Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Excuses, Excuses

I’m a staunch advocate for bicycling, I admit it.  In the past year, as I’ve increasingly used my bicycle and transit instead of my car, I’ve discovered the possibilities of this simple, economical, healthy, and sustainable mode of transportation.  I started this blog, at least in part, to document that it is possible and enjoyable for an “average” person to reduce automobile usage significantly and share the ways my life has been enriched by it.  Indeed, so much have I gained, in terms of heath, monetary savings, and the pleasures of going car-lite, to go back to automobile dependency now would be a big loss.

Convincing others, well, that has been a much tougher nut to crack.  Safety, of course, is a major (and legitimate) concern of most people.  Riding a bicycle in traffic, with nothing but a plastic helmet to protect you, is simply not a comfortable or low-stress option for most Americans.  I am convinced that we must invest in bike-friendly infrastructure to make it easier for people to ride a bike for transportation.

But what about people who already bicycle for exercise?  Particularly frustrating, in my view, have been some of my conversations with friends who are avid recreational cyclists, who think nothing of going on a 50-mile ride, but who wouldn’t dream of using their bikes to go to work or make a run to the store for a half gallon of milk.  One friend of mine posts constantly on his facebook page about his mileage on the bike path and his ride times, as if it would earn him a stage victory in the Tour de France.  When I ask him why he doesn’t ride his bike for transportation, he provides a string of excuses: “I had a bike stolen once …”  What about buying a lock? “Locks weigh too much …”  And on it goes.  To me, these aren’t legitimate reasons not to ride a bike for transportation, but they are the kind of hurdles we sometimes place in front of ourselves to justify driving the car to Starbuck’s or the store instead of riding our bikes.

Nevertheless, while my friend may lack the “can-do” spirit that is required to break free of automobile dependency, he is far from alone, and we must recognize that our car-centered culture does not make it easy for people to break free and ride two wheels instead of four, even those who might be otherwise inclined to do so.  In other words, our lack of bike-friendly infrastructure—bike lanes, cycle tracks, secure bike parking, etc.—makes it easier to make excuses for not riding our bikes for transportation.

I was reminded of this in a recent article by Dr. Stephen Fleming, a Canadian architect, urban planner, and author of the blog Cycle Space, who brilliantly lays bare how we need to conceptualize making bicycling as convenient as we currently make driving a car to remove the excuses:

All of our excuses for not riding bikes could be designed out of existence as thoroughly as we have designed out of existence any excuse not to use cars. There is no excuse not to use cars. Every street has been engineered to make driving safe and speedy. With no expense spared, every building has car parking slung over and under. Lifts and tunnels portal us from surrounding car parks into those buildings. Half our labours as nations has been spent making it possible to cart a tonne of steel with us, to work, to the shops, then back to garages adjoining our kitchens. The job of creating a similar city, where there is no excuse ever, not to use bikes, is hardly as mammoth as the car enterprise.

For the better part of the past 80 years we’ve built our environment around the automobile, so that it seems “natural,” that we should have endless sprawl, massive corridors of concrete we call “freeways” slashing their way through our cities, and huge parking structures to store our 2,000-lb metal boxes when they’re idle.  Automobile infrastructure is massively expensive and impoverishes us in other ways as well.  It is time for us to get serious about shifting a larger portion of our resources and our public space to create a built environment that is as friendly to walking, biking, and transit as it now is to the automobile.


Yesterday I took the Croozer cargo trailer to the store to pick up our organic free range turkey (with apologies to my vegan friends) and other goodies for Thanksgiving.  It’s the second year that I’ve shopped for Thanksgiving by bike, and it not only allowed me to burn off some of the calories I’ll undoubtedly put on, but the weather was absolutely perfect for riding.  I find that the bike rides to pick up this or that holiday item help elevate my mood and reduce the stress that sometimes comes with the holidays, reminding me of the simple things in life I am thankful for.  It’s a great way to get around and see friends and neighbors, too.

Best wishes to all my readers, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and ride your bike!

Alan Deane

Last September, Alan Deane was riding his bicycle to work in Pasadena when he was struck and killed by a driver who made a left turn into him.  It was Alan’s 61st birthday.

Yesterday Deane’s killer, 30-year-old Sidharth Misra, was sentenced in a Pasadena court after being convicted of reckless driving.  After viewing a surveillance video of the incident, Pasadena Police initially sought a charge of Vehicular Manslaughter, but attorneys plea bargained it down to reckless driving because, as Judge Stephen Monette explained, even though Misra was entirely at fault, there was no evidence that he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  So let me get this straight.  If you’re impaired and you plow into a bicyclist, it’s manslaughter.  If you’re perfectly sober and you plow into a bicyclist because you fail to exercise proper caution, you’re held to a lesser responsibility?  Seems like when you’re sober, you ought to be expected to know better.

In the courtroom, Mr. Misra expressed remorse for his actions, and I do not doubt he is sincere, but I would expect that someone who recklessly takes someone else’s life with a motor vehicle to at least lose the privilege of driving for a while.  This driver has proven he can’t properly handle a motor vehicle.  Mr. Misra’s penalty for killing Deane?  400 hours of community service and 3 years probation.  Alan’s grieving father told the Pasadena Star-News he considered the penalty “a slap on the wrist,” and “completely insignificant.”  I agree.

Among bicyclists, there is an ironic joke that if you want to get away with murder in the United States, just be sure your victim is on a bicycle and you are in a car.  No judge will punish you.  Judge Monette said at the sentencing, “Nothing I do can ultimately change the fact that Mr. Deane is not with us anymore.”  So, if you’re killed by a reckless driver while lawfully riding your bike home, too bad?  The guy who couldn’t be bothered to slow down and watch the road while operating a 2,000-lb motor vehicle can’t be expected to be held fully responsible for taking a human life, can he?  Certainly no reason for suspending his driver’s license for a while, eh judge?  After all, as judge Monette said to the other (motorists) in the courtroom: “All of us could have been in that situation …”  You know how it is.  We all drive recklessly and take a human life from time to time.

In many European countries, there are “vulnerable road user” laws that protect bicyclists and pedestrians.  Penalties are stiff for killing a vulnerable road user and drivers are taught to watch for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Road design in Europe also provides space for bikes and pedestrians and slows traffic speeds.  As a result, their safety records are far better than ours.  Their laws value human life over shaving a minute off someone’s drive home.

Maybe we should too.

Bikes and Exercise

Last week, a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine documented the longevity benefits of regular exercise.  The study noted that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise adds an average of 3.5 additional years of life, and 4.2 years for those who do an hour a day of “brisk walking or its equivalent.”  While these findings are not particularly surprising, what is surprising is the fact that such exercise benefits even those who are overweight or obese.  In other words, it’s not primarily how much you weigh that determines health, but how frequently and how regularly you exercise.

In our culture obsessed with thinness, this study helps us understand the overall importance of regular physical activity, rather than simply weight loss, as a marker of physical well being.  “We have to get people to understand that it’s not all about weight,” Dr. Robert Sallis of Kaiser Permanente commented on the study in the Los Angeles Times.  “Not everyone can lose weight, but everyone can get fit.”    Public health specialists said the study offered “very conclusive” proof that what the Times called “our widespread laziness,” is at least as much a problem as the obesity epidemic in the United States.

When I read such stories, it reinforces for me the critical necessity of public investment in bicycle infrastructure such as cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, and bike paths in our cities and suburbs.  Such infrastructure will encourage more people to change their sedentary lifestyle by making it safe and convenient for people of all ages and fitness levels to ride a bike for everyday transportation.  Many people lack the time, money, or will to join a gym and stick with an exercise regimen, but everyone needs to get to work, school, the store, or other nearby destinations.  If we designed our roadways to make it safer and more convenient for people to ride bikes to these destinations, more people—not just the relatively small proportion of hard core road riders—would use bikes as part of their everyday lives, improving their health and well-being at the same time.  Making it easy and safe to get from point A to point B on a bicycle (or by walking) will do more for public health in our communities than all the earnest exhortations to exercise, which tend to reach those already inclined to exercise.  The study also underscores the fact that the exercise need not be strenuous to offer widespread health benefits.  The belief that one must be on the latest carbon fiber race bike and train for a 100-mile ride intimidates many people who might otherwise ride to school, the store, or to a friend’s house.  We must design bike infrastructure to be welcoming to that vast majority of the population that are not elite athletes.

Add public health to the many reasons we need to shift our transportation design priorities away from the automobile and toward “complete streets” with protected space for bicycles and pedestrians.

Bike CommutingTips

Riding in traffic can be stressful for most people.  Recent studies show that many people would commute by bicycle if they felt safer doing so.  Not surprisingly, lack of bike-specific infrastructure (bike paths, cycle-tracks, and separated bike lanes) inhibits many of these people from riding their bikes.

While it is important (I would say even essential) that we encourage cities, counties, and other local agencies to build bike-friendly infrastructure, the reality is it’s probably going to be some time before L.A. looks like Copenhagen (I do believe it will eventually happen for both environmental and economic reasons).  In the meantime, there are things you can do to use your bike for short trips and commutes.

My first bit of advice is to start slowly and gradually increase the distances you ride.  Three years ago, I started riding my bike one short trip (less than 2 miles round trip) per week instead of driving my car.  Usually, I would go someplace like the post office, bank, the local coffee shop, or the park.  Sometimes, after dropping my car off at the mechanic’s for service, I’d ride home, and then ride my bike back later to pick up my car.  If you had told me then that I’d be going virtually car-free in three years, I’d have thought you were crazy.  But, gradually, I started going for longer rides, and I got some panniers to carry a couple of grocery bags, going to the grocery store for small loads once a week.  Here’s the thing: there’s no right or wrong way to begin to bike commute.  Do what you’re comfortable doing.  You’re not training for the Tour de France.  Any practical trip you make on your bike rather than driving your car is a good trip.  Any time you leave your car at home, you’re doing the right thing.

Another thing to remember when you take your bike is that you may not want to take the exact same route to your destination that you take in your car.  Many communities (like mine, for example) lack good bike infrastructure, like bike lanes, bike paths, or cycle tracks; and many people—especially beginning riders—are (understandably) uncomfortable riding in heavy traffic on major arterial roadways.  The key is to scout out a less-traveled route or one with bike lanes.  If you’re unsure, drive the route first to make sure you’d be comfortable on it.  Another way to scout a bike-friendly route is by using Google Maps, which now has a function that allows you to find bike friendly routes to your destination.  It highlights streets with bike lanes and bike routes.  Google satellite view also lets you view roadways ahead of time.  Another thing to remember is that traffic on your local roadways varies widely depending on time of day or day of the week.  A route that goes past a school, for example, might be packed with cars at 8:30 AM, and nearly deserted 45 minutes later.  When you’re starting out, if you can avoid those heavy-traffic times, it will make your commute/errand a whole lot less stressful.

Third, learn your rights and responsibilities on the road.  According to the California Vehicle Code, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities on the road as cars do.  That means, obey traffic signs and signals, ride defensively, ride predictably, and know your rights.  I always assume drivers will not see me, so, as I approach intersections, for instance, I always look at the driver’s eyes to make sure they see me.  I nod, wave, and try to be friendly to my fellow road users, even if they don’t always return the courtesy.  It’s not hard to do so.  Bicycling puts me in a good mood (all those endorphins) and, besides, I’m trying to change the culture, one smile at a time.  Besides, I have sympathy for drivers.  They’re strapped into their miserable steel and glass boxes, slaves to the car payment, insurance companies, and the oil companies.  I’m free.  I can afford a smile.

Helmets?  In California, they’re mandatory for riders under the age of 18, and I recommend them.  But many people don’t like wearing them.  Don’t let a silly thing like a helmet keep you from riding your bike.

Go ahead.  Run that errand on your bike.  You’ll be saving gas, getting in shape, and saving the planet, too.

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