Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

A Hidden Cost of Car Dependence

What happens to the “freedom” offered by the automobile when a person can no longer drive?  Cars are often marketed as a means of “freedom” in our society, but car dependence has real human costs that are rarely factored into discussions of our transportation infrastructure.  When an older person loses the ability to drive (and, to be clear, many people are perfectly capable of driving well into their senior years) it is seen as a loss of independence and self sufficiency, and such loss can be a serious blow to a person’s sense of self, affecting emotional and physical well-being.

Case in point: a relative of mine is reaching the point in her life when she can no longer drive herself.  She’s in her 80s, widowed, and has no children.  She’s mentally sharp, but a recent fall and a series of physical limitations have restricted her ability to drive, perhaps permanently.  She lives alone in a modest suburban house in a quiet neighborhood with nice neighbors.  However, like most suburban developments, spatial segregation and lack of alternative transportation make car ownership virtually mandatory.  The nearest grocery store and pharmacy is 1.5 miles away—not terribly far by suburban standards, but too far to walk.  The nearest public library and senior center, a little more than 2.5 miles away.  Doctors and family members are even farther away.

In other words, suburban design has separated housing from the most basic human physical and social needs based on the assumption that these needs would be perpetually accessible by automobile.  But what happens when the elderly are cut off from automobile use because of physical or cognitive limitations?  The car-centered suburb basically consigns them to social isolation and loneliness unless they have access to someone with a car (who also has the time to drive them around).  I’ve seen the result firsthand: depression and despair.

Of course, I do what I can for my relative, and it’s not as if we can’t get things delivered to her house, and there are dial-a-ride services, but all of these options require the carless person to be dependent on someone else.  Unfortunately, it is too far for her to walk to the nearest bus stop (an atrocious corner that lacks shelter or a place to sit while waiting) and the buses run too infrequently in the suburbs to make them convenient or practical (the nearest line runs once an hour in the afternoons).  What’s also missing from the car-centered suburb is the social interaction that comes from being able to walk a few doors down to a corner grocery store, butcher shop, or other neighborhood merchant.  The carless person can’t chat with neighbors while out running errands in the neighborhood, and feel part of the social fabric.  The circles of friends one has in the suburbs are accessed by car.  The loss of the ability to drive removes people from all that.  That’s what we’ve lost when we design suburbs around the “freedom” of the car.  If she lived in a denser, mixed-use neighborhood, there would be more services and people nearby, and she probably wouldn’t feel so lonely, dependent, and trapped.  Having lived in her house for the past 35-odd years and developed relationships with her current neighbors, my relative doesn’t want to move to a new place, and she shouldn’t have to.  My point is that when we start shifting away from a culture of sprawl, there will be a host of additional social benefits for those who live in denser neighborhoods designed around walking and transit.

Catherine Lutz, in Carjacked, her excellent book on the myriad costs of the car culture, discusses the way losing the ability to drive robs older people of their independence and makes them feel, as one senior put it, like “a prisoner in your own house.”

The bottom line is this: a car-dependent society ages our old people more rapidly, and infantilizes them more, than a society in which mobility doesn’t require that the traveler have the substantial and specialized range of cognitive and physical skills that are needed to drive. [pp. 111-12]

We need to have a conversation not only about making our streets more bikeable and walkable, but about subsidizing and expanding local transit and changing our zoning laws to allow for more mixed-use development in the suburbs, so that smaller, neighborhood communities can once again become part of our social fabric.  In order to do so, however, we’ll have to rethink 80 years of car-centered sprawl and the logic that gave rise to it.

Why bike lanes matter

The city of Carlsbad narrowed vehicle travel lanes on the coast highway to create buffered bike lanes that increase safety.  Traffic speed limits were also lowered.

Carlsbad narrowed vehicle lanes, creating buffered bike lanes and lowered speed limits on the coast highway.

I spent last week in Carlsbad and the surrounding North San Diego County area with my family for a summer beach break.  We come down here every year, and it is always interesting to watch the area slowly become more bike-friendly.

One of the new bike corrals in downtown carlsbad.

One of the new bike corrals in downtown carlsbad.

Perhaps the biggest change I noticed this year was the addition of more bike lanes and lots of additional bike parking in Carlsbad’s downtown business district.   The city got an active transportation grant from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and installed over 180 bike racks throughout town.  There are literally scores of new bike racks up and down Carlsbad Village Drive, the town’s main north-south artery, and even a new “bike corral” near the intersection of Carlsbad Village and State Street (see photo).  There are ample bike racks throughout town, especially at restaurants, beach access points, and other popular destinations in town.  It may seem like a small thing, but knowing there will be bike racks when you get to your destination is a major improvement, and the city has installed good “inverted U” racks (not the crappy “wheel bender” racks that some cities install as an afterthought).

Carlsbad Village Drive, the main artery through the village business district, now has new bike lanes along the shoulder of the road.  In years past, my family and I had not felt safe bicycling Carlsbad Village Drive and always avoided it, taking the long way around if we rode our bikes to the stores and restaurants on that road, but this year we were able to ride to shops and restaurants in the safety of a bike lane.  The ease with which one can now access the Village’s shops and restaurants by bike is remarkably improved.  These small changes made a huge difference for us, and I noticed more people bicycling around town than ever before.

The most impressive infrastructure improvement is the road diet on Carlsbad Blvd., the portion of the coast highway that runs through town (top photo).  Carlsbad Blvd already had bike lanes, but 40-45 mph traffic on the road made it an intimidating experience for all but the most fearless cyclists.  The city’s transportation department has now reduced the two auto traffic lane widths in each direction from 12 feet to 10 feet, creating 4 feet of space with which to provide wider bike lanes and buffer zones between automobiles and the bike lanes.  Meanwhile traffic speed limits have been lowered on the highway to 35 mph, and 30 mph in the central town area and pedestrian crossings have been improved.  The effect is to make the road much safer for everyone and make the town more accessible on foot and by bike.

By comparison, travel further south on the Coast Highway (Hwy 101) through Leucadia and Encinitas, and the value of separate bicycle infrastructure becomes abundantly clear.  There, with traffic speed limits averaging 40 mph, the bike lanes end and are replaced by sharrows in the right-hand lane and signs indicating bikes may use full lane.  I traveled that stretch daily for much of the week I was in Carlsbad, and noted the behavior of cyclists along the stretch of road that had sharrows.  Invariably, cyclists of all ability levels stayed as far to the right as possible, often riding on the shoulder instead of the middle of the sharrow lane.  Meanwhile, cars continued to zoom by heedless of the sharrow lanes.  In several instances, I saw slower cyclists leave the street entirely when the bike lane ended and continue on the sidewalk instead of the sharrow lane.  I can’t say I blame them, as automobile traffic on Hwy 101 can approach 45-50 mph on that stretch.

The situation may be different on the weekends, when packs of experienced cyclists could take and hold the sharrow lane on their fast-paced rides up and down the coast.  However, for a lone cyclist, whether an experienced commuter or an inexperienced kid on a beach cruiser, the sharrows on 101 seem so much wasted paint.  Some combination of lane removal, road diet, and/or removal of curbside parking on Hwy 101 should be undertaken to create space for bike lanes.  After viewing this dramatic demonstration of the difference between bike lanes and sharrows, Vehicular Cycling advocates who promote sharrows instead of cycle tracks or bike lanes cannot convince me that sharrows are superior.

The southbound side of the coast highway in Carlsbad now has a buffer protecting cyclists from the "door zone" as they pass parked cars.

The southbound side of the coast highway in Carlsbad now has a buffer protecting cyclists from the “door zone” of parked cars.

Carlsbad, like many beach towns in Southern California, struggles with traffic and parking congestion in the peak summer months (and, yes, tourists like me add to the problem).  As such, encouraging people to ride bikes for short trips around town makes good sense from a variety of perspectives.  It decreases traffic and parking congestion; decreases pollution, noise, and carbon emissions; increases the accessibility and vibrancy of the downtown business district; and improves public health.  Best yet, with its accessibility from the Coaster commuter rail, it’s now feasible to visit Carlsbad car-free and it should become a premier destination for bicycle tourism.  We’ve always loved Carlsbad for its beautiful beaches and lagoons.  Now it’s also becoming a great place to walk and bicycle and we have more reasons to love it.  It’s time for the neighboring towns of Oceanside, Leucadia, and Encinitas to catch up to Carlsbad.


One month ago, I got my wife an e-assist bike hoping that she’d accompany me on some of my errands and rides around town.  Four weeks and over 100 miles later, the bike has exceeded both our expectations and raised my awareness of the potential of e-assist bikes to further demonstrate the viability of bicycling as a transportation mode.

E-assist bikes like my wife’s Pedego City Commuter are basically standard bikes that use a small electric motor to assist the rider in pedaling the bicycle uphill, into a strong headwind, or for acceleration when needed.  A small rechargeable battery mounted unobtrusively on the rear rack provides energy for the nearly silent motor.  The bike can be ridden with or without power, and the City Commuter has a variety of settings that allow the rider to choose different levels of electronic assistance to the pedals depending on the rider’s ability and the terrain.

My wife’s previous bike was a fairly standard 21-speed hybrid bike that was comfortable for her on flat ground, but, because of arthritis in her hip and knee, she always had a difficult time pedaling up the steep hills near our home and, as a result, she rarely joined me on my bike rides, and when she did, she complained of soreness in her knees and hip afterwards.  We were both frustrated that she was unable to share the freedom, enjoyment, and healthy lifestyle of the bicycle with me.

pedego city commuter

I started researching e-assist bikes online and in several local shops, and on a recent trip to Seal Beach, I stopped by the Pedego shop in town and test rode their City Commuter.  I was impressed with the features and the fact that the Pedego has 5 different levels of pedal assist, an attractive design, and practical features such as a 7-speed rear cassette, a rear rack, front and rear lights, disc brakes, and fenders.  I also like the fact that Pedego routes the bike’s electric wires through the frame and integrates the battery into the rear rack, which preserves its clean lines.  You can hardly tell it’s an e-bike unless you look closely.

By allowing the rider to dial in how much pedaling effort they are willing or able to provide, an e-assist bike extends the range and practicality of cycling for a wider variety of people.  People who aren’t in great shape, have arthritis, or other physical limitations that may keep them off a regular bike, those who live in hilly areas (like I do), who want to haul a loaded bike trailer, or who want to commute by bike, but don’t want to show up sweaty are just some who might benefit from an e-assist bike.  They make it realistic for more people to go car-free or car-lite.

My wife and I joke about her “cheater bike” but she feels great and she’s riding way more than I ever thought she would.  She loves riding it and she’s even starting to substitute some short car trips for her bike.  It has really been a game-changer for her.  Our next step is to get a set of panniers so she can run more errands with her bike.

Purists may grouse about the power assist, but I’m convinced that e-assist bikes are a valuable option for many people.  The battery and motor add weight, but that hasn’t really been an issue since the e-assist function more than compensates.  They’re also not cheap, as far as bikes go.  Figure on spending something in the range of $1,600 – $2,400 for a new one, depending on the features.  This may initially limit the market share for e-assist bikes.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see prices come down as they gain popularity.

E-assist bikes aren’t for everybody, but I think they are here to stay, they are loads of fun, and they have a great deal of potential to get more people out of their cars.

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