Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

CicLAvia to the Sea

Bike love

Sunday 4.21.13 was the sixth CicLAvia (not sixth annual as many corporate media outlets erroneously reported), this time along a new route from downtown to Venice beach.  The route was a bit longer this time, 15 miles one way as opposed to 10-12 miles in the past, and offered CicLAvia’s first direct connection with the west side.  What follows are some reflections as CicLAvia continues to mature and grow as an L.A. event.

First, the good.  CicLAvia continues to introduce people to a new way of thinking about experiencing the city.  Yesterday, I met two first-timers on the Gold Line to downtown.  Neither had ever been downtown on their bikes and neither had ever been on the Gold Line.  I could see the excitement in their eyes and told them they’d be in for an unforgettable experience.  CicLAvia to the Sea also allowed me to see parts of L.A. I was unfamiliar with, and connected downtown with the beach, which seems a natural connection to me (DTLA to Long Beach, anyone?).  First-timer JustAdventures shared her sense of wonder and totally gets CicLAvia.

I’ve been to all six of the CicLAvias, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them all.  Moreover, I’m not going to rant on the organizers who have a herculean task of managing this growing beast.  However, I have a small critique along the same lines as blogger Asymptotia.  I’ve always had time to bike the entire route and back, but this time the route was longer (which was fine with me) and the delays along the route much longer (which was problematic for a number of reasons).  The crowd, conservatively estimated by organizers at 150,000, but probably closer to 200,000, was simply too large for the amount of road space we had.  For much of Venice Blvd., LADOT gave us only half of the roadway, which led to major bottlenecks and long waits in the hot sun at traffic lights.  At least twice riders had to wait for four red light cycles before being able to proceed.  With these delays, the ride simply took too long.


I started my CicLAvia at La PLacita downtown at 10:00 am, and estimated riding at a moderate pace I’d be in Venice by 11:30, 12 noon at the latest.  I had arranged to meet a Venice friend at the hub there.  Unfortunately, because of the long delays at traffic lights I did not get to Venice until about 1:00 pm.  Three hours to complete a 15-mile course is an average speed of 5 miles an hour.  Once I got to Venice, I had to cancel with my friend because I did not think I would have had enough time to get back to Union Station before the route closed at 3:00 pm unless I immediately turned around and started back.  I grabbed a quick bite to eat, watching the clock the whole time and began my return.  As it was, I rode the bike lane on the eastbound side of Venice Blvd. much of the way back to Culver City rather than get stuck at traffic lights on the CicLAvia side of Venice Blvd.  I felt like I had to  ride fast to beat the clock, and that is not the spirit in which CicLAvia should be experienced.  I decided to take the Expo Line from Culver City back to downtown, which I’d never ridden, but I really would have preferred to ride my bike all the way back.

I trust this isn’t what organizers had in mind when they planned this new route, and I also hope some changes will be made next time.  I would start the event an hour earlier (or end it an hour later) to give people more time to explore the longer route and work with LADOT to reduce the number of traffic stops along the way.  I think the overwhelming popularity of the event and its purpose (to get us out of our cars and connect us with our city and each other) provide ample reason for these changes.

Despite these glitches, I’m still a huge CicLAvia supporter.  It really has changed the way I perceive my city.  Perhaps it is a measure of the fundamental shift in consciousness that CicLAvia has wrought that I am no longer blown away by 15 miles of L.A. streets open for people instead of cars.  Experiencing city streets without cars seems almost normal now.  I’m no longer surprised when nearly a quarter of a million (a quarter of a million!) Angelinos of all races and colors and ages show up to enjoy these open streets.  A quarter of a million of us showed up and voted with our feet, with out bodies, with our bikes.  We want safe, car-free space to ride our bikes for everyday transportation, for health, and for fun.  The era when the automobile held unquestioned sway over our public space in the most car-centric city in America is coming to an end.  Elected leaders, are you listening?

Cars and “Freedom”

DODGE_letfreedomrev copy

Any casual glance at television in the United States brings a reminder from the oil and auto industries that cars equal “freedom.”  Usually it’s a subtle, implicit association, showing images of smiling drivers on an open road, usually along the coast, a beautiful mountain road, or other open space.  Watching these ads you’re not supposed to remember that cars bring with them sprawl, and sprawl destroys those open spaces and those uncongested roads the viewer is so nostalgic for.

Other times the association between freedom and cars is more explicit, as in Dodge’s use of a George Washington lookalike to suggest cars helped win America’s independence from the British [see above].  Another entry into this over-the-top category is country singer Tim McGraw’s recent commercial for an oil company in which he comes as close as a person can to actually making love to his car and refers to cars, with complete lack of irony, as “living, breathing organisms.”  The commercial shows the all-American image of McGraw driving a Jeep along a dirt road by a placid lake, while his voiceover calls cars the very embodiment of “American freedom.”  The ad, titled “Tim McGraw Freedom,” actually ends with McGraw holding a quart of engine oil, looking into the camera saying “long love cars.”

If there was even a hint of irony there, it would be hilarious, but Madison Avenue is not known for irony when it comes to cars.  I think here of the Mercedes ads of the 1990s and 2000s that used Janis Joplin’s anti-consumerist song “Mercedes Benz” as a completely unironic soundtrack.  Joplin’s song was originally recorded just days before her death and she intended it to be a reminder that material goods don’t bring happiness, despite what the admen and women try to sell us.  The wonder is that anyone with half a brain could listen to that song and think it was appropriate as a jingle for a car commercial.

So far as I know, no one has studied the specific cultural impact of the pervasive and unending barrage of images equating cars with freedom in our society, not to mention the economic impact of all those ads on media coverage of issues related to the automobile, the environment, and public health.  It would not surprise me at all if the effect of all this repetitive automobile propaganda on the collective psyche and the media was profound.

Juxtaposed with these images is a recent study I came across this morning, concluding that air quality near freeways may be worse than previously thought.  The study, by researchers at UCLA and the California Air Resources Board, found unhealthful levels of air pollution within a mile of freeways in the hours between 4:30 and 6:30 am.  People living a mile downwind of a freeway are thus exposed to unhealthful levels of particle pollution, nitric oxide, and hydrocarbons during these hours, all of which have been shown to contribute to asthma, heart disease, and other health problems.  The study is yet another in the already large body of scientific evidence showing the price we pay for our addiction to cars.

Because of these health dangers, the L.A. Times noted, the report urged people who live near freeways to

keep your windows closed in the hours just before sunrise.  Use air conditioning.  Install HEPA air filters.  Postpone outdoor exercise until later in the morning or exercise farther away from the highway.

Yup, shut yourself up in your house, close the windows, and don’t go outside to exercise.  That’s American Freedom for ya.

Long Love Cars.

Bikes and Suburbia


Recently, I read an article by D.J. Waldie, the bard of suburban living and author of the critically-acclaimed memoir of Lakewood Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.  As the product of suburbia myself, Waldie’s essay got me thinking about the ways in which the form of the suburb has shaped our thinking about the automobile and personal mobility in general.

Waldie’s memoir is a defense of the postwar suburb against those who argue that they are essentially places without memory, without individuality, making up in materialism what they lack in culture.  For Waldie, Lakewood was his place of memory, the place that shaped his individuality, and his almost poetic defense of it let you know that it wasn’t without its deeper cultural significance.

In his recent essay, Waldie wrote about giving a tour of Lakewood to Gwendolyn Wright, professor of Architecture at Columbia University, and offered his insight on ways suburban form shapes the consciousness of the individual and, by extension, the community.  “The tour is, by necessity,” he writes,

an argument with illustrations. It’s an argument about the place of everydayness and about the purpose of the habits of ordinariness that are built into any human-made landscape. Inescapably, the built molds the personal. It works even in inattentiveness, engraving patterns of the familiar.

Waldie allows that this landscape is perhaps best understood on foot, for it is only at the slower pace that one sees the small details that give texture to a place.

Walkers see modest (even humble) vistas opening at a pace that lets contemplation occur unbidden. You can be woefully distracted by daydreams or sorrow while walking a suburban sidewalk, but then a birdcall, the rattle of the wind in the leafless trees, the unconscious expectation fulfilled in seeing again some sight will momentarily lighten the darkness of self-absorption. A sense of place is made.

As anyone who has bicycled or walked a neighborhood knows, one sees, hears, senses so much more of a place on foot or on a bike than in a car.  In fact, one of the things that has struck me so powerfully since I began riding my bike for transportation four years ago is the richer sense of place one gets when not in a car.  It’s not just the speed, it’s also the way we are literally insulated from “the world” in our cars.  It is a testament to the blindness of many developers that some postwar suburban streets even lack sidewalks as well as safe places to ride bikes.

At least Waldie considers a walking tour, but ultimately succumbs to the imperative of the automobile.  “It’s not possible,” he says, to walk the tour.

My town is relatively dense but not very compact, and we have to drive to its places of memory.

“We have to drive.”  How often, living in suburbia, do we hear those words?  How often have we said them without thinking?  Nestled in the middle of his sentence is one of the shortcomings of suburbia writ large.  Aside from the suburban home mortgage, the car is likely the largest personal expense incurred by the suburban family.  Thus it requires an enormous personal investment in a car to be a fully functioning member of the suburb.  This is one reason that suburban teenagers dream of the freedom of the drivers’ license and the car.  Without it, “it is not possible” to participate fully in the life of suburbia, and thus, to be fully human.  The car becomes an imperative and raises the cost of admission to suburbia.

Consider the social cost of this investment.  It impoverishes public transportation as working people struggle to pay for private motorized transportation (an average of $8,000 per car per year, according to 2012 figures from AAA).  That is an average of $8,000 per car per year invested in private modes of transportation instead of public transit.  Add to this the taxes and fees that go toward the building and maintenance of freeways and it’s no wonder suburbanites are often reluctant to support funding of public transit.  After shelling out thousands to car companies, finance banks, insurance companies, and auto repair shops, how much do they have left over?  The car also impoverishes public space, necessitating acres of parking lots for their storage, acreage that is bereft of any real human purpose.

There are, of course, the environmental consequences of the “we have to drive” mentality, not the least of which is climate change, and it is due time that we who live in suburbia address the way our mode of transport affects our world.  It’s not that any single person in suburbia is responsible for traffic congestion, air pollution, and climate change, but collectively we in suburbia are a big part of the problem when we assume driving is the way things have to be.

The real shame of the “we have to drive” mentality is that a city like Lakewood is eminently bikeable.  With a relatively flat topography and a little more than 3.5 miles across at its widest point, it would be easy to bike around Lakewood, enjoying the benefits the walker enjoys without adding to pollution, traffic, and the social isolation that the car causes.  Indeed, on Lakewood’s eastern edge sits the San Gabriel River bike path, which offers a dedicated bike route to the seashore in less time than it takes to get your car’s oil changed at the nearest Jiffy Lube.  Of course, I think some of Lakewood’s arterial streets need to be made more bike-friendly, as do most of suburbia’s, but distance and geography are not barriers to bicycling Lakewood.

None of this is meant to single out Lakewood as uniquely car-centric in its thinking.  It is a problem confronting all of suburbia.  Indeed, Lakewood has a relatively bikeable grid pattern of streets, instead of the awful meandering cul-de-sac model favored by some suburban developers (curving cul-de-sacs emptying onto high-speed arterials are much less bikeable and walkable).  It raises the importance of infrastructure in providing alternatives to the car-centered lifestyle, and some suburban streetscapes are more amenable to bikeability and walkability than others.  Nevertheless, we need to start thinking, as more communities are, about using the streets we’ve got in ways that encourage alternative transportation, even in suburbia.

Perhaps the best part of bicycling suburbia, where possible, is that it opens an alternative to the unthinking “we have to drive” reflex.  I look forward to the day when walking or riding a bicycle for short trips around one’s hometown becomes part of the “habits of ordinariness” in the suburban landscape.  When that happens, the suburban “sense of place” will be that much richer.

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