Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “Bicycle commuting”

Advice for a new bike commuter

One of my friends, a former student, asked me for some advice on social media for getting started bike commuting to the Gold Line commuter rail here in L.A.:

“What’s the best way to get started taking public transportation? The gold line is great, but I currently live 8 mi away from the closest station and another 1.5 miles from my work. I have so much gear that I bring to work (purse, lunch, gear for softball, etc.) so that’s a huge concern of mine with biking to and from stations. Any thoughts on how to get started? What equipment do you suggest?”

It’s great question, of course, and one that a lot of people have probably considered at one time or another. I wanted to use this opportunity to provide some thoughts on getting started and on equipment that would be useful to anyone thinking about bike commuting with transit.

The main concern my friend has is transporting gear on her bike, in this case “purse, lunch, gear for softball, etc.”). I’m assuming that softball gear includes a uniform, glove, and pair of cleats. She also might have undergarments, towel, water bottle, and batting gloves, in addition to a purse and a small lunch bag. These items will pack into a couple of utility panniers (one for each side of your rack). My personal favorite is the Banjo Brothers market pannier, which holds quite a bit and comes with handles and a shoulder strap, so you can carry your gear from your bike to the softball diamond. There are other similar products out there, and they really are versatile. A water bottle cage mounted to your bike frame will hold your water bottle.

Banjo Brothers market pannier (photo: Banjo Brothers).

 

My Trek XM700 e-bike with my swim gear in a Banjo Brothers market pannier.

Now, if you also need to carry a batting helmet and bat, that does create a little more of a logistical challenge. Your softball duffel bag can probably be bungee-corded to your rear rack, but you’ve got to make sure it’s secure, so several bungee-cords or a bungee net may be necessary.  I’ve rigged a carrier made from PVC pipe for my trekking poles for hiking in the local mountains (see photo), which could also work for a bat.

I rigged a holster for my trekking poles that can be attached to the rack via zip ties and/or bungees. Pannier holds my hiking gear. Something similar might also work for softball bat.

Another possibility for gear and a softball bat is a trailer. Most bike cargo trailers are too big for the Metro, but one product that would work is the Burley Travoy trailer, which would hold all your softball gear, and detaches quickly and would be no bigger than a luggage carrier when on the train. I’ve not used the Travoy, but reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Baskets are also good for carrying bulky items. Some of them fit on the back and others on the front.

What kind of bike? Well, that’s a loaded question. You see, bikes aren’t a one-size-fits-all type of thing. Different tire sizes, different frame styles and materials, different frame geometry, different drivetrains, different brakes. The list goes on. Generally speaking, commuter bikes tend to be a bit sturdier (and just a little heavier) than a lightweight racer. Some people modify mountain bikes, but this is only a good idea if the bike has eyelets on the frame to mount a rack and fenders).

For commuting, the essentials are (in no particular order): lights, white light up front and red light in the rear. a rack, usually mounted on the rear of the bike, but some bikes can be outfitted with front racks and baskets, too.

Gears: if you’re going to be riding in a hilly area or carrying stuff (especially uphill), you’ll want a bike with a wide range of gears. On the other hand, some people like the simplicity of lightweight single speed bikes.

Fenders are definitely a good idea if you’re going to ride in wet weather, since they keep you dry when the pavement’s wet. Take an extra bungee cord to help secure your bike on the Metro, especially if you’re going to be on the train for a while. Otherwise, you can just stand with your bike.

Helmet? By law only riders under 18 are required to wear one. I almost always wear one, but I don’t scold people who don’t.  Exceptions: if I’m going for a slow, short ride in my immediate neighborhood, or the bike path at the beach or an open streets event like CicLAvia. Otherwise, I wear one.

Try different bikes. If you go to a local bike shop and they have a bike you like, sit on it, try it out for size and comfort. They should let you take it for a test ride. Try changing the gears while you ride and get the feel for the bike.

The important thing to remember is this: you should feel comfortable on the bike. The advantage to  buying your bike from a bike shop (as opposed to a general sporting goods store or online) is that they are trained to find the right fit for you.

The other thing to remember is that bikes are to a surprising degree adjustable and customizable. The saddle, handlebars, and pedals are very important, as these are your “touch points” on the bike. You want these to be comfortable and practical for the type of riding you’re going to do. Handlebars uncomfortable? they can usually be raised, lowered, or swapped for a different kind of handlebar. I find that relatively upright, swept back bars are most comfortable for me. They give me an upright riding position, which reduces neck strain and gives me a good view of the road. Saddle uncomfortable? They can be raised, lowered, moved forward and back, tilted up or down.  You can also find a wide variety of after market saddles that suit a variety of riding positions and body types. Don’t be afraid to ask your bike shop to try different kinds. Pedals? There are a wide variety. I use platform-style pedals that don’t require special shoes. Cycling is a part of my regular daily routine transportation, so I don’t want to have to buy special shoes to ride my bike.

Bike security. Let’s face it, bike theft is a problem. If you need to leave your bike at the Metro station or outside while you’re at work, you’ll need a good lock. When I take my bike on the bus, I lock one of my wheels, so the bike won’t roll if somebody tries to steal it off the front rack on the bus (it’s a very rare occurrence, but it sometimes happens). Never use a cable lock as your main bike lock–they’re too easy for thieves to cut. You can use a cable to secure your seat or a wheel, but your frame should be locked to something stationary (here’s a good article on proper locking technique). I recommend a good quality U-lock or chain lock.  They’re a bit heavy, and not cheap, but worth it if you value your bike. If you leave your bike outside and out of sight for any length of time, use a mini cable lock to secure your seat to the frame. This will make it harder for thieves to steal your seat.

Tips for riding your first time.  Unfortunately, the relative scarcity of good bike infrastructure (i.e., bike lanes) means you need to do some research first. The route you take in your car may not be the best route for cycling. Pick a day when you’re not in a hurry to test a route to the Gold Line station. Google maps has a “bicycling” route finder that works pretty well most, but not all the time. For example, to get from my house to the Gold Line, Google tells me to go down Santa Anita Ave, because it has bike lanes part way. However, The bike lanes end and dump you into heavy traffic and a freeway onramp. No thanks. Instead I use an alternate route with less traffic about 2 blocks east that takes me right to the station. It may take some experimentation to find lesser known routes that are pleasant and less stressful to ride. But that’s part of the fun! And, better yet, you’ll learn about your neighborhood and community much better than in your car. Start riding one day a week until you get the hang of your new commute routine. Then, as you get more comfortable, go for two days a week, then three, then…? Actually, once you’re doing two days a week, it’s very likely you’ll notice the way the endorphins from your ride put you in a good mood during the day and you’ll be hooked on the fun and freedom of riding your bike and you’ll look for more opportunities to ride.

Riding safe. Here’s a great quick safety guide for safe bicycling. In addition, I highly recommend taking a bike safety course at some point. They are usually free and offered by local bike advocacy groups. The LA County Bicycle Coalition and Bike San Gabriel Valley are both great resources for such classes. Taking one of these classes will improve your confidence on the road and your knowledge of the laws, both of which are important.

It’s very important to remember that bicycles are considered “vehicles” under the California Vehicle Code (CVC), and people on bikes have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers of motor vehicles. In other words, you’re not legally considered a second-class road user (even if some motorists assume you are) and you’re expected to follow the same traffic laws. The rules for positioning on the road are, unfortunately, not as clear as they could be and bike advocates like the California Bicycle Coalition are working to change that.  The key section of the CVC dealing with riding on the road is CVC 21202. It says that you must ride as far to the right as “practicable,” which is not the same as “possible,” and there are exceptions, when you may “take the lane” for your own safety. In short, you are not required to ride in the gutter. I usually ride at least 3 feet from the curb for visibility and to avoid debris and about 3.5 feet from any parked cars (i.e., the “door zone”). When there’s room, I always try to ride out of the way of moving vehicles, along the right side of the road, but not in the gutter. Ride predictably, and don’t weave in and out of parked cars. If you need to merge or turn look first and signal with hand signals. When the lane width is “substandard” (i.e., not wide enough for a car to pass safely), you are allowed an exception, and may ride in the lane to prevent an unsafe pass. In California, drivers are required by law to give cyclists a minimum 3 feet of space when passing (CVC 21760). Some motorists seem to be confused by this rule. It’s really quite simple: slow down, then pass with at least 3 feet of room when it’s safe. See? It’s not hard! If you have a bike lane to ride in, great! If there are road hazards in the bike lane, however, it is legal to exit the bike lane when it’s safe and ride in the roadway. Obey traffic signals at intersections and I always watch motorists’ eyes if possible to make sure they see me.

What about riding on the sidewalk? Some people assume it’s illegal, but that is not always true. The law varies by city, so in some places it’s legal, others not. It’s also not necessarily safer than riding in the road, as drivers coming in and out of driveways and shopping centers aren’t looking for cyclists on the sidewalk. However, even with my experience, I sometimes will ride a short distance on a sidewalk if I don’t feel that a particular street is safe for me. If you feel you must ride on the sidewalk for part of your ride, go slow, yield to pedestrians, and be especially careful around intersections and driveways. Most of the time, using safe cycling techniques on the road is the best way to go, but use your good judgment. To me, sidewalk riding is always a sign that the road doesn’t feel safe for cyclists. Instead of criticizing sidewalk riding, I wish cities would use it as a sign they need to install bike lanes (preferably protected if the traffic is over 40 mph).

I’d also recommend joining a local bike advocacy group, going on local group rides, and speaking in favor of more bike-friendly streets in your community.  Things are getting better for cycling in Southern California, but we still have a long way to go and it won’t happen without advocates.

Finally, smile! You’ve made a choice to be part of the solution. You’re doing something super healthy, economicalgood for the planet, oh, and the best part, it’s fun, too!

Ride on!

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Bike Share!

Red roses for Bastille Day … and Pasadena!

 

July 14—Bastille Day—Bike Share came to Pasadena, with a grand opening celebration in front of Pasadena City Hall.  It was a cause for celebration and a step forward in Pasadena’s efforts to be bike and transit friendly.

Bike share can be a game-changer, insofar as it helps solve the “first mile/last mile” connection to transit and encourages more people to ride.

Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition in the house!

 

The more people ride, the more it normalizes bicycling and helps people shift their thinking about bikes as a mode of everyday transportation.

MetroBike rolling the streets of ‘Dena.

 

Bikeshare allows more people to discover how biking saves money, reduces traffic and pollution, and helps people stay healthier. It also spreads the joys of cycling in the city: the way the bike helps people move through the city at a pace that enables them to see and experience so much more than they can from inside a car.

Bikeshare riders head up Marengo Ave.

 

Initially, bike share stations are mostly clustered in Old town and Downtown Pasadena, with an easternmost kiosk at PCC, and none north of the 210 freeway.  As an initial rollout, this makes sense, but I’d like to see Metro expand this program northward and eastward, and I also think it makes it imperative that the city expand its network of bike lanes and use traffic calming measures on more streets to make this program successful.  As I’ve written about before, too many of Pasadena’s streets are still not friendly for cyclists and too many drivers treat the streets as speedways.

Let’s ride!

 

Bike share can help people discover there is a world beyond the automobile, it expands the realm of the possible for those who want to go car free for a day–or more. From the looks of the smiles on the faces of people riding the Metro Bikes, I’d say the city is on its way.

Book Review: Holy Spokes

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy Laura Everett’s delightful book, Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels (Eerdmans, 2017), but it helps to be a cyclist.  This is a book about cycling, but it’s also about one’s physical and spiritual journey on the bike. Bicycling everyday for transportation, she reminds us, requires discipline and intentionality, mindfulness and awareness, a connectedness with the world around you and with your own body.

Everett, a minister in the United Church of Christ, cleverly uses the various parts of the bike (frame, saddle, handlebars, lights, etc.) as metaphors for the various spiritual elements of bicycling.  The frame represents the “rule of life,” the saddle “endurance,” the lights “visibility,” and so on. Throughout the book, she refers to the writings of “Brother Lawrence,” a 17th century monk, who sought communion with god in the mindfulness with which he approached the prosaic tasks of life. Lawrence “was convinced that mundane tasks done with intention bring us closer to the holy,” and Everett uses her daily bicycle commute as “a way to cultivate that same awareness in me.”

Author Laura Everett on her daily commute. (photo: AP News)

Everett shares a number of insights that regular cyclists will recognize.  She writes of the intentionality and discipline that cycling requires, and regards these as elements of a spiritual life as well.  She illuminates the way cycling forms a “habit of our daily life” that shrink our cities “into more manageable places.” I thought of this insight recently as I waved to the crossing guard I see on my ride to the train station and the groundskeeper I always say ‘hi’ to as I ride by the Episcopal church.  I don’t know their names, but they are familiar to me in a way that makes me feel more connected to my neighborhood. Locked inside metal boxes speeding along at 40mph, we are strangers. On the bike, on foot, or even on the bus, we become human to one another. The bike lifts the veil of alienation that surrounds so much of our modern life, helps us see the details of our surroundings and think through the big picture of our small but meaningful place in the world.  In this way, urban cycling is not about escape, like bikepacking for example, but rather is about openness to and engagement with the troubled yet beautiful urban world around us.

She struggles with her feelings of anger and frustration at drivers who yell at her or whose dangerous driving imperils her life (oh, sister, I share that struggle!). But she also revels in the simple and myriad joys of cycling–the sights, sounds, and connectedness to our surroundings when we’re on our bikes. The way the rhythm of our breathing and pedal strokes and the wind in our faces makes us happy and alive, helps us develop, in her words, “a deeper internal life and greater attentiveness.” One might even say riding a bike is one way to experience what some call grace.

If you’re a person who gets around by bike and thinks about the bigger questions of why we do it, Everett’s book will resonate with you and delight you with insights, as it did for me. There’s also an element of light-heartedness, as when she compares different categories of cyclists to various religious sensibilities. There are “velo-orthodox” (who only travel by bike), “velo-conservatives” (who make rare exceptions for the car), and “velo-liberal” (the least observant). As she explains, the “velo-religious” frame their lives around the bike:

How shall we get there? The rule is always “by bike.” [The velo-religious] make few exceptions for inclement weather; they just wear better rain gear or warmer mittens. The bicycle is their frame for all transit, and then all activity. These people keep kosher.  (p. 14)

Everett connects the way she journeys through life on two wheels to life’s spiritual journey.  I found her analogy resonant in a way I hadn’t expected. I’d never consciously thought of riding my bike as both a physical and a spiritual discipline before but having been made aware of it by Everett, it makes sense.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about sharing this journey with others. I find the journey by car hollow, soulless, even a bit depressing. The journey by bike is so much more fulfilling. The bicycle makes us stronger, freer, happier, and it can give us a deeper appreciation for all creation around us. The bike doesn’t pollute and denigrate creation. It doesn’t let us ignore the human crises around us, either. We can’t just roll up our windows, turn up the radio, and ignore the homeless as we drive to church on Sunday. The bike helps us see and feel what it means to be alive, to be more fully human–and humane–in a troubled world.

This book is a wonderful gem, worth reading whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof).  If there’s a church of two-wheels and the Rev. Everett is preaching, count me in.

Bike Week at Cal Poly

Our Bike Week events last week at Cal Poly Pomona were modest, but they underscored a sense that this longtime car-centric campus may be turning the corner when it comes to transportation.

For one thing, providing parking on campus is getting more expensive, and student parking fees will top $400 a year next year.  No wonder, since the university’s new $40 million parking structure is one of the most expensive buildings on campus, and must be paid for–plus interest–with parking fees.  For many students from low and middle income families, the parking fees are a big burden, especially with tuition and housing costs rising as well.  And then there’s the traffic congestion that makes everyone’s life miserable and a little thing called climate change (emissions from motor vehicles are by far the largest portion of the university’s carbon footprint).  Then there’s safety.  Cyclists and pedestrians have been killed and injured by drivers in and around campus.  Meanwhile an increase in students living on campus has meant more of them getting around on bikes.  The time is ripe for new thinking about transit and bikes, and new campus leadership seems to be taking the issue seriously.

The university’s new President, Dr. Soraya Coley, has been supportive of efforts to encourage alternative transportation (the previous campus president once threatened to ban bikes from campus). The campus installed new bus shelters last summer and this year we’ll be getting new bike racks and bike repair stands at several locations on campus.  Even bigger changes may be just around the corner, however.

This year the president created a new campus Transportation Advisory Committee that will take a more holistic approach to mobility, and next year’s update of the Campus Master Plan could provide a blueprint for a more bike- and transit-friendly campus.  Better transit connectivity to campus and discount student transit passes will be a priority, but it is in bike infrastructure that we may see some of the most sweeping changes.  I still can’t believe I’m writing these words, but the President recently approved installation of protected bike lanes on a stretch of Kellogg Drive that is being realigned to accommodate new student housing. Yes, you read that right.  By September 2017 there should be protected bike lanes and improved intersections on a roadway where a cyclist was killed by a distracted driver a few years ago.

Friday May 19, our Bike Week was capped by what we hope will be an annual “Town & Gown” ride from the university to downtown Pomona, some 5 miles to the east. The ride, sponsored by the Pomona Valley Bicycle Coalition, included students and faculty from Cal Poly Pomona as well as community members and special guests like Pomona Mayor Tim Sandoval and Javier Hernandez, transportation coordinator for County Supervisor Hilda Solis.  We were also joined by John Burton from the LA County Department of Public Works.

Town & Gown ride in downtown Pomona

Along the way we saw some new bike lanes and sharrows on some of the area streets, and were told by Mayor Sandoval that busy Holt Ave. is slated to get bike lanes when it is resurfaced in the next year or so.

Room for bike lanes on Holt Ave in Pomona.

Most significantly however, the passage of Measure M last year and the County’s new greenways initiative, spearheaded by Supervisor Solis, means that nearby San Jose Creek flood control channel may get a bike path along the levee access road that would connect the campus directly to the city to the east (and all the way to the San Gabriel River to the west).  As part of Friday’s ride, Hernandez and Burton temporarily unlocked the gates to the creek and the Town & Gown riders got a sneak peek at the proposed greenway.  It is just a fenced dirt access road now, but with some asphalt and a couple of intersection upgrades, in a few short years it could be a bicycle superhighway that would enable hundreds–perhaps even thousands–of students to ride between downtown Pomona and the campus quickly and safely.

Javier Hernandez (L) and John Burton open San Jose Creek to bikes!

Cal Poly Urban and Regional Planning Professor Gwen Urey, who has championed this bike path for years and who helped organize the ride, noted that her longtime dream may finally be coming true. “Visions of doing the ride on a San Jose Creek route,” she wrote on Facebook after the ride, “have shifted from the stuff of pipes to the stuff of real planning.”  Who knows? Pipe dreams may just come true.

After riding along San Jose Creek

 

Good Rides

Last week was a week of good rides.

My regular commute now takes me to the Metro Gold Line station that is a 15-minute ride from my house (20 minutes on the uphill return trip).  About halfway through my morning ride early last week, I noticed how smooth the ride was going.  The reason?  Spring break at two nearby schools. Streets normally choked with cars during the morning drop-off time were blissfully—almost eerily—empty of cars.   The difference was huge.  Several intersections that are normally stressful because of traffic and impatient drivers were virtually stress free.  With no cars blocking my lane I was able to fly down to the train station in record time.  It made the entire week’s commute a breeze and stands as a reminder of just how much traffic danger (and pollution) is generated by parents driving their kids to school.  The added stress of these additional cars on the streets is, in turn, a deterrent to more kids walking and biking to school.  It’s a stark illustration of how the car culture itself is a self-fulfilling reinforcement of the dominance of the car, which in turn deters the number of people willing to walk and bike.

This morning’s ride to the farmer’s market was also a good ride.  Saturday morning traffic was pretty light and, in addition to waving to neighbors along my route, I fell into a nice conversation with another cyclist at a stoplight.  The ride home (almost all uphill) was invigorating in the cool morning air, and I returned home with fresh fruit and vegetables and a mood much improved from my morning grouchiness (caused by reading the day’s news).

It’s been a good week. Now, if we could just lighten the traffic every day.

Dangerous Drivers, Dangerous Roads

Approximate spot where driver cut me off

Approximate spot where driver cut me off

This morning I was on my way back from my ride to my daughter’s school, about to stop off at the local Trader Joe’s to pick up some groceries.  I was on a four-lane stretch of road that is clearly marked as a “Bike Route” (see photo).  I took control of the right-hand lane as state law allows, because the shoulder was intermittently occupied by parked cars and trash bins and the lane was not wide enough for a car to safely pass (In compliance with CVC 21202, sec a3-4).  It was daylight on a sunny day and I had my rear flasher on for safety.  Visibility was not a problem.
As I approached the intersection, I could see a white mini-van gaining on me in my rear view mirror. At the last minute he passed dangerously close to me and then swerved back into my lane, cutting me off with about a foot to spare (violating CVC 21760).  It was a straight intimidation move, designed to send a message that I don’t belong on his roads.  His life-threatening driving got him to a red light at the intersection literally 2-3 seconds earlier than he otherwise would have.  He was a white male about 65-70 years of age with his wife in the passenger seat next to him.  When I got to the intersection, I pulled up to the passenger side of his car and matter-of-factly said that he needed to give me three feet (I may have been talking loudly, because his window was initially closed, but I was not being hostile, despite the fact that he had nearly killed me and my adrenaline–not to mention my anger–were running high). As I explained the law, he rolled down the window and told me that I was “in the middle of the street,” and that I have to “get over to the side of the road.”  I tried to explain that there were parked cars and trash cans that prevented me from doing so, and he growled “fuck you, asshole” and then immediately sped off when the light turned green.  His intimidation tactic won’t keep me off my bike, but drivers like him are an effective deterrent to many more people riding their bikes for everyday transportation.  Until we protect bicyclists from motorists like him, we won’t see significant changes in mode share.
It’s sobering to think there are motorists, licensed to drive by the state, who don’t know the law and would kill you to save themselves the trouble of easing their foot off the gas for a few seconds.  When I got to Trader Joe’s, my legs were wobbly from the realization of how close I had come to serious injury or death because of someone’s reckless, ignorant, entitled operation of a motor vehicle—a potentially deadly weapon.  Moreover, I’ve had another close call in the bike lane less than half a block from that spot.  The streets in that part of Pasadena are dangerous for cyclists because of high traffic speeds and a lack of good bike infrastructure.  The City of Pasadena needs to make it safer for bikes, but I’m sure DOT staff get tired of hearing me complain.
Will they wait until I, or someone else, get killed before acting?

Street Fights

Visionary transportation planner Janette Sadik-Khan was the special guest of L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne at the Hammer Museum in Westwood last evening.  I was looking forward to a smart conversation about street space as public space and I wasn’t disappointed.  Sadik-Khan, the inspiring NYC transportation commissioner under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, was instrumental in remaking New York’s streets to be more people-friendly and safer, adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes (many of them protected bike lanes) and creating pedestrian plazas that have become destinations for New Yorkers and tourists alike.  Her new book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution (Viking, 2016), tells the story of how she did it.  Hawthorne is one of our most perceptive observers of LA’s public spaces who has a keen eye for the way designing the built environment around the automobile has impoverished our architecture and our civic life alike.  His eloquence and architectural vision have made him one of my favorite contemporary writers about LA.  Together their writings make a powerful case for the need to transform our city streets, and in so doing transform the way people experience city life.

In the old days when I used to drive everywhere, I would not have attended the lecture, since getting to Westwood from my home in the San Gabriel Valley would entail a teeth-gnashing drive through rush-hour (i.e., any time after 3:00pm) LA traffic and a hefty parking charge in Westwood.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Recent progress in LA Metro’s transit system, however, made it possible for me to take transit to the Westside.  I rode my bike from home to the new Arcadia Gold Line station and locked up my bike on one of the conveniently located bike racks there.  I then rode the Gold Line to Union Station, transferred to the Purple Line to Wilshire/Western, then took the Metro 720 Rapid bus down Wilshire to Westwood.  Total cost: $1.75 each way.  The total trip time door-to-door was about 2 hours, but unlike being stuck in the car, I could read, catch up on email, check social media, etc.  And it was much more relaxing than driving.

(Side note: the only downside to an otherwise pleasant round trip was a homeless guy who got on the Gold Line near Downtown on my late night return trip.  The poor guy smelled.  Really bad.  Here’s the thing: this is not Metro’s fault, and simply kicking homeless people off public transportation is neither humane, nor is it the answer.  Shutting yourself off from homelessness by driving your private metal box may spare you the smell, but it won’t solve the problem–in fact, it enables people to ignore it, to pretend it’s not their problem.  Reviving public transportation doesn’t allow us to turn our backs on social problems like private automobility does.  We as a society must find a way to provide basic housing, medical, and social services for all.  Other countries do it.  We can too.)

Back at the lecture, Sadik-Khan offered an inspiring, optimistic message about the transformative possibilities of remaking our street space, offering examples from her book, like the creation of the Pearl Street plaza, the pedestrianization of Times Square, and the installation of parking protected bike lanes on numerous streets.  She discussed the ways cities can and should shift from seeing streets merely as corridors for the movement of cars and more as places for the movement and social interaction of people.  She made a point of highlighting how unsafe our current car-centric design is, causing an average of 34,ooo deaths in the US per year.  We should no longer tolerate such an appalling human cost, and remake our streets accordingly.

For anyone paying attention in LA, the problem here is not vision.  LA has a good bike plan, and its updated Mobility 2035 plan is even better.  Our problem is implementation and lack of political will.  When asked how she overcame political and community intransigence, she said the keys were to (a) have a plan; (b) rapidly implement temporary, or pilot projects to show people how they work, and (c) have data to show safety and economic improvements that result.  Here in LA, long, drawn-out processes and political short-sightedness have stalled several important street improvement projects, including North Figueroa and Westwood Bl.  Her underlying argument, however, is that change is coming and it is good.  Car-centric planning and design is a relic of the past, safety, revived public space, and mobility choices are the future.  “Inaction is inexcusable,” she writes in her book.  To my fellow advocates, that means we must not give up.

One final point worth mention, is the subject of self-driving cars.  This topic makes some of my fellow bike advocates slobber all over themselves with techno-utopian glee.  Sure, they have the potential to make streets safer and possibly result in more efficient use of urban space if–and this is key–only if they are not used in such a way to allow automobiles to “re-invade” city space that we’re working so hard to make car free.  As both Hawthorne and Sadik-Khan pointed out, they also have the potential to increase sprawl and traffic.  Self-driving cars may address the safety issue, but not necessarily any of the other issues related to public space and people-centered design.  The point is to de-center the private automobile from our design priorities, whether it’s self-driving or not.

Fixing A Broken System

It’s not news to say our transportation system in Southern California is reliant on cars.  Such a system is incomplete, unsafe, and incredibly unhealthy for our communities and for the planet.  What is difficult is getting people to realize this transportation system is broken and convincing them they need to change it.  Sometimes I feel hopeful about our prospects, other times, not so much.  The victories seem small, and so few and far between.  The setbacks are not permanent, but with so far to go these delays prolong the time it takes to fix our broken system.

Nope, no room for bike lanes here.

Nope, no room for bike lanes here.

Last week, the City Council of Temple City voted not to adopt a “complete street” redesign of Las Tunas, a commercial street in the heart of that city.  The redesign proposal included bike lanes and would have made the street safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and bicyclists.  The redesigned street would have made downtown Temple City a destination, not just a thoroughfare.

I thought the signs looked good, but I was wrong.  A couple of months ago I attended a community meeting on the Las Tunas redesign and, though there was some opposition from local NIMBYs (one old codger at the meeting said bike lanes were a “sign of mental illness”), the city council voted unanimously to move forward and place it on the agenda for the next meeting.  At last week’s city council meeting (which I could not attend because of work commitments), opponents were apparently out in force, and the “streets-are-for-cars” crowd won the day.  The opposition—mostly older residents—pressured the city council to abandon even a modest proposal for bike lanes.

It was a setback for the region, and leaves Las Tunas a dangerous commuter arterial instead of a vibrant center for local people and businesses.  I have no doubt that the people of Temple City will eventually see the light, but in the meantime the design of Las Tunas remains stuck in the past, serving only a part of the community’s needs, forcing everyone else into a steel box.

Another example of the broken system is that there is still no real usable network of bike lanes that would allow people to get around without a car.  Who would want to do such a thing?  Consider a family friend of ours, a student at Whittier College.  Like many college students, she doesn’t have a lot of money or a car, and she recently got a part-time job down the road from her college.  She wants to ride her bike to work, but she’s not particularly experienced, and the route includes some busy arterials  like Lambert Rd., where automobile speeds can reach 40mph.  There are a few streets with bike lanes (shown in solid green lines on the Google map, below), but there are large gaps including a long stretch of Lambert that would leave her stranded halfway to work on a busy street with no bike lane.

Whittier, CA: some bike lanes, but mostly incomplete streets.

Whittier, CA: some bike lanes, but mostly incomplete streets.

Bike lanes—let alone protected bike lanes—are still a rarity in this part of the San Gabriel Valley.  As with many suburban areas, there are few transit options, either.  Her parents face the choice of allowing her to ride her bike on incomplete car-streets or shelling out thousands of dollars for a car (adding another car to already-congested roads, adding more pollution and GHGs to our air, depriving a young person of healthy exercise, etc).  Here is a person who wants to ride to work, yet our transportation system makes this choice so daunting that one feels almost forced to choose a car.  This is the opposite of freedom, the opposite of a complete transportation system.

When we create a transportation system that only works for cars, we create a partial system that excludes and marginalizes people who can’t afford cars, don’t want a car, or who are unable to drive.  We essentially force all but the most experienced and confident (or desperate) to buy into the car system.  Once people buy into that system they expect cities to design infrastructure for their convenience, which further reinforces the incompleteness of this unsafe, inequitable, unsustainable, people-unfriendly system.

We must create a transportation system that works for everyone and prioritizes more sustainable, healthy, and socially-equitable modes of transportation.  We must have the courage to change a car monoculture that impoverishes our public spaces, marginalizes those who can’t afford a car, contributes to our climate crisis, and kills tens of thousands (and injures or maims hundreds of thousands) of Americans every year.  We owe it to our children to create a better system.  At times the enormity of the task seems overwhelming.

But the work continues and I am not free to abandon it.

Talmud

Vehicular Violence and Victim Blaming

Riding a bike for transportation isn’t easy.  Well, let me rephrase that.  It is easy, but our society makes it harder than it should be.  Among the problems cyclists face are 80 years of mis-designed roads that are dangerous for people who walk or ride bikes, a legal system that too often enables drivers to get away with mayhem or murder of vulnerable road users with the tired excuse “I didn’t see him/her,” and lack of basic amenities such as secure bike parking, even in areas that are supposedly “bike-friendly.”  Finally, there is the pervasive tendency of the driving public to reflexively, unselfconsciously, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) blame cyclists for the danger caused by cars.

Our car culture has become very good at shifting the blame away from cars and drivers’ behavior.  Bicyclists getting struck and killed by motorists?  Make them wear helmets, hi-viz, spray their bikes with reflective paint.  They still might get killed by a distracted driver, but ultimately anyone who rides a bike on the streets is asking for it, right?  Whether motorists realize it or not (and for the most part, they don’t) this is the most infuriating kind of victim-blaming.  It would be as if we sought “solutions” to gun violence by marketing bulletproof vests and kevlar helmets to everyone.  “She got shot and killed?  Doesn’t she know the streets are dangerous?  Too bad she wasn’t wearing her bulletproof vest and kevlar helmet!

Let me repeat.  The overwhelming danger on our roads is not bicycles.  The real danger is cars, or more specifically impatient, reckless, selfish, distracted, impaired, and/or careless drivers.  After 70 years of designing roads primarily to maximize the speed and volume of automobiles on public roadways, we need to re-engineer our roads for multimodal commuting, safety, and environmental sustainability.  Some people get this, and things are changing.  People in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen ride bikes everywhere.  Hardly anyone wears a helmet and no one sprays themselves with paint.  You know why?  They’ve designed their streets for the safety of all road users.

In addition to redesigning our roads, to prioritize transit, bicycling, and walking instead of the private automobile, we need tougher laws for drivers who crash into, injure, or kill vulnerable road users.  Those are slowly being implemented, too.  Finally, we need a comprehensive education campaign on road safety, focused primarily on those operating dangerous heavy machinery in public spaces—cars and trucks.

Frankly, what we don’t need (or what is so far down the list as to be irrelevant) is bullshit products like “Volvo Life Paint,” the car company-sponsored reflective paint marketed for bicyclists.  Listen, I think bicyclists need to take reasonable measures to be seen, including reflectors and front and rear lights.  What we don’t need are motorists who see products like helmets and sparkly paint and think that absolves them of the need to change their behavior and support the re-engineering and re-prioritizing of our road spaces.

Instead of telling cyclists what to do, here’s a hint: slow down and pay attention while you’re driving.  Drive as if you’re at the controls of a potentially deadly projectile.

I commute home by bike nearly every evening, in all conditions.  I am a trained cycling safety instructor and have years of experience riding the streets.  I also have a drivers’ license and a good driving record for over 30 years.  I’ve thought a good deal about the risks and extensively studied the scholarly and popular literature on issues facing cyclists and the need to improve safety conditions.  When I ride at night I wear reflective accents on my clothing and have two sets of lights (two in front and two in rear) on my bike and another set on my helmet.  Despite this, I frequently encounter drivers who drive carelessly or dangerously around me.  You’d be surprised at how my vantage point on the bike allows me to see drivers talking—and texting—on their phones while driving.  If I am struck by a motorist (heaven forbid), it’s not going to be because I didn’t have Volvo’s effing sparkly paint on my bike.

We certainly can do more to educate cyclists and provide lights for night riding (as advocacy groups are doing all over the country), but that’s not the main problem.

The main problem, let me say once again, is cars.  It’s a lack of safe infrastructure.  It’s unsafe driving.  It’s a car culture that sells cars on TV by overt appeals to fantasies of speed and danger.  These are systemic problems that need to be confronted and changed sooner rather than later.  A bullshit product like Volvo Life Paint takes our eye off the ball.  It allows motorists to persist in the comforting (for them) fiction that the only thing that needs to change is cyclists’ behavior or appearance.  It allows a company that manufactures machines of death and environmental destruction to market itself as the savior of cyclists.  Car companies know that their business model is destructive of the environment and human life, they know that millennials are driving at lower rates than previous generations, that young people want to live in walkable, bikeable communities with access to transit.  They’re desperate to appear “cool.”

Volvo Life Paint is not going to solve a road violence problem that is ultimately caused by cars and car-centric infrastructure.  Just as VW’s “Clean Diesel” cars weren’t going to reduce air pollution.

Time to tell the car companies to take cynical marketing gimmicks like “Volvo Life Paint” and shove it where the sun don’t shine.  Meanwhile, some of us are going to continue working for real change in our transportation system.

New Bike Co-Op in El Monte

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

A new bike co-op opened its doors yesterday at the Seymour Family Center (formerly Mulhall elementary school) in El Monte.  Sponsored by BikeSGV, the local bike advocacy organization, the “Bike Education Center” (BEC) provides the members of the community a space (for a nominal fee) to work on their own bikes, learn bike repair, and even rent bikes.  There will also be regular bike safety classes taught by local LCIs (League Certified Instructors).  I’ve been calling for more bike co-ops for years, and it is especially gratifying to see this one finally come to fruition.  Aside from the CalTech Bike Lab (open only to students, faculty and staff at CalTech), it is only the second bike co-op in the San Gabriel Valley.  Bike co-ops can be great spaces not only for wrenching and education, but for bike community organizing, advocacy, and activism.

Wrenching at the new BEC

Wrenching at the new BEC

The BEC fills a very great need in El Monte, a working-class community that has a large proportion of people who depend on bikes for transportation.  Riding the bus or my bike in and around El Monte, I’m constantly struck by the fact that it really is “bike city USA” if you look at all of the people riding utilitarian bikes for transportation, carrying their groceries or work gear with them.  Many of these individuals are immigrants or people of color and their bikes are their means of transport.  Further, with El Monte’s main transit hub, the El Monte bus station, nearby, the bike/transit transportation connection is very strong in this city.  Sadly, El Monte has very few (read: almost none) streets with bike lanes.  As a result, you’ll see a lot of people sidewalk riding.  I sometimes do likewise for a stressful portion of my commute on Lower Azusa Ave. near the Rio Hondo bike path.

I hope the BEC becomes a place where this often “invisible” segment of the bicycling community can begin to make its voice heard in City Hall to demand better bike infrastructure in and around El Monte.   I think BikeSGV is doing a great job of outreach to youth and families in the area.  In addition, I expect to see some bike wrenching workshops and safety classes offered in Spanish, and I’d love to see them offered (and run) by women, too.  Perhaps BikeSGV can set up a monthly wrenching event run by its WoW (Women on Wheels) group.  Bike repair and maintenance in most bike shops is too male-dominated, but the bike itself  can be a tool of empowerment for women.  Making the BEC a place where women feel comfortable working on their own bikes can be a very liberating function.  With outreach efforts in these directions, the BEC could become a place of community engagement and empowerment.

There was fairly good media coverage of the BEC grand opening on the local ABC news and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.  And, while it may be petty to quibble about media coverage, I was disappointed that the editors at the Tribune filed Brian Day’s story under “Sports.”  This isn’t the first time Tribune editors have been tone deaf when it comes to transportational bicycling.  It’s ill-conceived “summer of cycling” series a couple of years ago seemed designed to highlight the editors’ assumptions that bikes weren’t a viable mode of transportation more than anything else.  Ironically, this very same weekend, the California Bicycle Coalition is holding its annual statewide bike summit, where the theme is “equity” in the bike movement.  The connection between bicycling and social and environmental justice are now coming to the forefront for many of us who advocate for bikes as transportation.

A question for Tribune editors: why wasn’t this categorized as local news or transportation?  Categorizing a story about a community bike co-op as a “sports” story reflects the middle-class bias of the paper’s editors and misses one of the main reasons for the bike co-op.  Look at the location of the event, in El Monte, less than a mile from the El Monte bus station, where the overwhelming majority of people on bikes on a daily basis are not lycra-clad racers.  There were a few folks in lycra at the grand opening, but overwhelmingly these were just regular folks who want to ride their bikes for a variety of reasons.  Categorizing the story as “sports” ignores the fact that speakers at the event referenced the need for more bike lanes in the area, and more riparian bike paths for, as Bike SGV’s Wes Reutimann put it, “getting around the San Gabriel Valley by bike.”  Indeed, one of the main sponsors of the BEC is Dahon Bikes, a company that specializes in folding bicycles, particularly useful in conjunction with transit (a point explicitly made by the Dahon representative at the event).  It ignores the fact that the vast majority of old bikes donated to the BEC are utilitarian bikes, not racing bikes.

I hate it when the media’s myopic view of cycling pushes us all into the “recreation/sports” stereotype.  The Tribune should know better.  Cities all over the SGV are gradually waking up to the importance of connecting people to the Gold Line by bike.  Pasadena itself will soon be getting new bike infrastructure as part of its updated MOBILITY plan (not, “sports” plan).

Yours truly with a trailer full of donated bike parts. As you can see, I'm all lycra'd out, riding purely for "sport."

Yours truly donating a trailer full of bike parts. As you can see, I’m all lycra’d out, riding purely for “sport.” (photo: W. Reutimann)

Wake up, Tribune.  The bicycle is much more than just a recreational toy.  Quit treating it like it’s no different than a surfboard or a pair of skis.  It is a means of transportation, one that, especially in conjunction with transit, can replace a lot of car trips, reduce congestion, air pollution, society’s carbon footprint, and make our cities more livable and people healthier.  It’s cheap, equitable, healthy, sustainable, liberating, and empowering.

That’s the real beauty of bikes—and of El Monte’s new Bike Education Center.

 

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