stations were given a numeric score and then assigned a letter grade based on the score and its comparison to similar stations (that is, residential-area stations were compared with other residential-area stations, and so on).  I looked up the scores of Pasadena-area Gold Line stations (6 stations in Pasadena and 1 in South Pasadena).  I’ve written extensively on previous posts about the relative lack of good bike access to the Gold Line stations in Pasadena in general and in East Pasadena in particular.  The study gave me a chance to compare my own perceptions with the study’s more comprehensive approach.

The new Gold Line stations on the extension are not included in the study, insofar as they are not yet in operation.  The highest ranking station in the LA Metro area is the Westlake/MacArthur Park Red Line station, with a raw score of 88.20 and a letter grade of ‘A.’  The worst score was the Wardlow Blue Line Station in Long Beach, with a raw score of 31.63 and a grade of F.  I’ll list the Pasadena-area stations and their grades below, from highest to lowest, then offer some thoughts on the grades.

  1. Fillmore                         B-    (56.83)
  2. Lake                              B-    (56.03) 
  3. Memorial Park             C     (54.13) 
  4. Del Mar                         C      (50.53) 
  5. Mission (S. Pas)           C-    (51.30) 
  6. Sierra Madre Villa        C-    (45.73) 
  7. Allen                              D     (41.73)  
Not much room for bikes on this "bike route" at the Del Mar Gold Line station.

Not much of a “bike route” at Del Mar Gold Line station.

My initial reaction was one of slight surprise that Fillmore and Lake scored higher than Del Mar and Memorial Park stations.  I would need to look more closely at the scoring criteria and the individual data, but I can only assume Fillmore and Lake scored higher because of their proximity to large employers, whereas Memorial Park, Del Mar, and Mission are closer to small businesses and residences.  The study notes that the grades are curved, which is probably why Mission scored higher than Del Mar but has a lower grade, though I don’t fully understand the study’s curving criteria.  Another factor may be that Pasadena is likely to encourage more TOD near Del Mar station, whereas South Pas is unlikely to encourage newer development in Mission’s charming historic district.  Despite this, in my opinion, Mission has far superior pedestrian and especially bike access from surrounding streets than Del Mar.

Looking north on Sierra Madre Villa at entrance to Pasadena Gold Line station.

Sierra Madre Villa entrance to Pasadena Gold Line station.

I’m in complete agreement with the ranking of Sierra Madre Villa (SMV) and Allen stations at the bottom of the pack.  Pedestrians and bicyclists from the surrounding community may be forced to cross busy freeway on/off ramps to access either of these stations and, as I’ve complained about before, there are no bike lanes on any of the approaching streets to SMV, and virtually none at Allen (near Allen station there are two completely unprotected gutter bike lanes on noisy, busy, high-speed, stressful access roads that run along the 210 freeway—not bike-friendly).  For that matter, the same is true of Lake.  Like much of Pasadena’s existing bike infrastructure, it looks passable on paper, until you actually try to ride it in weekday rush-hour traffic.  Some of this should be improved as Pasadena’s new bike plan gets implemented, but that may take years and will not do much to help the intolerable bike situation in East Pasadena, the forgotten stepchild of Pasadena’s bike plan.

The report recommends that local governments encourage TOD and mixed-use development and remove “excessive parking requirements” in areas adjacent to rail stations.  Pointedly, the report also calls on local governments to “improve walkability and bicycle access in rail station areas by shortening blocks and building safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.”  Hear, hear!

To be fair, Pasadena is in the process of developing a new plan for more TOD near the Allen and SMV stations, which is most welcome.  Unfortunately the city has met fierce resistance from a small number of car-dependent suburban residents of Hastings Ranch’s cul-de-sac neighborhoods who can’t imagine that anyone would occasionally walk, take transit, or bike, and who can’t be bothered to take their foot off the gas long enough to avoid hitting a pedestrian or cyclist on their way to the freeway.  They see nothing wrong with driving everywhere all the time and think it’s their god-given right to do so.  And they want plenty of “free” parking when they get there.  They’re convinced the only solution to too many cars is wider roads and more parking lots ad infinitum.

The recommendations of the Berkeley report should be heeded by cities and provide yet another piece in a growing body of literature that documents the essential need to shift our transportation and development strategies from the sprawling car-centric model of the past to a healthier transit-oriented model of the future.  Let us hope city officials have the courage to stand up to narrow-minded NIMBYs who can’t see past the end of their steering wheels.

New Transit Developments

The future of car free or car light living in the San Gabriel Valley depends on expanded transit and its integration with networks of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and a good network of bike lanes.  In the last month Metro has unveiled several new transit oriented amenities in the San Gabriel Valley that are steps in the right direction for sustainable transportation in these communities.  I offer here a brief overview that, while laudatory, includes some critiques and suggestions for making them even better.

First is the completion of the Gold Line extension in the San Gabriel Valley from its current terminus in East Pasadena to its new terminus in Azusa.  The Gold Line extension will have stations in (from west to east) Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Irwindale, and Azusa.  This will connect these foothill communities to Metro’s growing transit network and, if past experience is any indicator, draw significant ridership from surrounding communities.  Trains will not begin running until some time in Spring 2016, but the track is laid and the stations are completed.  I attended the dedication ceremonies for the Arcadia and Monrovia stations and checked out the facilities.

Arcadia Station

Arcadia Station

The Arcadia station at the corner of Santa Clara and First Street, is well situated to encourage transit-oriented and pedestrian-oriented development, if the city of Arcadia is willing to steer development in this direction (not a sure thing, given the city’s traditional suburban car-oriented mentality).  Nevertheless, it has the potential of becoming a destination area for the city, and is a pleasing design, with a clock and pedestrian plaza in front.

Bike parking at Arcadia station.

Bike parking at Arcadia station.

Bike access is slowly improving, with new bike lanes on First Street for several blocks north and south of Santa Clara.  The city needs to extend the network of bike lanes east and west, as well as further north and south of the station if it wants to have meaningful bike connectivity to the station.  Bike parking is conveniently located and plentiful.

Monrovia Gold Line station dedication

Monrovia Gold Line station dedication

My reaction to the Monrovia station is a bit mixed.  The city of Monrovia has plans for a “Station Square” transit-oriented development, which should lend itself to pedestrian access to the station, but at the moment the most notable thing about the Monrovia station is its gigantic parking structure.  I suspect more money went into building this storage structure for empty cars than went into the actual station itself.

Parking structure dominates Monrovia Gold Line station.

Parking structure dominates Monrovia Gold Line station.

I was also a bit disappointed in the bike parking.  While there are numerous bike lockers available for rent from Metro inside the parking structure, one must rent these from Metro by the month, meaning it will only be useful for a small proportion of regular commuters.  I’ve often thought that Metro should allow daily/hourly rentals for at least a portion of its bike lockers.  After all, I usually take my bike with me on the Metro, but there may be occasions when I’d like to ride to the station and keep my bike secure in a locker for an evening in LA, for example, and retrieve it when I return.  Paying a monthly rental fee for such occasional usage doesn’t make much sense.

Artsy-fartsy bike racks.

Artsy-fartsy bike racks.

The station has a small number of artsy new bike racks that consist of curved metal poles with round holes that may or may not be very practical.

A practical option for locking bikes?

A practical option for locking bikes?

Most bicyclists locked their bikes to the railings in the parking structure instead, an indication that Metro’s artsy racks might be more artistic than practical.

At this time Monrovia is preparing a new bike plan with input from the local bike advocacy organization, Move Monrovia, but as yet there is no wayfinding signage for bikes and no bike lanes near the station.

El Monte Bike Hub grand opening.

El Monte Bike Hub grand opening.

Metro also opened its new Bike Hub at the El Monte Bus Station.  The Bike Hub is a membership-based amenity that provides a space for basic bike maintenance, repair and secure indoor bike storage conveniently located at El Monte station.  It is the first of several Bike Hubs that will be located at transit stations around Southern California.

Secure bike storage at El Monte Bike Hub.

Secure bike storage at El Monte Bike Hub.

These new transit and bike facilities are small but significant steps forward for the San Gabriel Valley.

Rohloff Speedhub Review


I’ve been commuting to work via bus and bike for more than 3 years, and my primary commuter bike must be durable, low-maintenance, and work in all weather conditions.  Last year, I purchased a Rohloff Speedhub for my Surly Troll commuter, and after a year and about 1,000 miles on the Rohloff, I’m ready to offer a review.

Bikes in Europe that are used for daily transportation often have internally geared hubs (IGH) that seal the bike’s gears within the hub of the rear wheel.  IGHs such as the Rohloff need less frequent cleaning than standard derailleur gear systems and provide reliable performance even when the bike is exposed to rain, snow, dirt, and road grime.  Because part of my commute is on a dirt trail and part of it is exposed to harsh weather on a bus bike rack, an IGH seemed like a good investment for me.  Further, because I use my bike on a daily basis, the lower maintenance of an IGH seemed especially appealing.  Because of the design of the Rohloff’s shifter mechanism, shifter cables never need to be adjusted and shifting is always spot on.  Finally, I needed an IGH with a wide range of gears, because I live in an area with steep hills and my ride home takes me through short downhill sections, long uphill sections, and up some shorter, fairly steep grades.

There are a number of IGH hubs available, and I did a good deal of research beforehand.  I wanted something that would approximate the choice of gears I had with the Troll’s stock 3 x 9 drivetrain.  Because of my need for a wide range of gears, the choice came down to the Rohloff, the Shimano Alfine 11, or the NuVinci 360 (which is actually not a geared hub, but a CVT).  The gear range of the Rohloff, with its 14 speeds, was the widest by far, but it was also more expensive than the others.  While most reviewers liked the Shimano and NuVinci and I am sure they are fine pieces of machinery, there were occasional reviewers who reported problems.  By contrast, I couldn’t find any reviewer who’d experienced mechanical problems with the Rohloff under normal use.  My trusted bike mechanics at Topanga Creek Bicycles, who have sold a number of Rohloffs to customers and know the Rohloff reps, also reported that they’d never seen or heard of one failing mechanically.  Zero.  The consensus seemed to be that the Rohloff was a marvel of German engineering.  I decided to save my pennies and get the Rohloff (see Sheldon Brown’s website for technical specs).

After a year, I can say that I have not been disappointed. In fact, if anything it has exceeded my expectations.  In general, the Speedhub has performed flawlessly.  It shifts crisply and quickly.  I love the way I can shift several gear levels at a time, and can shift at a standstill (a great advantage for commuting in stop-and-go conditions).  On numerous occasions I’ve used the entire range of gears, so I appreciate having the range.  Because of the 14 speeds, I’m always able to find the right gear for any terrain.  The sealed hub keeps the gears from getting dirty under adverse conditions.  I have a bomb-proof drivetrain on my daily commuter bike that provides me with trouble-free shifting and a wide range of gears.


Shifting the Rohloff is a little different than shifting a derailleur-geared bike.  With a derailleur, the crank needs to be spinning in order to shift gears.  With an IGH one can shift while standing still, but not while applying pressure to the pedals.  Some people don’t like the feel of an IGH for that reason.  The first time I rode the bike, I got caught mid-shift, and had to back off and ease off my pedal stroke before trying to shift.  I quickly learned how to briefly ease up (usually at the top of my pedal stroke) when shifting, and I soon reached the point where I could rapidly shift on the fly without losing momentum or pedal cadence.

Maintenance is super easy.  When I remove my chain to clean it, I simply wipe off the front chainring and the rear cog, re-mount the clean chain and, voila, done!  Once a year, Rohloff recommends draining and replacing the gear oil in the hub, which I did this summer.  It took me about 20 minutes to complete the operation (most of the time involved letting the old oil settle to the bottom of the hub before extraction), but it was pretty easy, even with my limited mechanical skills.  Changing the  oil is done with the wheel on the bike, and the instructions provided with the Rohloff oil change kit are easy to follow.  The only tool necessary is a 3mm allen key for the hub’s drain plug.

Are there any downsides?  A few minor points.  The Rohloff is a bit heavier than most rear cassette/derailleur systems.  Not by much, but if you’re a weight weenie, it’s probably not for you.  The Rohloff can also be a little noisier than a properly adjusted derailleur system. In the lower 7 gears, the hub produces a soft buzz of gear noise when spinning.  This is normal and is a result of the extremely close tolerances required to engineer 14 speeds in a small hub, but does not seem to affect performance.  In my estimation, these minor downsides do not outweigh the reliability, performance, and low maintenance of the hub.

For most people who ride a bike occasionally, or primarily for recreation, or who don’t need the extreme gear range, it’s safe to say the price of the Rohloff probably wouldn’t be worth it.  For me, however, my bike is essentially my car and the money I’ve saved on gas and parking in the last year has already paid for a little over half the cost.  I can’t be sure that the Shimano or NuVinci wouldn’t have been serviceable but I couldn’t be happier with the Rohloff.  I wanted an IGH that I wouldn’t have to baby, had as wide a range of gears as possible, and would provide many miles of trouble-free service.  The Rohloff has not disappointed.

Bomb-proof drivetrain on my Surly Troll commuter.

Bomb-proof drivetrain on my Surly Troll commuter.

Same Old, Same Old

Resurfaced Sierra Madre Villa, looking south.

Resurfaced Sierra Madre Villa, looking south.

When I see a street resurfaced, especially a street that desperately needs a bike lane, a glimmer of hope stirs within me that maybe, just maybe, the street will be restriped to accommodate bikes.  This foolish glimmer of hope is usually dashed, as the local DOT simply returns the street to the same old, unsafe car-centric design it had before.

Silly me.

Case in point: the recent resurfacing of Sierra Madre Villa Blvd in East Pasadena between Rosemead Blvd and Sierra Madre Blvd.

"Share the Road"

“Share the Road”

The street is marked as a “bike route” with a couple of “share the road” signs, but hardly anybody rides it because automobile speeds average about 40 mph, and it’s designed for automobile speed, not bike or pedestrian safety.  The street would require some minor re-design to accommodate bike lanes, as I’ll demonstrate below, but there is room for them and the street is a good candidate for bike lanes because it would close a gap between nearby streets that have bike lanes and it is the main route connecting the the neighborhood to the nearby Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line transit station.

This station is the major bus and light rail hub in the area, and is slated to be a bike share station when Metro eventually expands its bike share program to Pasadena.  You would think Pasadena DOT would use the resurfacing as an ideal opportunity to redesign the street for multimodal commuting and safety at minimal cost.  But you would be wrong.

On-street parking forces cyclists to "take the lane" in 40mph traffic.

On-street parking forces cyclists to “take the lane” in 40mph traffic.

Sierra Madre Villa Blvd is a north-south arterial that heads up the hill from the Gold Line station to New York Drive in Altadena (which has buffered bike lanes).  As it heads north, it intersects with N. Rosemead Blvd (which has bike lanes) and Sierra Madre Blvd. (which also has bike lanes). Currently, the street has 2 travel lanes in each direction (one 10-foot and 1 12-foot), a 10-foot center turn lane, and 2 10-foot parking lanes on each side.  The southbound side is residential with a library at Rosemead Bl.  The northbound side has an LDS church and an apartment complex, both of which have ample off-street parking.  The northbound side is the most critical for some kind of bike lane, because of the large speed differential between 40mph cars and bicycles heading up the hill.

Below I lay out the current configuration, then offer two alternatives: one that removes on-street parking from the northbound side and provides buffered bike lanes in both directions (option 1), and another that keeps on-street parking but narrows the parking lane and one of the 12-foot travel lanes to provide sharrows on the downhill side and a bike lane on the northbound side (option 2).  Neither one of these options would have been cost prohibitive.

SMV Current

SMV option1

SMV option 2

Why didn’t DOT consider more bike friendly alternatives for Sierra Madre Villa, especially considering their stated desire for Pasadena to rival Long Beach for bike friendliness?  I have several theories, but one is that DOT staff tends to pay more attention to bike infrastructure in the gentrifying downtown area than in East Pasadena, a less glamorous part of town.

It’s a shame, because this was a real missed opportunity.  DOT needs to know that people on bikes in East Pasadena deserve safer streets, too.

Bike Battles


James Longhurst, author of Bike Battles. (Photo: Rory O'Driscoll, LaCrosse Tribune).
Author James Longhurst. (Photo: Rory O’Driscoll, LaCrosse Tribune).

Bike Battles, a new history of bike culture in the US by UW-LaCrosse history professor James Longhurst (University of Washington Press, 2015), tells the fascinating story of the legal and political battles over bicycles on the road.  Subtitled “A History of Sharing the American Road,” the book provides a background to today’s arguments over bike lanes, sharing the road, road diets, complete streets, and so on.  Viewing the road as a commons, a shared, limited, and necessary resource, he provides a detailed account of how this public resource came to be dominated and virtually monopolized in the mid-20th century by one user—the driver of the private automobile.  The outcome was neither inevitable, nor, as some might assume, primarily the result of Americans’ mythic “love affair” with the car or of free consumer choice.  It was the result of a complex interplay between public policy choices, law, design choices, the economics of road-building, and cultural shifts in the perception and marketing of the bicycle.  Longhurst’s book will be useful to anyone interested in the history of bike policy and roads in the US.  As Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic shows how motor vehicle interests (“motordom”) marginalized pedestrians, Longhurst’s book illustrates how bicyclists were also marginalized.

Longhurst’s history of roads combines information that I was familiar with, such as the “good roads” movement that was originally spearheaded by bicyclists during the so-called “golden age” of cycling (ca. 1880-1910), with much new information that I was less familiar with.  For example, he highlights the importance of  Taylor v. Goodwin, an 1879 court case in Britain involving a high-wheel bicycle that established the bicycle as a legal vehicle with a right to the road.  The Taylor decision provided an important precedent subsequently followed by American courts.  However, case law establishing that bicycles had the same right to the road as other vehicles did not end conflict over road space, especially as the motor vehicle created a new set of conflicts on the road, and a new level of potential deadliness to other road users.

Sidepath, New York, ca. 1900. (People for Bikes)

Sidepath, New York, ca. 1900. (People for Bikes)

With the emergence of the automobile it became clear that some form of physical separation between bikes and cars was desirable, and there was a brief period when “side paths” for bicycles were built along many roads.  The perception of bicycling as an elite activity made separate infrastructure seem like a luxury for the benefit of a relative few and bicycle advocates failed to secure a steady source of funding for building and maintaining sidepaths.  Unfortunately, lack of funding doomed these promising efforts and the experiment was abandoned as the miles of sidepaths that existed were simply swallowed by roads that were widened for the automobile.  As the first bicycle boom ended in the 1920s, policymakers gave little thought to providing road space for bikes, and, except for a brief resurgence of bicycling during World War II, bikes gradually came to be marketed in mid-20th century American culture as primarily a means of mobility for kids until they were old enough to drive.

Protected bike lane, 1970s, Davis, CA (Streetsblog)

Protected bike lane, 1970s, Davis, CA (Streetsblog)

The next effort to build separated bike infrastructure in the US occurred during the second “bike boom” of the 1970s.  Longhurst analyzes the boom within the context of the rise in environmental consciousness in the early 1970s combined with the Mideast oil embargo.  These, along with reduced tariffs on lightweight, inexpensive Japanese-made bikes and components contributed to the boom in adult cycling.  California became the epicenter of innovative ideas for separated and protected bike lanes in the US.  Davis, California was among the first US cities to build separated bike lanes, and the university town became a model for bike-friendliness, a distinction it holds to this day.  Planners from UC Davis and UCLA wrote a groundbreaking study in 1972 that advocated the building of networks of separated bike lanes throughout the US where automobile traffic was heavy.  Longhurst notes that the California legislature passed a bill in 1973 to permanently earmark 1 percent of the state’s gas tax revenue to build bicycling infrastructure.  Things looked promising, but Ronald Reagan’s veto of the bike bill and a schism in the ranks of bicyclists between planners and “vehicular cyclists” who opposed separating cyclists from traffic thwarted plans for separated bike infrastructure of the kind called for by the UCLA study.  Yet another missed opportunity.

Cycle Track, Washington DC, 2014 (Bethesda Magazine)

Cycle Track, Washington DC, 2014 (Bethesda Magazine)

Today, in many cities around the world, we are witnessing a bicycling “renaissance.”  Along with this renaissance there is a renewed effort to establish separated road space for cyclists in the United States.  Longhurst’s timely study shows that the arguments over bikes and road space are not new and also holds lessons for present-day bicycle advocates who would be wise to avoid the mistakes that scuttled earlier efforts to build bike infrastructure in US cities.

Unlike the two earlier bike booms, this one seems to have a broader constituency and, one hopes, more stable funding.  Urban planners understand the need for multimodal commuting as we grapple with the interconnected problems of traffic congestion, sprawl, and climate change.  Public health advocates increasingly see “active transportation” as a public good, and the bicycling movement shows healthy signs of diversifying, spreading beyond recreational cycling and emphasizing the social equity aspect of bikes as economical transportation.  A growing number of people are realizing that a reallocation of road space will be necessary (though one must not underestimate the tenacity of drivers’ opposition).  One hopes that the current efforts to build world class bike infrastructure in the US will not fall victim to the fate that befell the two earlier efforts.  As Longhurst concludes: “[i]n the future, more than ever, we’ll need to share the road.” (p. 241)

Another Outrage

GhostBike_Fig4AllIt has happened again.  Another bicyclist killed by a hit-and-run driver who couldn’t be bothered to stop and render aid to his victim.  The driver, witnesses said, was traveling in excess of 60 MPH on North Figueroa Friday morning at approximately 3:30 AM when he allegedly ran a red light and struck the cyclist who was  legally riding in the intersection.  Witnesses told police the driver did not even brake and dragged the victim for 100 feet before speeding off.  When police arrested the suspect, he was found to have abandoned his car and walked home, and the next morning was still over the legal limit for alcohol in his bloodstream and had debris from the collision in his hair.

I didn’t know the victim but I thought it was important to pay my respects to yet another cyclist who lost his life to the car culture.  I attended a ghost bike ceremony on North Figueroa in Highland Park, where the tragedy occurred, and was heartened by the sense of solidarity that our suffering and vulnerability as flesh and blood in the face of speeding steel brings about.  But I also get so tired of having to meet my fellow cyclists under circumstances such as these.  Another life lost.  Another ghost bike by the side of another unsafe street.


The thing that makes this tragedy doubly infuriating is the fact that this stretch of North Figueroa had been slated for a makeover under the L.A. mobility plan that would have lowered automobile speeds and installed bike lanes.  No one can say for sure whether this “road diet” would have saved the victim’s life, but redesigning the street for the safety of all road users would have made it more difficult for any motorist to use Figueroa as a race track.  Unfortunately, the previously approved road diet was unilaterally halted last year by Councilmember Gil Cedillo who represents the district.  Some of the activists took matters into their own hands and painted DIY bike lane stencils on North Figueroa.  We shouldn’t have to do this, but when our leaders fail to act, the people must step forward and take matters into their own hands.


In addition to paying my respects to the victim and his family and friends, I had to attend this memorial in order to bear witness to another example of the failure of car-centric road design and to the fecklessness of Councilmember Cedillo whose craven abandonment of the North Figueroa road diet is one of the more pathetic failures of L.A.’s political system in recent years.  Yet Cedillo blithely saunters on, mouthing concern for another victim of car violence while single-handedly blocking an approved road redesign that would have made North Figueroa safer for everyone.

The Pope and Sustainable Transportation

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis caught my attention a while back, when I saw reports that, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he got around town by bus instead of a limo, and encouraged young seminarians to get about town by bicycle.  Thus, I was very interested to read his Encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si.”  The Encyclical ties together a number of important issues related to climate change and its threat to human society and the earth, our “common home.”  I recommend reading it for yourself, but for those without the time to wade through its 180-odd pages, here’s a good synopsis.

Laudato Si shows a good grasp of the scientific consensus on climate change and the threat it poses to humanity, and makes the case that we (i.e., global society) must end our dependence on fossil fuels sooner rather than later.  It is a courageous document, addressed to the entire human family, that urges people to rethink the current throwaway culture that wastes natural resources, pollutes the air and water, and results in profound alienation from nature and from one another.  More than this, it also calls on those in the global north (i.e., U.S. and Europe) to reduce our overall consumption of resources and work for a more equitable distribution of wealth within our own societies and between rich and poor parts of the world.

In this sense, I found the Pope’s message consonant with Naomi Klein’s powerful book, This Changes Everything, in that it looks at the climate crisis as part of a larger interconnected crisis of unrestrained capitalism, runaway consumerism, and inequality.  I may take issue with the Pope’s stance on reproductive rights, but I think he appropriately focuses on the outsized per capita consumption pattern and carbon footprint of people in so-called “advanced” societies like the US.

Exhibit “A” is the idea that everyone should drive around in a 2,000-lb climate-controlled easy chair with a personal entertainment system and that we must sacrifice our cities and our open spaces to promote the continued widespread use of these machines regardless of the ecological, economic, and social damage they do.  The US has the highest per capita carbon footprint of any nation in the world, and the Encyclical points out that it is simply unsustainable to export this model of consumption to the rest of the world. The US EPA calculates that more than a quarter of our national carbon footprint comes from transportation, and this is magnified by the automobile-induced sprawl that exacerbates the problem of distance and dependence on the car.

As part of this larger argument, the Encyclical makes a powerful case for a shift in social consciousness about the way we live and includes specific references to transit and more livable (i.e., walkable and bikeable) cities.  In every world city where public transportation is prioritized, bicycles play a significant role in the sustainable transportation network that helps people get to their destinations.  The reasons for this shift are not only environmental, Francis argues, they are social, as the shift from the automobile/consumerist system enhances human relationships and fosters greater social equity in our communities.

In Ch. IV, Sec. III. of the Encyclical, he calls for “substantial” investment in public transit and critiques the automobile-based transportation model in terms that could have been said by any contemporary new urbanist planner:

  1. “The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.”

header-bikesThe shift away from the single occupancy vehicle (SOV) mode of transportation he calls for in Ch. VI, Sec. II. is part of a broader change that prioritizes frugality over consumerist excess:

  1. “. . . . A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”

The bicycle represents so many of the values Francis emphasizes in the Encyclical:  it is inexpensive to own and operate, making it accessible to all; it consumes relatively few resources to manufacture or use; its carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of the automobile; it’s utilitarian instead of luxurious; it promotes health, happiness, and well-being; and it connects us to our communities in ways that the automobile does not.  When combined with transit, it can reduce automobile use significantly.

The Encyclical speaks powerfully of the ethical dimension of our personal choices—the “little daily actions” we take.  When we ride a bike, take transit, or carpool, we act in such a way that directly affects the world around us.  During a recent forum on the Encyclical Brian Treanor, Professor of Environmental Ethics at LMU and bicycle commuter, noted that while one person bicycling isn’t going to end climate change, it is the larger ethic of the act that carries value, and when combined with efforts to organize for broader social change, makes a big difference.  When we become the change we wish to see, we send a powerful message of hope to all around us.


It is refreshing to see an influential global religious leader who understands the role alternative transportation choices play in reducing our carbon emissions and promoting community, equity, and health at the same time.  I hope other leaders, religious and secular, begin to send the same message.

CicLAvia Pasadena


It has been a while since I’ve attended CicLAvia, but with this one practically in my backyard, I could not resist.  It was the first ever CicLAvia outside the city limits of LA (and not the last) and the first one I attended with my whole family.  As we rode to the event, we encountered others headed to the event.  As we got closer, we saw more people, different ages and cycling abilities (i.e., not “cyclists”), and families with children who were headed to CicLAvia.  We waved, smiled, and exchanged pleasantries.  I always get excited as I see more and more people on different kinds of bikes headed to the open streets, like we are headed to a gathering of the tribes, distant kin on the same pilgrimage.  As always, it seemed everyone had a smile and the crowd represented a huge, diverse cross-section of Southern California.  As always, there were lots of families, lots of people of different ages, colors, backgrounds.


I loved observing my wife and kids experience the delights of car-free streets and the sense of community that pervades CicLAvia.  My 15-year-old daughter, who rides to school with me each Monday, was awed at the sight and feel of Colorado Blvd filled with cyclists.  “This is so cool,” she said as we cruised the Boulevard.  “I wish it was always like this!”  Uh-huh, I smiled.  My wife, something of a chatty Cathy, particularly seemed to relish the conviviality of the event, striking up conversations with what seemed like every other person on the route.  After lunch at a local restaurant, as we rode up Raymond Ave next to a young couple who were singing a Maroon 5 pop song, my wife spontaneously joined them singing the chorus (much to the embarrassment of my daughter).  I smiled at the serendipitous, joyful human connections people make when they are released from dependence on their rolling isolation chambers.  Just another CicLAvia moment.


This particular route was only 3.5 miles, the shortest CicLAvia to date, but since we rode there and back home, it didn’t seem too short to us.  There were local “feeder rides,” sponsored by a variety of groups, but I’d like to see a greater effort to get even more people to and from the event on their bikes, so that more of the surrounding streets become informally “CicLAvia-ized” on the day of the event.

I’m a huge fan of such Open Streets events not only because they’re wonderfully fun and allow everyone to connect with their community in ways they cannot in a car, but because they also enable people to experience the freedom of car-free streets.  When I asked my son what he liked best about CicLAvia, he told me it was the freedom of being able to ride around town “and not have to worry about cars.”


This experience, I believe, is potentially subversive of the domination of our public spaces by the automobile, and offers an immensely popular signal to political leaders that people hunger for car-free streets.  As the open streets movement expands and becomes a regular part of the Southern California landscape it may alter people’s perceptions of what streets can be and expand their understanding of mobility beyond the automobile.

On our ride home, when I asked my son what he thought, his one word answer: “Awesome-tacular.”

Yup.  ‘Nuff said.


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