Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Topanga Creek Bicycles

TCB entry

Recently, I got some new handlebars for one of my bikes, which also gave me an opportunity to visit one of my favorite bike shops: Topanga Creek Bicycles (TCB) in Topanga Canyon.

It’s a special bike shop, unlike any other I’ve been in outside of Portland or San Francisco.  The shop is actually an old house nestled deep in a shady recess of Topanga Canyon, right next to whispering Topanga creek.  It’s been converted into a bike shop by owner Chris Kelly, who moved the shop from Hollywood a few years ago, and kept the charm of the house as part of its homey appeal.  But the delightful setting isn’t the primary reason I like the shop.  They make my favorites list, because they’re extremely knowledgeable and they carry lots of hard-to-find, quality stuff I like, such as Surly and Salsa bikes, Brooks saddles, Schwalbe tires, and Arkel bags.

Chris and the rest of the gang at TCB are dedicated to first-rate customer service while preserving a laid-back, friendly atmosphere.  Stop by on any given afternoon and don’t be surprised if they offer you some coffee or fresh-baked banana bread from their kitchen or maybe a hamburger if they’re grilling out back.  The interior of the shop almost feels more like sitting in a bike-lover’s living room than a retail establishment.  If the weather’s cold outside, Chris might have a fire going in the wood-burning stove that sits in the corner of the living room—uh, I mean showroom.  If mountain biking is your thing, they lead a regular Saturday morning ride in the Santa Monica mountains for riders of various ability levels and they’ve built quite a loyal following of mountain bikers.

My initial reason for finding this shop back in 2009 was that I had been looking for a good quality, versatile cro-moly steel bicycle frame to use as a serious urban utility bike and wanted a shop that would take the time to make sure I was properly fitted and, because I wanted to make some changes to the stock components, would customize the bike for me.  I also didn’t want a shop that was trying to push the latest carbon fiber fad or make me feel like I needed to buy clipless pedals and wear spandex if I wanted to be a “real” bicyclist.  I wound up purchasing a Surly LHT from them which they fitted with Soma Oxford bars, racks, and fenders.  Later I had them build a front wheel with a Shimano Dynamo hub that uses the energy of the wheel to power my lights without need for batteries or recharging (dynamo hubs are widely used in Europe where people use bikes for everyday transportation).

TCB shop

Recently, I had the shop order some new Jones Loop H-bar handlebars for my Salsa Fargo.  I got the Fargo a couple of years ago as an on/off road bike for riding fire roads in the mountains above my home, but I’ve lately been using it more as a cargo hauler and commuter.  The stock handlebars placed me in a riding position that was too stretched-out for me and was hard on my back, especially on longer rides.  Once they arrived, I made an appointment to bring my bike in for the installation of the new bars.

Jones loop H-bars

The Jones bar allows me to ride in a more upright, comfortable position, while still affording me multiple hand positions for longer rides and is suitable for on or off-road riding.  My initial review of these bars is that they are much more comfortable for me than the old bars, and as far as I can tell, sacrifice nothing in terms of ride quality.  The Jones bar’s unique shape provides a way to get in an “aero” position when going into a headwind, for example.  Overall, I’m extremely happy with these new bars (a longer review of the setup will be forthcoming).

TCB interior

An added plus was that I got to hang out and chat with the shop staff while my new bars were being installed.  Tanner, the young mechanic who worked on my bike, also showed me how to remove a worn-out chain and replace it, offering a number of helpful tips on chain maintenance.  I got my new handlebars, learned a thing or two about bike maintenance, looked at all the new bikes and gear in the shop, and talked bikes with Chris, Ryan, and Tanner, three really cool guys.  All in all, not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon.

I know this post sounds a bit like an advertisement for the shop.  Well, in a way, it is—but not because I received any compensation or was asked to.  Think of it as a way to share one of my favorite bike places with my readers.  I wish there were more shops like it (I mean, where else would you find a bike shop with a kitchen?).  But, then again, if there were, I wouldn’t have an excuse to see my friends at TCB.


What is it about being wrapped in 2,000 lbs of steel that makes some drivers feel entitled to harass cyclists on the road?  It happened again to me on my commute home last evening.  Some anonymous stranger presumed to reprimand me for riding a bicycle.

I was stopped at a red light, and had positioned myself so that I left enough room for drivers to make a right turn on the red, so I was not blocking anyone.  A chubby, middle aged guy in a cream-colored Lexus sedan pulls alongside me on the right, and says, in an obnoxious, disgusted, hectoring tone, “YOU’RE A BIKE … GET OUT OF THE MIDDLE OF THE LANE!”  Then sped off before I had a chance to give him a piece of my mind (the drivers who yell at me never seem to stick around for my choice response … I wonder why?).  Shortly thereafter, the light turned green and I rode home, fuming the rest of the way.

Mind you, I was riding legally, and had moved to the center of the lane precisely so as to allow drivers like my ignorant interlocutor to make a right turn on red.  I was obeying the law, riding with courtesy, wearing a helmet, had lights, etc.  You know, doing everything you’re supposed to do to ride safe and legal.  And yet, I was once again the victim of driver harassment.

Usually I laugh these clowns off, but there was something in this guy’s tone of voice that was so contemptuous, so full of bile, it really raised my hackles.  My initial impulse was to punch the guy in the mouth, and, since this is not the first instance of harassment I’ve experienced, I completely understand why a cyclist might hurl a U-lock at a car in frustration and anger.  Funny thing is, all three times I’ve been verbally harassed by drivers in the last 6 months have been cases of drivers basically telling me I shouldn’t be on the road (they’ve all occurred in various parts of Arcadia, which, as I’ve said before, has no bike infrastructure to speak of).  These are just the cases of verbal harassment, not including the times drivers have honked at me for no good reason.  In all three cases, I was riding legally or, as in the case of being stopped at the red light, occupying a safe, legal position in the roadway.  None of which spared me from the impromptu “lectures” I was subjected to by drivers who thought they would—what—teach me a lesson?  This doesn’t mean cyclists don’t sometimes violate traffic laws, but the thing is, I really do try to be conscientious on the road, and look where it gets me.  You know, I get tired of hearing law enforcement officials prate on about “scofflaw” cyclists.  What about motorists?

Bicycles already have a legal right to the road (see CVC 21202), but I’m more convinced than ever that bicyclists will never be respected until we get our own space on the roads (bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks, bike boxes, etc.) and laws that protect vulnerable road users.  I’m also convinced that more vulnerable and traffic averse segments of our population (which is a very large proportion of the population) will not use bicycles for transportation due to the risk of injury and harassment on the public roadways that belong to all of us.  I can’t say I blame them, I mean, who deserves to be verbally abused just for being on a bike?  And, I’m  a pretty good-sized adult white male, 6 feet tall and over 200 lbs.  I can only imagine the threat of abuse is worse for women and people of color.  Am I supposed to encourage my children (or anybody’s children) to ride a bike, because it’s economical, healthy, and good for the planet?  And we as a society are missing out on the benefits that alternative transportation can bring.  So we must also have PSAs on billboards, radio, and TV reminding people how to share the road with cyclists

We in the bicycle advocacy community are going to have to continue to organize and agitate for the rights of all cyclists, in the face of resistance from people who mistakenly assume the world owes them an open road for their luxury sedans, ’cause, y’ know, in the Lexus commercial there wasn’t all this traffic, and certainly no bicycles.

I’m also convinced that the automobile simply turns some people into complete jerks.  Wrapped in a steel cocoon and capable of speeding away in a second, the car gives people the luxury to be uncivil.  Reason number 2,678 that I’m really starting to hate cars (gasp! did I just attack one of the bastions of American freedom?).  Maybe I should turn the tables on them.  You know, just start shouting verbal abuse at law-abiding motorists:  “Hey JERK, get that car off the road, you’re creating more congestion!”  “You’re gonna KILL SOMEBODY with that thing, you DAMN FOOL!” “What kind of LAZY MORON goes to work in a CAR?!?”  “Buy a BIKE, for God’s sake, that car’s making you FAT!”  Or how about one that would apply to just about any driver: “Get that piece of shit off the road, A**HOLE, it’s destroying the planet!”

So, drivers, next time you feel that little urge to offer your “friendly advice” to a cyclist … don’t.  Just take a deep breath and keep your mouth shut.  I’ll try to do the same while I tolerate the presence of your polluting metal box on my roads.

The Tally

Riding w_trailer

After nearly seven months of going “car-lite” (that is, virtually car-free), I decided to do a year-end tally of the costs and benefits.

For the last 7 months, I have done almost all my commuting to work by a combination of bike and bus.  It takes longer, but fortunately I have a job that allows me to do some of my work while I’m riding the bus (checking email, doing routine paperwork, etc), and thus the time on the bus is not wasted time, as it is in the car.  I found that once I adjusted to the bus schedule, I actually arrived at work less stressed because I already had accomplished several tasks on the bus and I didn’t have to hassle with traffic and parking.  For part of my commute home, I ride my bike, which is necessary because the second leg of my two-bus ride stops running after 7 pm, and I must ride home (the absurdity of stopping bus service after 7 pm is the subject for another day).  The upside is that this bike ride home has become the most enjoyable part of my day.  I have figured out a route for this 10-mile ride that is relatively low stress because part of it is on a dedicated bike path and I’m able to take side streets for the remainder, on which traffic is relatively light during the time I’m riding.  It is a great way to unwind, de-stress, and get my cardio exercise.  This means I no longer have to go to the gym 3 days a week, which not only further reduces my driving but also combines my commute time and my exercise time.

As many of my readers know, I also run most of my errands by bike, and I’ve been using the cargo trailer to do most of my grocery shopping (see photo, above).  Again, once I figured out my route and my routine, it became as easy as taking the car and has the added benefits of reducing my automobile usage and providing me with more exercise.

I’m not superman.  I sometimes have used my car, like the day in October it was raining heavily and I was struggling to get over a nasty head cold.  I drove to work that day.  My arthritic knee gives me problems sometimes, and I might forego a big haul with the trailer on those days.  My wife still uses her car as she always has, and she takes my daughter to school most weekday mornings, and picks her up in the afternoon.  For family outings, we’ll usually all get in my wife’s minivan.  But my son, who goes to the local community college, has been using the bus to get to school, and my daughter and I ride our bikes to her middle school one day a week.  I’m not ready or willing to sell my car … yet.  Last weekend I finally had to fill my tank, but the fact is I’ve cut way down on my driving and I can actually imagine life without a car—something most of my fellow Americans cannot do.

So, what is my tally after 6 months of car-lite living?

Health:  When I embarked on this experiment, I used to work out about 3 days a week at the gym.  Since then, I have biked just about every day.  Sometimes it has been for a short ride to the post office or coffee shop, other days riding home from work, and still others pulling a cargo trailer loaded with groceries or other household supplies.  In that time I have not changed my diet (in fact, I think I eat a little more, because I’m always burning calories), and I’ve dropped 10 lbs, and about an inch in my waist.  Better yet, I feel great.  I no longer get winded as easily as I did before.  All-in-all, in addition to the physical well-being, my cycling has improved my mood, and I’m a much happier person when I ride my bike.

Money:  The last time I put gas into my car was June 7, 2012.  When I used to drive everywhere, I would need to fill my tank an average of about once every  9 days (less in the summer, when my work schedule slows down).  According to my estimation, adjusting for summer, this has saved me about 20 trips to the gas station since June.  The gas tank in my Corrolla holds about 10 gallons.  That means I’ve avoided burning about 200 gallons of gas since June.  If I estimate an average price of about $3.90 per gallon over that time period, that means I have saved about $780 in gas since June 7.  That’s almost $800 that stays in my pocket instead of going to pad the obscene profit margins of the likes of Exxon and BP.  The pleasure of sticking it to the oil companies: priceless.  My Corolla gets approximately 30 mpg, so that means I haven’t driven about 6,000 miles.  That’s an oil change for every 3,000 miles that I haven’t had to pay for.  At about $40.00 each at my local mechanic, that saves me about another $80.  Figure another $20 saved in parking.  My total estimated savings since June: about $880.

Environment:   According to the US EPA, each gallon of gasoline adds about 8887 grams (or a little over 19 lbs) of CO2 to the earth’s atmosphere.  This does not include the greenhouse gas produced by extraction and transportation of the fuel, so this is simply the CO2 coming from my tailpipe.  By not burning 200 gallons since June, I’ve avoided adding approximately 3,800 lbs of CO2 to the atmosphere—nearly 2 tons.  In addition, I’ve also avoided adding a significant amount of smog-producing crap like Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Ozone, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter (including brake and rubber dust) to the air we breathe as well.

Costs:  Of course, I had to buy a bike to commute with (about $1,200, when racks, fenders, lights, and pannier are factored in), and my croozer cargo trailer (about $120).  There are cheaper alternatives on the bicycle market, not to mention used bikes, but I am hard to fit and was looking for a particular bike setup, so I paid a bit more than one might expect for a commuter bike.  I have not bought any cycling-specific clothing, though I did buy a good rain shell ($100 on sale), helmet ($80), and cycling gloves ($20).  Total amount spent on commuter bike setup: about $1,500.

From a purely short-term economic standpoint, my bicycle commuting has cost me a little over $600 in 2012.  However, if I continue to commute by bike in 2013 (that is my intention), I should recoup the rest of those costs some time in the spring, depending on how often I drive this winter.  Longer-term, I think the benefits to my health and well-being (not to mention the environment) far outweigh the costs.

It has not been easy, but not because bicycling itself is hard.  The hardest part of my experience has been the time and effort dealing with an infrastructure designed around the automobile.  This necessitates taking time to scout out routes that are safe for bikes when traveling to a new place (nothing like finding yourself on an arterial road with cars whizzing by you at 45 mph and no bike lane) and the frustration of dealing with the lack of something as simple as a secure place to lock your bike at your destination.  Despite these difficulties, I am convinced that it is not only possible, but enjoyable, for the average suburban American to use a bike for at least some basic transportation needs. Even in the short term, it’s worth it.

New Year’s Resolutions

On the one hand, I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions.  I mean, if you’re going to do something, why wait for New Year’s day to resolve to do it?  On the other hand, the turn of the year allows us to look back and look ahead, assessing where we’ve been and where we want to go.

This year, I resolve to do more bike commuting in the winter, in inclement weather (which in Southern California means rain—usually lots of it—from January through March).  I’m prepared, with a Gore-Tex rain shell, rain pants, and my commuter bike has fenders and a rain cover for my pannier.  I think I’m ready for the challenge and I’ll post about my experiences riding in the cold and rain.

Looking back on my journey, I have accomplished more than I thought possible on my bike.  Four years ago I resolved to replace one car trip per week with my bike, and that resolution has grown over the last four years to the point that I’ve now replaced most of my car trips with my bike (or a combination of bike and transit).  I used to swear that I “needed” my car to commute to work, but I’ve figured out how to do my commute by bus and bike, and I am convinced that many more Americans could significantly reduce their carbon footprint (not to mention improve their health) by reducing the amount of driving they do.

Looking ahead, there is much that gives me hope.  On the one hand, bicycle activism is growing all over the nation.  Bike lanes and even cycle tracks are being installed in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  The City of Long Beach, CA has become a model of bicycle friendliness.  Here in the San Gabriel Valley, the City of Temple City has voted to put in a cycle track on Rosemead Blvd. and traffic calming and bike lanes on Las Tunas.  Pasadena has unveiled a new bike plan that modestly increases bike lanes around the city and the LA County bike plan proposes new bike paths along some of the regions rivers and creeks.  The city of Pomona is planning its own “Ciclovia” event for 2013, and there is a growing network of bike advocacy groups in Southern California.  What traffic planners call “mode share” of bicyclists is on the increase wherever bike lanes and cycle tracks exist, showing that there is a demand for bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets, and studies show that business districts with bike lanes see an uptick in local economic activity.

On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to resist the pessimism that comes from an honest assessment of how far we need to go to address the social and environmental problems we’ve created.  Here in California, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a sensible 3-foot passing law, already enacted in several other states, that would have required drivers to give cyclists 3 feet of leeway when passing.  Nationally, Congress cut funding for bike and pedestrian projects, and much more investment is needed in mass transit.  In 2012, the evidence of climate change continued to mount, but we have had very little movement to reduce our reliance on oil and other fossil fuels.  Nor can we just assume that buying a hybrid is the answer if people continue to drive as much as they’ve always done.  In too many ways we’re still in the thrall of the automobile.

Let us resolve to take the courageous steps necessary to redesign the infrastructure of our cities around sustainable transportation—transit, walking and bicycling.  The good news is, kicking our car addiction will combat climate change, enhance the livability of our cities, reinvigorate our public spaces, and make us healthier, in terms of greater physical activity and lower death and injury rates.

None of this will be easy, but should we say to tomorrow’s children, “Sorry, but driving my car less was too hard”?  The good news is, with a little resolve it can be done.

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