Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Grocery Shopping by Bike (part I)

An inexpensive set of grocery panniers easily allows you to carry two full-size grocery bags on your bike.

How many times do we get in our cars to run the simplest errands?  Most of us live less than 2 miles from the nearest grocery store, yet we think nothing of hopping in our cars to pick up some eggs, milk, bread, and a couple of other items.  According to the National Personal Transportation Survey, 40 percent of all car trips in the U.S. are 2 miles or less.  These short trips by automobile not only add to local traffic, they produce a high proportion of air pollution because a car’s exhaust is dirtiest in the first 10 minutes of driving, before the engine is warmed up.  Reducing the number of short car trips goes a long way towards reducing pollution.  Not to mention these short trips also contribute their fair share of greenhouse gas emissions, require large parking lots at these retail destinations and add to our unhealthy sedentary lifestyle.

For a change, try doing some of these smaller grocery runs on your bicycle.  You don’t need a special cargo bike (though those are becoming increasingly popular), but I recommend a rear rack and grocery panniers, as shown in the picture.  These aren’t very expensive and each one can carry a fully loaded grocery bag.  Most of these panniers come with straps so you can carry them when you’re in the store or farmer’s market.  I keep mine on my bike, and just take my reusable bags into the store with me.

You’ll need to bring a lock to secure your bike while you’re shopping.  Many markets have bike racks near the front of the store, but some don’t (if not, you may want to mention this to the store manager).  If there’s no bike rack, find a secure signpost or rail to lock your bike to.  Make sure the post is tall enough that your bike cannot be easily lifted off the top of the post.  Many stores have corrals for shopping carts that work just fine as a place to lock your bike.  Just be sure you don’t block the entrance or walkway.

Using your bike for small grocery runs is a great way to add some exercise into your routine, do your part for the environment, save money on gas, reduce traffic, and, best of all, it’s fun.

Nothing But Flowers

The 2012 Transportation Bill … more of the same.

In a recent post, I noted that politics matters when it comes to funding for alternative transportation.  Amid the (admittedly important) news about yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, few will notice that the GOP-led House eliminated dedicated funding for bike lanes and pedestrian safety enhancements from the federal transportation bill that passed yesterday.

In describing the elimination of funds for bicycling and pedestrian safety, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Republicans wanted to enact “significant reforms” that would:

“focus our highway dollars on fixing America’s highways, not planting more flowers around the country.”

Reform? Fixing America’s highways?  What a joke.  “Fixing” America’s highways would entail investment in multimodal commuting, Mr. Speaker.  Now that would be real reform.

Let’s review some of the facts.

  • The dedicated funding for “enhancements” like bike lanes, pedestrian safety, and the safe routes to school program not only saves lives, but made up only about 1 percent of highway spending, despite the fact that pedestrians and bicyclists make up 12-14 percent of highway fatalities.
  • There is a high demand for bike/ped safety projects, and they are overwhelmingly popular with communities.
  • The Safe Routes to School program was an especially effective way of promoting safe walking and biking to schools, reducing traffic congestion around schools and promoting exercise and a healthy lifestyle for young people.
  • Infrastructure improvements for safe walking and bicycling are an efficient use of tax dollars.  Not only does a bike lane cost far less than improvements for automobiles (especially if the improvement is done at the same time the road is being resurfaced), but they tend to last longer and need less upkeep, as bicycling and walking cause far less wear and tear on the infrastructure.

The 2012 transportation bill is not all bad news.  It preserves funding for crucial improvements to L.A.’s mass transit system and doesn’t include the poison pill of funding for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  However, it is a sad reflection of the way in which many in Congress still refuse to recognize that road improvements like bike lanes not only save lives, improve public health, and decrease traffic congestion, they are, dollar-for-dollar, a more effective use of tax money than simply throwing more money at the automobile road monopoly.  If we see the transportation system as a means of safe, healthy, and efficient mobility to jobs, school, recreation, and other human activities, rather than just a “highway system” for cars, we can see more clearly that this car-based transportation bill is a major failure of vision and leadership.

It is important for those of us who care about public safety, public health, alternative transportation, and the environment to continue to push for a modicum of dedicated funding for these projects, so we create a transportation system that doesn’t virtually require people to use an automobile for all their transportation needs.  Sadly, for 2012, it appears we’re out of luck.

The Politics of Commuting

The more I use my bike for transportation the more I’ve come to pay close attention to transportation debates in Washington and Sacramento, and the more I’ve come to realize that these debates, mundane as they may seem to most Americans, have a tremendous power to shape our infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

The Gas Tax

Take the federal gasoline tax that every motorist pays at the pump.  The gas tax has stood at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, and there is a high level of political resistance to raising the gas tax.  However, most Americans don’t realize that the gas tax does not come anywhere near paying for the maintenance and improvement of our massive transportation system.  Indeed, the tax pays for 41% less infrastructure today than it did in 1993.  That’s because Americans are driving more fuel efficient cars (a good thing), but they’re also driving more miles per year.  This means drivers buy less gas but generate more wear and tear on the roads.  Meanwhile, the cost of road construction and materials such as asphalt have increased since 1993 while the tax has remained flat.  One 2012 study estimates that the gas tax would need to be raised more than 12 cents per gallon to offset these trends.  In the meantime, transportation funding must be subsidized by general tax revenues, which includes tax money from those of us who bike instead of drive (and who put far less wear and tear on the roadways).  Remember that next time someone says bicyclists don’t pay for the roads we ride on.

Induced Demand

Another fact to consider is that the overwhelming majority of our current transportation money goes to maintaining and expanding the automobile system, road and freeway expansion and maintenance.  Yet transportation engineers and urban planners have known for years that building more capacity for automobile traffic is not only extremely expensive, but it never solves the long term traffic congestion problem, because of a phenomenon known as “induced demand.”  Basically, as this term implies, the building of additional traffic lanes usually does not result in less congested conditions, at least in the long term.  This is a major reason why traffic delays in the U.S. are as bad as ever, despite the extraordinary growth of highway lane-miles over the past quarter century.  As Tom Vanderbilt explains in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (2010):

When more lane-miles of roads are built, more miles are driven, even more so than might be expected by ‘natural’ increases in demand, like population growth.  In other words, the new lanes may immediately bring relief to those who wanted to use the highway before, but they will also encourage those same people to use the highway more . . . and they will bring new drivers on to the highway, because they suddenly find it a better deal.”  (p. 155)

Put another way, if you build it, they will come.

The logic of induced demand also applies to bike lanes and bike paths, especially when those facilities go to places people want to go, such as schools, transit centers, and shopping districts.  Thus, it is essential that we invest in bicycle-friendly infrastructure if we are to increase the number of bicycle miles traveled and enable people to make the rational choice to travel safely by bike.

All Politics is Local

Finally, as blogger BikinginLA reminds us, the local political climate makes a huge difference when it comes to making our roads more bike-friendly.  The increasing number of Americans who want to be able to bike and walk safely in their communities need to pay attention to national and local transportation debates if we are to make our communities safer and more convenient for all road users.

Our transportation debates, meanwhile, must recognize the fact that providing resources for multiple modes of commuting makes far more sense than continuing to throw money at the expansion of automobile capacity on the roadways.

Hidden Gems

Discover the back streets of your neighborhood on your bike.

One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve replaced my car with my bike for many short trips is the hidden beauty of my own neighborhood.  Riding less traveled side streets to avoid heavy traffic, I have encountered corners of my own neighborhood I never noticed when driving my car.  Delightful side streets, quiet back alleys, charming houses tucked away from the street, a neighbor’s garden flowers in bloom.  The sounds of the neighborhood come alive on a bicycle as well.  The sounds of birds singing, laughter from a nearby schoolyard, someone practicing piano, or perhaps just a quiet rustling of leaves in the trees, all become apparent when you’re on your bike.

There are probably a number of reasons we miss so much when we drive, including the fact that when we’re in our cars, we usually head straight for main roads, we’re moving too fast to notice the little things, and we’re (understandably) paying close attention to the other cars on the road or (regrettably) paying attention to the dashboard radio and/or cellphone.  Often, the windows are rolled up, the air conditioning and the radio are on, and we’re cut off from our surroundings.  Indeed, the near complete insulation of the driver from his/her surroundings has become a major selling point for high-end carmakers.

Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light.  On busier thoroughfares motor traffic seems noisier and more obnoxious, sirens ear-splittingly loud.  But the new things you see on those streets, like the little restaurant or shop you never noticed in your car, more than make up for those passing annoyances.  Bottom line: in your car you are isolated from your surroundings, on your bike you discover them.

Book Review: Just Ride

Grant Peterson, Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike

(New York: Workman Publishing, 2012, 212 pp., $13.95).

I’m always on the lookout for good books on bicycling, and Grant Peterson, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, has written one that is as enjoyable to read as it is informative.

To my non-bicyclist friends, and even my occasional bicyclist friends, I’d say if you only read one book about bicycling, make it this one.  Peterson will anger some with his blunt manner, but he more than makes up for it with a straightforward, no-nonsense approach to bicycling that is designed to make bicycling understandable and practical for as many people as possible.  This means he is highly critical of a major portion of the bicycling industry that sells racing (and all the high-priced accoutrements that go with it) as the norm for bicycling.  Instead, Peterson aims his advice as the reader he addresses as “the unracer.”  Peterson thinks (and I agree) that most people don’t need a $3,000 – $6,000 carbon fiber racing bike, special shoes, and a full lycra “kit,” just to enjoy bicycling.  In fact, such an approach to bicycling is decidedly impractical if the bicycle is to be used for transportation purposes.  Instead, he touts the benefits of a quality steel frame designed to accommodate racks, fenders, and fatter tires.

He also advocates a more upright riding position for comfort, noting that many bicycle manufacturers and retailers set the handlebars too low, aiming for an aerodynamic riding position suited to racing, but not necessarily comfortable for most riders.  As a bicyclist who experienced neck and wrist pain from a too-low riding position, I think Peterson is correct in this critique.  Try finding an off-the-rack bike at most retailers, and the handlebars are usually set lower than the seat.

A good quality cro-moly steel frame, Peterson argues, will last longer, take more abuse, and carry more weight, making it a more practical alternative for everyday riding.  A rack mounted on the rear of the bike allows the bike to carry all kinds of cargo, and fenders allow the rider to avoid being splashed with mud and road grime, making it possible to wear regular (i.e., non-bicycle specific) clothing.  Instead of clipless pedals and expensive cycling-specific shoes, most people are better off with platform pedals that allow them to wear everyday shoes when riding.  In fact, Peterson argues, unless you’re a racer, you don’t need tight-fitting lycra clothing and clipless pedals.

“When you don’t race, almost every shirt, sweater, jacket, or coat you own is a cycling garment.  You can dress for the weather and your own sense of style, just like you do off your bike.  You won’t look like a racer, and that’s just another benefit.”  (p. 22)

 Peterson’s argument may be resisted by cyclists who have invested a great deal of time and money into bicycling solely as a racing or fitness endeavor, but I think his point is valid and absolutely critical if American society is to expand bicycle riding for practical transportation and reach a broader segment of the population.  By comparison, look at a city like Amsterdam, where more than 50% of the population rides a bike to work or school.  You don’t see most bicyclists in Amsterdam riding carbon fiber racing bikes or wearing lycra racing outfits, because they’re not practical for daily transportation.  So, if we want to keep bicycling the preserve of a relatively small, elite, and affluent segment of the population, the bicycling industry should keep marketing racing as the norm.

Peterson’s most valuable contribution in this book is the idea that most people don’t need a racing bike (or, I’d argue, an expensive full-suspension mountain bike).  Invest in a good, basic steel frame bike that has eyelets and braze-ons for racks and fenders, and “just ride.”  Use your bike to carry groceries or other things that allow you to substitute your bike for short car trips.  If bicycling is to be the real world alternative to short car trips that it can and should be, Peterson’s book expresses an attitude that needs to break through the culture at large.

If you’re looking for an accessible guide to practical cycling, skip the racing-inspired advertising of the big bicycling magazines, and read Peterson’s book.

Bike Paths: Low-Hanging Fruit

With very little effort, miles of bike paths could be opened along a number of creeks in the San Gabriel Valley.  These waterways usually already possess rights-of-way that can easily be put to use to provide off-street bicycle and multi-use paths throughout the area.  This is the first in a series of posts that will explore the locations of potential bike paths in the area.  This week’s candidate: Santa Anita wash, north Arcadia.  This site is particularly well suited, as the existing path needs only minimal modification at this grade crossing, and none at the grade crossing at Foothill Blvd.

Santa Anita wash looking north from E. Sycamore Ave in Arcadia.

Bikes on Buses

Taking your bike on the bus is a convenient way to extend the range of commuting options on public transit.

For the past year or so, I’ve been taking the bus to work, and I ride my bike to and from the bus stop and the El Monte bus station.  Combining a bike with the bus is a great way to extend the range of usefulness for commuters—something transportation wonks call “multimodal” commuting—combining two or more modes of commuting.  All Metro, Foothill Transit, and Orange County (OCTA) busses have racks on the front that hold up to two bikes.  They’re easy to use, and Metro has helpful guidelines for using these racks.

On the bus rack, your bike is held securely in place by a spring-loaded arm that clamps down on the bike’s front tire and keeps the bike secure.  The only downside to this design (and it’s a minor one) is that it may not be compatible with a bike’s front cargo rack, such as a porteur rack, or a randonneuring rack, that extends over the top of the front wheel; and if you have a plastic front fender on your bike, it might get bent or cracked by the spring arm.  Since I use fenders on my bike to keep my clothes from getting splashed on my commute, I had the front one trimmed by my bike shop so that it does not extend past the front fork, and, voila, I keep my front fender and secure my bike to the bus rack with no problem.  Because your bike tires sit in a tire slot on the rack, it doesn’t matter what kind of top tube you have, and there is no problem with having a rear rack or rear panniers on your bike.

Another potential issue is that the racks only hold two bikes, and on busier routes, you may be stuck waiting for the next bus if the rack is full.  This is something to consider, especially if you and a friend want to bike together to the bus.  Local bicycle advocates are currently lobbying MTA to install 3-bike racks on their busses, but it may take some time before this lobbying effort achieves results.  However, in the last two years, I’ve always been able to find space on the bus racks on my two bus routes to work (knock on wood), and I appreciate the ability to take my bike on the bus.  I can read, text, talk on the phone, or do work on the bus, and I don’t have to hassle with traffic, parking, or the wasted time behind the wheel.

The bus racks can’t accommodate outsized bikes such as tandems, recumbents, cargo bikes, or trikes, but will accommodate just about any standard two-wheeled bicycle.  The racks make it easy to take your bike on the bus, and, in my experience, the drivers are more than happy to wait while you mount or dismount your bike.

The bus-bike combo is a great way to extend your commuting options and leave your car at home.


OK, so it’s technically not a bike, but I was still pedaling around the neighborhood back in the day.

Keeping my bike spiffy.

Bikes have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  My mother often told the story of how, when I was 3 or 4, I’d look out the front window of our little duplex in Cleveland and excitedly shout “boyonabike!” when someone would ride by.  It became a running joke in our family.  “Boyonabike!” they’d say, as I got older and rode around the neighborhood on my own bike.  My childhood exclamation seemed the perfect title for my blog, especially insofar as I often feel as joyful as a little kid when I’m gliding along on two wheels.

I got my first real bike on my fifth birthday.  I’ll never forget the magic moment when I walked into our living room and saw that shiny blue and white steed set up next to the fireplace.  I couldn’t wait to get it outside and ride.  Oh, the possibilities!

My parents knew I wanted a bike—and nothing else—because the previous Christmas I’d disappointed my father (it’s what sons do, right?), who’d stayed up all night putting together a Christmas train set that by all rights I should have been thrilled with.  Not just any train set.  A beautiful O-gauge set that he’d had as a young man.  He’d painstakingly set it up that Christmas, expecting to share his love of trains with his son, and instead I walked right past the train set and looked for a bike.  He was heartbroken, but I was looking for a more personal mode of wheeled transportation.  That spring, my father sacrificed his beloved train set and bought me my first bike.  His sacrifice became my ticket to ride.

I’ve had many bikes since that blue and white beauty, but you never forget your first bike.

My first 10-speed: a Sears “free spirit”

Support Your Local Bike Shop

According to AAA, Americans spend an average of more than $8,000 per year on automobile ownership.  4/5 of that money (gas, insurance, financing) leaves the local economy.  As Elly Blue has argued in her series “Bikenomics: how bicycling will save the economy (if we let it),”

Support your local bike shop.

bikes are a great way to boost the local economy.  Not only does bicycling support the bike-related economy (like the local bike shop) that employs local people, but when people use their bikes to shop, the dollars tend to stay in the local economy, as bicyclists are more likely to stop and shop at smaller, locally-owned stores, not big-box behemoths surrounded by acres of parking lots.

The revenue generated by bike-related economic activity is surprisingly large.  A 2008 study in Portland, OR, found that bike-related industries contributed $90 million to the local economy each year.  In Wisconsin, the contribution to the state economy is estimated to be more than $1.5 billion annually.

So, ride your bike.  Shop locally when you can.  And, support your local bike shop.

Small Victory

Glad to see these new inverted U racks at Victory Park farmer’s market site.

Every once in a while, despite the frustrations of commuting by means other than the car, a small victory occurs and keeps you going.  About six months ago, I requested bike racks at the Victory Park parking lot where Pasadena’s farmer’s market is held on Saturdays.  The lack of bike racks meant that you had to find a fence post or other stationary object on which to lock your bike.  Given the space premium on Saturdays, this often entailed a walk around the farmer’s market before you could find parking.  Meanwhile those who drove their 2,500 lb gas hogs to buy 20 lbs worth of fruit and vegetables got priority.  Well, as I was walking back to my bike at yesterday’s market, what should I come across, but two brand, spanking new inverted U racks!  Thank heaven for small victories.  And thank you to the City of Pasadena’s DPW for listening to citizens.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: