Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

More Carmageddon?

Associated Press photo, Carmageddon 2011.

Could Carmageddon be good for us?  When a stretch of the always-gridlocked 405 freeway was closed for one weekend in July 2011, it spawned apocalyptic visions of L.A. drivers stranded in a sea of idling cars.  But, a funny thing happened.  Lots of people—especially on the Westside—didn’t drive that weekend.  They stayed near home.  They walked.  They rode their bikes.  They took transit.  In the end, traffic on the Westside was almost eerily light that weekend.

Now, a new study shows that keeping all those cars garaged had an astoundingly positive impact on air quality.  A research team at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that the L.A. basin experienced “a dramatic reduction” in air pollution the weekend of Carmageddon I.  The study found that there was a 25% reduction in pollutants across the entire basin compared to a “normal” weekend.  On the Westside, air quality was 75% better than normal and, in the neighborhoods near the 10-mile stretch of the 405 closed for the weekend, air quality was a whopping 83% better than a typical weekend.

Public health researchers have long known that exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks causes a host of health problems, including asthma, heart attacks, strokes, premature births, and other problems.  The closer one lives to a freeway, the more one is exposed to these pollutants, and the higher these rates of disease become.  These increased health risks, in turn, cost billions of dollars in health care-related expenses and lost productivity every year.

Now, here’s a modest proposal:  instead of spending billions of dollars to widen freeways to accommodate more cars (the purpose of the 405 closure), why don’t we use that money for expanding light rail, bus service, bike paths and bike lanes in the L.A. basin?  Why don’t we also factor in the health costs associated with air pollution into the gasoline tax, and use that money to help pay for health care?  We’re already paying those costs, we just don’t do enough to reduce our car addiction—the very thing that causes them.


The Left Hook and the Right Cross

OK, pardon me, but I need to rant.  Last night, on my commute home from work through the mean streets of Arcadia, I was nearly left-hooked and right-crossed … all within the space of about 3 minutes.  To those unfamiliar with the terms, bicyclists refer to drivers making a left turn directly in your path as a “left hook.”  A “right cross” happens when a driver speeds up and then cuts in front of you to make a right turn in your path.  Ride a bike on the roads in Southern California for any length of time, and you’ll eventually experience both.

Last night, both incidents happened on a stretch of 1st Avenue in Arcadia, reinforcing my belief that Arcadia is arguably the most bike-unfriendly city in the west San Gabriel Valley.  I’ve repeatedly complained to Arcadia city officials about the lack of bike-friendly infrastructure in that city, to no avail.  Last year the Arcadia City Council voted down a proposal to fund a bike plan for the city, citing lack of funds.

Yesterday was my first evening (i.e., after sundown) commute home since school started, and I was prepared to be super-visible.  I have a front and rear Supernova E3 headlight-taillight combo on my Surly Troll commuter bike, both run by a Shimano dyno-hub, both of which are extremely bright.  I also have an additional Planet Bike taillight for good measure.  I wear a hi-vis reflective vest, like the kind worn by Caltrans workers, and to top it off, I have a helmet-mounted Light & Motion Vis 360 headlight-taillight combo that is bright enough to be seizure-inducing and designed to be seen from all angles.  In short, I’m lit up like a friggin’ Christmas tree.  I also make a special effort to ride by the rules of the road, and watch for eye contact with drivers, especially at intersections.

The first incident happened around 8:30 pm at the intersection of Santa Clara and 1st Ave (where the new Arcadia Gold Line station is being built).  I was headed northbound on 1st, waiting at a red light.  An older (mid-1990s) Dodge or Chrysler sedan was southbound on 1st, waiting at the red light.   He had no turn signal on, but something about the way he edged into the intersection made me watch him warily.  It’s a good thing I did, because the driver, a late-middle-aged white male, suddenly made a left turn right in front of me.  I raised my arm in a “WTF?” gesture, and aimed my headlamp right at his face, but he never even looked at me.  As brightly-lit as I was, how could you not see me, you jerk?  How could you not look for opposing traffic when making a left turn?  Were you drunk?

Not three minutes later, still northbound on 1st, I approached the light at Foothill Blvd.  This time, an assho–, uh, motorist—in a macho black pickup truck, roars around me, cuts me off , and makes a right turn in front of me.  Fortunately, he was gone by the time I got to the line, or I’d have blown my top, and it wouldn’t have been constructive.

An otherwise pleasant and healthy ride home was almost ruined by two inconsiderate, dangerous motorists.  I was following the rules of the road in both instances.  If I’m struck by either one of these jerks, (thank God I wasn’t) it is potentially life-threatening.  The next time some motorist complains about scofflaw bicyclists, it is important to remember that scofflaw drivers are just as common, and pose a much greater risk of bodily harm to other road users.

My bike and I have a right to the road, and refuse to be bullied off of it by idiots wrapped in 2,500-lbs of steel and glass.  My bike-commuting is healthy, good for my community (reduces traffic, noise, and the need for expensive infrastructure), and good for the planet.  None of that can be said for the 2,500-lb metal piles of crap rolling around the public roads.  I’m going to be extra careful in Arcadia, though, because apparently the lives of cyclists and pedestrians are cheap to city officials.

OK, if you’re still with me, thanks for letting me vent.  I feel a little better now.

Bike Cargo Trailers

“But you can’t go to the grocery store on a bicycle!” a neighbor dismissively claimed, when I tried to explain how we might encourage more people to use their bikes instead of their cars.  I’ll never forget her words or her contemptuous tone.  That conversation spurred me to prove her wrong, to prove that not only can you go to the grocery store on a bicycle, but with the help of an inexpensive cargo trailer, you can haul quite a bit of cargo, have fun, get exercise, save gas (and maybe the planet) while you’re at it.

As I’ve shown in an earlier post, an inexpensive pair of grocery panniers on your bike will enable you to carry two or three full-size grocery bags on your bike.  A front basket can help you carry more.  But what about those large grocery loads?  What about families whose shopping requires more than two or three shopping bags per trip?  In order to shop for the whole family, a cargo trailer takes your bike to a whole new level and enables you to leave your car at home for even the most sizable grocery runs and errands.  With my cargo trailer I can easily haul about half a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four.  For me, this might mean going to the store twice a week instead of once a week, but since it’s fun and I get exercise, the extra trip has added benefits.

My Croozer cargo trailer is shown above, only about 1/2-full, with about 30 lbs of groceries from my local farmers’ market.  When not in use it folds down to a small size, quickly attaches to my bike, and comes with a nylon cover that keeps my cargo from falling out.  The interior cargo area of the trailer measures 28 inches long, 19 inches wide, and 12 inches deep.  This lightweight, medium duty trailer is rated to about 65 lbs towing capacity and holds about 6 full-size grocery bags (I’ve actually towed a little more than 65 lbs with the Croozer, but the manufacturer does not recommend it).  I’ve also used the trailer to haul picnic supplies, hardware, office supplies, etc.  I’ve even hauled rocks (yes, rocks), from the local canyon to use for natural decoration in my garden.

The trailer’s towing arm (shown below) attaches to a small metal hitch connected to your rear wheel hub that is easy to install.  You do notice the extra weight when the trailer is fully loaded, as is to be expected, but simply shifting into a lower gear is sufficient for me to deal with the extra weight and the trailer rolls smoothly behind my bike, even when loaded.  I’d recommend a bike with mountain-bike gearing if you’re going to pull a trailer in a hilly area like I do, and remember to give yourself more braking distance when going downhill towing a load.  The trailer does not affect the balance of the bike as much as loaded panniers do, but I wouldn’t recommend taking corners at racing speed while hauling a cargo trailer.  Despite these caveats, the trailer is remarkably smooth and easy to pull.  Having used the Croozer for a little more than a year, my main complaint about this design is that there are very few places on the trailer to hook a bungee or cargo net for oversized or shifty loads.

There are numerous other bike trailer options out there, including bike trailers for towing kids, dogs, and other gear, and in a later post I will review the Surly Ted cargo trailer, which is a bit more heavy-duty and has a towing capacity of 300 lbs.  Specially designed cargo bikes can also be an option for carrying large, heavy loads, and a number of manufacturers are producing them, including Surly, Soma, Civia, Trek, Bullitt, and Cetma, just to name a few.  Front-loading cargo bikes called “bakfiets” have been popular in the Netherlands for years, where people use them for all manner of transportation needs.  Such bikes are beginning to catch on here in the U.S., as gas prices go higher and people gain a heightened awareness of the connection between our automobile habit and climate change.  There is even a group of like-minded cargo bike enthusiasts on facebook.  While specially-designed cargo bikes have some advantages, I like the trailer option, because you don’t have to buy a separate cargo bike (they can be quite expensive), and you can detach and fold up the Croozer cargo trailer when not in use.

Occasionally, I still use my car for hauling really heavy, oversized loads, but my cargo trailer enables me to carry 95 percent of my family’s grocery and other goods by bike, and I get a great workout while I’m at it.  The addition of the cargo trailer has made it possible for me to go “car-lite” and leave the car at home for a wide variety of errands.  I know that most Americans aren’t going to give up their cars (I still have one, after all), but my response to my skeptical neighbor is that not only can you go to the grocery store on a bicycle, you can bring home quite a large load of groceries, get exercise, and have fun doing it.

Scenes from Autopia

Last week I was riding my bike home from the market with some groceries, when I saw a friend leaving her workplace, which is about a quarter of a mile from her house just up the same street.  She walked to the street, got into her SUV, made a U-turn, and drove home a distance of roughly 1,500 feet.  The street is not terribly busy, not too steep, and has a sidewalk.  Yet, instead of walking or riding a bike, the default mode of transportation for my friend, and for most Americans, is a car.  That used to be me, until I discovered how easy, healthy, and fun it could be to get around on my bike.

This begs the question of whether it is really necessary for an able-bodied adult to drive a 3,000-lb SUV to a destination 1,500 feet away.  There may be times when it would be necessary to drive that short a distance, perhaps if one had an oversized load, a broken leg, or if weather was really bad and you had small children with you (though some people with small children have gone car-free and loved it, like this family in Portland).  But surely we can drive less and be healthier (and happier) for it.  Would it really be so hard to substitute one short car trip per week for walking or bicycling?  Just one?  The sad part is, my friend, like most Americans, probably never thought twice about firing up the SUV for a 1,500-foot trip down the street on a pleasant, sunny morning.  It just becomes habit.

In this case, it is not primarily the lack of bike or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that is the problem, or time (on my bike, I passed her house roughly 15 seconds after she got there in her car).  I hate to say this, but a big part of the problem is laziness, mental and physical laziness that our car-culture encourages.  Why exert your own energy, when there is plenty of gas to burn and it will do the work for you?  And, there’s the wrongheaded assumption that riding a bike or walking is for losers (remember the Missing Persons song “Walking in L.A.”?  . . . only a nobody walks in L.A. . . .).  But, really, have we become so dependent on cars that we don’t even think twice about driving 1,500-feet rather than walking or bicycling?

And, of course, there’s the traffic and pollution such short trips produce.  Our cars spew more pollution and greenhouse gasses in the first three miles when their engines are not warmed up, than they do after.  And there’s the lack of exercise we Americans get.  Perhaps, like many Americans, my friend pays to go to a gym (doubtless she’ll drive there) and walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike.  Paying money and burning gas to go nowhere and get the exercise our driving deprives us of.

Now, I’m not advocating that everyone give up cars completely (I haven’t).  There are times they may be necessary, especially in many suburban neighborhoods where distances are great, but it is time to recognize the physical, economic, and environmental costs of our driving habit, and rediscover the healthy, economical alternatives of walking and bicycling for some of our short trips.

Take the step.  Leave your car at home for one short trip per week–just one.  It makes a world of difference.

Bike Baskets and Racks

As I use my bike for errands and everyday transportation, I’ve found the wire bicycle basket to be a great way to tote a variety of small to medium items, increasing the practicality of my bike (pictured is my Surly Long Haul Trucker).  As shown above, I’ve stashed my swim gear in the basket when going to swim some laps and I’ve secured it with a small elastic cargo net.  The basket also works great when I’m at the grocery store or farmer’s market, and if I’m carrying stuff in my panniers, I know I’ve always got room for any overflow in my basket.  I’ve had this setup on my LHT for years, and this review, as with all my reviews, is offered as an unsolicited testimonial about gear I actually use.

The basket pictured is a Wald 139 basket that is 18 inches wide by 13 inches deep by 6 inches high.  Wald is a small family-owned company that makes a variety of bike accessories and bicycle baskets of all shapes and sizes.  They’ve been making wire bike baskets like these with the same quality for over 100 years, and they’ve got a classic look.  Well-designed functionality never goes out of style.  My basket is the perfect size for a camera bag, a couple of small pizzas, baguettes, a couple of bottles of wine, or a laptop, or books . . . whatever, really.

The Wald basket comes with mounting struts that attach to your front wheel axle, but my basket is mounted with zip ties on a Pass and Stow front “Porteur” rack.  This setup works well for me because it’s got a clean look and I can easily remove the basket without removing the whole rack.  So, if I need to carry, say, three extra large pizzas, or take a large box to the post office (both of which I’ve done), I just remove the wire basket and my Pass and Stow porteur rack will handle the oversized load.  Porteur racks get their name from the French delivery bikes of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that had flat front racks on them, so that oversized items could be carried on the bike.  It’s good to see these practical racks making a comeback (Cetma, Soma, Velo Orange, and Paul Component Engineering also make quality porteur racks, but overall I think the Pass and Stow is the most well-designed).  The Pass and Stow rack is hand made by Matt Feeney in San Francisco.  Matt has designed a sturdy, elegant front rack that will hold up to 60 lbs, and is easy to mount on the eyelets of my front fork.  I’ve carried all manner of cargo on my Pass and Stow rack, and it really increases the utility of the bike.  It’s also got a well-designed mount for a front light, which allows you to mount a light on the underside of the rack instead of cluttering up your handlebars.

In Europe and Asia, where bikes are often used for utilitarian purposes, you regularly see bikes with racks, bags, and baskets, because people carry stuff on their bikes.  Unfortunately, in the United States, most bicycle companies market bikes as purely fitness or recreational toys, and, depending on the bike shop you visit, it can be hard to find bikes ready to buy with such accessories.  However, as more Americans use bikes for transportation and commuting, this is beginning to change, and bicycle companies are offering “city bikes” or hybrids that will accommodate racks and baskets.  Having racks and baskets to carry things with makes it much easier and more practical to incorporate your bike into your “real life.”  And that, for me, is the whole idea.

Back to School

It’s the week after Labor Day, and school is back in session.  In Southern California that means schools become gridlocked traffic zones twice a day, with literally millions of idling cars burning gas, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, and creating school zones that are unsafe for pedestrians and bicycles.  The percentage of kids who walk or bike to school has plummeted in the last 30 years, and rates of childhood obesity have skyrocketed.  As the parent of two children, I worry about their safety, and only allow them to ride to school if I’m riding with them.  My oldest takes the bus to the local community college, and I’m proud of him for that, but my youngest usually gets driven to school, which is about 4 miles from our house, so I’m part of the problem.  I see parents drive their kids to school from houses that are as little as 1/4 mile from school, then, of course, drive them to some after school sports “activity” so they get exercise.  What lesson are we teaching our children when we drive them to school (indeed, most parents drive their kids pretty much everywhere)?  Seems to me we’re teaching them that cars are the norm, and anything else is, well, weird.

Earlier this week, not far from my house, a girl riding her bike to school in the morning was struck by a woman in a small SUV (there’s an oxymoron) who said she saw the girl, but said she mistakenly hit the accelerator instead of the brake, and pinned the girl and her bike under the front bumper of her SUV.  I don’t know the extent of the girl’s injuries, but thank goodness she was not killed.  The driver, according to press reports, was not cited.  To me, this is not just carelessness, but negligent operation of dangerous, heavy machinery on the public roadway.

I’m angry.  Angry that a girl who was doing the right thing by riding her bike to school was injured by a negligent or incompetent driver.  One more in the hundreds of thousands of Americans killed or injured by cars every year.  Angry that using a 2,500 lb motor vehicle negligently and injuring a human being does not even warrant a slap on the wrist.  No citation, no traffic school, nothing.  I’m angry that our society continues to privilege cars despite the damage they do to our health, our communities, and our environment. I’m angry that people who do the right thing by riding a bike for transportation must put themselves at unacceptable risk with too little protection from police or community leaders.

I want safe streets so that children can walk or ride bikes to school without fear of being hit by a car.  I want drivers to be held responsible when they injure someone with their steel projectiles.  I guess that makes me weird.

Dodgertown Bike Ride

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of participating in what I hope will be the first of many bike rides to Dodger Stadium.  The inaugural Dodgertown Bike Ride was a wonderful, easy-paced 4-1/2 mile ride from Lincoln Park in East L.A. to Dodger Stadium, where our group of about 50 bicyclists enjoyed free bike parking and (perhaps best of all for Dodger fans) watched the Dodgers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 2-1.  To get to Lincoln Park, my son and I took the Gold Line from Pasadena to the Lincoln/Cypress station and rode through the Lincoln Heights area, which gave us a nice tour of a part of the city I had not visited in many years.  There is an Old L.A. charm to the neighborhoods on the Eastside, and the bike is a wonderful way to experience it.  After the game, the group took a leisurely route back through downtown L.A., taking in the sights and sounds of the city on a pleasant summer evening.

The ride was the brainchild of Carlos Morales, president of the Eastside Bicycle Club, and an inspiring advocate for cycling as a way to improve physical fitness, especially for youth in communities of color.  Morales is himself an example of the regenerative power of bicycling to improve health and well-being, having used his bicycle riding to overcome obesity in his own life.  He and the other club members have created a wonderful community organization that encourages people to get on their bikes and have fun.  It is an inclusive, friendly group that is open to all, and makes everyone feel welcome.  I think the group has a deep pride in its community and a warmth that exemplifies the best of East L.A.  You don’t have to be a racer, don’t need the latest bike gear, or the fancy lycra outfit.  Their philosophy is to ride, have fun, get exercise, and be safe.

The Dodgertown Bike Ride is a great way to show Angelinos that they need not rely on the car to get to Dodger Stadium, and the first time in the 50-year history of the stadium that such a large group of fans has bicycled to the stadium for a game.  The Dodgers organization made everyone feel welcome and stadium staff provided us with a parking area right next to the stadium entrance.  With bicycling becoming increasingly popular as a form of transportation in L.A., I have a feeling this ride is a harbinger of more good things to come from the Eastside Bicycle Club.

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