Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “June, 2015”

Another Outrage

GhostBike_Fig4AllIt has happened again.  Another bicyclist killed by a hit-and-run driver who couldn’t be bothered to stop and render aid to his victim.  The driver, witnesses said, was traveling in excess of 60 MPH on North Figueroa Friday morning at approximately 3:30 AM when he allegedly ran a red light and struck the cyclist who was  legally riding in the intersection.  Witnesses told police the driver did not even brake and dragged the victim for 100 feet before speeding off.  When police arrested the suspect, he was found to have abandoned his car and walked home, and the next morning was still over the legal limit for alcohol in his bloodstream and had debris from the collision in his hair.

I didn’t know the victim but I thought it was important to pay my respects to yet another cyclist who lost his life to the car culture.  I attended a ghost bike ceremony on North Figueroa in Highland Park, where the tragedy occurred, and was heartened by the sense of solidarity that our suffering and vulnerability as flesh and blood in the face of speeding steel brings about.  But I also get so tired of having to meet my fellow cyclists under circumstances such as these.  Another life lost.  Another ghost bike by the side of another unsafe street.

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The thing that makes this tragedy doubly infuriating is the fact that this stretch of North Figueroa had been slated for a makeover under the L.A. mobility plan that would have lowered automobile speeds and installed bike lanes.  No one can say for sure whether this “road diet” would have saved the victim’s life, but redesigning the street for the safety of all road users would have made it more difficult for any motorist to use Figueroa as a race track.  Unfortunately, the previously approved road diet was unilaterally halted last year by Councilmember Gil Cedillo who represents the district.  Some of the activists took matters into their own hands and painted DIY bike lane stencils on North Figueroa.  We shouldn’t have to do this, but when our leaders fail to act, the people must step forward and take matters into their own hands.

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In addition to paying my respects to the victim and his family and friends, I had to attend this memorial in order to bear witness to another example of the failure of car-centric road design and to the fecklessness of Councilmember Cedillo whose craven abandonment of the North Figueroa road diet is one of the more pathetic failures of L.A.’s political system in recent years.  Yet Cedillo blithely saunters on, mouthing concern for another victim of car violence while single-handedly blocking an approved road redesign that would have made North Figueroa safer for everyone.

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The Pope and Sustainable Transportation

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis caught my attention a while back, when I saw reports that, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he got around town by bus instead of a limo, and encouraged young seminarians to get about town by bicycle.  Thus, I was very interested to read his Encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si.”  The Encyclical ties together a number of important issues related to climate change and its threat to human society and the earth, our “common home.”  I recommend reading it for yourself, but for those without the time to wade through its 180-odd pages, here’s a good synopsis.

Laudato Si shows a good grasp of the scientific consensus on climate change and the threat it poses to humanity, and makes the case that we (i.e., global society) must end our dependence on fossil fuels sooner rather than later.  It is a courageous document, addressed to the entire human family, that urges people to rethink the current throwaway culture that wastes natural resources, pollutes the air and water, and results in profound alienation from nature and from one another.  More than this, it also calls on those in the global north (i.e., U.S. and Europe) to reduce our overall consumption of resources and work for a more equitable distribution of wealth within our own societies and between rich and poor parts of the world.

In this sense, I found the Pope’s message consonant with Naomi Klein’s powerful book, This Changes Everything, in that it looks at the climate crisis as part of a larger interconnected crisis of unrestrained capitalism, runaway consumerism, and inequality.  I may take issue with the Pope’s stance on reproductive rights, but I think he appropriately focuses on the outsized per capita consumption pattern and carbon footprint of people in so-called “advanced” societies like the US.

Exhibit “A” is the idea that everyone should drive around in a 2,000-lb climate-controlled easy chair with a personal entertainment system and that we must sacrifice our cities and our open spaces to promote the continued widespread use of these machines regardless of the ecological, economic, and social damage they do.  The US has the highest per capita carbon footprint of any nation in the world, and the Encyclical points out that it is simply unsustainable to export this model of consumption to the rest of the world. The US EPA calculates that more than a quarter of our national carbon footprint comes from transportation, and this is magnified by the automobile-induced sprawl that exacerbates the problem of distance and dependence on the car.

As part of this larger argument, the Encyclical makes a powerful case for a shift in social consciousness about the way we live and includes specific references to transit and more livable (i.e., walkable and bikeable) cities.  In every world city where public transportation is prioritized, bicycles play a significant role in the sustainable transportation network that helps people get to their destinations.  The reasons for this shift are not only environmental, Francis argues, they are social, as the shift from the automobile/consumerist system enhances human relationships and fosters greater social equity in our communities.

In Ch. IV, Sec. III. of the Encyclical, he calls for “substantial” investment in public transit and critiques the automobile-based transportation model in terms that could have been said by any contemporary new urbanist planner:

  1. “The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.”

header-bikesThe shift away from the single occupancy vehicle (SOV) mode of transportation he calls for in Ch. VI, Sec. II. is part of a broader change that prioritizes frugality over consumerist excess:

  1. “. . . . A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”

The bicycle represents so many of the values Francis emphasizes in the Encyclical:  it is inexpensive to own and operate, making it accessible to all; it consumes relatively few resources to manufacture or use; its carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of the automobile; it’s utilitarian instead of luxurious; it promotes health, happiness, and well-being; and it connects us to our communities in ways that the automobile does not.  When combined with transit, it can reduce automobile use significantly.

The Encyclical speaks powerfully of the ethical dimension of our personal choices—the “little daily actions” we take.  When we ride a bike, take transit, or carpool, we act in such a way that directly affects the world around us.  During a recent forum on the Encyclical Brian Treanor, Professor of Environmental Ethics at LMU and bicycle commuter, noted that while one person bicycling isn’t going to end climate change, it is the larger ethic of the act that carries value, and when combined with efforts to organize for broader social change, makes a big difference.  When we become the change we wish to see, we send a powerful message of hope to all around us.

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It is refreshing to see an influential global religious leader who understands the role alternative transportation choices play in reducing our carbon emissions and promoting community, equity, and health at the same time.  I hope other leaders, religious and secular, begin to send the same message.

CicLAvia Pasadena

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It has been a while since I’ve attended CicLAvia, but with this one practically in my backyard, I could not resist.  It was the first ever CicLAvia outside the city limits of LA (and not the last) and the first one I attended with my whole family.  As we rode to the event, we encountered others headed to the event.  As we got closer, we saw more people, different ages and cycling abilities (i.e., not “cyclists”), and families with children who were headed to CicLAvia.  We waved, smiled, and exchanged pleasantries.  I always get excited as I see more and more people on different kinds of bikes headed to the open streets, like we are headed to a gathering of the tribes, distant kin on the same pilgrimage.  As always, it seemed everyone had a smile and the crowd represented a huge, diverse cross-section of Southern California.  As always, there were lots of families, lots of people of different ages, colors, backgrounds.

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I loved observing my wife and kids experience the delights of car-free streets and the sense of community that pervades CicLAvia.  My 15-year-old daughter, who rides to school with me each Monday, was awed at the sight and feel of Colorado Blvd filled with cyclists.  “This is so cool,” she said as we cruised the Boulevard.  “I wish it was always like this!”  Uh-huh, I smiled.  My wife, something of a chatty Cathy, particularly seemed to relish the conviviality of the event, striking up conversations with what seemed like every other person on the route.  After lunch at a local restaurant, as we rode up Raymond Ave next to a young couple who were singing a Maroon 5 pop song, my wife spontaneously joined them singing the chorus (much to the embarrassment of my daughter).  I smiled at the serendipitous, joyful human connections people make when they are released from dependence on their rolling isolation chambers.  Just another CicLAvia moment.

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This particular route was only 3.5 miles, the shortest CicLAvia to date, but since we rode there and back home, it didn’t seem too short to us.  There were local “feeder rides,” sponsored by a variety of groups, but I’d like to see a greater effort to get even more people to and from the event on their bikes, so that more of the surrounding streets become informally “CicLAvia-ized” on the day of the event.

I’m a huge fan of such Open Streets events not only because they’re wonderfully fun and allow everyone to connect with their community in ways they cannot in a car, but because they also enable people to experience the freedom of car-free streets.  When I asked my son what he liked best about CicLAvia, he told me it was the freedom of being able to ride around town “and not have to worry about cars.”

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This experience, I believe, is potentially subversive of the domination of our public spaces by the automobile, and offers an immensely popular signal to political leaders that people hunger for car-free streets.  As the open streets movement expands and becomes a regular part of the Southern California landscape it may alter people’s perceptions of what streets can be and expand their understanding of mobility beyond the automobile.

On our ride home, when I asked my son what he thought, his one word answer: “Awesome-tacular.”

Yup.  ‘Nuff said.

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