Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Summer Memories

As a tribute to summer, I thought I’d post some pictures of my recent bicycle wanderings in San Diego–especially the beautiful coastal route along Highway 101 between Oceanside and Solana Beach.  Above, a bicyclist enjoys the view and the bike lane on the Coastal Rail Trail, a beautiful ride.  North County San Diego has quite a good network of bike lanes, enabling me to go almost entirely car free during my stay there.  There are still a few gaps in the network, but by and large I was impressed with the number of bike lanes.  San Diego county has a growing bicycle advocacy movement, led by the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition.

Above, I stop along the ocean near South Carlsbad to take in the magnificent view and cool ocean breeze.

I really like this surfer’s rig.  Electra beach cruiser with a cargo trailer modified for hauling a surfboard.  I’m going to work on finding or rigging a trailer to haul my surfboards for next year’s trip.  Seems to me that surfing and bikes are a natural fit.  They both get you closer to the beauty of the natural world, they are both fun, and they both keep you physically fit.

As summer turns to fall, I’ll still be riding, but I’ll look back with pleasant memories of my summer cycling.

Rear View Mirror

About 2 months ago I decided to try a rear view mirror for my bicycle commuting.  I had been thinking about getting one for some time, but hesitated because (vanity, thy name is boyonabike) I thought they looked geeky.  Well, who am I kidding?  I look geeky anyway, so why not go full geek mode?  After 2 months of using the mirror, I am sorry I waited so long.

There are several kinds of rear view mirrors for bicycles.  Some fit on the end of a handlebar, others clip to a rider’s glasses, and this one sticks on the side of a helmet.  The mirror is adjustable so with a little bit of experimentation you can angle it just right, so that a quick glance will enable you to see what is behind you.  It also easily detatches from the base (which remains on the side of your helmet), so you can take it off if you don’t want to use it or want to pack your helmet.  I initially thought I probably would take it off for most rides, but after two months I find it so useful I keep it on my helmet at all times.

The mirror is extremely helpful in a number of common bicycling situations.  For example, you’re riding along a street where there’s no bike lane (which is the majority of streets where I ride).  Ahead, parked cars along the curb will force you to move further into the traffic lane (“taking the lane”).  Your mirror allows you to quickly assess whether there are cars coming up from behind, how close they are, and how fast they’re going.  Another important use of the bike mirror is when preparing to make a left turn, especially if you have to cross a lane of roadway to get into a left turn lane.  As with a car’s side view mirror, itr makes changing lanes easier and safer.  Finally, it just gives me a greater sense of safety and control to know where all cars are at all times when I’m riding.

The mirror does take some getting used to, and it has some minor drawbacks (besides looking bike-geeky).  First, the presence of the mirror, though small (approximately 1.75 in. high and 1.25 in. wide), does create a tiny blind spot behind it on your left side.  However, you quickly learn that a small turn of the head gives you a full range of vision to your left.  Next, in my opinion, keep your glances in the mirror short, so that you continue to be fully aware of things up ahead of you, such as road hazards or car doors when riding past parked cars.  Nevertheless, the mirror allows the glance to be much quicker than turning your head to look behind you, and makes it less likely that you’ll miss something ahead of you  Again, with a little practice, the quick glance becomes second nature.

Overall, I find the rear view mirror to be a very helpful device that increases my awareness of what’s behind me, and it increases my safety because I no longer have to turn my head to see behind me.  Having used it on my helmet for about 8 weeks, I really miss it on those short rides when I don’t wear my helmet.

Would I recommend the mirror?  Absolutely.  Will you look geeky?  Maybe, but I’ve decided that bike-geekdom is the new cool.

Bikes and Transit in San Diego

Last week, I had the opportunity to go car-free in San Diego when I attended a conference at the Joan B. Krok Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego.  My commute to the conference involved the San Diego Coaster commuter train, the San Diego Trolley, and bicycle.  The trip reinforced for me the way in which well-designed transit can liberate us from the car and its stresses.

The North San Diego county transit authority runs the Coaster, which took me from Carlsbad, where I was staying, to San Diego’s Old Town transit station.  The Coaster is a very comfortable, clean, pleasant commuter train that provides space for bicycles on most of its cars.  You can bring your bike on board and then settle in for a beautiful view of the San Diego coastline as you head south.  The train veers inland for the final part of its journey to downtown San Diego, after it passes the Del Mar racetrack, but the desert views it affords are beautiful in their own way.  Last summer I took my family on the Coaster for an outing to Coronado Island.  That trip, we brought our bikes, got off at the historic San Diego Santa Fe station, boarded the nearby Coronado ferry with our bikes, and spent a beautiful summer day exploring Coronado by bike.  I’d be making this particular trip for work, however.

When I boarded the train in Carlsbad, I found a car with space for my bike and secured my bike with the adjustable straps provided on the train (if you’re traveling with other bicyclists I would suggest bringing a bungee cord to secure several bikes together on the train).  Two other cyclists also boarded my car and that is how I met Matt, who works at Adams Avenue Bike Shop in San Diego, who basically lives car-free and commutes on the Coaster when he’s not riding the 50-odd mile route to San Diego on his bike.  Soon we fell into a friendly conversation about car-free living and the challenges of getting Americans to wean themselves off their car addiction.  To be clear, reader, most of us may still need a car on a regular basis, but there is no reason that many more of us, if not most, can reduce the number of car trips we make by using bikes and transit instead of our cars.  It is not only possible, it is good for our health and necessary for the health of our communities and our planet.

What is more, my trip on the Coaster was much more enjoyable than driving.  I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Matt, in which he told me about his upcoming long-distance bike tour next year and I told him about what is happening with bicycle advocacy up north In L.A.  The train ride passed quickly and we exchanged emails and good wishes, and I realized that our conversation would not have happened had we been in cars on the congested 5 Freeway, illustrating another benefit of transit.  Transit, as Taras Grescoe has shown, enhances social life, cars destroy it.

Arriving at the Old Town station in San Diego, I quickly boarded a green line trolley with my bike and took it to the Morena/Linda Vista station, which is about half a mile to the conference on the USD campus.  I could probably have walked it, but the bike made it a quick 5 minute ride, and I locked my bike at one of the conveniently located bike racks on campus, removed my messenger bag from my pannier (no sweaty back), and headed into the conference (I did bring an extra dress shirt in my pannier, just in case I had arrived sweaty, but the ride from the trolley station was so short, it was not necessary).  Several conference attendees were surprised at the ease with which I was able to get to the conference without a car, and others had been unaware how close the trolley station was to campus.

My return trip was every bit as easy, and I not only felt a sense of independence that came from being able to get where I needed to go without the hassle of a car, but felt glad that I’d been able to make a new friend in the process.  With transit and bicycling, initially you’ve got to plan ahead a little bit, coordinate with train schedules, and map out a bike-friendly route (especially if you’re not familiar with the area), but this is fairly easy to do online, and the benefits more than repay the time investment.  I was able to access transit schedules online and google maps provided bike-friendly directions to my destination.  While I did this trip from Carlsbad, my L.A. friends could just as easily make the trip from L.A.’s Union Station, taking the Amtrak Surfliner to San Diego.

Take it from me, formerly a car-dependent Southern Californian, bikes and transit are easier and more fun than you think.  Next time you’re headed to San Diego, give it a try.

Bicycling in Hot Weather

The dog days of summer need not stop you from riding your bike if you take a few simple precautions to help you beat the heat.  Recently, an elderly relative of mine expressed astonishment that I’d be riding my bike in 90-degree weather, and was sure I’d get heat stroke from my 5-mile ride home.  I had to explain to her that, not only was I in no danger, it really was quite pleasant, since I’d brought a water bottle full of ice water and there was a little breeze blowing.  In fact, summer is a great time to ride, especially if you do so in the morning or evening hours, avoiding the hottest hours on the hottest of triple-digit days, from, say 2-5 pm.  If you opt for a bicycle ride on a summer evening, you’ll find it is one of the most enjoyable experiences of bicycling, the cool night air refreshing after the heat of the day has dissipated.  Be sure to ride with front and rear lights and bright or reflective clothing for night riding.

Here are some simple suggestions for riding your bike during the summer:

  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.  The most important thing you can take on a summer ride is a large water bottle filled with ice water.  Avoid soft drinks, alcohol, or (in my opinion) the fancy, expensive sports drinks.  Good old ice water is the most effective thing to keep you cool and hydrated on your ride.
  • Wear light colored, breathable, loose fitting clothing.  This lets the air circulate around your skin and helps keep you cool.  Avoid tight-fitting lycra clothing, unless you’re going out to race.  Unfortunately, most cycling-specific clothing sold in the US is designed to mimic what racers wear, not what is practical.  If I’m going to work, button-down cotton oxford shirts, or quick-drying shirts designed for outdoor activities like hiking are also excellent summer cycling wear.  I usually wear a regular pair of shorts, too, not lycra.
  • It’s hot, so you’re going to sweat.  If you’re going to bike to work, for example, take a change of clothes.
  • Slow down and spin easy.  You’re not in the Tour de France.  When it’s hot, take it a little slower, use a lower gear when going uphill, and, if necessary, take a little breather in the shade.
  • Cover your head.  While I usually wear a helmet, when it’s really hot I’ll sometimes wear a straw hat that keeps the sun off my head, face, and neck, and lets the air circulate.

Southern California is fortunate enough to enjoy excellent weather for most of the year.  Once you prepare for the summer heat, there’s really no problem bicycling through the summer months.

What tips do you have for hot weather cycling?

Book Review: Straphanger

Taras Grescoe,  Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile (New York: Holt, 2012), 323 pp.

Taras Grescoe proudly declares himself a straphanger, someone “who, by choice or necessity, relies on public transport, rather than a privately owned automobile.”  His book of the same name is a fascinating tour of public transit systems throughout the world that demonstrates how efficient, safe, and beneficial such systems can be.  As something of an occasional “straphanger” myself, I was interested in his insights and curious to see if his observations about public transportation were similar to my own.

One of Grescoe’s main points is that cities with good public transit systems are better at moving people efficiently.  He also discovers that the quality of life is improved because public space has not been sacrificed the automobile.  In Paris, he marvels at how easy it is to get around on the Metro, in Portland he discovers how the city’s modern streetcar system enriches downtown, and in Copenhagen, where 55 percent of people make daily trips on a bicycle, he discovers how economical, practical, and healthy it is to get around the city on two wheels.  In a society in which automobile advertising bombards us with the (false) message that cars = freedom, it is refreshing to see the way good public transportation can be liberating.

He also concludes that the best transit networks worldwide are municipally owned, rather than privatized.  Successful transit systems are run as integrated systems, coordinated so that, for example, bus feeder lines and rail connections are timed so that commuters can move from bus to rail and back again with as little delay as possible.  This is most likely to happen when “public agencies with regional scope and unified planning oversight” run public transport. (294)

The journey to transit-oriented cities demonstrates how a well-designed public transportation system not only frees people from environmentally destructive dependence on the automobile (and its evil twin, sprawl), it can revitalize cities, making neighborhoods people-centered, not car-centered.  In cities around the world, in places as diverse as Montreal, New York, and Bogota, Grescoe writes:

There is a revolution going on in the way people travel.  It is rewriting the DNA of formerly car-centered cities, making the streets better places to be, and restoring something cities sorely need: real public space. (9)

According to Grescoe, this revolution is pushing back 70 years of auto-centered urban planning and development.  The 20th century city, with its no-man’s land of freeways, arterial highways, and parking lots was exemplified by the work of men like New York transportation commissioner Robert Moses, whose post-World War II vision for an automobile city displaced 320,000 people from their New York neighborhoods to make room for expressways that flooded the city with cars and deprived the city’s subway system of operating funds.  Grescoe then highlights the emerging triumph of his nemesis, Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of American Cities (1961) became a bible for a new generation of urban visionaries.  Jacobs and other activists, Grescoe argues, “had the courage to oppose what people like Robert Moses spent their careers trying to impose: cities built for cars, not people.” (44)

Suburbs can be designed around people and transit, too.  For example, in the suburb of Vauban, outside of Freiburg, Germany, residents live virtually car-free, using streetcars, trains, busses, and bikes to get where they need to go.  Most striking, in contrast to American suburbs, is the amount of space children have to play outdoors in Vauban.  Grescoe observes the beneficial way suburban space opens up when it isn’t monopolized by the car:

Vauban, I realized, is what a suburb looks like when you remove all the land-gobbling driveways, garages, lanes, and cu-de-sacs.  It is also the answer to all those who claim owning a car is essential when you start raising a family. . . .  Vauban may be the closest thing to what suburbia was meant to be before it was overrun by cars: a paradise of unsupervised free play by children. (p. 136)

In the United States it is doubtful that our suburbs will go car-free any time soon, but Grescoe finds that those US cities that have retained some of their pre-World War II urban form, such as Portland, OR and Philadelphia, have blossomed in this dawn of the post-automobile era, creating public space and making it easier to get around without a car.

All this may seem overly optimistic, and, to be sure, Grescoe acknowledges the powerful lure of the car culture and the stranglehold our car-centered infrastructure has on our transportation choices, but he convincingly argues there are realistic, achievable alternatives to car-centered development.  We could expand light rail service and set aside dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit (BRT), making it convenient for more Americans to use transit.  Relatively small but significant changes in our streetscape would make our cities and suburbs more walkable and bikeable, providing people with more space and practical alternatives to the car.

At the same time, he notes that a successful transition to public transit can only happen if we subsidize transit (which, in many US cities must be self-supporting) rather than the automobile, as we currently do (by reducing the subsidization of roadways and parking, for example).

Nowhere is this shift to transit going to be more crucial or necessary than L.A., in some ways the poster child for the car culture.  The average driver in Los Angeles now spends an average of 72 hours a year sitting in traffic jams (up from 44 hours a year in 1982), and if the region continues to depend on the car, its air quality and traffic are only going to get worse as greater L.A.’s population increases by an expected 6.3 million residents in the next 30 years.  “Short of triple-decking the freeways . . . [L.A.’s] best hope lies in transit.” (61)  Fortunately, Grescoe sees exciting things happening with L.A.’s light rail expansion, and, I’d add, the emergence of its nascent urban bike culture.  Work still needs to be done to further expand rail, bus, and BRT lines in LA, but Grescoe reminds us that Southern California once had the best streetcar system in the world, and it has tremendous potential revive mass transit.

My own (admittedly limited) observations about transit in the US cities I’ve visited over the past 7-8 years, and my (more extensive) experience with transit in LA lead me to believe that Grescoe is correct in his contention that transit-oriented cities are preferable to those dominated by the automobile.  To an American who grew up using a car to go places, making the switch to public transit requires a shift in the way you travel.  It requires more preparation at first and requires you to adjust to the bus or train schedule, especially if it does not run as frequently as it should.  But, by and large, riding the bus or train is not an unpleasant experience and riding transit liberates you from the hassles and expense of driving and parking.  In fact, in many ways I feel freer on the bus than I do in a car, where I’m saddled with 2,500 lbs of steel to schlep around.  On the days I commute to work on the bus, I always arrive more refreshed than I do when I drive, and, while the commute takes longer on the bus, I’m able to check email, read, and work on the bus, so it’s not wasted time.  My main complaint with transit in LA is that the buses don’t run frequently enough, and that there aren’t more rapid buses with dedicated bus lanes on the freeways for commuters, and that there isn’t a more extensive light rail system.  That, however, is a political problem, not a problem with transit per se.

Grescoe makes a powerful case that urban transportation in the 21st century will be measured by its ability to develop transit systems, not by the proliferation of automobiles and concrete wastelands designed for cars.  In the last analysis, Grescoe argues, we in the 21st century must embrace rail transit as an efficient, green, and humane alternative to the 20th century automobile system.  “Tracks,” he concludes, “stitch places together; freeways tear them apart.” (296)

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