Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Book Review: Can Cycling Save the World?

The eye-catching title of Peter Walker’s new book, How Cycling Can Save the World (2017), would probably have been enough to pique my curiosity, but my familiarity with the author’s excellent bike blog for The Guardian compelled me to snag a copy of the book.  I was not disappointed.

Is the title hyperbolic? Perhaps a little. But it is certainly true (and Walker has the data to back it up) that whether we’re talking about public health, road safety, social equity, air pollution, climate change, stress reduction and general happiness, or just overall livability, more people switching from cars to bikes would be a major improvement.

Walker lays out the health, economic, and environmental benefits of cycling in a compelling manner, drawing on a growing body of studies that support his thesis. The more cities turn to cycling, the more data we have to show the benefits of a shift away from car-centric cities. While his grasp of the academic literature is impressive (far too much to summarize here), it is often the personal stories that resonate the most.  For example, how riding to work makes him feel “not just physically invigorated but more cheery, with a greater sense of mental balance and well-being,” or how he can feel his body “untensing” when he moves from a street without bike lanes to one with them.  These and many other personal reflections make the book not only enjoyable, but personally relevant to many people who ride. These personal insights will also help those who don’t ride understand what the fuss is about.

He addresses the resistance of the political culture as well as anti-bike attitudes embedded in popular culture and media representations. One of my favorites was his chapter entitled “If bike helmets are the answer, you’re asking the wrong question,” which skewers the pervasive blame-the-victim mentality that accompanies many “safety” campaigns. If your answer to vehicular violence is to make vulnerable road users dress for combat, you’re designing your streets wrong. Time and again Walker returns to his central theme: the beneficial and transformative importance of building separated, continuous, and intuitive bike infrastructure in cities as the foundation of any effort to shift toward healthier, happier, safer, and more sustainable communities.

If all of this seems like the ultimate no-brainer (and it does to me), then why aren’t we moving more quickly to build what has been shown to work everywhere it has been tried?  Walker suggests it can be boiled down to vested interests, inertia, and lack of political vision (or as I like to say, the lack of leaders who “get it”).  Bogged down by the these all-too-real barriers to change, we are left with an excruciatingly slow process of ever-so-timid incrementalism that leaves us with partial, piecemeal scraps of half-assed bike infrastructure and huge gaps where bike infrastructure is nonexistent. And if that weren’t bad enough, we have to fight like hell for the scraps while multi-billion-dollar freeway projects and car-centric developments seem to move forward on autopilot.

Part of the problem of incrementalism, as Alex Steffen has written, is that it maintains the ills of the old system while not yet providing the goods of the new system.  In other words, you don’t get a truly bikeable community until you actually have a network of bike infrastructure that works for cyclists from ages 8-80 (protected, continuous, and intuitive) and is integrated into a good public transit system.  These have to be knitted together in communities (not just streets) that are oriented around walking, biking and transit.  In this respect, ambitious steps are preferable to incrementalism.  In the absence of a bold—dare I say revolutionary—vision, inertia and even reactionary reversal may become appealing political modes. We don’t have decades to dawdle.

Since WWII, we have given our minds, bodies, and public space to the automobile monoculture.  I would argue that acting boldly to reverse this is imperative given the looming intemperance of climate change. The good news, as Walker shows, is that people in cities all over the world are pushing for change, slowly remaking their cities around bikeability, and it works.

Yes, it would seem that in a variety of interconnected ways it’s not a stretch to say cycling just might be able to save the world, or at least make it a much better place.  Peter Walker “gets it.”  Read his book and you will too.

Good Rides

Last week was a week of good rides.

My regular commute now takes me to the Metro Gold Line station that is a 15-minute ride from my house (20 minutes on the uphill return trip).  About halfway through my morning ride early last week, I noticed how smooth the ride was going.  The reason?  Spring break at two nearby schools. Streets normally choked with cars during the morning drop-off time were blissfully—almost eerily—empty of cars.   The difference was huge.  Several intersections that are normally stressful because of traffic and impatient drivers were virtually stress free.  With no cars blocking my lane I was able to fly down to the train station in record time.  It made the entire week’s commute a breeze and stands as a reminder of just how much traffic danger (and pollution) is generated by parents driving their kids to school.  The added stress of these additional cars on the streets is, in turn, a deterrent to more kids walking and biking to school.  It’s a stark illustration of how the car culture itself is a self-fulfilling reinforcement of the dominance of the car, which in turn deters the number of people willing to walk and bike.

This morning’s ride to the farmer’s market was also a good ride.  Saturday morning traffic was pretty light and, in addition to waving to neighbors along my route, I fell into a nice conversation with another cyclist at a stoplight.  The ride home (almost all uphill) was invigorating in the cool morning air, and I returned home with fresh fruit and vegetables and a mood much improved from my morning grouchiness (caused by reading the day’s news).

It’s been a good week. Now, if we could just lighten the traffic every day.

Dangerous Drivers, Dangerous Roads

Approximate spot where driver cut me off

Approximate spot where driver cut me off

This morning I was on my way back from my ride to my daughter’s school, about to stop off at the local Trader Joe’s to pick up some groceries.  I was on a four-lane stretch of road that is clearly marked as a “Bike Route” (see photo).  I took control of the right-hand lane as state law allows, because the shoulder was intermittently occupied by parked cars and trash bins and the lane was not wide enough for a car to safely pass (In compliance with CVC 21202, sec a3-4).  It was daylight on a sunny day and I had my rear flasher on for safety.  Visibility was not a problem.
As I approached the intersection, I could see a white mini-van gaining on me in my rear view mirror. At the last minute he passed dangerously close to me and then swerved back into my lane, cutting me off with about a foot to spare (violating CVC 21760).  It was a straight intimidation move, designed to send a message that I don’t belong on his roads.  His life-threatening driving got him to a red light at the intersection literally 2-3 seconds earlier than he otherwise would have.  He was a white male about 65-70 years of age with his wife in the passenger seat next to him.  When I got to the intersection, I pulled up to the passenger side of his car and matter-of-factly said that he needed to give me three feet (I may have been talking loudly, because his window was initially closed, but I was not being hostile, despite the fact that he had nearly killed me and my adrenaline–not to mention my anger–were running high). As I explained the law, he rolled down the window and told me that I was “in the middle of the street,” and that I have to “get over to the side of the road.”  I tried to explain that there were parked cars and trash cans that prevented me from doing so, and he growled “fuck you, asshole” and then immediately sped off when the light turned green.  His intimidation tactic won’t keep me off my bike, but drivers like him are an effective deterrent to many more people riding their bikes for everyday transportation.  Until we protect bicyclists from motorists like him, we won’t see significant changes in mode share.
It’s sobering to think there are motorists, licensed to drive by the state, who don’t know the law and would kill you to save themselves the trouble of easing their foot off the gas for a few seconds.  When I got to Trader Joe’s, my legs were wobbly from the realization of how close I had come to serious injury or death because of someone’s reckless, ignorant, entitled operation of a motor vehicle—a potentially deadly weapon.  Moreover, I’ve had another close call in the bike lane less than half a block from that spot.  The streets in that part of Pasadena are dangerous for cyclists because of high traffic speeds and a lack of good bike infrastructure.  The City of Pasadena needs to make it safer for bikes, but I’m sure DOT staff get tired of hearing me complain.
Will they wait until I, or someone else, get killed before acting?

2016 Highlights

As 2016 comes to a close, it’s time for taking stock of the year’s developments in car-free transportation in the San Gabriel Valley.

Arcadia Gold Line station.

Arcadia Gold Line station.

At the top of my list is the opening of the Gold Line extension from Pasadena to Azusa.  This brought the Gold Line closer to my house, and allows me to take the train for part of my commute to work at Cal Poly Pomona.  The rest of the trip is on Foothill Transit‘s extensive bus service in the east San Gabriel Valley.  The Foothill Transit 280 and 486 buses run every 15 minutes during peak times, and their new buses are quite comfortable.  The new commute cuts about 15 minutes off my old route through El Monte Bus Station and allows me to bypass the infrequent service of the Metro 487 bus line.  The bike portion of my new commute is also shorter, which makes it more manageable on a regular basis. The easy bike ride to/from the Gold Line now allows me to get around car-free much more easily.  I’ve been heartened by the ridership I’ve seen–including many more people doing multimodal bike-transit commuting east of Pasadena.

Cal Poly bus stop before and after.

Cal Poly bus stop before (top) and after (bottom).

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New bus shelters at Cal Poly Pomona.  For too long, Cal Poly’s bus stops on Temple Ave. provided no shelter and little more than a splintered old bench for bus riders (see pictures).  As a result of student activism and new campus leadership, there are two new bus shelters at the main campus bus stops on Temple Ave.  This is certainly a step in the right direction and I’m modestly hopeful for additional progress on transit and bike access to campus.

Thanks to the work of many local advocates, progress toward new bike plans have been made in Pasadena, Monrovia, and La Verne.  With better infrastructure, I’m confident we’ll see an uptick in bike ridership, which in turn should lead to even more bike infrastructure in the future.  Despite these small victories, the pace of change in the SGV is so slow and incremental that it barely registers today. Too many streets are unsafe for cycling and too many destinations are hard to get to by bike and when you arrive, they often lack basic bike amenities like bike racks.  It’s easy to feel angry about the lack of good bike infrastructure that places people at risk and deters others from riding in the SGV, but there are good people working to change this, and they must be given due credit.  The advocates at BikeSGV, for example, have done some wonderful work organizing community rides, setting up the Bike Education Center in El Monte, advocating for complete streets, and bringing a multi-city open streets event to the SGV.  They honored me this past year with an award for my bike advocacy, an award for which I was hardly worthy, but profoundly honored, nonetheless.  I draw hope and inspiration from these fellow advocates.

More protected bike lanes, like this one in Santa Monica, are needed in the SGV.

More protected bike lanes, like this one in Santa Monica, are needed in the SGV.

Education and outreach.  In 2016 I was involved in an alternative transportation project at my daughter’s high school and an alternative transportation conference at Cal Poly Pomona. I also was privileged to speak on “cycling and social justice” to a group of inmates in a Prison Education Project at the invitation of one of my fantastic colleagues at Cal Poly, political science professor Dr. Renford Reese.  In general, I found many of the people I spoke to open to the message of bicycling, walking, and transit for healthier communities. Spreading the message of the many benefits of car-free alternatives was deeply gratifying.

Scott Schultz of BUSted Los Angeles speaks to students at Cal Poly's alternative transportation conference in November.

Scott Schultz of BUSted Los Angeles speaks to students at Cal Poly’s alternative transportation conference in November.

Measure M.  The half-cent sales tax for transportation passed in Los Angeles by a healthy margin (approx. 70 percent voted yes).  This will mean expansion of Metro rail, local bus service, and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.  Measure A, a countywide tax for parks, also passed, which means LA County will have funds for turning many of its now-barren flood control channels into “linear parks” with multi-use paths. Such victories give me hope.

Notable Books and Films of 2016:

  • Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment by Winona Hauter. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of oil and natural gas is neither safe nor a “bridge fuel” to sustainable energy.
  • Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America by Christopher F. Jones.  Technically, came out last year, but it was new to me this year, so I’m including it here.  Jones, an historian at Arizona State University, weaves a fascinating story of how the infrastructure of fossil fuel was created in the United States, and offers a deeper understanding of how energy transitions take place–essential knowledge as we transition away from a carbon economy. His research also underscores the central importance of pipelines for the delivery of fossil fuel and the expansion of the carbon economy, and thus the importance of blocking the construction of new pipelines in the fight for a livable climate and clean water.
  • Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan.  The lively story of how Sadik-Khan, former transportation commissioner for NYC, overcame opposition and redesigned many of New York’s streets to be more bike and pedestrian friendly.  Essential reading for any alternative transportation advocate.
  • Before the Flood (documentary film) directed by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Surprisingly good climate change documentary that doesn’t let Westerners’ high-consumption lifestyle off the hook.
  • Bikes vs. Cars (documentary film) directed by Fredrik Gertten.  Technically released Dec. 2015, but wasn’t available until this year.  If you want a good primer on why bikes are and must be a key component of sustainable urban transportation as told through the eyes of several bike advocates in cities around the world, this film is for you.

Thought for 2017: Every bike used for transportation is an instrument of peaceful revolution, every car-free trip a step towards a more equitable, sustainable future.

Remembering a Tree

ralphs_parking

This week I rode down to my local grocery store and noticed the little island where an oak tree once stood had been paved over.  No more oak tree. Asphalt for more cars. It seemed like a metaphor to me.

A tree is a little thing, really.  Seems silly to mourn its loss when its destruction frees up more space for parked cars.  Is this what they mean by “creative destruction”? Besides, as one of my suburban neighbors once told me, “you can’t go to the grocery store on a bicycle.”  The store seems to agree, since they don’t provide a decent bike rack if you brave the streets lacking bike lanes and ride your bike to the store.  Hardly anybody I know rides their bike to the store (even though some of them think climate change is real). Too hard, I guess.

Nevertheless I used to lock my bike to a signpost in the shade under that tree.  It was nice.

But the oak tree wasn’t making the grocery company any money.  It just sat there, doing what trees do.  This way, a few more people will be able to park their cars close to the store. I’m sure they’ll think it was worth it. Maybe some of them drive Priuses.  That will make it alright, won’t it?

But I’ll remember that tree.

Loving LA The Low Carbon Way

LovingLA

Loving LA The Low Carbon Way: A Personal Guide to the City of Angels via Public Transportation, by Grace E. Moremen & Jacqueline Chase, (Claremont, CA: Dreamboat Press, 2015).

This delightful little guidebook will take you to some of L.A’s wonderful world class attractions as well as lesser known out-of-the-way places—all of it car-free.  For those unfamiliar with LA’s transit system, the book (and the companion website) offers a primer on LA transit, and illustrated, easy-to-follow directions.  For those familiar with LA’s transit system, the book offers a few surprises, and while I’ve done almost half of these car-free trips, I’m looking forward to trying the others.  Either way, there’s no better way to really see LA, or any city for that matter, than by taking transit, walking, and/or biking.

Loving LA begins with a basic overview of LA geography, including its freeways, the downtown area, and the immediate neighborhood of LA Union Station (which forms the hub of all of the book’s adventures).  The authors note the irony of their map of the freeways, “those very things that we are trying to avoid,” but they may help car-free travelers who are used to orienting their knowledge of LA geography around its freeway system.  Since transit systems orient themselves around “hubs” (i.e., key transit stations) and “spokes” (transit lines) the book provides an easy-to-read map of Union Station and how to find the various bus and rail lines located there.  They explain the basics of transit in LA, including how to use a TAP card, fares on different LA bus lines (LA Metro, LADOT DASH buses, and Santa Monica’s Big Blue buses).  They also have a handy website with maps and updates that allows you to find more information or access via any mobile device.  Once you’re armed with the basics, it’s time to explore any of their 24 adventures in LA car-free!

I love the book’s low carbon mission and the way it illustrates the interconnection between car-free travel and a true embrace of the city.  However, LA’s car-free culture is moving so quickly, that future editions will want to include the extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica, and the emergence of bike share programs in Santa Monica and Downtown LA (scheduled to expand to Pasadena in 2017).

Metro Bikeshare, DTLA. (Photo: StreetsblogLA).

Metro Bikeshare, DTLA. (Photo: StreetsblogLA).

Indeed, while the authors do mention the accessibility of bikes on transit, these adventures largely ignore the bicycling option, which leaves an unintentionally misleading impression that transit combined with biking isn’t an equally useful way to see the city.  They note, for example, that the Huntington Library and Gardens is “too far away” from transit (in this case, the Gold Line or the 1.4mi to Metro and Foothill Transit bus lines on Colorado Blvd.), and thus advise readers that “a car will be necessary” for that trip.  It’s a shame they don’t offer some advice on the feasibility of using a bike to solve these “first mile / last mile” gaps.  Doing so would extend the reach of their low carbon adventures.  Even if Moremen and Chase don’t themselves bike, they might consider including information on the availability of bike parking (and bike share) at their destinations for those who do.

That said, this book is a wonderful little guide to seeing the sights of LA car-free.  Moremen and Chase have written a car-free love letter to LA with the intimacy one can only have outside the confines of the private automobile and its damnable freeway/parking lot matrix.

Moremen, an LA native, writes that despite LA’s troubled history, seeing LA car-free makes her optimistic for the city.  LA’s burgeoning transit system “makes its beauty and its resources more accessible to people in various ways.”  Chase, a transplant from Greenwich Village whose car-free spirit would make Jane Jacobs proud, has come to appreciate the way public transportation could reveal “the gems of this city, many hidden in plain sight.”  Outside the confines of the automobile culture, Chase writes:

I have come to know LA on a more human scale as we have journeyed through the neighborhoods on foot and by bus, light rail, and Metrolink.  The urban myth that people in big cities are unfriendly was definitely debunked for us.  On each of our adventures we have found the people of LA to be helpful and friendly.  LA is one great city! [xviii]

I love this book because it reflects the growing car-free movement in the quintessential “Car capital of the world,” and reveals the richness of social life outside that stultifying, unsustainable mode of transportation.  One cannot help but be caught up in their enthusiasm and that sense that comes from really seeing the city for the first time, of simultaneous independence and social connectedness that comes from getting around a city car-free.

So what are you waiting for?  Get this book and a TAP card, ditch the car, and fall in love with LA!

Monrovia’s Bike Plan

Monrovia Bike Plan

Monrovia Bike Plan

Tuesday night, toward the end of a loooooong Monrovia City Council meeting, agenda item AR-4: “Monrovia Bicycle Master Plan” finally came before the Council.  After a brief summary of the proposed bike master plan by the city’s public works manager, Sean Sullivan, the floor was opened for comments.  I had hoped there wouldn’t be too much NIMBY opposition to the plan’s proposed bike lanes and in fact all the public comments were positive.  A number of members of “Move Monrovia,” the local bike advocacy group, attended and spoke in support of the plan.  Monrovia cyclist Robert Lewis, for example, eloquently discussed the need for better bike infrastructure in town.  “The fact is, people like me will ride regardless,” he told the Mayor and Councilmembers.  “What we need to do is lower the barriers for the rest of the community to ride to the grocery store once a week or to leave their car at home and ride with their children to Monroe Elementary once a week.”  After several other speakers praised the plan, the council members voted unanimously to adopt the new bike plan.  After such a long struggle to get this plan going, there is a tremendous sense of achievement.

The new plan, drafted by Alta Planning, is a huge step for this community.  It addresses a number of critical transportation issues in Monrovia.  It extends Class II bike lanes to Monrovia High School and along Chestnut in the western half of the city, as well as Central Ave between Mayflower and Myrtle and Duarte Ave between Montain and California.  Existing bike lanes on Olive Ave. by Monroe Elementary will be upgraded to buffered bike lanes, offering added protection for students and their families.  The plan also proposes more bike racks and end of trip facilities (such as repair and hydration stations) and promotes bike safety education programs and community rides as a way of encouraging a shift away from the automobile monoculture.  In all, there is much to like about this plan.

I do have some concerns, however.  First, the plan relies heavily on Class III “bicycle routes” which may or may not mean anything more than sharrows and increased signage.  This is especially the case on the area around the new Gold Line station on Mayflower, California, and Pomona streets.  If the city makes these “bike routes” real neighborhood greenways, with infrastructure designed to lower speeds and divert cars to other streets, then it will be an major improvement and encourage the “interested but concerned” majority to venture out on their bikes.  Otherwise, the improvement will be negligible.

On a number of important streets the plan recommends only “study” of either Class II bike lanes or Class IV separated bike lanes, but no timetable for study, let alone implementation.  On a number of these streets, the only way to fit bike lanes would be to remove on-street parking or a “road diet.”  Indeed, a number of city officials have remarked about the city’s “narrow” streets being a barrier to bike infrastructure.  I fear that, instead of seeing the streets of this old streetcar suburb as perfect for a rethinking of the primacy of the automobile, the needs of people on foot and on bikes will be sacrificed to the continued domination of the most inefficient transportation mode–cars.  In other words, the plan puts off the hard choices for a later date (which may be why there was no opposition at the Council meeting).  As we learned in Temple City recently, once you start asking motorists to park a little further away, or take 30 seconds longer to get through town, they will scream bloody murder.  Inconvenience them just a little, call into question their God-given right to drive everywhere and park wherever they want and they’re ready to string up those awful bikers.

In sum, Monrovia has taken an important step toward the creation of a city grid that works for all road users.  The task of organizing and lobbying remains, however, and the hard work of growing and mobilizing a constituency for more ambitious transformation must also commence in earnest.  Fortunately, the advocates are in place, and have a victory under their belt.

Bike Lanes … Installed!

Halstead bike lanes provide connectivity to transit at Sierra Madre Villa station.

Halstead bike lanes provide connectivity to transit at Sierra Madre Villa station.

A sure sign of transportation nerdiness is getting excited about bike lanes.  But that little bit of paint increases safety and helps encourage more people to use a bike for transportation.  In so doing bike lanes become part of the solution to problems as diverse as air pollution, traffic and parking congestion, and climate change.  It’s a little thing, but it is an important step in the right direction.

Back when I started this modest little blog in 2012, my very first post called for bike lanes on N. Halstead Street in Pasadena.  As I noted at the time, it is a primary bike route providing “first mile – last mile” connectivity to the Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station, has plenty of off-street parking, meaning some on-street parking could be removed to make room for bike lanes.  Since then, I’ve periodically bugged folks at Pasadena DOT about this route, making myself something of a pest, I am sure.  More importantly, the efforts of the good people at the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, who have provided DOT with input on Pasadena’s bike and pedestrian infrastructure needs, have played a central role in getting improvements like these implemented.  To its credit, someone at DOT is paying attention.

Parking removed to make room for buffered bike lanes on northbound Halstead.

Parking removed to make room for buffered bike lanes on northbound Halstead.

I happened upon the restriping of Halstead the other day, and to my pleasant surprise, DOT had instructed the Department of Public Works to install bike lanes.  Better yet, they’re buffered bike lanes, which give people on bikes a couple of feet of painted buffer zone separating them from automobile traffic.  Such a setup provides a little more space, and thus comfort when riding next to traffic.  These buffered lanes will connect riders between Rosemead Blvd and the Sierra Madre Villa station.

These lanes are the first new lanes in Pasadena that connect directly with a Gold Line station and they will enable more people to comfortably bike to and from the station.  When we combine a network of bikeable streets with transit, we create sustainable mobility choices for more people.

Halstead bike lanes connect bike lanes on N. Rosemead and the Sierra Madre Villa station.

Halstead bike lanes connect bike lanes on N. Rosemead and the Sierra Madre Villa station.

In the past, when Pasadena DOT has dropped the ball, I’ve been quick to call them on it.  Now, when they come through, I gladly give them props.  Thanks Pasadena DOT!!  Special thanks to Rich Dilluvio, who stayed true to his word on these bike lanes.

PasDPW workers put finishing touches on the Halstead bike lanes.

PasDPW workers put finishing touches on the Halstead bike lanes.

Now, if we can get some buffered lanes on Sierra Madre Blvd ….  On Rosemead Blvd ….  On ….

Hal1

Street Fights

Visionary transportation planner Janette Sadik-Khan was the special guest of L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne at the Hammer Museum in Westwood last evening.  I was looking forward to a smart conversation about street space as public space and I wasn’t disappointed.  Sadik-Khan, the inspiring NYC transportation commissioner under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, was instrumental in remaking New York’s streets to be more people-friendly and safer, adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes (many of them protected bike lanes) and creating pedestrian plazas that have become destinations for New Yorkers and tourists alike.  Her new book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution (Viking, 2016), tells the story of how she did it.  Hawthorne is one of our most perceptive observers of LA’s public spaces who has a keen eye for the way designing the built environment around the automobile has impoverished our architecture and our civic life alike.  His eloquence and architectural vision have made him one of my favorite contemporary writers about LA.  Together their writings make a powerful case for the need to transform our city streets, and in so doing transform the way people experience city life.

In the old days when I used to drive everywhere, I would not have attended the lecture, since getting to Westwood from my home in the San Gabriel Valley would entail a teeth-gnashing drive through rush-hour (i.e., any time after 3:00pm) LA traffic and a hefty parking charge in Westwood.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Recent progress in LA Metro’s transit system, however, made it possible for me to take transit to the Westside.  I rode my bike from home to the new Arcadia Gold Line station and locked up my bike on one of the conveniently located bike racks there.  I then rode the Gold Line to Union Station, transferred to the Purple Line to Wilshire/Western, then took the Metro 720 Rapid bus down Wilshire to Westwood.  Total cost: $1.75 each way.  The total trip time door-to-door was about 2 hours, but unlike being stuck in the car, I could read, catch up on email, check social media, etc.  And it was much more relaxing than driving.

(Side note: the only downside to an otherwise pleasant round trip was a homeless guy who got on the Gold Line near Downtown on my late night return trip.  The poor guy smelled.  Really bad.  Here’s the thing: this is not Metro’s fault, and simply kicking homeless people off public transportation is neither humane, nor is it the answer.  Shutting yourself off from homelessness by driving your private metal box may spare you the smell, but it won’t solve the problem–in fact, it enables people to ignore it, to pretend it’s not their problem.  Reviving public transportation doesn’t allow us to turn our backs on social problems like private automobility does.  We as a society must find a way to provide basic housing, medical, and social services for all.  Other countries do it.  We can too.)

Back at the lecture, Sadik-Khan offered an inspiring, optimistic message about the transformative possibilities of remaking our street space, offering examples from her book, like the creation of the Pearl Street plaza, the pedestrianization of Times Square, and the installation of parking protected bike lanes on numerous streets.  She discussed the ways cities can and should shift from seeing streets merely as corridors for the movement of cars and more as places for the movement and social interaction of people.  She made a point of highlighting how unsafe our current car-centric design is, causing an average of 34,ooo deaths in the US per year.  We should no longer tolerate such an appalling human cost, and remake our streets accordingly.

For anyone paying attention in LA, the problem here is not vision.  LA has a good bike plan, and its updated Mobility 2035 plan is even better.  Our problem is implementation and lack of political will.  When asked how she overcame political and community intransigence, she said the keys were to (a) have a plan; (b) rapidly implement temporary, or pilot projects to show people how they work, and (c) have data to show safety and economic improvements that result.  Here in LA, long, drawn-out processes and political short-sightedness have stalled several important street improvement projects, including North Figueroa and Westwood Bl.  Her underlying argument, however, is that change is coming and it is good.  Car-centric planning and design is a relic of the past, safety, revived public space, and mobility choices are the future.  “Inaction is inexcusable,” she writes in her book.  To my fellow advocates, that means we must not give up.

One final point worth mention, is the subject of self-driving cars.  This topic makes some of my fellow bike advocates slobber all over themselves with techno-utopian glee.  Sure, they have the potential to make streets safer and possibly result in more efficient use of urban space if–and this is key–only if they are not used in such a way to allow automobiles to “re-invade” city space that we’re working so hard to make car free.  As both Hawthorne and Sadik-Khan pointed out, they also have the potential to increase sprawl and traffic.  Self-driving cars may address the safety issue, but not necessarily any of the other issues related to public space and people-centered design.  The point is to de-center the private automobile from our design priorities, whether it’s self-driving or not.

Fixing A Broken System

It’s not news to say our transportation system in Southern California is reliant on cars.  Such a system is incomplete, unsafe, and incredibly unhealthy for our communities and for the planet.  What is difficult is getting people to realize this transportation system is broken and convincing them they need to change it.  Sometimes I feel hopeful about our prospects, other times, not so much.  The victories seem small, and so few and far between.  The setbacks are not permanent, but with so far to go these delays prolong the time it takes to fix our broken system.

Nope, no room for bike lanes here.

Nope, no room for bike lanes here.

Last week, the City Council of Temple City voted not to adopt a “complete street” redesign of Las Tunas, a commercial street in the heart of that city.  The redesign proposal included bike lanes and would have made the street safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and bicyclists.  The redesigned street would have made downtown Temple City a destination, not just a thoroughfare.

I thought the signs looked good, but I was wrong.  A couple of months ago I attended a community meeting on the Las Tunas redesign and, though there was some opposition from local NIMBYs (one old codger at the meeting said bike lanes were a “sign of mental illness”), the city council voted unanimously to move forward and place it on the agenda for the next meeting.  At last week’s city council meeting (which I could not attend because of work commitments), opponents were apparently out in force, and the “streets-are-for-cars” crowd won the day.  The opposition—mostly older residents—pressured the city council to abandon even a modest proposal for bike lanes.

It was a setback for the region, and leaves Las Tunas a dangerous commuter arterial instead of a vibrant center for local people and businesses.  I have no doubt that the people of Temple City will eventually see the light, but in the meantime the design of Las Tunas remains stuck in the past, serving only a part of the community’s needs, forcing everyone else into a steel box.

Another example of the broken system is that there is still no real usable network of bike lanes that would allow people to get around without a car.  Who would want to do such a thing?  Consider a family friend of ours, a student at Whittier College.  Like many college students, she doesn’t have a lot of money or a car, and she recently got a part-time job down the road from her college.  She wants to ride her bike to work, but she’s not particularly experienced, and the route includes some busy arterials  like Lambert Rd., where automobile speeds can reach 40mph.  There are a few streets with bike lanes (shown in solid green lines on the Google map, below), but there are large gaps including a long stretch of Lambert that would leave her stranded halfway to work on a busy street with no bike lane.

Whittier, CA: some bike lanes, but mostly incomplete streets.

Whittier, CA: some bike lanes, but mostly incomplete streets.

Bike lanes—let alone protected bike lanes—are still a rarity in this part of the San Gabriel Valley.  As with many suburban areas, there are few transit options, either.  Her parents face the choice of allowing her to ride her bike on incomplete car-streets or shelling out thousands of dollars for a car (adding another car to already-congested roads, adding more pollution and GHGs to our air, depriving a young person of healthy exercise, etc).  Here is a person who wants to ride to work, yet our transportation system makes this choice so daunting that one feels almost forced to choose a car.  This is the opposite of freedom, the opposite of a complete transportation system.

When we create a transportation system that only works for cars, we create a partial system that excludes and marginalizes people who can’t afford cars, don’t want a car, or who are unable to drive.  We essentially force all but the most experienced and confident (or desperate) to buy into the car system.  Once people buy into that system they expect cities to design infrastructure for their convenience, which further reinforces the incompleteness of this unsafe, inequitable, unsustainable, people-unfriendly system.

We must create a transportation system that works for everyone and prioritizes more sustainable, healthy, and socially-equitable modes of transportation.  We must have the courage to change a car monoculture that impoverishes our public spaces, marginalizes those who can’t afford a car, contributes to our climate crisis, and kills tens of thousands (and injures or maims hundreds of thousands) of Americans every year.  We owe it to our children to create a better system.  At times the enormity of the task seems overwhelming.

But the work continues and I am not free to abandon it.

Talmud

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